Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Riveting Reads: Shattering Glass

In the spring of 2008, I took a Reading Endorsement class on adolescent literature. While in this class, a fellow student introduced me to an author that she swore I would love. That author’s name was Gail Giles. Apologetically, I didn’t get around to reading anything by Giles until this last Christmas break. It was then that I picked up a copy of Giles’ Shattering Glass (Simon Pulse, 2002) from a library. Granted it isn’t as current I would have liked, but still worth the title of Riveting Read.

The cover of Shattering Glass sold me. There’s this haunting close up picture of a boy’s pale and corpse-like face behind glass. At the center of one eye is a small hole (perhaps, from a bullet). Branching from the hole, the glass cracks in a spider web, and all the while the boy stares back with an expression that can only be described as a sad regret. Tucked under the title, the selling quote by Publishers Weekly endorses the book with this description: “Suspenseful, disturbing…” And this is an understatement.

The first lines of Shattering Glass are thick with mysterious intensity. “Simon Glass was easy to hate. I never knew exactly why, there was too much to pick from. I guess, really, we each hated him for a different reason, but we didn’t realize it until the day we killed him.” Told in the perspective of B’Vale High School student Young Steward, the novel begins with the arrival of a dark and intriguing new student named Rob Haynes. He quickly gains the respect and esteem of the popular crowd, and begins a project that will change B’Vale High forever. Rob’s plan: to remake a nerd—Simon Glass—into a cool kid. It’s an old plot—you may have seen it in Grease, Mean Girls, Can’t Buy Me Love, She’s All That, Clueless, etc.—but this rendition is laced with secrets, unexpected danger, and murder. Secrets fill each character like the jelly in a doughnut, only there’s nothing sweet about the events as they are revealed.

Stylistically, I love how each chapter begins with a witness or character statement made from various students and parents surrounding Simon Glass. One student, Caroline Davids, says this about Rob’s popularity project, “It’s like Rob went to the pound and picked out the ugliest dog there. Because nobody else was going to. After a while, the dog kind of grows on you and you actually think it’s sort of cute. You get that, right?” Each of these interviews gives a little glimpse of the events that shattered Simon Glass. A few allude to the imprisonment of the viewpoint character, Young, and makes the reader wonder about his involvement. He is the character we’re supposed to root for, right? Yet, how did he end up destroying another human being. Every word will fuel you to keep reading. Every secret will make you crave resolution. And of the ending, I’ll say this: it was satisfying. (Trust me. There’s irony in my word choice, but you won’t catch it until you read the book.) Happy reading.

(as published in The Foothill Breeze Jan. 2010)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Riveting Reads: No Choirboy

I believe in semi-fate. That is, I believe that some things—not all—happen for a reason. For example I don’t believe that there was anything serendipitous about what I got for Christmas say…twelve years ago. (Frankly, I have no idea what I got. An awesome flannel shirt and Timberlands, maybe.) On the other hand, I believe that fate can and does happen. So when the school I work in had a water-pipe explosion in the library last year and many books were destined for the dumpster or placed on a “free books” shelf in the library, fate waved its magic wand and voila! I possessed my very own mostly mold-free copy of No Choirboy!
No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row (Henry Holt) by Susan Kuklin is a non-fiction book made up of several unedited stories of teens on death row. Kuklin summarizes each of her highlighted teenage criminals’ cases, and then lets the criminals tell their stories in their own words. Some claim innocence. Others are guilty of their crimes, know it, and confess it in a raw, not necessarily guiltless manner, but they are more matter-of-fact about their crimes. They also discuss their environment, life on death row, other inmates, daily challenges, visitation, and family on the outside.
One inmate, Roy, was removed from death row due to a change in his case. He states this about his experience with his crime: “Have I learned anything? Truthfully? The name of the game is this: Think before you act. Think about the consequences” (34). Much of the criminals’ dialogues are about how they wish they could go back and change what happened and how they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.
Another boy, Mark, was sent to death row at fourteen. Of his guilt, he says, “I killed a man. […] I knew it was wrong. I knew it before it happened. I’ve had people telling me, ‘Oh, you didn’t know no better, you were just fourteen...’ And even though that’s true, in effect I’m the one that did it. And that’s the bottom line. I haven’t had a day of peace since then” (36).
My disclaimer is this: Susan Kuklin is against capital punishment, and at the end of the day No Choirboy is persuasive in nature. Kuklin strives to put a stop to the victimization of teens in the system. The whole sixth chapter is about a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson who is an advocate for both Mark and Roy. Stevenson states, “I reject the view that the world is divided into two sections: the victims of violent crimes and the offenders. Some of the offenders we are working with are people who have horrible, horrible losses as a result of violent crimes” (190).
I am not recommending this book to convince you one way or the other on the subject of capital punishment. I simply found these stories mind-boggling. I was enthralled to discover how these boys went from being innocent kids in Disney sneakers to hardened criminals behind bars. Their stories unfolded their motives which were often fueled by skewed logic and the manipulations of peers, adults, and drugs. Sad stories.
Although Kuklin’s book is persuasive, I didn’t feel like her views were jammed down my throat. She took the perspectives of many people involved in the legal process to develop her argument, and still managed to make the book interesting. It read nothing like an essay nor a legal report.
In addition to No Choirboy, I’d also recommend There Are No Children Here as a companion. It deals with children raised in ghettos.
(as published in The Foothill Breeze on 1/7/2010)


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