"WHEN YOU GREW UP IN THE PROJECTS, THERE WERE NO CHOICES. NO GOOD ONES, AT LEAST."
In the Frederick Douglass Project where DeShawn lives, daily life is ruled by drugs and gang violence. Many teenagers drop out of school and join gangs, and every kid knows someone who died. Gunshots ring out on a regular basis.
DeShawn is smart enough to know he should stay in school and keep away from the gangs. But while his friends have drug money to buy fancy sneakers and big-screen TVs, DeShawn's family can barely afford food for the month. How can he stick to his principles when his family is hungry?
In this gritty novel about growing up in the inner city, award-winning author Todd Strasser opens a window into the life of a teenager struggling with right and wrong under the ever-present shadow of gangs.
In this superficially compelling but heavy-handed book about gang culture, narrator DeShawn faces tough circumstances and limited choices. Readers first meet DeShawn as a smart 12-year-old with potential; four years later, he is a gang member in charge of operations at his housing project. While the story has a Law and Order- type drama, it also runs on cliché: the determined grandmother, the star-crossed love, the jealous second-in-command, the concerned cop and the teacher who reaches out knowing his offer will be rejected. The plot serves the author's agenda, which Strasser (Give a Boy a Gun ) puts in plain sight: he opens each section with a statistic plus a rap lyric, and his foreword and last chapter argue that "significant numbers of American citizens-mostly minorities, and many living in impoverished inner-city areas-are doomed to fail." Given that Strasser's foreword explicitly defines himself and his audience as more privileged than his characters ("we forget that millions of inner-city denizens are just like us"), it's hard to escape the feeling that his story is more well-meaning than authentic. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)
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Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
February 23, 2009
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Excerpt from If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser
A Shorty Falls
The shouting and screaming outside started at dinnertime. We were sitting on the living room couch, eating macaroni and cheese, and watching Judge Joe Brown on the TV. Between the banging of the heat pipes and the noise outside, it was one big racket.
"DeShawn, turn up the sound," Gramma said. I put my tray on the couch and turned up the volume. The TV was old, and no one knew where the clicker was anymore. It was just me and Gramma that night. My big sister, Nia, was out with her boyfriend, LaRue.
Outside the yelling got louder and the police sirens started. Gramma flinched and put down her fork. She shook her gray head wearily, and the skin around her eyes wrinkled. "Noise around here is gonna make me lose my mind."
I glanced toward the thick green curtains that covered the window. Ever since gangbangers cocktailed the apartment down the hall, Gramma had kept the curtains closed all the time.
"Don't go near that window," she warned. "They could start shootin'."
The curtains already had two bullet holes the size of bottle caps. There were bullet holes in the walls, too. Gramma had put a picture over one of them, and another was blocked by our little Christmas tree decorated with tinsel and candy canes. We would have been safer living on a high floor, but the elevators were always broken and it was hard for Gramma to climb the stairs after cleaning houses all day. In the projects, the older you got, the closer to the ground you wanted to live.
The sirens and shouting grew louder. I gave Gramma a pleading look.
"No," she said firmly.
"But the police are here," I argued. "Won't be any more shooting."
"I said no," Gramma repeated, but her words sounded weary and defeated, and I knew I could wear her down.
"Come on, please?" I pestered. Outside the sirens had now stopped, but there was still lots of shouting. "Just let me look."
"Oh, okay." Gramma gave in just like I knew she would. "But be quick."
I hurried over and peeked through the curtains. The window was streaked with dirt, and cold winter air seeped in around the edges. Outside a crowd of people had gathered in the dark. All I could see were the tops of heads and shoulders. "Must be something big going on," I said. "Let me go see. Please?"
"No! You ain't allowed out after dark."
"I'll stay right by the front, I promise."
"Nothing bad's gonna happen with all those people out there."
"Come on, Gramma, I'll only be a few minutes. I swear."
She let out a disheartened sigh. "You ain't gonna stop botherin' me till I say yes, are you? Come back quick, hear? And don't go nowhere else."
I grabbed my coat, went out into the graffiti-covered hall, down the pee-smelly stairs, across the bare lobby, and through the dented metal doors to the outside. Cold, dark air filled my lungs. The crowd was still growing. Fearful of being trampled, I went behind the mob where it wasn't packed so tightly. There I found Lightbulb, walking in a circle with his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers in his ears. He wore a black wool cap pulled down over his head, and a ratty, old-man-size coat that dragged on the ground.
"S'up Bulb?" I asked.
Lightbulb opened his eyes but shook his head and kept his fingers in his ears. He'd gotten his nickname because of his light skin and the shape of his head. Sometimes he wasn't right in the head, either.
"Come on, don't get all janky on me," I said.
"A shorty fell." Lightbulb winced as if just talking about it caused him pain. "Long way down. He's dead for sure."
By the age of twelve, seeing dead folks was nothing new. The gangbanger who lay glassy-eyed in a pool of blood in the lobby. The lady who was stabbed and crawled down four flights of stairs, leaving a long, brownish red trail before she bled out. The crusty old wino who froze to death on a bench. But I'd never seen a dead kid before.
The crowd was packed tight. No way someone my size could fight through all those legs and hips to see. Besides, the police were lining the area with yellow crime-scene tape. The ambulance men were in there, crouching down. I figured the best place to see would be from the monkey bars in the middle of the yard.
The bars were cold in my bare hands as I climbed. Around me rose the broad, flat buildings of the Frederick Douglass Project. Lights glowed in some windows and red and green Christmas lights were strung across a few balconies, but many more windows were boarded up and dark.
I was watching the police clear a semicircle of space near the side of my building when behind us on Abernathy Avenue, a car door slammed. A black Mercedes with dark windows stood at the curb, shiny chrome rims still spinning like they were going a hundred miles an hour. A man got out and the crowd began to part as he walked toward the building. He was shorter than some, but stocky and powerfully built. There was only one person who commanded that kind of respect: Marcus Elliot, the leader of the Douglass Disciples.
He wore black slacks and a black leather jacket over a white turtleneck sweater, with a big gold chain hanging in front. An earring glimmered. His brown hair was short and neatly trimmed, and he had a square face and small, deep-set eyes that were almost always in a suspicious squint. The crowd quieted and parted, and even the police stepped aside. Marcus stopped and looked over the shoulders of the ambulance men. He stood there for a long time.
The monkey bars rattled as Lightbulb climbed up. His pants were torn at the knees, and the sleeves of his big coat hung down past his hands. Sitting beside me, he started rocking back and forth. Near us, one of the ambulance men came though the crowd with something long and black.
"What's that?" Lightbulb whispered.
"Body bag," I whispered back. "Go find out who fell."
Lightbulb shook his head.
"For a Snickers bar," I said.
"It's upstairs. Give it to you tomorrow."
Lightbulb climbed down and disappeared. MeanÂ while the ambulance men lifted the body bag onto a stretcher and rolled it through the crowd. The bag was mostly flat, except for a bump in the middle. Marcus walked behind them. His face was hard and flat. Jaws clenched, lips tight. Not a handsome face, but one that said he wasn't afraid of anyone or anything.
Lightbulb climbed back up. "It was Darnell."
Darnell was Marcus's little nephew. I twisted back toward Abernathy Avenue. They'd opened the rear ambulance door to slide in the stretcher. The light from inside reflected on the men's faces. You might have expected that Marcus would be looking down at his nephew. But he wasn't. He was staring back at the project with a look as cold and angry as I'd ever seen.