From School Library Journal
Starred Review. Grade 9 Up—Kuklin tells five stories here; four are about young men who committed murder before they reached the age of 18, and one is the story of a victim's family. Each narrative presents a picture of a troubled youth who did something he later regretted, but something that could not be undone. Within these deftly painted portraits, readers also see individuals who have grown beyond the adolescents who committed the crimes. They see compassion, remorse, and lives wasted within the penal system. Some of the stories tell of poverty and life on the streets, but others are stories of young men with strong, loving families. One even asks readers not to blame his family for his act of violence. Most of the book is written in the words of the men Kuklin interviewed. Their views are compelling; they are our neighbors, our nephews, our friends' children, familiar in many ways, but unknowable in others. Kuklin depicts the penal system as biased against men of color, and any set of statistics about incarceration and death-row conviction rates will back her up. She also emphasizes that being poor is damning once a crime is committed. She finally introduces Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who has worked on the cases of two of the interviewees, who talks about his efforts to help those who are on death row. This powerful book should be explored and discussed in high schools all across our country.—Wendy Smith-D'Arezzo, Loyola College, Baltimore, MD
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In previous books for youth, Kuklin has explored harrowing topics such as AIDS (Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing about AIDS, 1988) and child slavery (Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders against Child Slavery, 1998). Her latest title, about individuals who received death-row sentences while they were teenagers, is another direct, compassionate, and eye-opening inquiry. The prisoners’ words, drawn from Kuklin’s interview transcripts, form the bulk of the narratives, but Kuklin’s voice frequently cuts in with details about the events leading up to the alleged crime, legal issues, and the prisoners’ backgrounds. Some chapters also include commentary from the prisoners’ lawyers and the prisoners’ own writing (one, Nanon Williams, is a published author). The mix of voices makes for a somewhat chaotic but riveting whole that combines powerfully with the occasional photos and hand-drawn portraits of the subjects. Kuklin presents, with signature frankness, the men’s memories of their young lives; the murders, for which some claim innocence; and the brutal realities (including rape and other acts of extreme violence) of incarcerated life, first on death row and then in maximum-security prison, where most of the prisoners are now held. In unforgettable later chapters, families of prisoners and victims both speak about their grief and loss, and the closing section focuses on a world-renowned anti–death penalty attorney. This isn’t a balanced overview of capital punishment. Instead, it is a searing and provocative account that will touch teens’ most fundamental beliefs and questions about violence, punishment, our legal and prison systems, and human rights. An author’s note and extensive resources conclude. See the adjacent “Story behind the Story” feature, Life on Death Row, for Kuklin’s comments about the project. Grades 10-12. --Gillian Engberg