I absolutely adore reading - my love for books has had a huge impact on my life! I'm going to grad school to be a children's/YA librarian.
This New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve's own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives. (source)
Wow. I was so not expecting to like this book as much as I did! Talk about the need to avoid judging a book by its cover... this book was an assigned reading for my Resources for Young Adults course. I was seriously considering putting it off until after I had finished reading the Percy Jackson series (also for that course; I'm tackling that one next). Percy Jackson is more along the lines of books that I usually prefer to read and after The Catcher in the Rye, I felt like my brain needed a break. I ultimately decided to "get it over with" and just go ahead and read it last night. And oh my gosh, I am so glad that I did!
First of all, the format that Myers chose for this story is brilliant. It's told from the perspective of Steve, a black teen who has been accused of participating in a felony murder - but what's so unique is that the story is told through a combination of journal entries and a screenplay written by Steve, telling the story of what happens in the courtroom as he's on trial. SO cool. As it turns out, prior to the murder of a local drug store owner, Steve was a high school student with a budding interest in film. Simply by choosing to allow Steve to tell his story through a screenplay, Myers 1) showed Steve as more than just an accused murderer, 2) gave Steve the chance to really show how things were from his perspective, 3) conveyed to the reader that Steve is super smart and talented without actually saying anything about Steve's intelligence, and 4) told his story in a way that makes it stand out from just about any other story about an accused murderer. I really can't praise this storytelling choice enough.
I also love that Myers brought up SO many different issues in just this one book. It's not a very long book - not even 300 pages long - but it addresses racism, poverty, street crime, the dangers and challenges faced by underprivileged youth, prison conditions, and flaws in the justice system - and those are just the issues that I can think of off of the top of my head. It's absolutely crazy. These are all issues that teens - and adults - need to be more aware of, and this book does a great job of opening the doors for discussion of them.
The third and final quality of this book that I really want to talk about is that by the end of the book, the reader still doesn't really know if Steve is guilty or not.(show spoiler)
So -- was Steve a kid who slipped through the cracks of the justice system, or is he truly a kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Myers never answers this question, and while I usually don't like unanswered questions at the end of books, in this case, it made the story more compelling. One thing that I do want to say is that even if Steve were guilty of being involved with the crime, the most he was accused of is giving the other guys the "all clear" signal and then leaving - everyone agrees that he wasn't actually involved with the murder (in the sense that he wasn't in the store and did not pull the trigger on the gun), and the most that he would have known about would have been a robbery; there were no plans for a murder to occur. I am NOT in any way an expert about the legal system - I'm actually pretty embarrassingly ignorant about it - but to me, it seems a bit extreme that someone who's involved in a crime in the way that Steve has been accused would be sentenced to the death penalty. If he's guilty, he should absolutely be punished, but a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison is, to me, an extreme punishment for giving an "all clear" signal for a robbery - again, not an intended murder - and then leaving the scene of the crime, especially when the accused is only 16 years old. To those of you who are more knowledgeable about this topic than I am - is Steve a victim of racism in the justice system in this case, or would 20 years-life/death penalty be a pretty common consequence of this type of crime, regardless of race? If you're able to enlighten me about this, I'd greatly appreciate it!
Basically, this book completely blew me away and I liked it infinitely more than I had expected to. In addition to all of the positive qualities that I've outlined above, the book was well-written, a fast read, and had great characterization. It's also incredibly relevant today, given all of the recent events that most of us (in America, at least) have seen or heard about on the news. I think that this is a great book for teens to read; in fact, if I were a teacher, I would consider reading this with my students. Not only is it a book that students would want to read, but it's thought-provoking and I think would lead to a great book discussion. I highly recommend reading this book.