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We Need to Talk: An Interview with Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson, and Brendan Kiely By Lisa Krok

“The Talk” seems to have become more needed than ever in the past few years.    Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson are the editors of the anthology The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth, and Brendan Kiely is the author of The Other Talk: Reckoning With Our White Privilege. I owned and had read The Talk already when I learned that Kiely had The Other Talk forthcoming this September. I immediately thought it would be incredible to juxtapose these two books and have an important discussion.

Lisa Krok: It is so wonderful to be able to have these very important conversations with you and with each other. Wade and Cheryl, what led you to compile these valuable and necessary stories in your anthology?

Wade Hudson/Cheryl Willis Hudson:

In thinking about “The Talk” as a necessary conversation between most Black parents and their children, we realized that there are many kinds of talks that others had as well. Learning how to navigate the world with confidence and caring is an essential survival skill made more difficult by the challenges marginalized people often face. Who better to share these stories, these lessons than children’s book creators with first-hand knowledge and experience?

How do you talk about things that may be uncomfortable to discuss? How do you stay safe? How can you feel secure within your own body and personal space? How does one avoid racial profiling, police brutality or deal with bullying or sexual harassment? What can young people do when faced with systemic racism, name calling, religious intolerance, and cultural stereotypes? What about confronting the issue of white privilege? And how can these lessons, these necessary “talks,” be shared with children and young people?

That’s what The Talk tries to answer. We believed it was necessary to offer these lessons, these “talks” across social and cultural lines.

LK: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the necessity of these talks! Brendan, can you share a bit about the Two Americas you saw while touring with Jason Reynolds, and how that influenced your writing of this book.

Brendan Kiely:

First of all, I’m honored and grateful to be here and to be a part of this conversation with you, Wade and Cheryl. I wrote The Other Talk after listening to many, many people of the Global Majority talk about “The Talk”they had in their families growing up—the myriad manifestations of “The Talk” Cheryl and Wade’s anthology highlights so beautifully. As their anthology points out, there are many different kinds of “Talks”, especially as to how racism affects people’s lives, but, as Jason and I have discussed over the years, there isn’t often a talk white families have that speaks clearly and directly about the privileges white families experience because of racism in America. And so I wrote The Other Talk to try to join the conversation Black families, Indigenous families, and so many families of the Global Majority have been having for so long.  

So, Jason and I met while touring our debut novels. We were thrilled and grateful, because our publisher was kindly sending us to conferences and festivals all over the country. We were having a ball—but it was also impossible not to notice that, as a Black man and a white man traveling side-by-side, we were having different experiences too. It was impossible for me not to notice the magnitude of racist undertones—the suspicious glances, the unkind greetings, the extra pat downs in security—all happening to Jason, not me. I talk more in depth about those moments in the book, but just as it was impossible not to notice what was happening to Jason as we traveled the country, it became startlingly impossible for me to not notice what was happening to me too. From a certain point of view, I recognized that conversely to Jason, I was experiencing welcoming smiles and zero suspicions as we walked into bookstores, schools, or through airports or hotel lobbies. People assumed I belonged wherever we were. It was as if we were experiencing (as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested back in 1968) “two Americas”, two different Americas. I’m not saying everything was terrible; like I said, he and I were having a blast—and I think it is really important to stress that, too—but racism undeniably affects life for all of us in America. It affects us in different ways, however, and I began to think about how this pervasive racism affects my life by undergirding my life with social privileges.

And this is why I wanted to write The Other Talk: to help inspire white people like me to engage in conversations about racism in America by listening more, and learning more, and becoming more self-aware about how privilege affects our lives, and to feel more motivated to act and co-construct a more racially just America in solidarity with people of the Global Majority, who have been having these conversations for such a long time.

LK: I am so glad you took this on, Brendan!Wade and Cheryl, how did you go about selecting the contributors to your anthology, and how do the varied forms/styles/illustration mediums add meaning to the individual stories?


We asked BIPOC friends in the industry whose work we admired and respected to contribute to The Talk. They had a variety of stories to share from their own personal experiences. Meg Medina for example, wrote about the advantages of being bi-lingual but being discriminated against because of it; Grace Lin wrote a letter to her daughter about recognizing the objectivism of being called a “China doll;” Daniel Nayeri wrote about the weight of silence in communicating across cultures and the value of not talking; Duncan Tonatiuh wrote about a school visit where a student actually asked the question “Why Are There Racist People?” Tracey Baptiste in her essay, “TEN,” gave advice to her preteen on how to respond if being stopped by the police when driving while Black. Whether written as a poem, essay, prose, or letter or created in cartoon/graphic digital format or drawn via a realistic watercolor, the diversity of writers and illustrators expressed thought provoking situations that young people find themselves in. The end result was a powerful and complementary balance of text and images.

LK: It is truly a glorious amalgamation of varied stories and styles!Brendan, your anecdote with the strawberry Nesquick really stood out to me. Could you share that please?


The Strawberry Nesquik story is a starker and more devastatingly tragic example of the “two Americas” I mentioned before, in that it juxtaposes Jordan Davis’s life with my own, but what I think is at the heart of the story is a deeper understanding of the “other America,” the “privileged America,” in which I live. I think some people hear the term “white privilege” and they immediately think about all the ways in which they are not “privileged” (not rich, not living in a fancy house, not taking vacations to far flung corners of the world), or they think that applying that word to their life takes away from all their “hard work.” This is why, in the book, I use the example of the benefits my grandfather made use of in the GI Bill when he returned from WWII. He had access to opportunities (higher education; further, specialized degrees; home loans; brokers who would show him real estate in areas where the property value was rapidly increasing). Everything he achieved he did through hard work—no doubt about that—and it is also true that everything he achieved he had access to in a way many, if not most, veterans of the Global Majority in America did not have access to. Did he work hard? Yes. Was he also privileged with more access to opportunity? Also yes. He benefited from the effects of systemic privilege, you might say; and two generations later, I too benefit from his (and my own) systemic privilege. But racism is systemic and also interpersonal—and so too is privilege. So not only have I benefitted from multi-generational systemic privilege, the Nesquik story highlights just how privileged my interactions are with other people I encounter in my life—store clerks, law enforcement, my teachers, etc. Because the word “privilege” leaves such a bad taste in some people’s mouths, the poet and scholar Claudia Rankine replaces the phrase white privilege with white living—it’s just the experience of living as a white person in America. And, in the book, I try to use many, many examples from my own life to spotlight and explain why so many of those everyday experiences of my life living as a white person in America are in fact privileged.

LK: You delineated white privilege perfectly! It is indeed misunderstood by many.Wade and Cheryl, is there a particular story in your anthology that stands out to you personally, and why?


All the entries are special to us because they spotlight a particular aspect of each creator’s experience or a particular concern or challenge. This adds to the breadth of the book. Adam Gidwitz’s story “Our Inheritance” is important to us because it is told from the perspective of a white writer. Often, anthologies or books that deal with social justice issues focus on the victims and imply that the victims must find the answers to the challenges presented. We believe that equality, social, economic and political justice, can only be achieved when all of us, together fight to achieve them. Adam’s piece is crucial because it brings everyone to the table for this important discussion, not just those from BIPOC communities.

LK: Absolutely! It is so important for allies also learn and do the work, rather than placing that burden on the victims. Brendan, I was fascinated by your statement that, “race has no basis in biological fact”. Can you elaborate on this, please?


I always return to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s line “race is the child of racism, not the father.” In other words, “race” is a social construct. I think it is important to reinforce just how strongly biologists want the rest of us to understand this. For example, this is from the American Association of Biological Anthropologist’s Statement on Race & Racism:

Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it remains inaccurate when referencing contemporary human populations. Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters. Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination. It thus does not have its roots in biological reality, but in policies of discrimination. Because of that, over the last five centuries, race has become a social reality that structures societies and how we experience the world.

I apologize for the long quote, but I thought the whole paragraph was worth highlighting because I elaborate on these ideas, and how they relate to my life specifically, in the book.

The subtitle of my book is “reckoning with our white privilege.” To me, I think being clear and honest about how those “policies of discrimination” throughout history unequivocally impact our lives today is a vital part of the conversation (the “other talk”) white families like my own can engage in more deeply and discuss with young people. As the young, eight-year-old white girl from Traverse City, MI quoted in the Washington Post explained, although learning about racism in second grade made her feel bad, it also made her motivated to want to do something about it. In essence, learning about the truth of racism and privilege made her want to learn more so that she could do more—and I think we owe it to her and all young people out there to try to learn more, listen more, and act alongside them.

Many thanks to Wade, Cheryl, and Brendan for this essential conversation, which is just the beginning! Teen librarians, if you happen to be at the YALSA Symposium in Reno this November, please join us for a more in-depth conversation about these two books. Let’s Talk!

The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth is available now from Crown Books for Young Readers.

The Other Talk: Reckoning With Our White Privilege releases September 21 from

‎ Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.

An author and publisher, Wade Hudson is president of Just Us Books, Inc., an independent publisher of books for young people. Among his 30 published books are the middle grade anthologies, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices and The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth, coedited with his wife, Cheryl; AFRO- Bets Kids: I’m Going to Be; Journey, a poetry collection; and Defiant, Wade’s memoir of growing up in the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement. Wade has received the New Jersey Stephen Crane Literary Award, the Ida B. Wells Institutional Leader-ship Award, the Madam C. J. Walker Legacy Award, and a CBC Diversity Outstanding Achievement Award.

Cheryl Willis Hudson is an award- winning children’s book author and cofounder with her husband, Wade Hudson, of Just Us Books, Inc., an independent publishing company that focuses on Black-interest books for young people. Her published titles include the classic AFRO- BETS ABC Book; Bright Eyes, Brown Skin; and Brave. Black. First.: 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World. She and Wade co-edited the middle- grade anthologies We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices and The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth. A member of the PEN America Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee, Cheryl has been honored with the Madam C. J. Walker Legacy Award and Children’s Book Council Diversity Outstanding Achievement Award.

Brendan Kiely is The New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), and three other novels, and most recently a nonfiction book, The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege. His work has been published in over a dozen languages, and has received the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Meyers Award, and ALA’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults. A former high school teacher, he is now on the faculty of the Solstice MFA Program. But most importantly, he lives for and loves his wife and son.

Lisa Krok, MLIS, MEd, is the Adult and Teen Services Manager at Morley Library and a former teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of Novels in Verse for Teens: A Guidebook with Activities for Teachers and Librarians (ABC-CLIO). She reviews YA for School Library Journal, blogs for Teen Librarian Toolbox, and her passion is reaching marginalized teens and reluctant readers through young adult literature. Lisa has served on both the Best Fiction for Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Reader’s teams. She can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach

Helping RevolTeens Fight the Mental Health Crisis, by Christine Lively

The COVID crisis has revealed as much as it has changed. Yes, our lives have been upended and drastically changed because our main priority has shifted to trying to survive this pandemic. We’ve all made as many changes as we are able to make: limiting in-person interaction, working and schooling from home, wearing masks, and the list goes on. We’re all aware and resentful of some of these changes, but we’re making them to stay alive.

Another equally important result of the COVID crisis has been what it has revealed. So many inequities, problems, and struggles that existed before March of 2020 have come into sharp focus. For teens and young adults, the COVID crisis has revealed the huge and acute mental health crisis. Anyone who works with teens could tell you (and probably has) that young people have been struggling and suffering from mental health issues more and more for years. In my house, all three of my children have struggled with mental health issues. As a parent, I can tell you that finding help for them has been frighteningly difficult.

I am a high school librarian and at school, I see teens every day who need help. At our school, we have 2300 students and only a handful of qualified mental health professionals. Schools may be able to identify those who need help but are not equipped to provide that help. Teachers work with students who desperately need resources, evaluation, and time to work through their illness. Many teachers go far above and beyond their duties to support and help their students in whatever way they can.  I have personally reached out to try to get services for students who need them and know that it is often impossible to find those services.

All of this existed well before the COVID crisis.

The crisis has made it sharper and more dangerous. Because of the intensity, teens’ mental health has become newsworthy and awareness has been raised.

The New York Times today reports the stories of several teens who are in crisis.  These teens are all different ages and from different parts of the country, but they are all in crisis, and we are not equipped to help them.

‘“What parents and children are consistently reporting is an increase in all symptoms — a child who was a little anxious before the pandemic became very anxious over this past year,” said Dr. Adiaha I. A. Spinks-Franklin, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine. It is this prolonged stress, Dr. Spinks-Franklin said, that in time blunts the brain’s ability to manage emotions.’

All across the country, hospitals are struggling to keep up with the need.

‘Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, has an emergency department that is a decent size for a pediatric hospital, with capacity for 62 children or adolescents. But well before the arrival of the coronavirus, the department was straining to handle increasing numbers of patients with behavior problems.

“This was huge problem pre-pandemic,” said Dr. David Axelson, chief of psychiatry and behavioral health at the hospital. “We were seeing a rise in emergency department visits for mental health problems in kids, specifically for suicidal thinking and self-harm. Our emergency department was overwhelmed with it, having to board kids on the medical unit while waiting for psych beds.”’

Many of you reading this probably have your own stories to tell. When my son was in an acute struggle with depression that was life threatening I was told by a mental health professional that I should not tell his school or other people about it. I was shocked. Instead, I would tell anyone who would listen about his life and death struggle with depression. If he had been a child fighting cancer, we would have had community fundraising dinners and printed t-shirts with his face on it to raise awareness and to give him support. Mental illness is just as dangerous and life threatening as any physical disease, so why should we keep it a secret? Feeling alone only makes it worse for many teens. Talking about it helps.

The good news is that teen mental health has gained more attention. Now we have to decide what we are going to do to help teens in crisis and those who will face a lifelong struggle with mental health issues.

How can we help RevolTeens to find a way through their mental health struggles?

The National Association on Mental Illness has some resources for teens on their webpage and is a good place to start. Talking about mental health with the teens in your life makes a huge difference. Normalizing discussions of feelings and struggle makes a helps teens feel comfortable sharing their own difficulties. Asking for more mental health resources at schools and in your community will help our elected officials recognize the needs of their communities.

Most of all, keep supporting and reaching out to the teens in your life. So many of them struggle in silence and believe that they are alone. We can all share stories of struggle with them to show them that mental illness is as common as physical illness and is usually treatable. Stories in books, in song, in social media, and stories from our own lives all help teens feel less alone. Helping them to find help is the greatest action we can take.

So yes, we have a long standing teen mental health crisis. We can help revolt against that for our teens by standing with them, demanding that services are available to them, and continuing to fight the stigma of mental illness to ensure that more teens can ask for help.

The COVID crisis has revealed the crisis. Now, we have to take action.

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

Sunday Reflections: The Things We Won’t Buy, a Reflection on Generation Z, Conscious Capitalism, and “Cancel Culture”

I haven’t eaten at a Chick-Fil-A in over six years.

You see, CFA donates money to causes that actively fight against LGBTQIA+ rights. People I love are LGBTQIA+. And I believe in human rights. So I don’t buy their food because I understand that they will use the money they make on the food I buy to hurt people I love. If I were to suggest going to CFA, my teenage daughter would disown me.

Last year I also cancelled Hulu, Amazon Prime and Disney+. I stopped shopping at certain stores, I changed my cell phone plan and I’m looking at changing my bank. I made these changes because I believe in human rights for all and support democracy. I have actively sought out the names of businesses that have donated to elected representatives that have supported the insurrection and will be avoiding them.

I closed my Facebook and Instagram account.

I just can’t give my money to businesses or people who are going to use that money against me, the people I love, or the things that I believe in. I love my daughters and I want to spend my money in ways that will make the world a better, a safe, place for them.

I believe that racism, hatred, and bigotry is evil, immoral and unethical. I believe that hatred harms us all. As does poverty.

I believe that love is love.

I believe that every human being has the same inalienable rights as I do.

I believe that every vote matters. As do facts. And truth. And justice.

And I spend my money in ways that help shape the world in ways that I feel support those beliefs. And I was taught all of this by my teenage and pre-teen daughters. They practice what they call ethical consumerism and the industry calls Conscious Capitalism. Before my daughter buys a face wash, puts a tint on her lip, or walks through the door of a fast food place, she researches the very clear ethical impact of making that purchase. She is not alone in her generation.

“Conscious capitalism is even more important to younger consumers.” https://hbr.org/2020/12/could-gen-z-consumer-behavior-make-capitalism-more-ethical

Which brings me to the discussion about “Cancel Culture”

Over the years, but especially recently, there has been a lot of discussion about Cancel Culture, this idea that people are being cancelled because they express a belief we don’t like. Typically people who identify as conservative accuse those who identify as liberal or left leaning as being guilty of this, though that is a false claim. Arguably the biggest example we would have in the last few years of so called “Cancel Culture” is Colin Kaepernick. You may remember him, he’s a Black man who wanted to protest police violence against the Black community by taking a knee during the national anthem and hasn’t worked in the NFL since.

Or let’s go even further back to the presidential years of one George W. Bush and a country group then known as The Dixie Chick, though they now go by The Chicks. They made a statement that they were ashamed that Bush was from Texas and were no longer played on country radio. They got death threats. Their hit song Not Ready to Make Nice (which my girls love, by the way) talks about how they got death threats from perfect strangers.

Recently, Senator Josh Hawley, who refused to vote to accept the state certified election results and arguably contributed to the recent violent insurrection at the Captiol, had his book contract cancelled. He is claiming that he is a victim of cancel culture, though I assure you there was a morality clause in his contract that explicitly states he could be dropped for any myriad of reasons.

This past week actress Gina Carano was fired from the popular Disney+ show The Mandolorian after sharing anti-trans and anti-semitic posts on social media. Disney released a statement saying her posts were abhorrent. Hawley and Carano join the chorus of conservative leaning individuals who claim that “Cancel Culture” is a thing. What they are seeing, however, is both consequences for their actions and the natural effects of free market capitalism. This is what at will employment and the free market looks like.

People like me choose every day where they will and won’t spend their money. That affects the bottom line of businesses everywhere. And they then choose whether to continue on that same path or to change course. That’s how this system is designed to work. It’s the same system at work when conservatives call for a boycott of Starbucks or Target or Nike. We vote every day with our dollars. And millennials and Gen Z are very much into conscious capitalism.

“Ultimately, millennials don’t see their buying habits and investments as passive decisions. They see them as an active expression of the ideals and ethics that they value most.” – https://www.theguardian.com/bank-australia-coming-clean/2019/sep/27/how-millennials-are-driving-the-rise-of-conscious-capitalism

It’s important to remember, here, what’s at stake. For Black people, they are literally asking not to be killed by systemic racism; to be valued and respected and to be afforded the same human and legal rights as white people. For the LGBTQIA+ community, they just want the right to marry the people they love so they can be afforded the same benefits, including the ability to sit with their loved one as they die in the hospital and to have the health insurance to pay for that care. For transgendered individuals, they just want to live and love and literally not be killed. For women, they want the right to have full bodily autonomy including the right to live and work without harassment, the right to make their own medical decisions, and the right to, again, not die. Jewish people, Muslim people and people with no or a non-Christian faith just want the right to practice their faith and not be governed by a religion that isn’t theirs. They also don’t want to die.

People from marginalized groups want to not die. For many people, these are literally life and death decisions. It’s fighting against systemic oppression that often results in the death of those that are being oppressed.

“A study conducted by Harvard Business Review found that young consumers prefer to shop from brands and companies that are socially conscious. Dubbed “conscious capitalism,” this shift in consumerism is being tipped by Gen Z, who are aging to be the largest group of consumers in the U.S. Their passion for activism and social justice issues has led to companies like Netflix to publicly shift their funds to meet those needs. ” – https://bleumag.com/2020/12/15/gen-z-consumerism/

So it makes sense that they and the people who love them aren’t willing to invest their money in people, places or things that might, in fact, lead them to death. That means not supporting people or businesses who you know will take that money and invest it in ways that might harm them. You don’t want to pay your oppressors to oppress you, to pay your killers to kill you.

I wish that I could say that businesses fire people because they understand it is the moral and ethical thing to do, that they care about human rights and democracy. But more often than not, it’s just a financial business decision. It’s not good business practice to invest in people who are going to make you lose business. That is how this thing called free market capitalism works.

I cancelled my Disney+ subscription in part because of Gina Carcano and her hateful rhetoric towards transgender individuals and in part because I learned that they had donated large sums of money to the Twice Impeached Former President who incited an insurrection at the Capitol that sought to assassinate the Vice President, Speaker of the House and members of Congress. Both of those things are unacceptable to me and I didn’t want them to use my money to destroy the very democracy that I had promised my children made our country so great. I didn’t want to give Disney money that they would then use to hurt my children.

That is a choice I get to make.

And Disney fired her because she was making them lose business.

That is a choice they get to make.

That’s how this works.

The flip side to this is that even though I care not a single iota about sportsball or Nike, when Nike hired Kaepernick as a spokeperson, I took my girls out and had them buy a lot of Nike stuff. For the record, that stuff is expensive. But I wanted to support a cause I believe in and I voted with my dollars.

Again, that’s how this works.

“As a recent Forrester Research report points out, Gen-Z is increasingly scrutinizing both institutions like governments and police as well as brands. Gen-Z leads its own charge for social justice, and wants more transparency about the brands it supports with its buying power. And there does not appear to be any going back to old ways.” – https://www.forbes.com/sites/jefffromm/2020/09/30/on-ben-and-jerrys-gen-z-and-social-justice-how-2020-has-changed-branding-forever/?sh=4550ec046a66

I can’t control the hate in people’s hearts, but I can choose not to spend my money in ways that allow those people to hurt me and the people I love. So I do. Teens today are very social justice oriented and they understand that they have economic power, which they are leveraging. That’s how the system is designed to work and they are using that power to help create the world they want to live in, and to protect their rights.

I’m trying to vote every day for human rights and democracy in the ways that I spend my money. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go run to Starbucks and stop and buy some Ben & Jerry’s, because my oldest teen just came in and told me she learned that they both support women’s rights and Planned Parenthood so we should go for a Starbucks run. I’m not mad about it.

Note: The terms ethical consumerism, conscious capitalism and sustainable retail are all important to Gen Z. Read more:




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.