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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.

Book Review: We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss

Publisher’s description

fly awayLuke and Toby have always had each other’s backs. But then one choice—or maybe it is a series of choices—sets them down an irrevocable path. We’ll Fly Away weaves together Luke and Toby’s senior year of high school with letters Luke writes to Toby later—from death row.

This thought-provoking novel is an exploration of friendship, regret, and redemption, for fans of Jason Reynolds and Marieke Nijkamp.

Best friends since childhood, Luke and Toby have dreamed of one thing: getting out of their dead-end town. Soon they finally will, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, never looking back. If they don’t drift apart first. If Toby’s abusive dad, or Luke’s unreliable mom, or anything else their complicated lives throw at them doesn’t get in the way.

In a format that alternates between Luke’s letters to Toby from death row and the events of their senior year, Bryan Bliss expertly unfolds the circumstances that led to Luke’s incarceration. Tense and emotional, this hard-hitting novel explores family abuse, sex, love, and friendship, and how far people will go to protect those they love. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Chris Crutcher, and NPR’s Serial podcast.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES and MEET ME HERE, the two previous novels from Bryan Bliss, so I figured I’d enjoy this. Though, really, enjoy is the wrong word to use for reading about impoverished, neglected, abused teens, one of whom is on death row. My point is, I knew I’d like the book. But I wasn’t prepared to be totally blown away and just gutted by this story. I’m a reading machine—as soon as I finish something, I pick up something new right away, hardly pausing for a breath in between. After finishing WE’LL FLY AWAY, I didn’t read anything else for a few days, just wanting the story and the characters to stick with me a while longer. This powerful look at loyalty, protection, friendship, and choices will shatter you. Be ready.

 

The story toggles between the letters that Luke is writing to Toby from death row and the time prior to his incarceration. We don’t know why Luke is on death row, other than he did something that he admitted to and doesn’t regret. We only learn at the very end how he landed there. Though I suspected what was going to happen, what would land him there, it was still absolutely devastating when the reveal of what happened came. But that all happens near the end. For the bulk of the book, we see Luke and Toby struggling through their day-to-day lives. Luke lives with his mom and twin younger brothers in a one-bedroom apartment. There’s never enough to eat and Luke does most of the caring for his brothers. When his mom eventually disappears for a few days, it hardly matters, because she wasn’t doing a whole lot to help out while there. Toby lives with his violent, drunk, abusive father. Toby is used to seeking safety and space to recover with Luke. What little Luke has, he’s happy to share with Toby.  He has always been Toby’s defender and protector. The two have hopes of leaving their small North Carolina town after graduation. Luke has a wrestling scholarship waiting for him in Iowa and Toby figures he’ll tag along. They haven’t exactly worked out details, but having some idea of life after this place helps them both cope with their realities. Things begin to unravel when Toby gets involved with Lily, a young woman he meets at the bar his dad frequents. Their meeting sets in motion terrible events that almost feel inevitable. As I read, as I watched events unfold, I kept thinking, “NO, NO, NO, NO,” even though I knew something terrible had to happen to get Luke on death row. It all feels so hopeless.

 

In Luke’s letters from death row, we see weird glimpses of hope that we could never see in the main narrative. I say “weird” because the kid is on death row. His letters are full of pain and anger, but also resiliency, and he works through so much in his letters to Toby. His letters give us a real insight into his mind during this time. It is, I would guess, virtually impossible for almost all of us to really imagine what it would be like to be on death row. To be waiting. To watch people you have come to know put to death. I think it can be easy for people to look at people in prison, on death row, and forget their humanity. It can be easy to write people off, to expect a punishment, to not see them as humans, to not understand what led them there, to not think about redemption or the worth of a life or what the death penalty really means. Bliss makes you think about all those things. He makes the reader understand that people are not just defined by one thing, but have entire lives and stories that led them to the act or acts that landed them in prison. He asks readers to see their complex lives and care about them. The standout characters, including the nun who routinely visits Luke in prison, are deeply affecting and beg readers to really pay attention to their lives and their choices. Though devastatingly sad, this is also a beautiful look at friendship between two boys—something we don’t always see much of in YA. This emotional, powerful, and unflinching look at friendship, loyalty, and the justice system is an absolute must for all collections. Not an easy read, but an important one. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author

ISBN-13: 9780062494276
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2018