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No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers…

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row

by Susan Kuklin

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The cover of this book is a photo of a young man smiling, although we are to believe he is in prison. The end pages open up with a black and white picture of a prison, setting the grim scene for this book. The very first words on the inside sleeve discuss how until recently the USA was one of 8 countries in the world who used the death penalty for people under the age of 18. The table of contents shows the book is divided into six chapters, each with a captivating title. The titles cause readers to ask questions about the content. The first chapter, "I Was a Teenager on Death Row" begs the audience to read more. The final section of the book holds the index, which is very thorough, both text and photographs can be easily identified and located. The glossary is useful because the book is full of legal terms many young people may not be familiar with. The definitions are clear and easy to understand, also the author specifies not all terms are used in the book but are frequently used legal terms. The author's note is important as Susan Kuklin discusses how this book was put together, with the help of attorney Bryan Stevenson, among many others she was able to meet with three young men to write their stories. She also talked about the rules, which answered many of my personal questions about the book. Because the cases of these young men were still ongoing she was unable to ask questions about the instances which had placed them in the system. There are photos throughout the book, of the young men as children, while in prison, of the prisons, and drawings some of them had done while in prison. These photos make you remember how young these boys actually are, and really gives the text further impact.

This is not an easy book to read, I say that based on content, not actual language. I would suggest this book for anyone grades 7 and above. Kuklin gained the trust of three young men well enough for them to open up and tell their stories. It's easy to see she has written this from a partisan perspective, taking the stance that young people shouldn't always be tried as adults, or given the death penalty. Their stories break away from stereotypes, as not all of these young men came from abusive or broken homes. They made terrible mistakes that will define the rest of their lives. The author allows the whole picture to be painted with each individual, the good and the bad. One boy Nanon Williams was convicted of a murder he didn't commit, even with a recanted testimony, he was still sentenced to death at age 17. Another, Mark Melvin, murdered a man because his older brother told him to. And Roy Burgess, was a witness to a murder his friends committed. Kuklin writes about these young men with a sympathetic tone, the overlying theme is do the mistakes we make, no matter how terrible, define us? Kuklin highlights the impossible struggles of living within the prison system, the violence, gangs, drugs, rape, unsanitary living conditions, among other horror stories. This text shows how difficult it can be to have your case revisited, even when new information has been established. In the classroom this book could be used in an English or public speaking course. This is an excellent resource for debating the death penalty and prison sentences. ( )
  Julesjack19 | Feb 28, 2018 |
"No Choirboy" offers an unforgettable glimpse of what it's like to be a minor incarcerated as an adult. Kuklin lets three of her subjects—all of whom were convicted of murder as teenagers—tell their stories in their own words, and their voices are heartbreaking. Trusting Kuklin enough to reveal their deepest fears, hopes, and regrets, they leave us with, above all, a strong sense of their essential humanity; these aren't hardened criminals but people who made terrible mistakes that have forever barred them from realizing their great potential.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that no offender under age 18 was eligible for the death penalty, but several were still on death row when the book was being researched. One of them, Nanon Williams—himself the author of several books about his life—gives us a harrowing account of his daily existence as he waits for his sentence to be reversed. He describes being beaten, gassed, and placed in solitary confinement for weeks at a time; he elucidates the ways in which fear is used as a weapon, by guards and prisoners alike, and how he finally overcame his fear.

The book reveals the soul-crushing nature of maximum-security lockup; inmates both on and off death row describe the dehumanizing treatment they get at the hands of wardens, prison officials, and other inmates; they get no comfort, few privileges, and precious little opportunity to better themselves despite their obvious desire to.

The people left behind are given a voice as well. Two families—one of an executed man, the other of a murdered teenager—tell their stories, and both are equally compelling. Kuklin leaves us with the valuable insights of attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, who works on behalf of the inmates forgotten by the state's criminal justice system—primarily the poor and people of color.

"No Choirboy" would be a great book to discuss in an ELA class in combination with texts offering an opposing perspective on the death penalty; these could form the basis for a Socratic circle or a persuasive essay. I might also pair it with excerpts from "The Executioner's Song" by Normal Mailer or "Dead Man Walking" by Helen Prejean. ( )
  Rheindselman | Jan 30, 2018 |
Attorney Bryan Stevenson said, "But I reject the view that the world is divided into two sections: the victims of violent crimes and the offenders." Stevenson is just one of many people Susan Kuklin interviewed to tell the story of convicts, victims, and everyone in-between. Susan Kuklin's book about "murder, violence, and teenagers" compels the reader to look beyond the surface to see the complexity of crimes and those who commit crimes. Pieced together from interviews, letters, emails, this book shares the story of young men on death row, family members of those who have died on death row, and family members of those who have been killed. Kuklin offers little to no commentary; instead, she lets the voices of these (mostly) young men be heard by allowing them to tell their story in their own words. In fact, in the author's note, Kuklin said she refrained from stressing certain themes or letting her own bias get in the way of the stories.

This book is not meant to be a political piece or even an anti-capital punishment diatribe. However, the young people in this book force the reader to ask the question Kuklin identified while writing the book: "Are you the sum total of your worst acts?" Confronted with the harsh realities of prison and a less-than-fair justice system, the reader has no choice but to reflect on her own underlying beliefs regarding capital punishment. Thought-provoking, life-changing, heart-breaking, raw and candid, this book leaves the reader with more questions than answers, like any good book should. ( )
  cskaemmerling | Feb 28, 2017 |
One of the most compelling arguments against capital punishment is the frightening reality that many of the sentences belong to teenagers. Through interviews with the author, several young men explain what led to their incarceration and describe their experiences in the penal and justice systems. The stories and circumstances of the young men in this book are tragic and upsetting. As a result, the reader is led to empathize with these men, even though many of them are admitted murderers. In addition to interviews with the prisoners, notes in the appendix of the book indicate that the specifics about the individual cases were gathered from court documents since many of the inmates were still involved in the appeals process and could not discuss those details. The author also interviewed lawyers for two of the inmates that specialize in capital punishment cases, as well as the family of a murder victim. The author, Susan Kuklin, is a photographer and writer of over 30 books for young adults, mostly nonfiction. Kuklin’s central question, “Are you the sum total of your worst acts?” illustrates her bias in this work. She clearly has a negative perception regarding the role politics, economics, and society play in capital punishment cases; how race and class can affect both convictions and sentencing. I believe most teenagers can relate to this book. The language is not intimidating to young readers, and the author includes a glossary of legal terms for clarity. ( )
  rsaxon | Feb 15, 2017 |
Mature reading. ( )
  jothebookgirl | Jan 3, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805079505, Hardcover)

No Choirboy takes readers inside America’s prisons, and allows inmates sentenced to death as teenagers to speak for themselves. In their own voices—raw and uncensored—they talk about their lives in prison, and share their thoughts and feelings about how they ended up there. Susan Kuklin also gets inside the system, exploring capital punishment itself and the intricacies and inequities of criminal justice in the United States.

This is a searing, unforgettable read, and one that could change the way we think about crime and punishment.
No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row is a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:42 -0400)

In their own voices--raw and uncensored--inmates sentenced to death as teenagers talk about their lives in prison, and share their thoughts and feelings about how they ended up there. Susan Kuklin also gets inside the system, exploring capital punishment itself and the intricacies and inequities of criminal justice in the United States.… (more)

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