Art, Literature, and Incarcerated Youth

If you take a stroll through the Main Library past our DVD section, you might notice some bright, engaging art on display. Move a little closer and you can read about the artists who created these incredible pieces:

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For the past eight months, I have had the immense privilege of making monthly visits to the Denney Juvenile Justice Center, along with some of my colleagues, to work with incarcerated youth. Among other things, we bring new books to the Center’s library and talk about the ones that we think they will enjoy. Many of the students I meet with are enthusiastic and passionate readers who devour books in their long hours of down time. They have strong opinions about the books they read and are fearless in letting me know when I bring items that interest them and when the books I supply miss their mark.

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At times, these trips can be challenging. I have strong feelings about America’s criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to the treatment of youths. During and after each visit I am reminded that I get to leave the Justice Center, get in my car, and enjoy my comfortable life, while the teens I work with may not leave the center for months or years. I am also aware that I am seeing one part of their lives, and that while many of these young people might themselves be victims, others have made choices that have hurt people, choices that – were I to know the details – I would struggle to understand and would likely find difficult to reconcile with their warm smiles, quick wit, and playful demeanors. That said, I am fortunate to be in a position to meet with them where they are and engage them using the same energy I bring to meetings with teens in more conventional settings.

The introspection, resilience, and creativity of these young people continually impresses me.

There are many great books that deal with incarcerated youths, documenting their struggles, telling their stories, and highlighting some of the problems in our juvenile justice system. Among others, I’d recommend Susan Kuklin’s No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row and Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. Rather than talking more about these books, however, I’d like to share a few of the books that have excited the students at Denney.

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Every class I see asks me to bring more books by Simone Elkeles. The Perfect Chemistry trilogy is especially popular. The first of these books follows Alex, a young man from the Chicago area. Alex has had a hard life, and has found both protection and a sense of family in the gang he joined at a young age. Brittney has a “perfect” life. But she also has a secret pain and turbulence in her life that she keeps buried away. When Alex and Brittney are partnered in science class, conflict quickly gives way to passionate romance and they both must choose whether to be together, even if it comes with great personal cost. The second and third books in this series follow Alex’s younger brothers Carlos and Luis as they navigate their own decisions around identity and romance. All three books contain plenty of thrills, passionate romance, and interesting explorations of the pressures young people face in their lives.

blog (3)Dark and dystopian thrillers also remain popular. I get frequent requests for Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series that follows a young woman named Juliette, cruelly imprisoned because of her dangerous and uncontrollable “superpower.” The series follows Juliette as she escapes her prison and joins a rebellion against an oppressive, dystopian government. I have recently had requests for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and many others have requested Stephen King novels.

Other requests are for lighter material. Comics are often popular, particularly those featuring DC and Marvel heroes, along with manga, and laugh-out-loud romps like Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Ann Brashares’ beach-read romances are popular with many students, and all of John Green’s books are in constant demand.

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Some of the requests I receive feel like they might be very specific to a certain teen’s experiences. When I asked teens to write down requests, one wrote that they’d “like to read more books about teens who are in foster care and they run away because they don’t like it.” Another requested Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, by Laurence Gonzalez. They wrote, “it’s a book about psychology. It teaches you about your brain. He writes stories from people’s lives and trauma they survived and why.” Yet another recently requested books on Esoteric Christianity, which means now I am educating myself about Esoteric Christianity.

I come away from each of my visits to Denney feeling that I have learned and grown from my time with these students. I hope that my visits have enriched their lives in some small way as well. Please take the time to stop by the Library and check out their powerful artwork while we have it on display. And if you see me, and have any questions about the work I do at Denney, please ask!