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No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row Hardcover – August 5, 2008
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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
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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
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Top Customer Reviews
I liked the information at the end (glossary, further reading, web sites,notes and index.) The author has obviously taken care with her research, and I can see a number of ways this book might be used in an educational setting.
And there were others. Mark Melvin was fourteen years old. His brother asked for his help, not to do a bit of yard work or help him fix a car, but rather something much more insidious. He wanted him to kill a man. When he shot the man he knew his life was over. "I knew I was going to prison . . . I kept thinking, I just killed a man. And I was just as guilty of killing the wife, too, `cause I was there." Mark also knew he had been had and that he had serious mental issues. He would also soon encounter members of the Crips, the Disciples, the Bloods, El Rubens and fear.
This book was extremely sobering page turner. The voices of these teenagers cry out from the pages of this book, not asking for forgiveness, but for the reader to listen to their hearts, not their spur of the moment actions from the past. Susan Kuklin's research and writing was superb. The intended audience for this book is the young adult, but should be required reading for every parent. In the back of the book there is a glossary, an index, notes, and additional recommended books and web sites. The several young men portrayed in this book may not be choirboys, but they were children when they were incarcerated.
No Choirboy being a nonfictional book made it very clear that all events, characters, and problems were real. The intense stories told by the inmates made it easy to interpret the real truth about crimes. Personally my favorite character is Nanon Williams. Nanon in prison made me feel he was one of the few in prison to stay true to himself and want to make prison life the best he could. Although he was refrained from seeing the outside world, it never stopped him from pursuing an education and assisting others in prison. When reading the book, readers start to engage in the story and really get to know the inmate. Besides the crime itself, the telling of a personal life is the most intriguing part because you understand the psychological reasoning for their decision. All criminals keep the audience on their toes to the point where as soon as another personal story comes up the background is the first thing present on the audience’s mind.
Although the book was written in multiple sections, the only disappointing feature was it was hard to keep up with all the different crimes and people. Perhaps if the story were more focused on just a couple inmates it would have been easier to go deep into thought and emotions.
Overall in personal judgment, I would give this book four stars out of five. Through the story I was constantly intrigued with the background of the inmates; I began to realize prisoners are people just like everyone else. It was easy understanding this book because I could understand how the outside world viewed the inmates, and how the inmates viewed themselves. Emotionally I began getting attached to the personal feelings that were brought to my attention. No Choirboy by far has the most inspirational experiences and characters.