Read Harder Challenge #20: Writing Our Way Out, Read Harder Challenge #21: As the Crow Flies & Read Harder Challenge #22: Full Cicada Moon

Posted about 2 weeks ago by Jennifer Deuell

Prompt #20: A book written in prison

First, a warning.  I know I’ve been writing about YA books for the Read Harder Challenge; however,  Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs From Jail, by David Coogan, is NOT a book written for young adults.  In fact, I could not find any books written in prison geared toward teens.  Reader, if you happen to come across one, please let me know!

I chose Writing Our Way Out for this prompt because I saw David Coogan speak a few years ago at the annual RVA LitCrawl in Carytown.  He, along with co-author Kelvin Belton, spoke about the collection of memoirs and the prison writing class that was the catalyst for the book.  I found their talk so interesting that I bought a book after the presentation.  Sadly, the book sat on my bookshelf at home for a few years (yes, librarians do this too) before this prompt led me to pick it up.

I’ve always loved reading biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.  I was a psych major in college and I think I am just drawn to hearing other people’s stories.  Since I’ve become a librarian, and am more engaged with the #weneeddiversebooks movement, I’ve also become more deliberate in selecting my books, focusing on reading works from diverse writers and portraying a variety of perspectives.  I’ve come to really value the knowledge and empathy books can provide readers.  This is especially when books bring together a writer and reader from two different cultures or backgrounds.

I found Writing Our Way Out absolutely fascinating but also extremely heartbreaking.  This collection of memoirs came about from a writing class Coogan started in a local Richmond jail.  Coogan describes in the book that at first, many of the men were not interested in joining the group.  Yet with the buy-in of one or two leaders, others quickly joined.  For the book, Coogan worked with a total of ten men to tell their stories from childhood until the present.  He provided them writing prompts to help the men write their stories, many of which include tales of poverty, abuse, addiction, and mental illness. 

Not surprisingly, the trouble started early on in their childhoods for most of the men, then grew to become an adulthood of crime.  You hear about the school-to-prison pipeline, the poverty-to-prison pipeline, and the disproportionate incarceration of  black men.  These truths are evident in Coogan’s book.

There are some light spots in the men’s stories.  Many of them fondly recount good times with friends in their neighborhoods.  Many Richmond streets, businesses, and landmarks are portrayed throughout.  In the end, all of the men gain insight into their lives from the writing.  They begin to see, if not understand, the negative cycle in which many of them have been caught.  After the publication of the book, some of them have even gone on to other projects with Coogan, like this new podcast backed by Virginia Commonwealth University.

There are some really tough topics in this book, so I would caution young readers and their caregivers; however, I believe this book is an important read and highly recommend it!

Here are some other suggestions that will satisfy this prompt:

Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

Free Cyntoia : my search for redemption in the American prison system by Cyntoia Brown

Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict by Austin Reed

For a Song and a Hundred Songs : A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wenguang Huang

Also, here are Book Riot’s suggestions for this prompt.

Prompt #21: A comic by an LGBTQIA creator

For this prompt I chose In As the Crow Flies, by Melanie Gillman.  This started out as a webcomic and gained popularity so quickly that the author decided to publish it in print.

Charlie is a thirteen year old queer black girl who is having a serious crisis of faith.  To make matters worse, her parents are sending her off to a week-long Christian wilderness camp.  I will admit, as someone who experienced extreme amounts of anxiety as a kid in anticipation of sleep-away camp, I already had complete empathy for the main character before even starting the book.  But add in all the other complexities and…yikes!

As one can imagine, Charlie is confronted with a bunch hypocrisy and obliviousness from the camp leaders regarding the lack of consideration for marginalized people in the traditional Christian stories and beliefs.  Luckily, Charlie meets Sydney, who also doesn’t “fit” into the camp and together they figure out how to survive the week together.

I enjoyed this graphic novel a lot.  The artwork is beautiful and the characters are likable.  It did end fairly abruptly, which is kind of a bummer, but it is the first in a series so I look forward to release of #2.

Here are a few other suggestions for this prompt:

Batwoman. Vol. 1, The Many Arms of Death by James Tynion IV

Shattered Warrior by Molly Ostertag

Angel Catbird by Tamra Bonvillain

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos by Mariko Tamaki

Here are Book Riot’s suggestions.

Prompt #22: A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009

Readers, I know I am technically the YA Librarian, but can I let you in on a little secret??  I love middle grade novels!!  And if it’s historical fiction, and if it’s written in verse….swoon!  Full Cicada Moon, by Marilyn Hilton, is the story of Mimi, a half-black, half-Japanese girl living in predominantly white Vermont.  The year is 1969 and the Apollo II is getting ready to launch.  

Mimi has a hard time fitting in at school.  Not only does she look different than the other kids, but she also likes different things.  She doesn’t want to be in home economics with the other girls.  She wants to be in shop class building rockets.  In fact, she even stages a sit-in one day in the shop class.  Mimi enters science competitions and dreams of being an astronaut and she doesn’t let anyone, and I mean anyone, trample on her dreams.  She is strong.  She is bold.  She is confident.  What is not to love about Mimi, right?!

This novel is so beautifully written.  And that cover…incredible!  Even though this novel takes places in the ’60s, so many of the themes still ring true today.   I think this book will really resonate with middle school readers, especially those who are struggling with fitting in. 

Full Cicada Moon was the winner of the 2015-2016 APALA Literature Award in the children’s category.  Here are a some other children’s and middle grade books that won a diversity award: 

Black Girl Magic: A Poem by Mahogany L. Browne (Amelia Bloomer Award-2019)

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by John Marshall, III (American Indian Youth Literature Award-2016)

Islandborn by by Junot Díaz and illustrated by Leo Espinosa (Américas Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature-2019)

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye (Arab-American Book Award-2015)

The Land of the Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly (Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature-2016/2017)

My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve, and translated from the German by Tammi Reichel (Batchelder Award-2013)

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia (Coretta Scott King Book Award-2014)

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle (Lambda Literary Award-2015)

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar (The Pura Belpré Award-2018)

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (Schneider Family Book Award-2019)

Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender (Stonewall Book Award-2019)

All-of-a-kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins (Sydney Taylor Book Award-2019)

Finally, here are Book Riot’s suggestions.



About the Author

Jenn Deuell is the Young Adult Coordinator with Richmond Public Library. She is a native of Fredericksburg, VA but has lived in Richmond for long enough that she now considers it home. She loves all things YA and can usually be found curled up at home with a good book (rainy day or not). Her other hobbies include traveling and spending time with family, including her three rescued pit bulls.

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