“WHEN YOU GREW UP IN THE PROJECTS, THERE WERE NO CHOICES. NO GOOD ONES, AT LEAST.”
“In the Frederick Douglass Project where DeShawn lives, daily life is ruled by drugs and gang violence. Many teenagers drop out of school and join gangs, and every kid knows someone who died. Gunshots ring out on a regular basis. DeShawn is smart enough to know he should stay in school and keep away from the gangs. But while his friends have drug money to buy fancy sneakers and big-screen TVs, DeShawn’s family can barely afford food for the month. How can he stick to his principles when his family is hungry? In this gritty novel about growing up in the inner city, award-winning author Todd Strasser opens a window into the life of a teenager struggling with right and wrong under the ever-present shadow of gangs.”
As I read this book I thought I was not going to have a lot of good things to say about it just from that starting statement: “WHEN YOU GREW UP IN THE PROJECTS, THERE WERE NO CHOICES. NO GOOD ONES, AT LEAST.”. While the story and characters are absorbing and you quickly get caught up in their lives, I could not help but notice the choices that were made. And yes there were choices. This book does a great job addressing many of the problems that exist in today’s society for many urban minority youths but it also almost lends an “inevitable” tone in which it implies they are destined to fail no matter what. As a librarian who formerly worked in an urban low income area with many of these problems, I know that is not the case. I have met those kids who made the right choices.
Throughout the book we see problems such as drug use, teen pregnancy, gangs and poverty. In each case the character had a choice. The girls could have not had sex and they would not have had babies. The teens could have abstained from drug use and joining a gang. The main character DeShawn who is held up in the beginning as a teen who wants to get out and abstain from gang life is offered many opportunities. He has the chance to take an exam to get into a better school. He doesn’t do it. He needs to make money but looks down on another teen who takes a job at a fast food restaurant and instead gets into a gang to provide for his family. In the end we see where these bad choices lead the characters and to me it made me feel better about the book as a whole. However I was still unnerved at that tone that these kids had no choices. Yes, they were surrounded by violence, poverty and drug use. But many teens overcome that and I wish this book could have shown an example of that. The one example of a character that did make it was someone who got out of the projects by going to live with relatives in a rural area. This is not an option for the average inner city teen. I know this world exists and I know the pressures but everyone has a choice in some way. We should try to make kids feel that through what they read. While I may have not agreed with much of the book, I have to admit it is a compelling story that is well written and would draw in many reluctant readers especially of the teen boy variety. However that in itself is what makes me worry about the message it sends. I would love to hear what others who have read this thought. Comments please?