When I Was Joe by Keren David

when      almost

When I Was Joe by Keren David

Fourteen year old Ty recounts to police a murder he witnessed in a park committed almost by accident by his best friend, Arron. Another older boy pushes the victim on to Arron’s knife. Ty runs for help, stopping a bus to call for an ambulance, while everyone else runs away. Ty doesn’t know one of the boys is the son of a crime boss who is determined to prevent Ty from testifying. After hours with the police Ty and his mother are taken back to their apartment to pack some clothes; while they’re there someone throws a gasoline bomb into the shop right below them.. The police hustle them out the back as the building is on fire. After they spend two weeks in a motel a police specialist changes their appearances with haircuts, new hair colors and colored contact lenses before they’re moved to their new home, 50 miles from London where they lived. Ty enrolls in a new school under the name Joe with a younger age and grade. As Ty/Joe settles in to his new school, his mother struggles with her isolation, missing family and friends, and wants to stop her son from testifying. When the criminals beat up Ty’s grandmother in an attempt to stop his testimony, Ty realizes how serious his situation is. At the same time he is dealing with a bully at his new school.

A sequel to this book, Almost true, continues the story of how Ty, his mother and family deal with the decisions they have to make. While Ty, in the witness protection program, waits to testify about a murder he witnessed, he comes back to police cars at his home and a pool of blood at his front door. He learns his family is safe but hitmen shot a man they thought was Ty. When Ty’s aunt starts believing the police can’t protect him anymore, she makes him move to live with people she knows out in the country. Even as Ty adjusts to a new living situation he still has to go to court several times to testify. Without giving any of the plot away, I can say these two books present teenager readers with some ethical dilemmas to consider.


Review by Ms. Goldstein-Erickson


Runner by Peter McPhee

RunnerRunner by Peter McPhee

Having moved from a comfortable home in Toronto to an apartment in Calgary after his parents’ bitter divorce, Kyle, his mother and sister Meghan are barely getting by. Kyle has begun to fit in at his new school, joining the football team, but Meghan feels like an outsider. On her own at the mall, 14 year old Meghan meets an older boy. Flattered by his attention, she begins staying out late and cutting school to be with him, eventually leaving home to move in with him. Their mother files a missing person report and Kyle begins staying out late, searching for Meghan among street kids. Kyle gets drawn into street culture himself while looking for his sister. This title is part of the Orca/Lorimer Side Streets series, written specifically for young adults. A fast read, the characters and setting are realistic, and it does not promise a happy ending. Especially good for Urban Drama fans.

Reviewed by Ellie Goldstein Erickson

Jumped In by Jorja Leap

JumpedInJumped in: what gangs taught me about violence, drugs, life and redemption by Jorja Leap

Jorja Leap, a UCLA researcher with a Ph.D in gangs and violence, devotes her professional life to understanding Los Angeles gangs, with the goal of reducing violence and saving lives. Working with current and former gang members, community activists, LAPD, social workers, a priest and others, she explains the origins, organization and shifts in gang culture including the rise and spread of Latino gangs in particular from LA through Mexico and Central America. Her personal life is also closely connected to her work, as she is married to an LAPD commander. Juggling work and home life, Jorja becomes enmeshed in the lives of young adults trying to leave gang life, often with the help of Father Greg Boyle. Father Boyle runs Home Boy Industries and Home Girl Café to give former and current gang members jobs. As time passes Jorja sees the hold drugs take on many of the gangs, both in dealing and using, but maintains hope for the future. Dr. Leap goes behind headlines in her description of her work, making many of the gang members people about whom the reader begins to care. She paints a “warts and all” picture of both the good guys and the bad guys of the gang situation in Los Angeles. This nonfiction book reads like a thriller, pulling in the reader to be engaged in real life issues.

How to succeed in leaving gang life by Jorja Leap

Review by Ellie Goldstein Erickson

Pieces of Me by Darlene Ryan

PiecesOfMePieces of Me by Darlene Ryan

Being homeless is hard. Being broke is hard. Doesn’t mean you don’t care. Doesn’t mean you can’t stick together. But it’s never easy.

Teenage runaway Maddie meets Quinn, who goes by Q, after walking out on a mean-spirited preacher without waiting for a meal or place to sleep after the sermon. Always alert herself, Maddie learns Q saw her sharing food and warm clothes with a child and an older lady at a shelter and invites her to share rejected food from a hotel kitchen and his car to sleep in, no strings attached. They decide to team up, sleeping in the car or a building where Q has temporary work, until they can figure out something else. After a family with a mean father abandons his 6 year old son Dylan with them, Q rents a bare room and bath from his temp work boss for $100./week, sells his car for more cash and they settle in. Q does day work, Maddie cares for Dylan while making the rounds of shelters for food and collecting recycling for cash. Maddie learns more ways to scrounge food from an older neighbor and they are barely getting along when life gets even more complicated as Q brings home Leo, an 11 year old boy he won in a poker game, to keep him safe.

This title comes from Orca Books, a publisher specializing in realistic fiction for young adults. Although it’s a larger and longer format than their other books, I was engrossed with the great plot and realistic, believable characters; I read it in two days! I recommend this book for anyone looking for urban fiction that doesn’t sugarcoat life on the streets.

Review by Ms. Goldstein-Erickson

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

i was here

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

Regular blog readers know that I’m a huge Gayle Forman fan.  I love that she writes realistic characters and gives them enough personality so they come alive in the reader’s mind.  I love that she puts them in difficult situations without easy answers.  This latest title is another winner.  Cody is a college freshman at the local community college (imagine BCC) and her best friend Meg is at local Washington university on a full scholarship.  Naturally, they’ve grown apart but Cody is shocked and devastated when Meg takes her own life by drinking a poisonous cleaning fluid in a motel room.  She can’t imagine that Meg could have been that sad and when she goes to the college at Meg’s parents’ request, she begins her own investigation in to what really might have happened.  She meets up with a punk musician named Ben, who recently dumped Meg, but he doesn’t seem to be the reason behind Meg’s suicide.  Long-buried secrets begin to surface as Cody and Ben start going through Meg’s computer and finding hidden files and and new friends who may have been involved with Meg.

So, this mystery will grip readers from the first page, on which is printed Meg’s suicide email to Cody. I finished this book in two day because I could not put it down.  I highly recommend to to readers who like Gayle Forman, Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Ellen Hopkins (Crank).

just one year          if i stay          where she went

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Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

men we reaped

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

In the short span of four years, the author of this memoir lost five young men who she considered family.  They died from different actual causes-drugs, suicide, accidents- but Ward couldn’t help believing there was some sort of connection between the five deaths.  Something inside her whispered that they were all young, black, from the South and raised in poverty.  She wrote this book to ask why these tragic deaths occurred, and to look at the possibility that who they were and where and how they lived was a part of the equation.  Ward grew up in rural Mississippi, in a small, rural town called DeLisle.  As she recounts her memories of these young men, readers will begin to draw their own conclusions about our society.  One of the most poignant parts of the book states:

“My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system.  And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other.  We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us.  Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.  Some of us turned sour from the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within.  And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.” (page 168)

When I first heard Ward interviewed about her book, I thought that her primary thesis was weak and wouldn’t be supported by the facts.  After reading the stories of these five young men, however, I can see how the impact of race, poverty and living in the rural South impacted their lives to a degree I had never originally anticipated.  Seeing life through Ward’s eyes, as a young person who did leave the South for college but was always connected to it emotionally, will make readers rethink their own beliefs and assumptions our our nation with its easy “freedom for all” facade.  I think this book will become a classic, much in the way Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Boy by Richard Wright have become.  I will be recommending this title to all my high school students and think it will be a hit here at Berkeley High School.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

girl interrupted

Girl, Interrupted  by  Susanna Kaysen


The author’s memoir of her teen years in the 1960s focuses on the time she spent in a mental hospital. She had already attempted suicide by overdosing on 50 aspirin when she was committed by a psychiatrist after telling him she needed a rest. She describes the routines, levels of privilege patients can earn, her roommate and other patients, as well as her own state of mind. As she gains a better understanding of  herself and reality, she earns more privileges, finally gaining her release from the hospital. At the end of the book she looks back over that time in her life, trying to figure it out and draw some conclusions. While this book is not long, it offers much to think about.

Review by Ms. Goldstein-Erickson