Ensiform's Reviews > True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman
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Jan 29, 12

bookshelves: non-fiction, justice
Read in September, 2003

Against his initial misgivings, Salzman begins a writing class at a Los Angeles juvenile detention center. His students are black, Mexican and Asian kids from broken homes and gangs, sixteen and seventeen, who are facing possible life prison sentences for murder. many will be shipped off to the “big house.” Nevertheless, the kids take to the project with passion, and Salzman finds himself thinking of the juvenile killers as his friends. His students write with surprising clarity and precision (Salzman includes a plethora of examples of their writing); what’s not surprising is their honesty, or how they attempt to reveal themselves in their writing as whole people, not just stereotypical “bad kids,” as they fear the world sees them.

Salzman doesn’t try to sugarcoat reality here; he attends one student’s trial, and concludes that the boy he thought of as so bright, friendly and able is also (or at least was) ignorant, violent and callous as well. Nor does he come to any self-comforting “life lessons” about the detention center life: some kids get shipped off to prison, and some don’t, and a lot probably deserve it. What Salzman does conclude, however, is that he teaches writing to juvenile offenders because he likes it, and he hopes to do good. In short, this is a powerful and unflinching look at how troubled teens see themselves and their situation leavened with a bit of wit and hope.
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