Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rikers High by Paul Volponi

Martin Stokes grew up in a part of New York City that’s tough to live in. His dad is in prison, his mother and grandmother take care of his younger sisters, and Martin is trying to make it. But he’s not at home anymore, although he wants to be. He’s at Riker’s Island, waiting for his day in court, waiting to go home…if he can make it.

Three times Martin’s gotten on the bus that takes inmates from Riker’s to court. And all three times there’s been a delay. What Martin thought was going to be a small stay has turned into months. And months can turn a young man into a monster, into a skilled survivalist, into a seasoned criminal….

During his stay, Forty (aka Martin) knows who the herbs and new jacks are and how the system really works. It’s them against the COs and the beatings and abuse they take. Everyone knows what happens to the snitches. It’s proving to others that you won’t be taken and putting up a front in order to get into the pecking order of which inmate runs things and which ones you don’t want to cross. It’s getting scarred for life with a razor and keeping that hate deep inside of you, wanting revenge.

But there is also humanity within the cells of Riker’s Island, at least for the teens there. They still have school, and if you make it, you get to leave behind prison life for a little awhile and keep preoccupied with something interesting, even if school wasn’t your thing in the real world. And it’s here that Forty meets teachers who take a stand and those who are as mean as the inmates; teachers who make them think and those who are in it for the paycheck; those who care, and those who could care less.

Paul Volponi is one of those writers who gets it. He’s taken what he’s experienced and wrapped it into a beautifully woven tale of a different life many teens may not ever see, as well as one that many teens can relate to. This is a book that's written succinctly, constructed well, and draws readers to the finale. But the ending doesn’t lie in the book. After finishing this novel, Volponi invites readers to find out what happened to Martin in an epilogue online at paulvolponibooks.com. This epilogue is one that doesn’t sound contrived or put together hastily to end a story. It’s one that is full of redemption and ultimately facing the monsters of the past. Wow….recommended.


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if you'd give this a stronger recommendation that other Voponi books, or if you think they're all pretty good? (Sorry, I didn't care for Hurricane Song).

I think you're right. I think Volponi is someone who 'gets it'. He wouldn't be silly enough to say he doesn't see color, he seems to take in race, size, color and know that all this makes you the person (THE PERSON!!) that you are.

bj neary said...

You are so right, Volponi does get it, his readers are sucked right into this story and the wrong that happens to Martin just seems to happen to "kids" like him. My students love his books, he is one of our favorite urban writers!

naomibates said...

I love Volponi's body of work. He has stronger ones than others, but overall, he's a powerhouse in YA fiction because of his subjectivity that, like the previous comment says, transcends all race and creed.
I would think his one departure is Hurricane Song, but it still resonates strongly, esp. with teens who experienced this first-hand. Thanks for the comments!!