February 13, 2015


"Man, those were some hard times," I say real soft, trying to calm him down.

"But we got through it, and you know why we did it?" Gramps asks. He seems less testy now. "We did it for our kids, their kids. We stood our ground and took those beatings for you."

I got no idea what to say to that, so I go with, "Thanks, Gramps."

Gramps nods, staring hard at me. "So don't blow it by acting like some fool."

"I won't," I say - even though I still don't know what's most foolish - to fight, to flee, or to freeze.

- DOING RIGHT, by Patrick Jones, from the Advanced Review Copy

In grad school, they told us that most of what is reflected in today's headline news won't filter into novels until at least ten years have gone by. Books like Sharon G. Flake's JUMPED and Kekla Magoon's HOW IT WENT DOWN as well as many others show us that both the headline news stories have picked up pace and our novels are starting to have a faster turnaround in touching on truly relevant topics. The Locked Out series by Patrick Jones is about the intersection of incarceration and teens - and the emotional, psychological and intellectual toll it takes on a kid to have a parent doing time.

Summary: DeQuin has an awkward relationship with the father figures in his life. His dad, who has been doing hard time since DeQuin was in Kindergarten, murdered a guy, but still finds himself full of advice to dish out to DeQuin on how to act, and "take care of his own." His Uncle Lee, the manager of a chain of KFC restaurants, and on the cusp of buying his own franchise, tries to share his rule of success: head down, go along to get along. And then there's DeQuin's Gramps, the old man who will tell a long-winded story about 1965 at the drop of a hat, reliving his glory days, when he marched in Selma, and met the Reverend Martin Luther King. Everyone's afraid DeQuin will end up doing time like his father, and even DeQuin fears it - he knows he's not making the best choices. Still, while it's true that Anton and Martel are becoming strangers, they've been his friends since Kindergarten. It's not like you drop friends, even though lately, they've moved past drinking and a bit of weed to find other, bigger trouble... When a throw down with some white boys from a neighboring high school goes bad, the break with friends becomes permanent - and nearly fatal.

A new school, new friends, and a new love interest still aren't enough to save DeQuin from himself, and from the prejudices and shortfalls of the society in which he lives. He struggles with questions that will feel relevant to many young readers: if you don't know what's right, how can you tell how to do it?

Peaks: This is a really short novel which will appeal to a lot of teen readers who live in an urban environment, who have lives which intersect with gangs or jail and prison and who think of themselves as living lives that are full of drama and pressures which have nothing to do with high school. There's an immediacy to the plot which will really hook and engage and lead potentially to some excellent conversation. This is standalone part of a five book series which can be read in any order, and all books deal with the topic from a different angle. Questions in this novel are posed, but not answered.

Valleys: This is a really short novel - which is both a blessing and a curse. I had some conflicted feelings about the novel's understanding of the subject matter it explores, and concerns that the questions it raises are explored in a not entirely neutral and unbiased fashion. EVERYONE brings their bias to the table in a discussion on racial injustice - absolutely everyone - but in its brevity, I fear the novel leans toward one side of the fence, and leaves quite a bit unresolved.

The phrase "standing our ground" is used in a very literal way in the novel which doesn't reflect the meaning behind the controversial law known by the same phrase. This seems to have the great potential to muddle things in reader's minds - which seems at best, disingenuous and at worse, flat out dangerous. I wish specific glossary-type information had been available because though this book is fiction, that law, in some States, is not.

The novel leaves the voices of the white people with whom DeQuin comes into contact, of women, and of older people as less significant, or entirely absent. While as the protagonist, DeQuin's voice and narrative viewpoint should be most significant, the secondary storyline of racial tension and injustice, his characterization as a young African American male in the thick of it might leave readers unclear if he is a reliable narrator. His bias is not examined, either.

Gramps fades from the novel about halfway through after a negative experience with high school students as he shares a civil rights story, and he never reappears. Characterized first as a blowhard martyr whose historical sacrifices are so fragile that they can be rendered null by his grandson's behavior, he exits the novel as an impotent old man in need of protection. This is a departure from the many books revering the history and experiences of those who lived through the Civil Rights movement, and I wished that there had been time within the narrative to present voices from the modern civil rights movement that would potentially have more relevance to today's young thinkers.

While there are girls in this novel - in the form of love interests - there are few, if any, women who come off well. DeQuin has issues with his mother and her defection - but this doesn't seem to come up when he relates to his girlfriend, who is working hard to fulfill her obligations, unlike his mother.

Conclusion: The subject matter from which this book is drawn is rich with potential, though it was too short for its ideas to be fully fleshed. DeQuin and friends will ultimately leave readers wanting more. The series as a whole should provoke plenty of discussion and thought on teens dealing with incarcerated parents, racial injustices and peer pressure.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 1, you can find DOING RIGHT by Patrick Jones at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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