“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.
A bit of context: My teenaged son is not, and has never been, a recreational reader. He’ll read what’s required for school, and that’s it.
So when he picked up this book without being forced to, then came to me and told me I had to read it… well, clearly I needed to see what it was that had made such an impression on him.
If If Grow Up is a tough, clear-eyed look at inner city life, as seen from the perspective of DeShawn. We meet DeShawn at age 12, still a child but growing up fast. He lives in the projects with his grandmother and older sister, and knows to drop to the floor when there’s the sound of gunshots and to steer clear when the Douglass Disciples are coming through.
Death and violence are everyday facts of life. DeShawn goes to school, but there’s little point when the teachers rotate out as soon as they can get a better assignment and most of the kids are there just to pass the time until they too can join a gang. DeShawn is determined to get an education and stay out of gang life, but with each passing year, his choices narrow further.
This book is devastating in so many ways. The author shows the hopelessness of inner city life, where children grow up without parents, where parents bury children caught in the crossfire, where murderous gang leaders may also be the only supportive adult figure for many of the kids who so desperately need someone to guide them. Through DeShawn, we see year by year as the goal of a better life dwindles away into impossibility, and we also see the inevitability of gang life for a kid who’s forced to think about feeding his hungry family at much too young an age.
While parts of the book, especially the ending, felt kind of preachy, I had to remind myself that If I Grown Up is firmly aimed at teen readers, and that I needed to let go of my adult reader perspective and think about what this book might mean to a teen who hasn’t seen real life reflected on the page in this way before.
I know my son was really affected by the story. I’ve never seen him not be able to put down a book, or find a book so meaningful that he both wants to read it again and wanted me to read it right away so we could talk about it. And that really says a lot.
I’ve never read anything by this author before, but apparently he’s quite a prolific writer of realistic YA fiction, and I plan to check out more of his works. I’m hoping If I Grow Up will be a catalyst for my reluctant reader son to continue reading books that he connects with.
Title: If I Grow Up
Author: Todd Strasser
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 24, 2009
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult