Through half a dozen locked doors, opened only by remote controlled security, I walked as I was accompanied to their classroom. Armed with only my car key and a tote bag filled with 33 paperback books, I approached an unfamiliar world.
Expressionless student faces looked straight ahead when my introduction was made. That was before we started talking about the books. That was before it all changed.
The nine young men selected to participate in The Great Stories Club at McCracken Regional Juvenile Detention Center respectfully let their eyes meet mine as I began to share a bit of information about why I would be visiting with them over the next four weeks. 181 libraries selected, eleven copies each of the three books picked, and one week per title to read each before we discuss them. I wonder if they will do the math. Something makes me think one of them will.
I suggested that I should be their guide, not their leader. I asked them to look up both of those words in a dictionary and let me know next week if they agreed.
We talked about the American Library Association and how they were awarded $50,000 to support the Young Adult Library Services Association by granting these books to libraries in partnership with facilities serving troubled teens. I told them about the silent benefactor and her desire to implement a national book club program to reach at-risk teens. They nodded silently in appreciation.
One tentative hand raised, acknowledged by the teacher. Permission to speak requested, again she affirmed. “Ma’am, what do you do with the books when we get finished?” “The books are yours to keep,” I replied. Same hand raised again, acknowledged, permission to speak once again granted. “Ma’am, thank you, thank you Ma’am.” And then a great big nod and a very wide grin. His hand raised again, requesting permission to be seated. Permission granted.
As their guide, I asked them to help me pick the order in which we would discuss the books. I began introducing the books by telling them about Shawn in Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral. About his brillance, his total recall, about how he is misunderstood. I then asked them if they knew about Cerebral Palsy. Some did and shared their experiences once permission had been granted.
I told them about Bobby in The First Part Last and about Feather and Nia. How Angela Johnson had won awards for writing this book. Another hand raised, permission to stand, to speak requested. Permission granted. “How do I be an author?” this student asked. The teacher laughed with the rest of the group of gentlemen. “I thought you wanted to be the President,” she countered. “I do, but that won’t be until I am about 34 or 35. I need something to do until then. If I make it that long, I mean.” Dreams and reality competing, sinking in.
I concluded the book talks by broaching the subject of abuse, addiction, and the allure of music. The recognition and the recall in their eyes told me that they would identify with Janie and Lashaya both in Han Nolan’s Born Blue.
They choose the books in the order presented. I asked if anyone had any more comments, another question. Hand raised, permission to stand and speak requested. Permission one more time granted. “How soon can I get my face in that first book?” he asked. “Right now,” I smiled and said. “Thank you Ma’am, thank you,” he responded and his face beamed.
Mine did too as I was escorted from the room. Back through the secure spaces, back to the sunshine and crisp breezes of the autumn day outside awaiting me. But I wanted to jump and click my heels well before I made it past the last locked door. As it buzzed and clicked behind me I knew something inside me had buzzed and clicked too.
The Great Stories Club, a reading and discussion series, is a grant initiative of the American Library Association’s Public Programs Office (PPO) and Young Adult Library Service Association (YALSA).