Great Stories from Participating Libraries

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Underserved teens and

Mercer County Library System, Hopewell Branch (Lawrenceville, NJ)

Third Book Discussion --
Born Blue

The Mercer County Library's/ Mercer County Youth Detention Center's third book discussion was about the book
Born Blue by Han Nolan. The group consisted of six boys, one girl, the Center's program coordinator and four librarians. There were many issues to talk about and the kids were so energetic! We brought pizza and soda for the kids. Interestingly, the group was bothered by the language and the grammar of the book -- it contains a lot of slang terms. It was hard for them to read.

We began by playing a CD by Etta James, the blues singer that the book's main character Leshaya loved so much. Several books with photographs of Etta James were passed around. We asked the participants if they would listen to that kind of music on their own. They all agreed that they wouldn't -- they prefer rap music. Then they started talking about how music can make you feel different things, happy and sad. One boy remarked that he didn't like to listen to music while he was locked up because it made him feel sad. This gave us all something to think about -- what is it like to be incarcerated? Another said that music helped him get through the day and relieved his stress. We talked about why music was so important to Leshaya. Someone said it was because the music expressed her pain.

In preparation for the discussion, one librarian researched the town of Muscle Shoals and found a website with a discography of artists who recorded there -- these include Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Cat Stevens. She made a poster that displayed the album covers of several of these artists.

The issue of responsibility was discussed. They all agreed that because of Lashaya's lack of responsibility, no one would pick her as a friend in real life. We talked about how Leshaya had ruined so many opportunities in her life. One young man said that Leshaya made him angry. He said he had a daughter and if she acted like Leshaya he would never let her get away with it. The issue of punishment is seen throughout the novel. One punishment is threatened by Patsy and Pete -- standing on one foot all day. A young man in the group recalled his own life experience similar to the book. The same punishment was used by the grandparent of this young man. The teens agree that Leshaya's final punishment -- that of cleaning up her AIDS-afflicted mother's bodily mess after ignoring her for an entire night -- gives her the sense of responsibility that she is lacking.

Another part of the discussion focused on the issue of blackness and if and why Leshaya wants to be black. Harmon is black; his parents are black; and the Ladies are also black -- they all have an influence on Leshaya and she sees the color of their skin as something that adds to their worth. She tries through her personal associations and through her speech to "become" black.

At this point one of the participants said he had a question for us -- he wanted to know how we would have helped Leshaya. This made us realize how involved in the discussion the participants were. The one girl participant answered emphatically "I'd find a way to help her." Several said they wished it would be made into a movie, mainly because they wanted to see what Leshaya looked like.

-- submitted by
Susan Flacks,
Elizabeth Maggio,
Andrea Merrick, and
Susan Unger, November 16, 2006

Second Book Discussion --
Stuck In Neutral

Yesterday the Mercer County Library System had our second discussion at the Mercer County Youth Detention Center. It went as well as the first! We discussed
Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman. Most of the kids had read the book, one boy even saying that from looking at the title he thought the book would be about something else (cars?) -- he persevered and got so interested that he stayed up late to finish it. The kids were again in good spirits. We served soda and bags of potato chips as a snack.

There were 4 girls and 6 boys. As with the first discussion, the boys talked more than the girls. We started the discussion with asking what the group thought of the ending of the book. Most of the kids didn't like how the author left the ending open to interpretation. One boy said "Books are supposed to have a beginning, middle and end -- this book didn't have an end!" Many of the kids though that the father does kill his son (Shawn) at the end. They backed up their opinions by citing examples from the book. Most of the kids did not agree with that decision, specifically saying that it isn't right to "play God" in that way. These thoughts gave rise to questions about living wills and euthanasia. One boy described a friend's grandmother and how she was ready to die after having a stroke that took away her independence. They contrasted these feelings of disability with the main character's. Overall, a majority believed Shawn had the right to live.

We had the kids sit in a wheelchair (provided by the Center) and role play what it would be like to be Shawn. We discussed the group's feelings about those who are disabled -- how would they treat someone who is in a wheelchair? Does reading stories like this help you to understand what it's like to be disabled? One boy told us about his friend whose arm no longer functions. He said that they were friends before the incident and he continues to interact with him like he always did but can see that others now treat him differently because of his arm. We also discussed the part of the book where Shawn's brother violently defends him from bullies -- the kids overwhelmingly sided with the brother. They felt very strongly that, if someone in their family was disabled, they would protect them from harm.

We also discussed whether the government should educate the "uneducatable" -- as Shawn outwardly appeared. The kids believed that they should be educated -- that "everyone deserves a chance." This segued to asking if they thought that Shawn would be happy in a "home" or if he would rather be with his family. Most thought he would want to be with his family -- that the members of his family all loved him in their own ways.

An interesting discussion arose from the kids comparing their situation with Shawn's. They described themselves as feeling "stuck in neutral" while in the Center. They dream about being out -- to be free to walk around, to be at home with their families. One boy said that he wasn't home that often before but now he thinks about wanting to be there. Despite their laughing and joking when in the discussion, we got a glimpse of their inner feelings. Listening to them talk showed how a book discussion can have real-world meaning.

We also brought the Washington State volume of the World Book Encyclopedia so the kids could read about Seattle and a book showing the science center mentioned in
Stuck in Neutral.

-- submitted by
Susan Flacks,
Elizabeth Maggio,
Andrea Merrick, and
Susan Unger, November 2, 2006

Locust Valley High School Library Information Center (Long Island, NY)

At Locust Valley High School in Long Island, New York, students in the PASS program along with their mentor, Mrs. Gabrielle Harrington and their library information specialist, Mrs. Barbara Mierlak, held their first Great Stories discussions during the last three weeks of the spring semester. The book under discussion was Angela Johnson's
The First Part Last, the story of a teenaged father caring for his baby daughter. The reading group met several times to read the book together and discuss it along the way. During the last discussion, the students also read two articles from
People Magazine: "A Single Dad at 18" from the August 29, 2005 issue and "A Single Dad Murdered at 18" from the December 5, 2005 issue. These articles recounted the real-life struggles of a young father caring for his small daughter. The articles helped to underscore the reality behind the story in the novel.

The students in the Locust Valley Great Stories Group are young men and women in grades ten and eleven. Every student had positive reactions to the book and their comments during the discussions were thoughtful and insightful. Jayme remarked "This is the first novel that I have ever read." When asked "Did you like it?" she replied "Yes. I can't wait to read the one that you suggested over the summer." After her experiences in the group, Jayme also enthusiastically recommended that her classmates read
The First Part Last during the summer. In describing the reading group, Mrs. Harrington said, "We have gotten into discussions regarding self-esteem and how the students would react if in the same circumstances as the boy in the novel. The program has made the students feel special -- that they are a part of this group -- and that is a very powerful thing for the PASS program. The 'exclusivity' for an academic purpose is a foreign experience for these students. Many of them are surprised that they liked a novel that was recommended by their teachers!"

These discussions have helped the students connect to the book and to the library as a welcoming place. Mrs. Mierlak feels that "it has given me, as the librarian, a chance to connect one-on-one with students who do not frequent the library. They have begun to visit the library and, I think, are having a positive experience. The students are excited about reading our next selection,
Born Blue, for their summer reading and discussing the book in the fall. Many of them are actively recruiting other students to join the book group in September."

Both Mrs. Harrington and Mrs. Mierlak agree that the Great Stories group has been a positive learning experience for everyone involved and that they will continue to pursue the reading group with students beyond the three books supplied in the grant.

-- Submitted by
Barbara Mieriak, June 15, 2006

Vernon Area Public Library (Lincolnshire, IL) in Partnership with the Robert W. Depke Juvenile Justice Complex

The Vernon Area Public Library (Lincolnshire, IL) in partnership with the Robert W. Depke Juvenile Justice Complex, had its first Great Stories Club discussion on June 22nd at the Depke facility in Vernon Hills, IL. Librarians Gina Sheade and Pam Minarik met with ten young men ages 14 to 16 for a discussion of
Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman.

The participants prepared for the discussion by reading together in groups and working with their teacher. Dr. Michael Fletcher, assistant director of the Depke complex, observed, "They've gathered together in groups to read the book. Pockets of them are reading the book out loud together. That shared experience as an entire group is a new experience for them."

Dr. Fletcher also noted, "The most important lesson the Great Stories Club can bestow is that outsiders care. To see someone come in from the community means a lot to them."

The discussion was lively, with everyone participating. We all came away with new insights and a greater appreciation of this moving and controversial book. We are looking forward to our next discussion of "The First Part Last" by Angela Johnson on July 20th.

-- submitted by
Gina Sheade, July 11, 2006

Ocean County Library (Toms River, NJ) in Partnership with Toms River Alternate School

"Getting these kids to talk is an accomplishment," remarked one Toms River Alternative School teacher, but when it came to discussing Terry Trueman's
Stuck in Neutral, students were opinionated and eager to share. Teachers claimed it was "one of the better lessons all year."

ocean county library

ocean county library

In small, open-forum groups, the teens debating the ethical dilemma presented by euthanasia, pondered the author's personal experience with cerebral palsy and his thoughts on his son's condition, and examined the role of labels and stereotypes in our society. Their analysis of character relationships and depth of questioning exceeded teacher expectations. Students were especially curious to know how the story continued after the book concluded, furious the author left them hanging!

In an amazing turn-around, one student, known for his apathy, related to Shawn's character in a unique way and began participating at an unprecedented level. This student also had seizures, unbeknownst to his classmates, and empathized with Shawn's character. For the first time, this student was speaking up, asking questions, and caring.

Students found reading along with the audio CD version of the book very helpful. Students who missed reading sessions were quickly updated by their peers, with added personal opinions and commentary. In short, "they craved the book," according to their teachers.

-- submitted by
Nicole Politi and
Judy Macaluso, July 13, 2006

Centralia Public Library (Missouri) in partnership with Champion Academy Alternative School

Champion Academy Director Bobbi Tetley jumped at the chance to involve the students, grades 9-12, who attend the alternative school in the Great Stories book discussions. We set the first discussion of Angela Johnson's book
First Part Last for June 30th. I made a visit to the school and talked to the students about what a book discussion was and when we would hold it. Mrs. Tetley would allow the students time in class to read every day if they wished or they could read the book on their own time. Most of the students started in school and took the books home right away. One of the Seniors asked for extra time to read at school one day as he was "so engrossed in this book" he just had to finish it. When he was finished he looked a bit flushed as though he had been or wanted to cry. Mrs. Tetley asked "so ... how was it?" He responded with "Maybe this is the only book I've ever read ... the whole thing of." He felt the book was so great but so sad too. As June 30th approached I got permission to take the students off campus to Pizza Hut where we would have a lunch discussion. I took along pictures of Angela Johnson as well as a bit of biography on her. I also took her book
Heaven to offer it to anyone who wanted to read it next. It was snatched up right away so I ordered a copy for Champion Academy to keep.

The book discussion itself was very eye opening as two of the female students could relate to the pregnancy issues. It was intriguing to see the different perspectives of the guys vs. the girls. The girls were very caught up in the pregnancy part and the guys were concerned about the life of the mother and the plight of the father. Both sides were bothered about the amount of time the father had to give up with friends for the baby. When we discussed the parental reactions in the book one student remarked that "her parents weren't mad about the baby, they were mad about the act that got her that way."

I think it was great for the students to read about situations that they know about first hand. Mrs. Tetley said that she receives a lot of "Can I read a little while today?" from the students and that just never happened before.

-- Submitted by
Patt Olsen, September 1, 2006

To submit your "story" about facilitating the Great Stories CLUB, email Angela Hanshaw,, PPO Program Officer/Web Editor.