There are quite a few books where the setting takes place in a juvenile detention. Some that come to mind include: Monster by Walter Dean Meyers, Lockdown by Walter Dean Meyers, and Paul Volpini’s book, Riker’s High. There is also a powerful photo journalist book called, No Place for Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention by Bill and Alice Wright.
However, rarely do I see well-written YA books about a girl who is serving time in detention. The last one I can think of is Bad by Jean Ferris.
Then, I found After by Amy Efaw. After is the story of straight A, soccer playing Devon, who has been charged with murder and is juvenile detention awaiting trail. Her crime? Leaving her baby in a dumpster to die. I picked up the book because I’ve been studying unreliable narrators in YA, as I revise my own YA to include an unreliable narrator.
I have run a poetry workshop in a juvenile detention center for the last five years. In the poetry workshop, we write poems about our life experiences. I’m always on the look-out for books which will resonate with the kid’s own experiences.
One of the elements of Amy’s story which I love, and feel comfortable recommending to the girls in detention at Everett, is the way the units are described. They are pods, and there are long glass windows on one side. Each pod has olive green cell doors where each girl is housed. As I read these descriptions, it’s like being on the units at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. The other thing Amy describes is how the detention center is clean. I know this is not true of all detention centers, but I have also found the Denney Juvenile Justice Center to be clean and well-maintained, and I’m glad to see that in After the same is true.
The other aspect Amy captures well is the way the guards treat the girls. There is compassion. And yes, this is also what I’ve witnessed at Denney. So often, I’ve read stories where the guards are cruel to the kids, and yes, this may be true in some facilities, but it is not what I’ve seen in my five years running the poetry workshop. From the guard who first escorts Devon to her cell, and after Devon hands over her bed roll, the guard realizes that Devon’s breasts are leaking milk and she is trying to hold the bedroll in front of her, the guard tries to shield her from the other girls. To another guard, Henrietta, who again takes into account that Devon has just had a baby, she has been in the hospital, and she needs some extra care in hygiene.
It is true that there are more boys in juvenile detention than girls. And this is mentioned in After where the guards explain they usually only have one unit of girls at a time versus the 9-10 units of boys. The same is true at Denney.