By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
TJJD youth can find great meaning in books as they grow as individuals and reach for a better future. This past week, on Read Across America Day, we took the occasion to ask two staffers – English teacher Jill Fowler at Giddings and Librarian Henry Lewis at Ron Jackson – about some of the most popular titles making the rounds at their campus.
The number one read in our unscientific poll of two: The “Percy Jackson” fantasy adventure stories.
This will be no surprise to teachers, parents and young adult readers who’ve all likely heard of these immensely imaginative novels by San Antonio native Rick Riordan. The fantasies follow youthful modern heroes who find themselves amid Gods and serpents and monsters drawn from Greek mythology.
“Every single chapter of every book has a kid roughly their age escaping by the skin of his teeth,” said Fowler. “And there’s the fantasy aspect. I know that I, myself, read to get OUT of my reality. The boys are no different. Greek gods, Roman gods, magic, creatures from Hades: They are all in Rick Riordan’s work.”
While novels can be a great escape, they’re also a wonderful tool for bonding with others and finding common ground, which fits with TJJD's Texas Model goal of helping youth build strong relationships as they heal from past trauma.
Fowler explained: “One book leads to another, to an entire series, and boys literally sharing their private AND library books with others who see them reading on the dorm. In class, if I mention a book I like and why, a youth will usually share the title of book HE likes and why. That starts the sharing.”
Eventually, she says, this leads to books getting passed around and read so voraciously that their covers are barely hanging on.
“You can find paperback books that are taped back together just so another reading can happen before the book completely falls apart,” she said.
But that ragged book belies the joy it brought and the bonds it helped create among boys from different backgrounds.
Another prolific writer who enjoys popularity in TJJD schools is James Patterson, whose Alex Cross detective series offers the youth many mysteries with twists and turns that challenge them to consider the motivations of the fictional detective and the criminals he pursues.
Patterson “gets into the thoughts and the feelings of the characters,” Fowler said. “A lot of times before you know who the criminal is, you’ll know a lot about him. He gets inside their head.”
Patterson is popular at the Ron Jackson campus too where Lewis says he enjoys helping teen readers find books that speak to them and also books that draw them out of their comfort zone.
The urban teen romances by New Jersey writer Ni-Ni Simone and other similar young adult fiction are perennially popular, says Lewis, who manages the library at Lone Star High School West at Ron Jackson.
The girls really relate to Simone’s narratives and find characters within her books who have a similar lived experience, he says.
Another hugely popular read is “Dear Martin,” a young adult book by Nic Stone about a young African American man who writes rhetorical letters the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he navigates new environments and faces racial profiling.
The author, Lewis says, is essentially asking, “What would Martin Luther King do?” and the students really relate to the social justice themes explored.
Lewis understands that reading levels among the youth vary greatly. TJJD research shows that many students arrive at TJJD behind their grade level, sometimes by several years. He aims to help those who need a boost by providing illustrated Manga books, which naturally provide clues to the text, or offering non-fiction works about careers and hobbies that are visually rich.
Mangas are hugely popular at TJJD, confirms Reading Education Specialist Mary Singer, who works with staff across all facilities to assure students get the help and encouragement they need with reading. That task is greatly helped by librarians across all campsues, who, like Lewis, keep an ear to the ground for books that appeal to the youth.
A social worker who spent 25 years in various roles at residential and outpatient treatment facilities, Lewis says he is always gratified when he can entice a student to read more or nudge even an avid reader to expand outside their favorite genre.
One of his signature methods is to offer the students book pairings.
When a student picks a fiction book to check out, he casts about for a “bonus” book to offer that complements the topic of the novel or mystery they’ve chosen. “I will connect them the books that are in some fashion connected 'in my Winnie the Pool brain’,” he says with a laugh.
For example, Lewis might find a book about careers with horses or dogs to accompany a novel, such as Black Beauty, that features an animal; or he might offer an Italian travel guide to a youth who’s checking out a mystery story set in Italy.
“One book to entice them and maybe another to take them out of their usual genre,” he says.
Like Fowler, Lewis also facilitates discussions about books and encourages the girls at Ron Jackson to write recommendations or reviews of the books they love. He posts these in the hallway, and says they are great conversation starters.
Lewis sees himself as the resident book Sherpa and tries to stay on top of new adult and teen literature so he can make recommendations that get the youth excited about reading.
He’s currently reviewing for possible inclusion “A Piece of Cake: A Memoir,” by Cupcake Brown, who writes about her struggles and triumphs as she rose from addiction and hustling on the streets to go to college, law school and become a practicing lawyer at a major firm.
“I think some of our girls can find hope in that.”