Monday, December 29, 2008

If I Grow Up .... The VOYA review

A review of IF I GROW UP has arrived from VOYA. This YA novel is the American equivalent of GHETTO KIDZ, which was published in Germany last fall. IF I GROW UP is scheduled for publication here in February, 2009.

You are more nervous about this book than you’ve been about a book in quite a while. It is a story of a young African-American man growing up in an impoverished inner-city project, and of the forces that coerce him, and many young men like him, to leave school and join gangs.

Here is a highlight from the VOYA review:

“Strasser’s writing puts the reader in the midst of the projects and offers totally real characters…This reviewer found the superlative story riveting.”

So this is a source of some relief. Your editor had warned you that there might be people who would take exception to you writing such a story because you are not an African American.

You decided to write IF I GROW UP/GHETTO KIDZ after you were invited to speak at some inner city schools. You waived your normal fee because you knew that the schools couldn’t afford to pay what suburban and private schools could pay (Question: Why, in a alleged democracy like America, should who one becomes depend so much on where one is born and what schools one attends?)

You were shocked by the conditions in these schools. These were institutions of learning that could not afford full-time, and in some cases, even part-time librarians, music teachers, and art teachers. These were schools that could not afford the most rudimentary equipment and technology for teaching, or musical instruments, or adequate supplies for art classes.

Just as dismaying were the attitudes of the students. Many didn’t seem to care about your presentation. Some were absolutely determined to undermine your attempts to encourage and inspire them.** Were they testing you? Was this because you were white? Or a stranger? Or in some perceived position of authority? Some teachers helped to keep the students orderly, but other teachers stood by were no help at all. You wondered if they were thinking, “See? This is what I have to deal with every day. How do you like it?” Or perhaps even, “No one helps me. Why should I help you?”

You’ve been speaking before large audiences of students for more than 25 years, and have become reasonably adept at the tricks to keep students’ interest and attention, but these were some of the most challenging. You managed to complete the presentation, but it was painfully obvious that many in the audience had no interest in what you were saying.

And, perhaps they had a point. How much relevance do the messages “Keep trying and never give up,” and “be the best reader and writer you can be,” have in a world where more than half your classmates won’t even finish high school? Where a quarter of your friends will be dead by the age of 30, and another quarter will be in prison? Were the majority of kids not interested because they already knew that what you were saying would be utterly and completely irrelevant to their lives?

Right now, it seems, the answer is, tragically, yes. Ideally, the day will come when students everywhere will want to embrace the message that the better you can read and write, the more successful your life will be. But, as anyone who reads the newspapers knows, enormous changes must take place first. According to recent statistics, the only difference between 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act was instituted, and now, is that now even more children are being left behind.

* One of the most troubling, and poignantly sad, parts of the experience could be seen on the faces of those students sitting near the front, and scattered here and there in the crowd, who really did want to hear what you had to say, but were too intimated to hush their fellow students.

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