Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 12 to 18
- Grade: 7 to 12
Deborah Ellis, activist and award-winning author of The Breadwinner interviews young people involved in the criminal justice system and lets them tell their own stories.
Jamar found refuge in a gang after leaving an abusive home where his mother stole from him. Fred was arrested for assault with a weapon, public intoxication and attacking his mother while on drugs. Jeremy first went to court at age fourteen (“Court gives you the feeling that you can never make up for what you did, that you’re just bad forever”) but now wears a Native Rights hat to remind him of his strong Métis heritage. Kate, charged with petty theft and assault, finally found a counselor who treated her like a person for the first time.
Many readers will recognize themselves, or someone they know, somewhere in these stories. Being lucky or unlucky after making a mistake. The encounter with a mean cop or a good one. Couch-surfing, or being shunted from one foster home to another. The kids in this book represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities. Every story is different, but there are common threads — loss of parenting, dislocation, poverty, truancy, addiction, discrimination. The book also includes the points of view of family members as well as “voices of experience” — adults looking back at their own experiences as young offenders.
Most of all, this book leaves readers asking the most pressing questions of all. Does it make sense to put kids in jail? Can’t we do better? Have we forgotten that we were once teens ourselves, feeling powerless to change our lives, confused about who we were and what we wanted, and quick to make a move without a thought for the consequences?
Key Text Features
Correlates to the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts:
Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed in the text.
Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.
About the author
Deborah Ellis is the internationally acclaimed author of more than twenty books for children, including The Breadwinner Trilogy; The Heaven Shop; Lunch With Lenin; Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees; and Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk About AIDS. She has won many national and international awards for her books, including the Governor General’s Award, the Vicky Metcalf Award, Sweden’s Peter Pan Prize, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Children’s Africana Book Award Honor Book for Older Readers.Deborah knew she wanted to be a writer at the age of 11 or 12. Growing up in Paris, Ontario, she loved reading about big cities like New York. In high school, Deborah joined the Peace Movement, playing anti-Nuclear War movies at her school. Since then Deborah has become a peace activist, humanitarian and philanthropist, donating almost all of the royalties from her books to communities in need in Asia and Africa. Heavily involved with Women for Women in Afghanistan, Deborah has helped build women’s centers and schools, giving children education and finding work for women.In 2006, Deborah was named to the Order of Ontario. She now lives in Simcoe, Ontario.
- Commended, In the Margins Recommended Nonfiction List
- Commended, The List, Toronto Public Library
Excerpt: My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders (by (author) Deborah Ellis)
My trouble with the law started in grade four. Me and some friends started fires in our town.
There were some caves in the areas I was living. We liked to explore the caves and we thought it would be great to have campfires there. We gathered up some branches off dead trees and made a fire and it was fine.
We might have been okay if we’d left it there. I mean, we should have known more about fire safety, but I don’t think we were bothering anybody. But we decided to keep building fires and to build bigger ones.
It’s against the law to start fires like that. People caught on that it was us because we needed paper to build these fires. We would go to those free-newspaper and free-magazine stands and empty these out and run down the street with armloads of these things. It was a small town. People knew us, got to wondering what we were doing, put two and two together and called the police…
I got into more serious trouble in grade nine. I didn’t like school and skipped it all the time. This one day we skipped classes the whole day then came back into the school at the end of the day to catch the school bus home. We were walking through the halls, goofing around, and we walked right into the principal. We were high. The principal searched us, found our joints and rolling papers.…
That principal never liked me. The police didn’t charge us but the principal suspended us — two months! — for just that little bit of drugs. After the suspension was over, he said he didn’t want us back in his school.
My parents split up when I was young. It was not a good break-up. Lots of yelling and fighting. It was bad. I went with Mom but she had a breakdown so I couldn’t stay with her. Dad couldn’t take me. He was breaking too under the strain of everything. He didn’t know how to care for me, or maybe he knew how but knew that he couldn’t, or maybe he just didn’t want to….
When I was sixteen I got charged with B and E. I got put on probation for a year and I had to spend a week in Open Custody. Open Custody was not really open because I couldn’t leave. They set the bedtime, and it was very early. You couldn’t use knives. They had very specific rules and if you broke one of those rules they wouldn’t let you play video games or go outside.
I did a lot more B and E’s than the one I was charged with. They were all about getting me money for weed. Me and my friends would walk around town looking for easy places to get into, going into cars that weren’t locked or shops or houses or whatever. I never thought I would get caught…
I’ve been in five foster homes. My foster mom, the one I have now, says I can stay with her even after I turn eighteen. I have a job now at a place that replaces car windshields and I like doing that. Maybe they’ll keep me on.
I have this thing in my head that tells me that as soon as something good happens, it’s all going to get ruined. It’s hard not to give up on myself. I feel like there’s something deep inside me that won’t let me do anything good…
The stories are compelling and dark … A powerful collection.
Young people of different genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities share powerful stories of being incarcerated or homeless … poignant, hopeful, and rage-inducing.
A worthy addition to a middle or high school library…
School Library Journal