Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos


“The prisoner in the photograph is me.  The ID number is mine.  The photo was taken in 1972 at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky.  I was twenty-one years old and had been locked up for a year already-and I had more time ahead of me.”

Growing up, Jack Gantos wanted to be a writer, not a drug smuggler and a prisoner. His dad could always point out those who had done time before, and warned him repeatedly not to get into trouble.  However, when young Jack finds himself in a terrible job and needing money for college tuition, he decides to take a risk.  He agrees to smuggle a boatload of drugs out of the Virgin Islands with someone he just met.  Not only was the trip itself a disaster, as neither seemed to know much about sailing or smuggling, it was only a matter of time before the two were caught and convicted.

Jack describes his time behind bars as terrifying, stressful, and ultimately transformative.  It was behind bars that he began writing, the first step toward his life as an author.  He crammed his daily entries between the lines of a novel, as prisoners were not allowed to keep diaries.  Upon his release, he vowed never to return, and became the celebrated author of the Rotten Ralph picture books (do you know them??  Give them a try-they’re hilarious) and the Joey Pigza series.  He’s been awarded the Printz honor award and the Robert F. Sibert honor for his memoir, and I can see why.  His short account of the worst year of his life is presented without self-pity or glorification, which is a tricky balance for memoir writers.  This great, quick read should appeal to reluctant readers, aspiring writers, and anyone looking for a harrowing adventure, with a side of “Don’t do this, guys-it was horrible.”

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.jackgantos.com/

Gantos, Jack. Hole in My Life.  Squarefish: New York, 2002. 200 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, you might check out these memoirs:

Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers

King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher

Good Behavior by Nathan L. Henry

Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard by Mawi Asgedom

The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner


Shine by Lauren Myracle

“I closed the crawl space door.  I got to my feet and brushed myself off.  My chest was tight, but I looked at the blue sky, clear and pale above the tree line, and said out loud, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ I would speak for Patrick.  I’d look straight into the ugliness and find out who hurt him, and when I did, I’d yell it from the mountaintop.”

Patrick Truman was brutalized: beaten with a baseball bat, tied up, and abandoned with the nozzle of a gas pump in his mouth.  He lies unconscious in a North Carolina hospital, and police are treating his case as a hate crime, due in part to the slurs left scrawled on his chest in blood.  When it looks like the blame is going to be pinned on a drunken truckload of out-of-towners, Cat takes matters into her own hands.  She, for one, isn’t so sure; she suspects one of the local “redneck posse” is behind the crime.    Either way, she is determined to bring justice to her friend, and begins probing the town of Black Creek for its secrets.

It isn’t very often that I find a book that makes me cry on the subway, but this one certainly did it.  Lauren Myracle gives us a southern small town simmering with tension, secrets, and fierce family loyalties.  There is poverty; meth and alcoholism contribute to the futureless drifting of the town’s youth, but there are also deep wells of grace and redemption.  Furthermore, it’s a darn good mystery, something that I think is all too rare in the young adult literary world.  Better still, Myracle does not (this is not really a spoiler, I promise) just end the book with “oh, it was the drunk rednecks who did it”.  She could have, of course, but it would be doing something similar to anyone who has ever attributed the actions of an individual to that of a broader group.  In short, she doesn’t bend to prejudice.

So we have sixteen-year-old Cat, a broken, bleeding Patrick, and a mess of lies and a whole town of people who are short on hope, in the hands of a very gifted storyteller.  This is my final conference book, and I chose it because 1) It is a mystery and 2) Patrick has been out for ages, and there are those who accept and love him, and those who do not.  That’s pretty much how it goes down when a person comes out.  I have to say, this book was one of the hardest I’ve ever read, but also one of the ones that I feel needs to be read, not just by queer teens, but by everyone.

Happy Reading!  (All right, so there are parts in it that will probably make you happy, but also some parts that might make you want to throw up, but I promise, it’s worth it.)

Author’s website: http://www.laurenmyracle.com/

Myracle, Lauren.  Shine. New York: Abrams, 2011. 359 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  (If you’re using this for a classroom, be prepared to defend this book; the language is pretty rough and there’s drug abuse, violence, and a brief instance of sexual abuse.  That said, I think it is absolutely worth the attempt.)

If you liked this book, you might want to try Sprout by Dale Peck, or The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson.

Also, you might have noticed I listed this book as a National Book Award finalist; and it was, for two days.  The awards committee messed up royally, offered Myracle the award, and then said they made a mistake.  She handled the fiasco with grace, and I’m including the tag as a sign of respect.

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

“Have you ever

had so much to say

that your mouth closed up tight,

struggling to harness the nuclear force

coalescing within your words?”

Here’s a change of pace from what I normally review.  This is Ellen Hopkins’ semi-autobiograhical account of a young woman’s descent into drug addiction, and all the usual accompanying miseries.  Kristina is a 16-year old high-schooler, a good student who has a fairly close relationship with her mother.  She spends three weeks over the summer visiting her father, where she gets involved with an older boy…and drugs.

Things go downhill from there, as Kristina struggles with a growing addiction, keeping up with school, and family fights as her mother and stepfather fear for her safety and health.  An unexpected pregnancy leaves her reeling with the implications of her lifestyle, and forces her to make some tough decisions.

This is a tough, gripping book.  The genius of it is that it is written entirely in verse.  Now, don’t think “dead white guy poetry…SNORE” when you hear verse.  That’s not this novel at all.  Ellen Hopkins uses the poetry to pack the most emotion possible into a single phrase, and arranges the words meticulously on the page, so that each poem can be read in several different ways.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  Even though it’s technically poetry, the story holds you so tightly in its clutches that you don’t ever stop to consider that it’s in verse.  That said, it’s excellent poetry, and each single poem can stand on its own.  Another benefit, and the reason why it was chosen by the ALA as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, is that the verse format speeds things along:  with a gripping story and few words, before you know it, you’ve finished a 500-page novel.  Awesome.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com/

Hopkins, Ellen.  Crank. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.  537 pp. Ages 15 and up (explicit drug use, sexual situations).

If you liked this book, Ellen Hopkins has two sequels, Fallout and Glass.  She’s a prolific writer, and you will probably enjoy all of her other books.  If the verse form wasn’t your thing, try the classic Go Ask Alice, written by an anonymous author.  (Do a title search, rather than an author search in your library’s website). Enjoy!

A note to parents:  I have heard some criticism of books discussing these tough topics, such as drug abuse or sex.  Some people are concerned that these types of books can glamorize the highs and overlook the consequences, but that doesn’t apply to this book.  For every poem Kristina shares about being high, there is another one describing the crushing lows, where she is physically ill from withdrawal and in the depths of depression.