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Middle Grade Monday – Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

A large percentage of my student population is either African American or Multiracial with African American family members. Sometimes as many as 70% of my students can claim African American heritage. Finding books that appeal to these students’ sense of self can be difficult. Every year, I purchase more copies of books by Sharon Draper, Angela Johnson, Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Rita Williams Garcia (I know I’m leaving some out…) But it’s not enough. Many of these amazing books are historical fiction, which can be a difficult sale for some students. Many of these authors write YA, which is essential for my collection, but it misses some of my sixth graders. There is a definite need for more contemporary middle grades African American fiction. Cut to me finding out this summer that Coe Booth had written a contemporary MG novel:

And let me just tell you – it does not disappoint.

It’s the summer after sixth grade, and Jarrett’s normal summer plans of hanging out at the Center with his friends, playing basketball, taking classes, and working on his movie trailer with his BFF Ennis are interrupted by summer school. Jarrett didn’t pass the end of year test for sixth grade, so he is spending several weeks in class before he has the opportunity to take the test again. If he doesn’t pass the second time, he’ll have to repeat sixth grade. Reading and writing are not Jarrett’s strong suits, although he is obviously bright enough. Some of his troubles with school work are due to the absences cause by his severe asthma attacks, which sometimes land him in the hospital.

Jarrett is an only child, but his mother takes emergency short term placements of foster babies, and he has grown up helping her take care of them as they pass in and out of his life. This summer, however, Jarrett’s mother agrees to take a 2 year old named Treasure and her twelve year old brother, Kevon, who will be sleeping in the bottom bunk in Jarrett’s room. Jarrett has some of the typical problems you’d expect from a kid sharing his space for the first time, but he overcomes them quite well. He has had a lot of exercise building his empathy skills over the years helping his mother with the babies she takes in who have often been neglected or abused. It’s not just his room e has to share, though, as Kevon begins going to the Center and interacting with Jarrett’s friends. Jarrett and Kevon also clash over Kevon treatment of Jarrett’s mother.

Even though Jarrett has never known his father, he has regular, healthy interactions with adults other than his mother. His mother’s boyfriend is a regular presence in his life, encouraging Jarrett and helping him study for his summer school class. There are also adult males at the Center who teach classes and run groups where Jarrett gets to ask questions in a judgement free environment. After a disturbing incident where one of the older teen boys is subjected to a ‘stop and frisk’ by the police just outside the Center, a counselor spends an afternoon training Jarrett and his friends in how to respond appropriately to the police.

There is just so much going on in this detailed and complex telling of a very engaging story. My favorite part is when Jarrett decides to join in a yoga class at the Center in order to be near the girl he has a crush on. He discovers there is a reason his mother insists that he put on deodorant every day and bathe regularly. He also discovers that all of that bending and twisting can lead to your body leaking gases.

I am so excited for this book to come out August 26th. I know it is going to be an easy sell that will hook many of my students on reading.

Teens and Poverty: PBS Newshour Discusses Being Homeless and Trying to Graduate High School

As I thought about writing my post earlier today about teachers, I couldn’t help but think of my 4th grade teacher. I remember her name, I remember what she looked like, and I remember the intense hatred I had for her. You see, in the 4th grade my parents separated and divorced. We went from being a doing okay two-income family living in a house in the suburbs to living in two struggling very much separate apartments. Suddenly, I qualified for free and reduced lunch. I remember the burning shame each day in the cafeteria line and how you would pray that the lunch ladies would be quiet and keep it all on the down low so the other students wouldn’t know. Being labelled poor is like being forced to wear a scarlet A.

And I remember being at a parent-teacher conference where the teacher told my parents that I had no friends and she told them (this is not a joke), that they needed to buy me a pair of Jordache jeans so maybe I could fit in. We couldn’t buy me lunch, how was this even reasonable advice?

I eventually became friends with a girl whose family lived in a week-to-week low-cost hotel in a very dangerous neighborhood; one night her family simply disappeared as they moved on to another place. I was always aware that they were just one step away from the edge of what it meant to be homeless. It’s been more than 30 years and I wonder every day whatever happened to her. Life had already been so unkind to her, I hope that her family was able to turn their situation around at some point.

According to Do Something, there are 1.7 homeless teens in the U.S. 39% of the homeless population in the U.S. is under the age of 18. In addition to poverty, teens are often homeless because of abuse or because of rejection (or abuse) from their family because they come out as GLBTQ. In fact, 40% of homeless youth are homeless because of their GLBTQ status (Do Something).

And many more families are just one job less, medical crisis or other emergency away from losing it all. In many homes parents are working sometimes two and three part-time jobs trying to make ends meet while older siblings are asked to make dinner, help with homework and put younger siblings to bed at night.

As part of our ongoing focus on TEENS AND POVERTY, I encourage you to head over to the PBS Newshour for a special report on what Los Angeles is doing to help homeless teens complete high school. While reports come in offer other areas putting up “anti-homeless spikes” – and yes, this is apparently a real thing – other people are investing that money in trying to help people succeed. There are very real effects to children and teens living and growing up in poverty: it affects physical health, it affects mental health, it affects school success, and it affects the future. Not just THEIR future, but all of our future. Helping children and teen succeed makes the world better for us all.

Recently at one of my teen programs, a group of high school students were talking and someone mentioned a boy not at the program. One of the teens present said, “Yeah, he’s okay but man his teeth are jacked up. It’s like he doesn’t even brush them or anything. It’s gross.” And I mentioned to this teen that maybe his family didn’t have the money to take him to the dentist. It got real quiet and this teen remarked, “You know, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of stuff. Like, I don’t see him wearing a lot of different clothes like everyone else. Maybe he is, maybe he can’t go to the dentist.” I don’t know if this was the case or not, but I thought it was important that they take a moment to think of all of the various scenarios as to what may be going on for this young man. Far too often those that know nothing about living in poverty have blinders on to it around them. Whether that boy was living in poverty or not, there are students all around them that are.

Additional Resources:
National Coalition for the Homeless Youth Fact Sheet
Record Number of Homeless Students in the US in 2013
National Alliance to End Homelessness: Youth

Teens and Poverty Series at TLT:
Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please? 
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty 
Working with youth who live in poverty  
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like 
Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries 
Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does
Sunday Reflections: All I Want for Christmas is the Chance to Go to College
Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand
Book Review: PANIC by Lauren Oliver
Book Review: HUNGRY by H. A. Swain

Booklists:
Barnes and Noble: Homelessness and Runaways
The Homeless Experience in YA Literature
Library Thing: Homeless Persons Fiction

About the Books You See in this Post

Tyrell by Coe Booth:

“Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. His girlfriend supports him, but he doesn’t feel good enough for her – and seems to be always on the verge of doing the wrong thing around her. There’s another girl at the homeless shelter who is also after him, although the desires there are complicated. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?” (Scholastic, 2006. ISBN: 9780439838795)

Can’t Get There From Here by Todd Strasser:

“Her street name is Maybe. She lives with a tribe of homeless teens — runaways and throwaways, kids who have no place to go other than the cold city streets, and no family except for one another. Abused, abandoned, and forgotten, they struggle against the cold, hunger, and constant danger.”  (Simon Pulse, 2005. ISBN: 9780689841705)

See also the new title from Todd Strasser: No Place

Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

“Pattyn Von Stratten’s father is dead, and Pattyn is on the run. After far too many years of abuse at the hands of her father, and after the tragic loss of her beloved Ethan and their unborn child, Pattyn is desperate for peace. Only her sister Jackie knows what happened that night, but she is stuck at home with their mother, who clings to normalcy by allowing the truth to be covered up by their domineering community leaders. Her father might be finally gone, but without Pattyn, Jackie is desperately isolated. Alone and in disguise, Pattyn starts a new life, but is it even possible to rebuild a life when everything you’ve known has burned to ash and lies seem far safer than the truth?” (Margaret K. Elderberry Books, 2013. ISBN: 9781416983286)