Books Behind Bars

This semester, I’ve started volunteering with Extending Library Services to Empower Youth (ELSEY), a program that works in the library of the local juvenile detention center. I’m really excited about it! As an undergrad, I led some literature classes in the local medium-security prison and really enjoyed it. People sometimes ask me if I’m afraid working with incarcerated people, or if it’s hard. It is hard, of course, to see people who are locked away from society, sometimes for very long periods of time. People who often deserve to be locked away for long periods of time.

But the work itself is pretty easy, because here is a secret about incarcerated people: they don’t have much else to do, and so they love reading. Visiting the library is a privilege to them, not something to be taken for granted the way people on the outside do. If you love books, as any good librarian does, there are few things better than a room full of teenagers eagerly asking you if there are any new books in the JDC’s small library.

Here is a conversation I had yesterday:

Guy: Do you guys have the 5th Lemony Snicket book?
Me: All the Lemony Snicket books are in the AR (Accelerated Reader) section.
Guy: I know, I looked, there’s six but not five.
Me: Oh, sorry, somebody else must have it then!
Guy: Do you have anything else like them?
Me: Hm… have you read the Artemis Fowl books?
Guy: What’s that?
Me: They’re about this genius kid who is a criminal mastermind.
Guy: (studies it) But they’re for fun?
Me: Yeah. They’re for fun.

The weirdness of recommending a series about a child criminal mastermind to a teen in a juvenile detention center didn’t strike me until literally right now, by the way. Artemis Fowl: not a “how-to” manual. But I just love that this kid so earnestly described some books as “for fun.” And he’s right! They are for fun.

Tyrell by Coe Booth


I have to say, though, that after a few weeks in the JDC, Tyrell by Coe Booth has jumped right to the top of my to-read list. The way those kids talk about Tyrell… ! It is universally beloved. Whenever it gets reshelved, one of them will take the tattered copy down from the shelf, hand it to another kid, and say in reverent tones, “Have you read Tyrell? You got to read Tyrell! I couldn’t put it down!”

There are two copies of Tyrell, in fact, and though they are each only a few months old they look approximately a thousand years old. They are what you would call “high circulating.”

Every week they ask us, “Do you have any more books by Coe Booth?” Unfortunately, we do not! She has only written three books, one of which just came out last month.

Ms. Booth, please write more books soon! We need them!

Personally, I am still very busy reading Tyra Banks’s book but, like I said, Tyrell is next on my to-read list. I have never heard anyone talk about a book the way these kids talk about Tyrell. It’s a combination of the way one of my college professors used to talk about Moby-Dick and the way that evangelical Christians talk about Jesus.

PS: If any of you have some spare cash and want to significantly enhance the day of a teen in lockup, ELSEY has an Amazon wishlist. I’m just sayin’.

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