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The Death Penalty in YA Lit

I recently listened to the outstanding debut titled This is My America by Kim Johnson on audio. In this moving YA novel, a young girl writes to a local organization every week asking them to help her father who sits on death row knowing that he is innocent. It’s a moving testament to a daughter’s love in a racist system that convicts Black men at rates far more frequently and in ways far more severe then it does white men. It’s moving, timely, relevant and startling real. You will be moved as you read this compelling debut.

As I listened to this book it was announced that Attorney General Bill Barr had ordered the execution of three federal inmates in the coming days. It was a stark juxtaposition and reminder that real life issues often present themselves in timely ways in the literature our young people are reading. But it also got me thinking, what other YA books address the topic of the death penalty? Not just incarceration, but the death penalty.

Told in letters, Bryan Bliss tackled this topic in the 2018 YA book titled We’ll Fly Away. In this moving piece, an inmate on death row tells the story of how exactly it is he landed there. Bliss has a heart for teens and writes from a place of compassion.

In 2017, Lamar Giles tackled the topic in his Las Vegas set YA novel Overturned. In Overturned, teen Nicki Tate’s dad is suddenly freed from death row when new evidence comes to light, but the man who comes back to her is not the same man that went into the prison. What follows is a type of noir mystery that tackled the seedy underbelly of corruption in Las Vegas and explores the lengths that people will go through to keep their darkest secrets.

And I would be remiss to talk about this topic in YA lit without mentioning the masterpiece that is Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Here we meet Steve, an aspiring filmmaker, still a teen, who becomes the main suspect in a robbery gone bad that results in death. Because of the crime, capital punishment is on the table. In a court room drama presented as a movie script, we see the trial through Steve’s eyes as he comes to realize that the world seems him as a monster, and not the boy that he is. This book is being adapted to film and will soon be available on Netflix I believe.

And that’s about it. If you go beyond fiction, you’ll find some startling nonfiction on the topic. Among them is No Choirboy: Murder, Violence and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin. I had no idea that just as recently as 2005 the United States was 1 of 8 countries that punished youth under the age of 18 to execution.

There are of course a wide variety of nonfiction titles on this topic for your teen nonfiction collection as it’s a topic covered in a lot of those current controversy series books that kids use for school reports. And it is still a very relevant and timely topic, as the news keeps reminding us. I recommend all of the fiction books recommended in this post to round out your collection and be thoughtful, moving, compassionate companions to those thinking about this topic.

Publisher’s Book Description for This is My America by Kim Johnson

ear Martin meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting YA novel that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system.

Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?

Fans of Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds won’t want to miss this provocative and gripping debut.

Publisher’s Description for We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss

Uniquely told through letters from death row and third-person narrative, Bryan Bliss’s hard-hitting third novel expertly unravels the string of events that landed a teenager in jail. Luke feels like he’s been looking after Toby his entire life. He patches Toby up when Toby’s father, a drunk and a petty criminal, beats on him, he gives him a place to stay, and he diffuses the situation at school when wise-cracking Toby inevitably gets into fights. Someday, Luke and Toby will leave this small town, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, and never look back.

But during their senior year, they begin to drift apart. Luke is dealing with his unreliable mother and her new boyfriend. And Toby unwittingly begins to get drawn into his father’s world, and falls for an older woman. All their long-held dreams seem to be unraveling. Tense and emotional, this heartbreaking novel explores family, abuse, sex, love, friendship, and the lengths a person will go to protect the people they love. For fans of NPR’s Serial podcast, Jason Reynolds, and Matt de la Peña.

Overturned by Lamar Giles

Nikki Tate is infamous, even by Las Vegas standards. Her dad is sitting on death row, convicted of killing his best friend in a gambling dispute turned ugly. And for five years, he’s maintained his innocence. But Nikki wants no part of that. She’s been working on Operation Escape Vegas: playing in illegal card games so she can save up enough money to get out come graduation day.

Then her dad’s murder conviction is overturned. The new evidence seems to come out of nowhere and Nikki’s life becomes a mess when he’s released from prison. Because the dad who comes home is not the dad she remembers. And he’s desperately obsessed with finding out who framed him—and why.

As her dad digs into the seedy underbelly of Vegas, the past threatens everything and Nikki is drawn into his deadly hunt for the truth. But in the city of sin, some sinners will do anything to keep their secrets, and Nikki soon finds herself playing for the biggest gamble ever—her life.

Publisher’s Description of Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I’ll call it what the lady who is the prosecutor called me. Monster.

Fade In: Interior Court. A guard sits at a desk behind Steve. Kathy O’Brien, Steve’s lawyer, is all business as she talks to Steve.

Let me make sure you understand what’s going on. Both you and this king character are on trial for felony murder. Felony Murder is as serious as it gets. . . . When you’re in court, you sit there and pay attetion. You let the jury know that you think the case is a serious as they do. . . .

You think we’re going to win ?

O’Brien (seriously)
It probably depends on what you mean by “win.”

Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for murder. A Harlem drugstore owner was shot and killed in his store, and the word is that Steve served as the lookout.

Guilty or innocent, Steve becomes a pawn in the hands of “the system,” cluttered with cynical authority figures and unscrupulous inmates, who will turn in anyone to shorten their own sentences. For the first time, Steve is forced to think about who he is as he faces prison, where he may spend all the tomorrows of his life.

As a way of coping with the horrific events that entangle him, Steve, an amateur filmmaker, decides to transcribe his trial into a script, just like in the movies. He writes it all down, scene by scene, the story of how his whole life was turned around in an instant. But despite his efforts, reality is blurred and his vision obscured until he can no longer tell who he is or what is the truth. This compelling novel is Walter Dean Myers’s writing at its best.

Have Some Teen Slang, By Teen Contributor Riley Jensen

As the years pass, language develops and changes a lot. It can sometimes be hard to keep up with some of the things that are said, but I hope this can help make current teen lingo a little easier to understand. I’ve made a list of a few terms that teens use often.

  1. Sus- shortened version of suspicious (eg. He’s pretty sus)
  2. Fit- shorten version of outfit (eg. Check the fit)
  3. Throw hands- fight (eg. I’m gonna throw hands)
  4. Gang gang- a term of agreement
  5. Bet- another term of agreement or a way to say “watch me” (eg. “You can’t do that” “Bet”)
  6. Cap- a lie (eg. That’s cap)
  7. Flex- to show off or something that’s being shown off (eg. Weird flex, but ok)
  8. Lowkey- slightly (eg. I lowkey hate it here)
  9. Vibes- can be used to say “cool”, the energy a person gives off ,or hang out (eg. They have bad vibes or We’re gonna go vibe at the park)
  10. Tea- gossip (eg. Spill the tea)
  11. Salty- bitter (eg. I’m lowkey salty that they said that)
  12. Simp- someone who’s willing to do anything for someone because they like them (eg. I’d simp for him)
  13. Cancel- to stop supporting someone, usually famous, for doing something problematic (eg. He’s cancelled)
  14. Stan- to support someone or something (eg. We stan them)
  15. Shade- subtle insult (eg. He’s throwing shade)
  16. Go off- way to encourage someone to keep talking. it can also be used sarcastically (eg. I don’t really care but go off I guess)
  17. Aight- shortened version of alright (eg. Aight bet let’s do it)
  18. Drop- to stop talking to someone, stop talking about something, or give something out (eg. Drop the skincare routine)
  19. As you should- another term of agreement, usually said when someone says something about themselves (eg. “I dropped them because they were toxic ” “As you should”)
  20. Period- term of agreement used when it’s a finalization of something (eg. “They had such good vibes” “Period”)

This obviously isn’t all of them, but these are the ones that are probably heard most often. A lot of these are very similar, but when they’re used is up to the situation. Hopefully this makes understanding slang a little bit easier.

Riley, Teen Reviewer

I am a senior in high school and an avid reader. I have been reviewing books on this blog since 2012. I love musical theatre and listen to show tunes a lot. I also love murder books (both fiction and nonfiction), and want to go to college to be a forensic scientist after high school. Reading is one of my favorite things to do, so I just put that hobby to good use for my mom.

First Time Voting, by Teen Contributor Riley Jensen

Recently, I went out for the first time to vote with my family. In a lot of ways it was different than I expected, but I’m glad I got to go out and do it. It’s important to me to be able to use my right to vote to help make a difference.

My parents and I got to the polling station fairly early to avoid too long of a line. I had never really thought about the waiting part of waiting. I guess I just kind of thought that you would get in and get out, but it wasn’t like that at all. We waited for probably more than an hour in a decent size line.

Another thing that I didn’t anticipate was all the things you weren’t allowed to do near the polling station. I knew you couldn’t wear anything related to a certain person running, but there was a lot of other stuff. There was no political discussion in the lines at all and you couldn’t take pictures either. A person even came around to check shirts. There was just a lot more rules than I expected.

A picture of Riley going to vote, but outside the parameters because you weren’t allowed to have cell phones

Also, the voting environment was totally different than I had pictured. I had always imagined this super secluded thing, like you couldn’t even see the other people while you voted. I had all of this in mind, but then I go into this one room with like 7 other people and sit at a little table. On that table is this computer-like thing with two things blocking both sides.

In a way, voting was both more formal and less formal than I had expected. it was almost like whatever I thought it was actually the opposite. But, overall, it was an important thing for me to do.

Riley, Teen Reviewer

I am a senior in high school and an avid reader. I have been reviewing books on this blog since 2012. I love musical theatre and listen to show tunes a lot. I also love murder books (both fiction and nonfiction), and want to go to college to be a forensic scientist after high school. Reading is one of my favorite things to do, so I just put that hobby to good use for my mom.

RevolTeens: Teens and Art Changing the World, by Christine Lively

Everything is just too serious. I realize that this is not news to anyone. There are so many overwhelming terrible things happening that it’s hard to find hope or joy in the news. There are so many news articles about how teens have been hit hard by the pandemic and quarantine.

But, I have learned in the last year, one of the most amazing things about teens is that they will remind us that they can find hope and joy as an act of revolution. The spirit of teens never fails to amaze me, and this month I’m amazed at their commitment to art and justice.

In Teen Arts Councils around the country high school students work to learn about arts and exhibitions in museums and advise the curators during their time of service. Many Teen Councils also design programs where they give tours to other teens and facilitate discussions with artists. They also host their own exhibitions and sometimes social events just for teens to come and enjoy the Arts.

Many art museums have teen art councils. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston describes their Teen Art Council this way:

“The Teen Arts Council (TAC) is the MFA’s leadership development program for Boston-area teens. The TAC offers participants the opportunity to engage with art, culture, and history; develop workplace and team building skills; and learn about a range of professional options and career paths.

  • Advise the MFA on engagement strategies for local teens
  • Implement programs and events for peers and the general public
  • Learn about the arts and cultural sector in the City of Boston by engaging with the city’s other teen programs and cultural institutions”

As with all RevolTeens, though, many of the Teen Arts Council members at these museums have not been content to continue the status quo, they have begun revolting.

This year, the Teen Creative Agency, a Teen Council at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, revolted against the injustices they saw at the museum and launched a campaign to challenge the museum’s directors to do better.

According to Teen Vogue, when a photo was published that suggested that the museum had donated money to the Chicago Police Department, the Teen Council wrote an Open Letter to the museum’s director powerfully challenging her to acknowledge the ways that the Chicago Police had abused their power and demanded that the museum clarify their relationship with the CPD. They launched a petition to gain attention and support for their efforts through their Instagram account @TCAAMCA

“We realized this is bigger than we thought,” says Vivian Zamora, an 18-year-old recent alumnus of TCA. “It’s not just cops. There’s mistreatment of part-time staff, not enough transparency. A lot of our work now is pointing out how this institution works.”

These RevolTeens are not afraid to question not only adults, but revered institutions and demand that they answer for problems, and injustices that they have been able to ignore.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts recognized the powerful perspective of teens. They decided to launch  the museum’s first exhibition curated entirely by high school students titled “Black Histories, Black Futures,” The exhibit contains works by 20th century artists of color, and brings a fresh new perspective to the collection, as well as bringing young people into the museum. According to the Museum’s website: 

‘The teen curators—fellows from youth empowerment organizations Becoming a Man (BAM), The BASE, and the Bloomberg Arts Internship Boston program managed by EdVestors—used skills they developed as paid interns in a pilot internship program at the MFA to research, interpret, and design the exhibition. Their work highlights areas of excellence within the Museum’s collection and lays foundations for the future.”

The museum recognizes the energy and the change that teens bring into the work that they do. Collaborating with teens should be a priority for more institutions going forward as they look for ways to increase their social relevance, appeal, and community involvement.

Finally, the Studio Museum Harlem has held a teen art photography education program for eight months every year during which teens learn the art of photography. This year, of course, the whole process has been drastically changed. From the Museum’s web page:

“The online photography exhibition Hearts in Isolation: Expanding the Walls 2020 features work by the fifteen teenage artists in the 2020 cohort of the Museum’s annual program, Expanding the Walls: Making Connections Between Photography, History, and Community. Launching July 30th, the first online edition of the annual Expanding the Walls exhibition marks the program’s twentieth anniversary.

During their eight months in the program, Expanding the Walls participants from New York City–area high schools explore digital photography, artistic practice, and community—a term that took on new meaning this year, when students could no longer gather with one another and their mentors but had to complete the program remotely. As a result, their photographs reflect on themes of home and safety.”

The exhibit can be viewed fully online here: Hearts In Isolation: Expanding the Walls

If you are feeling bleak and alone, go visit the work of these remarkable and brilliant RevolTeens and remind yourself that the future is in their hands, and they have the heart, brilliance, hope, courage, and joy to make this world so much better.

About Christine Lively

Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. I am a Certified Life Coach for Kids 14-24 and my website is christinelively.com. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively.

Morgan’s Mumbles: The Struggles of Virtual University, by teen contributor Morgan Randall

All my current classes are online, for college, which I would prefer due to the current situation of the world and I would like to limit my exposure (along with others) as we move forward. However, that does not negate the struggles that come with online courses.

To start off, I am very thankful for the fact that there are resources to have online classes (ex. Zoom) however these spaces come with their own struggle. First off, the internet within dorms and apartments is very unreliable and sometimes cut out during classes. Thankfully, a majority of my classes are recorded and my teachers are understanding. But, when a part of your final grade is based on attendance and participation this becomes a problem if there is a large storm or too many people on the internet at the same time.

The struggle of internet access is probably the smallest issue, for me (thankfully). My bigger issues come along mentally. Staying within the same four walls for days at a time is mentally taxing, and even if you create a designated workspace you are still limited to the changes of scenery available. I go from one corner to another, and another trying to alternate scenery as I have three classes back to back on Zoom sitting in the same spot. If I am lucky between my first and second class, I can move from my desk to the floor. And then from second to third, I can move from the floor back to my desk. But even between these locations, I finish six hours of lectures, and then I have at least six hours of homework. This isn’t the problem, I know I signed up to take courses that will push me the problem is the fact that in a normal year half of this time would be spent outside my dorm. So the hours at my desk would not be as difficult to sit through, but by the time I get to homework, I can barely focus on the page to read, let alone write an essay or take a quiz. I thankfully have three roommates who are all really pleased to be around, and we find ways to keep busy, but excluding them I hangout with maybe five other people who went to high school with me.

This, is another struggle, the lack of spaces to create meaningful connections. Zoom lectures and breakout rooms are the worst places to have conversations, they exist within a weird space that is hard to classify. In breakout rooms, you speak to a few other people for five minutes, and then you leave that space and barely see them four pages over at your meeting. There are no real connections made, and I am not saying that class is a space to make lifelong friends. But it is a start, you have something in common right off the bat, in a classroom setting you are both in the same space and can feed off one another energy. In a Zoom breakout room, if you are lucky they have their camera on and will talk back, you just sit staring at someone and holding an awkward conversation as you try to answer the questions you were told to discuss without knowing the other persons’ real reaction. This doesn’t allow places to talk or even truly introduce yourself to other students. Outside of lectures and breakout rooms, the only other times I see people are in the line at the dining hall, walking, and in the elevator. None of which are the ideal space, especially within the current situation you don’t know people’s comfort levels or if they want to have an interaction.

Lastly, my main struggle is as a Theatre and Dance major a majority of my classes are discussion and performance-based. This in itself is a difficult thing in an online format, I have to attend shows virtually and perform my own pieces to a camera for analysis in front of my class. This is a nerve-racking experience as art is something meant to connect and cause difficult conversations, but it is very hard to have conversations through screens where you cannot see the other person’s reactions. This is something I struggle with a lot, this new space (that is becoming normal) which makes it difficult to have discussions because we aren’t face to face.

Morgan RandallTeen Contributor

Morgan recently graduated high school and is currently enrolled to attend college in the fall getting her BA in Theatre and Dance with an emphasis on Design and Technology. She loves theatre, writing, reading, and learning. But something that has always been important to her is being a voice for those who feel like they don’t have one, and being a catalyst for change in any way possible.

RevolTeens: Helping Teens Tell Their Story in the Time of Covid, by Christine Lively

It’s back to school time here, and we’re all scrambling to figure out what to do and what to say. Everything is different in the time of COVID 19, and everything is constantly shifting and changing, too. I have a son who is moving back to college next week to start his sophomore year and a son who will start his senior year in high school in September. I don’t know what to tell them most of the time. The data, the outlook, and our awareness change day to day and make any kind of certainty impossible.

It all kind of feels like we’re in the middle of a story right now. Perhaps you’ve heard of Pixar’s Storytelling Formula. It has been written about on the internet and in books and reveals some great universal truths about storytelling. One of the best rules is the framing for the story plot that goes:

“Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”

 From 22 Tips on the Pixar Storytelling Formula  nofilmschool.com

It feels like we’re in the middle of that story right now. “Once upon a time there was a family. Every day, their lives followed the ebb and flow of the school year as their children attended classes, made friends, learned new things, and worked hard. One day COVID 19 came to their country and shut down the schools, made people sick and afraid. Because of that, nobody knew what to do or what was going to happen. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.”

We’re in the middle of this mess of a story. We’re at the part where we’re looking everywhere for Nemo, or trying to find the core memory that will help Riley, or trying desperately to keep Boo safe and return her to her home. Everything is revolting and nobody knows how it’s going to turn out.

One thing I’ve learned is that adults really don’t know everything and teens always deserve to know that. None of us adults know how things will turn out, but we pretend we do. Teens see through us every time we try to sell them that nonsense. We hated it when our parents and teachers pretended they knew everything. Teens revolt and challenge our purported “expertise” and “the way things have always been” and become RevolTeens. In the midst of COVID 19, all of our pretense has been stripped away now. Teens have seen “behind the curtain,” and they know that adults are just making this up as we go. I hope that we’ll lean into that and keep talking with teens and young adults to help them get comfortable with the uncertainty. If we do it right, we can raise a new generation that embraces change even more fully, and feels ready to respond to it instead of feeling upended and hopeless. 

When school was first canceled, my instinct was to wait a bit and try to figure out what was going on and where this pandemic was heading. My sons were initially thrilled with the idea that they wouldn’t have to get up early for a while and would have a break. Then, we all slowly realized that this situation was not ending anytime soon and fear seeped into our lives. 

As a parent, I usually want to be able to give my kids some kind of certainty – rules, or experience, or at least guidance for “how things go.” The truth is, I don’t have any better idea of how things are or how they will be than my kids do. During this pandemic, I have been able to just be completely honest with them about that. I don’t have any idea what will happen, or how this will turn out. The kids have been fine with that answer, and we’ve had some really great conversations about our uncertainty and about what we do in the meantime as we struggle.

We’ve also learned that everything deserves to be questioned and torn apart. So many YA stories have a moment when what a teen thought was safe and predictable is taken away or changed and they have to start all over again. Often at the other side of that chaos and fear is the realization that things “before” were really not as great as they thought and the pain and fear of change has left them wiser, more wary, and ready for the next upheaval. That is definitely how I feel right now. They’re questioning the value of school, the way they learn, the expectations they’ve had for themselves, and their own ability to make good decisions. It’s been a tremendous time for reflection and reevaluation.

As educators and librarians, we’re all making the best of a lousy situation. We’re being forced to give up all of the physical structures, time structures, and relationship structures that we’ve relied on for years to ensure our patrons’ safety and access. While doing that, I hope that we’re questioning why we’ve always done things a certain way, and if change might improve or deepen our connections. School and our libraries will reopen as spaces for learning, connection, and stories. When they do, I hope that we will remember some of the lessons we’re learning now, and challenge ourselves to find different ways to connect with readers, communities, and students.

I don’t know exactly what my work as a school librarian will be like when school starts again. I do know that the way we work with students, circulate books, collaborate with teachers, and teach lessons will be different. I’m hopeful that some of the changes we make will make our work better, more meaningful, and that we’ll remember some of the great things we do in the time after COVID-19.

Right now, we’re all in the middle of the story of COVID 19. We’re in the chaos. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from RevolTeens in real life and in YA stories, it’s that the uncertainty is painful, but once we realize that nothing is as it was before, we can chart a new and better ending for our story if we’re brave enough.

I’m hoping our story goes like this:

“Once upon a time there was a family. Every day, their lives followed the ebb and flow of the school year as the children attended classes, made friends, learned new things, and worked hard, and the parents went to work, shopped, and cared for the children. One day COVID 19 came to their country and shut down the schools, made people sick and afraid. Because of that, nobody knew what to do or what was going to happen. Because of that, the family struggled and tried new things and new ways of thinking. Until finally the family put aside their expectations, lived day by day, and embraced a new uncertain but hopeful future.”

About Christine Lively

Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. I am a Certified Life Coach for Kids 14-24 and my website is christinelively.com. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively.

Morgan’s Mumbles: Preparing for Online Classes, by teen contributor Morgan Randall

I am an incoming freshman, and recently all my classes were moved to online, and in order to keep track of everything here are a few things I am doing starting my fall semester.

  1. Set up a work area

Make sure you have an area that consistently is your place to work, make calls, and take notes. This will allow you to have a place-specific from work, separate from your rest area.

  1. Put all your classes on a schedule

Write each of your classes out on the schedule, for every day so you know when to be on what call (or if you are in person what building and room to be in). This will allow you to allot time to other activities.

  1. Plan for study times for each class

While you are writing down your classes on your schedule make sure you also plan to study for each of your classes to guarantee you set aside time to study.

  1. Read the syllabi before class

Most professors will upload their syllabus prior to class, even though you will cover it during class the first week make sure you read it ahead of time so you are prepared for the year and write down any questions you have.

  1. Write down your grade breakdown

In your syllabus, your teachers should break down how the course will be graded. It should tell you how many points each assignment is worth, or the percentage it counts towards in your final grade. Make sure you write this down so it’s easy to refer back to.

  1. Know all major assignments

Once again, in your syllabus, you should find each of your assignments listed out. Make sure you understand the major ones, and have the due dates written down.

  1. Buy textbooks/any subscriptions you need prior to class

In the syllabus, necessary textbooks, and any subscriptions that you may need for the course, make sure you invest in these (they can be used or rented) but some courses require you have them as soon as classes start.

  1. Know how to contact your professor and TA

There should be some sort of way to contact them, including office hours and email addresses. Write these in the notebook that you can easily refer back to.

  1. Know any class-specific rules

This may include grace periods for assignments, and when to contact the professor about grades, or any other unique thing that the teacher requires. Make sure you are aware of these, so you can know the expectations of the class.

  1. In your schedule include tests/quizzes

Your syllabus should include dates of tests and quizzes, make sure you have these marked in your calendar so you are prepared for them.

Morgan RandallTeen Contributor

Morgan recently graduated high school and is currently enrolled to attend college in the fall getting her BA in Theatre and Dance with an emphasis on Design and Technology. She loves theatre, writing, reading, and learning. But something that has always been important to her is being a voice for those who feel like they don’t have one, and being a catalyst for change in any way possible.

Pandemic School, by Teen Contributor Riley Jensen

Today, teen contributor Riley Jensen is sharing her thoughts about starting school this upcoming year. Riley will be starting her senior year; it’s an important year with a lot of big decisions. She knows she wants to be a forensic scientist, which means college and tests and campus visits. She also has found her home, her people, in the theatre program. I did not think last year when I saw her perform that it would possibly be my last time seeing her perform on the high school stage. As her mom, this was very hard to read. We’ve cried a lot, talked a lot, and we’re trying to balance making the best decisions for her with the best decisions for our family with the best decisions for our community, all in the midst of a deadly viral pandemic in a state with really consistently high numbers of infection, hospitalizations and death. Here’s a look into the mind of a teen trying to navigate education in the pandemic.

This year while many other schools have made the decision to start school off virtually, my district decided that students would have a choice between online school and in person school. Only half of my schedule is actual academic courses while the other half is made up of extracurricular courses. So, I made the decision to do in person school since I can’t really be a teacher aide from home. Obviously students are required to wear masks and socially distance, but it can be hard to tell how many of the students will actually follow these instructions since they barely even listen to a dress code already.

Thinking about starting this school year has caused me a lot of anxiety. I have no way of knowing what my fellow students have done, who they have been in contact with or how well they’ve been following the recommended precautions. All I know is that if I get the virus at school I will be bringing it back home to my family.

It’s time to put on make up . . . But will the curtain go up again during senior year?

I also know that not everyone is taking this pandemic very seriously. I see people’s posts about them going out to restaurants or amusement parks or parties. I see them without their masks. I see them not being socially distant. I’m not completely innocent either. I’ve gone out and seen large groups of people. Nobody is really doing what they’re supposed to be doing anymore.

So, when I get back to school, I will be surrounded by people who have gone out and done things without a mask. I will be surrounded by people who don’t think this pandemic is that big of a deal. I will be surrounded by people who probably haven’t even looked at the number of cases in weeks. I will probably not be safe.

Senior photo by Rescue Teacher Photography

There are things I could do to make me more safe obviously. I could just show up to my extracurricular classes, but I don’t drive. I know that’s my own fault but that doesn’t change the fact that I still don’t drive. I could drop a few classes and sign up for early release, but then I won’t get all of the credits I need to graduate. At this point I don’t really know what to do, but I’m scared.

I am terrified of the thought that I might get sick and bring it home to my family. I’ve seen the statistics and I know that school is not a super awesome idea. It’s just so much to process. I barely even know what I want to do with my future, but now I have to figure out what to do without putting my whole family in danger of getting sick.

This whole thing is just stressful and scary and something that I never even thought I would have to think about. So, I’m just going to do my part in keeping everyone safe and hope that everyone else does the same. It seems that’s all anyone can really do at this point.

For Teens Making a Difference: A Twist on Gun Violence By Alex Richards

Today we are honored to host a guest post by the author of ACCIDENTAL, Alex Richards.

Even before I had the idea to write ACCIDENTAL, I have been consumed by the headlines. Toddler Fatally Shoots Mom In Walmart. Toddler Shoots One Year Old Sister. Toddler Shoots Two Other Children At A Daycare. Five Year Old Looking For Easter Candy Finds Gun and Fatally Shoots Brother. I read every story. Gasped and momentarily grieved. But, then, that was it. There was no follow up, and soon another headline replaced it and I would move on.

I think I stopped being able to “move on” once I had kids of my own. The idea of a child–my child–finding an unsecured gun–picking it up with curious fingers and accidentally firing it–suddenly became a thought I couldn’t let go of. And so, I tried to find out more, almost obsessing over the tragic, heartbreaking stories of accidental gun violence involving children. Mostly, what I wanted to know was: what becomes of these kids? How do they mentally process their actions in adulthood?

Despite having spent a few years as a researcher for a crime-based daytime talk show, most of my research led me down the same path: nowhere. Which makes sense. The children who have experienced these traumas deserve as much anonymity as they can get. And yet … that in itself got me thinking, wondering, digging deeper into research about gun violence statistics and laws. At one point, when I was writing this book, I read in the Washington Post that toddlers shoot people on a weekly basis in America. Weekly. When I started drafting ACCIDENTAL in 2016, guns were the third leading cause of death among children. Now, in 2020, they are the second–and the first among Black children. Statistics continued to haunt me–from nearly a quarter of all gun owners reporting that their guns were kept unlocked in their homes, to learning that one mass shooting happens every day, on average, in America. In addition to incredibly harrowing and useful facts at Giffords Law Center, I read a morbidly fascinating book called Melancholy Accidents, a collection of news clippings and stories of accidental shootings that go back centuries. I even found a very rare and powerful follow-up interview with a man who had shot and killed his sister as a child.

I went down the rabbit hold. Deep. And when I came out, I was surprised–or maybe relieved?–that there was very little information on what happens to the children involved in accidental shootings. Because, on the one hand, of course families want to protect their children’s innocence and help them process their actions privately. What these kids have been through is traumatic, and they need therapy, not follow-up interviews and more headlines.

But, also, I started wondering if there was another explanation. Studies have shown that a child’s earliest memory can change over time, and it’s all subjective. Something remembered at age five may not be remembered by age ten. Additionally, the likelihood of remembering something is aided when that memory is reinforced. If not, childhood amnesia could affect the fate of any thought.

Which brings me to ACCIDENTAL, and the idea that it is entirely possible for a young child to not necessarily remember having fired a gun. There is a chance that, if no one were to remind them, they might forget. It was compelling to me, wondering what might happen to the often faceless and unnamed children in the headlines, and if, by some miracle, a few of these kids were raised not knowing what they had done.

I tried to imagine myself in such a situation. If my son or daughter found a gun and shot someone, would I tell them about it? If they thought it was a toy, or hadn’t fully begun to understand the concept of death, would I remind them? Or would I try to shield them from it. Facilitate the forgetting. As a mom, I know exactly what I would do, and so I wrote this book.

For me, YA felt like the right space to explore this topic. I love writing teen fiction, trying to do justice to that frustrated, passionate, lonely, hopeful, complex and funny voice. I thought it could be really powerful to tell the story from the perspective of a teenager who had grown up not knowing, and then, one day, somehow found out. I mean, how do you deal with that realization? How do you process it? Obviously shock, denial, and guilt are the first emotions that come to mind, but I really wanted to dig in and see where it might lead.

With this story, I wanted to write a character who had never really thought about guns beyond their fixture in our society. I wanted to see Johanna’s thought process unfurl and see how she chose to process the information. Would she turn to activism? Would there be pushback from other students for what she had done as a child? It was important to me to explore the nuances of how this affected not just her but the people around her. The grandparents who lied to protect her innocence, the friends who stand by her, the boyfriend who may be in over his head, and the classmates who challenge her intentions.

Like many teens, Johanna experiences a lot of self-hatred. Because it is hard to be a teenager, even if you didn’taccidentally shoot and kill someone. I wanted to write a book that helped show teens there are ways to heal. There are people in your corner, there are ways to take action, ways to grieve, and there are ways to find closure.

Ultimately, this book is about hope and awareness. Gun control is a hugely important issue in this country, and Johanna’s story adds a unique perspective. Johanna could be anyone, and she could be everyone. Right now, teens are taking initiative, taking charge. They know they are the future, and what they do matters. What they read, what they learn, and what they do with that knowledge matters. Teens are ready to be the change they want to see in the world, and it’s our job to give them the tools to do so.

Author bio:

Alex Richards is a young adult author and freelance magazine contributor. She is a terrible navigator (just ask the African jungle she got lost in) but makes up for it with a dark sense of humor and home-made horror films. Raised in New Mexico, she and her family live in Brooklyn.

alexrichards.nyc  |  @alexgirlnyc


This timely, emotionally-resonant story about a teen girl dealing with the aftermath of a tragic shooting is a must-read from an exciting new YA talent.

Johanna has had more than enough trauma in her life. She lost her mom in a car accident, and her father went AWOL when Johanna was just a baby. At sixteen, life is steady, boring . . . maybe even stifling, since she’s being raised by her grandparents who never talk about their daughter, her mother Mandy.

Then he comes back: Robert Newsome, Johanna’s father, bringing memories and pictures of Mandy. But that’s not all he shares. A tragic car accident didn’t kill Mandy–it was Johanna, who at two years old, accidentally shot her own mother with an unsecured gun.

Now Johanna has to sort through it all–the return of her absentee father, her grandparents’ lies, her part in her mother’s death. But no one, neither her loyal best friends nor her sweet new boyfriend, can help her forgive them. Most of all, can she ever find a way to forgive herself?

In a searing, ultimately uplifting story, debut author Alex Richards tackles a different side of the important issue that has galvanized teens across our country. 

Accidental was released July 7, 2020 from Bloomsbury and it received a starred review from School Library Journal.

Praise for ACCIDENTAL:

“Richards deftly explores the myriad emotional struggles after an accidental gun death. . . Tragic, moving, and genuine.” –School Library Journal, starred review

“A valuable take on a timely issue.” –Kirkus Reviews

“[Johanna] is an admirable, convincing heroine who is determined to make things right for herself.” –Publishers Weekly

“A testament to the healing power of community, love and forgiveness. An honest, wrenching and important read.” –Sarah Holt, Left Bank Books

“A heartbreaking, powerful, essential read.” –Beth Seufer Buss, Bookmarks

“This book is haunting, but it is also hopeful. . . With heartfelt, brutal honesty searing every page, this is the kind of book that reminds readers that they have voices, and they can make changes.” –Ava Tusek, Second Star to the Right

RevolTeens: Texas Teen De’Andre Arnold Reminds Us All, Teens Need Fans (by Christine Lively)

Working in a high school means working with exaggerated, constant deadlines and pressure. Students are always reminded that their future success is dependent on them getting the best grades possible in the highest level classes; earning the highest possible test scores; and developing a resume full of impressive extracurricular activities. The pressure to not just get into college, but to not make mistakes is enormous and constant. Parents, teachers, counselors, and sports coaches usually have good intentions and want teens to be happy. We all know that just avoiding certain “mistakes” and following a straight ahead path makes life easier or, at least, gives kids the most options when they graduate high school. Teens see stories splashed all over social media and the press about people their age who have been accepted to every Ivy League college or received hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. It’s nearly impossible for them to feel like they’re achieving success or doing the right things by comparison.

Compounding this pressure is the fact that those who are pressuring them are often the most well meaning and loving people in their lives. The parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends who used to celebrate every small achievement as a monumental and unqualified success when they were little – paint handprints on paper, riding a bicycle, turning a cartwheel – are now the very people who are worried constantly that teens aren’t doing or achieving ‘enough’ to make their (or their parents’) dreams come true. This pressure almost always comes from a place of love and concern, which is confusing and complicated for everyone involved.

Mary Hinson, who blogs at Mary Had a Little Blog and works with teens at a nearby public library, has long been a fan of TLTer Karen Jensen’s girls. She has come to see them in plays, sports and more.

When teens are faced with these heightened consequences and high stakes life decisions, they are also often confronted with unfair rules, stereotypes, and they’re unable to make their own decisions. At this developmentally rebellious time in their lives, they confront more rules, more expectations, and more responsibility than ever. They inevitably will want to REVOLT, and they should feel empowered to challenge the rules and to advocate for what they need.

What can help teens to mitigate this stress and to find a respite from the pressure? Having someone in their lives who thinks they’re wonderful – just the way they are. Teens need fans – they need an adult in their lives who thinks they are fantastic and who likes to spend time with them. They need someone who asks them about what THEY want without any pressure to answer correctly – someone who is truly interested in listening and is fascinated by what teens want to talk about. This person can be an aunt or uncle, grandparent, a boss or coworker at their job, a counselor, a school librarian, a family friend, a teen life coach, or anyone who is willing to step up and build that relationship.

What can a fan do for a teen? They can show them that they, just as they are, are important, interesting, and worthy of love. They can be a safe person to talk with about challenges and to brainstorm with about how to deal with them. A fan is someone who helps teens figure out what they want instead of instructing them about what they should do. They can be someone who just makes them feel good and take their mind off of the pressure for a while. They can in some cases be literal life savers for kids who feel that they have no one else to talk to and no safe place to be.

While I’ve always thought that kids simply cannot have too many people in their lives who care about them, the notion that it is especially important for teens was made clearer for me more recently when filmmaker and Oscar nominee Matthew Cherry, NBA player Dwayne Wade and actress/producer Gabrielle Union invited 18 year old high school student, De’Andre Arnold and his mother to be his guests at the 2020 Oscars. De’Andre had been suspended from his Texas high school for wearing his hair in locks, a longstanding family tradition. He was also told that he would not be allowed to walk in his high school graduation if he didn’t cut his hair. He refused.

CBS Texas Teen De’Andre Arnold Told He Can’t Walk at Graduation Unless He Cuts His Dreadlocks

When the news of his suspension and barring from graduation made the news, the producers of the then Oscar nominated short film “Hair Love” decided that they were fans of De’Andre, his hair, and his stand against an unfair and racist school rule. The story of the film “Hair Love” is that of a father struggling and finally learning to style and care for his young daughter’s hair. The film shows how central hair is to the identity of the Black family it depicts. Matthew Cherry, the film’s director has also been a proponent of the Crown Act which aims to make discrimination in the workplace based on natural or protective hairstyles.

Teen Vogue: A Brief History of Black Hair, Politics, and Discrimination

What was the effect of De’Andre’s fans coming forward to support and celebrate him?

CBS Texas Teen De’Andre Arnold Attends the Oscars

According to the February 9, 2020 New York Times, De’Andre, “said that he was feeling “pride, and validation too,” for the opportunity.  “It’s like, look at me,” he said. “The little kid with dreads is at the Oscars. While all the people at home are mad? I’m at the Oscars.”

While they may not get a chance to go to the Oscars and mingle with movie stars, every teen deserves the opportunity to feel pride and validation. They deserve to revolt against unfair rules and discrimination and know that there will be people beside them, cheering them on.

Find out more about Hair Love

About Christine Lively

Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively