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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.

O’Brien
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. . . .

Steve
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.

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