No Choirboy by Susan Kuklin

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No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin ISBN: 9780805079500

Plot Summary: This book takes a look at the hot topic of capital punishment and the teens who find themselves on Death Row. This story is told by four prisoners who were prosecuted to die while still teenagers. Teens talk about what life is like on Death Row and how they ended up there. Through the interjections of the author, the reader also learns more about the justice system and capital punishment. Families of the victims and prisoners, as well as a world renowned anti-death penalty attorney also present their viewpoints in this moving and enlightening book.

Critical Evaluation: I really appreciated this book. It does not have an uplifting or hopeful story to tell, which makes it somewhat difficult to read, but all the more important to understand. The book focuses on teens on death row, so as you can imagine, character is the most important element. Each chapter focuses on one person, and is told through their words, their lawyer’s, and families’. I think that Kuklin did a good job of balancing voices in each chapter to help the readers get to know each person involved. The most difficult chapters should have been those about people who had died, but through the details she compiled, it still felt very personal.

Then I would have to say that the next most important element is the moral. I’m disinclined to talk too much about a book’s moral, because I don’t want writing to be necessarily about a cause. However, the cause behind this book is one I can appreciate. There are many lessons a reader could take from this book. To a certain extent, one of those messages is: Crime doesn’t pay. Yet, I was more affected by another; that our justice system is imperfect. I was struck by the idea that a teen, one as young as 14 could be sentenced so harshly. From what we have learned in class, there is still so much more development of a person’s decision making throughout the teen years. But that is not exactly the point. Kuklin pulled together a multitude of different voices and painted a vivid image of each of their lives and the world that can take away their loved ones. I will concede that there is no real mention of the other side of the argument, of those that support the death penalty. This book could stand some balance to opinions presented, but at the same time, in some ways I think this is a better book because it presents opinions in an upfront and unapologetic way.

Reader’s Annotation: No Choirboy tells the story of five teens: one killed by another, and four sentenced to die for crimes they may or may not have committed. Here are their own words and their families’ words on the effect of crime and the criminal justice system on a teen’s life.

Information about the author: Susan Kuklin grew up in Philadelphia, and dreamt of being a ballerina or actress. She majored in theater at New York University. She moved to Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband and dedicated herself to photographing Appalachian families.

When she moved back to New York, she began taking pictures for magazines, and was hired to take pictures of a Colombia University study on Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee who was able to learn 150 words in sign language. These pictures led to a book, which lead to Susan’s career in publishing. She has published many books for children to teens, including quite a few on tough subjects, like AIDS, teen pregnancy, and child slavery.

Genre: Nonfiction

Curriculum ties, if any: This would be a good book to feature when looking at the prison system, or for an opposing viewpoint assignment.

Booktalking Ideas: I think for this book, I would sell it through a series of questions that get the teens to try and relate to the premise. Like, “What if you were accused of a crime you didn’t commit?” or “Can you imagine going to jail tomorrow?” and so on.

Reading Level/Interest Age: While some of the teens were younger than 15 when they committed their crimes, all are older at the time of writing. In addition, the subject matter makes this more appropriate for older readers, though it is written at a low lexile level, making it a good choice for struggling readers. School Library Journal recommends this book for grades 9 and up.

Challenge Issues:

  • violence and crime
  • language

Defense strategy:

  1. First, I would want to be familiar with book. As I’ve read this book, I’d be aware of potential issues that could be challenged. In the case of a book I had not read, I would want to have access to reviews.
  2. Then I would put together a rationale for why this book is included in the collection. This rationale would include:
    • Bibliographic Citation of the book.
    • A description of who the book is best suited for.
    • A summary of the book and applicable other information, such as biographical information about the author.
    • My justification for including the book. This would include how it fits in with the selection policy and library mission statement, and include its educational significance if applicable or the impact it could have on readers.
    • Copy of selection policy and library mission statement at my library.
    • ALA Library Bill of Rights
    • Good and bad reviews of the book
    • Alternative works a student could read
    • Reconsideration form if patron is not satisfied with rationale
  3. When talking to patron, I would listen to their concerns without getting on the defensive and attempt to sympathize with their concerns. In some cases, all an upset patron needs is to be able to vent and know that someone is listening to them.
  4. If needed, I would send the challenge up the chain of command.

I think “No Choirboy” has an important story for all people to read, and especially teens. Many of the circumstances of these teens’ lives may mirror those of the readers, even those who have happy home lives. And I think that though it is a somewhat biased look at the criminal justice system, it does provide information on something that is not frequently talked about, and definitely gave me a lot to think about.

Why did you include this book? : Because it is nonfiction and because it deals with a controversial subject that may be of interest to teens.

Reference Page:

Kuklin, S. Biography. Retrieved from http://www.susankuklin.com/bio.htm

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  1. Pingback: Alphabetical List of Titles | let's talk about that book...

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