It’s About: A fictionalized account of the life and death of eleven year old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.
The Good: Yummy’s story was brought to national attention in a 1994 Time Magazine article, Murder in Miniature. Yummy’s life was short and brutal, full of abuse and neglect. Raised in Chicago, he was a member of the Black Disciples. Because of his age, when he was arrested for the crimes he committed he was let out: “see, back then, the laws were set up so that no shorty [i.e., someone as young as Yummy] could be convicted of a felony. Even for the worst crime, they’d be sent to Juvie and be back on the streets by the time they were 21. So the gangs put shorties to work.” At eleven, Yummy’s crimes escalated from robbery and arson to murder when he shot at gang rivals and accidentally killed an innocent fourteen year old girl, Shavon Dean. Yummy hid from the police for several days; at first, his gang assisted him. When they realized that Yummy had become a liability, he was killed by two of his fellow gang members, brothers aged fourteen and sixteen.
Neri only fictionalizes the framing device to tell Yummy’s story, creating a young neighbor (Roger) to show Yummy’s life, the different views people had of him, and the impact of Yummy’s life on those around him. Neri’s website has additional resources; reading them, exploring more, shows that all the quotes about Yummy and his life are pulled from primary sources.
Using a graphic novel format to tell Yummy’s story creates a sense of immediacy, of being there with Roger and Yummy. Violence is spoken about, but what is shown is not explicit. It’s just enough to show the horror, the loss, the death, without being gratuitous. DuBurke’s black and white illustrations bring the reader into the story, removing any safe distance from Yummy. It also presents the story to those kids who would never pick up a “real book” — a novel, historical fiction — but will pick up a graphic novel.
There is nothing glamorous about Yummy; it is tragic, a waste. By using Roger as a narrator, Neri can ask questions — how did this happen? Could something have been done different? Did Yummy have choices? What about those around him? A final note from Neri does not answer the question as to whether Yummy was “a cold-blooded killer or a victim,” but does clearly give a take away to readers: “Like the preacher at Yummy’s funeral said: make up your mind that you will not let your life end like Yummy’s. Easier said than done, no doubt. But if you can find a way to make the choice of life, then other decisions may be easier. Choose wisely.”
In addition to the choices that Yummy faced, and the choices of other young men and women in similar circumstances, Yummy raises questions of both juvenile justice and the social welfare system. Yummy didn’t just fall between the cracks — he fell between the cracks over and over and over. Was there a point when something different could have been done so that Yummy could have been saved — or, could have realized he had different choices?
This is a middle school book, with its prime readership being those who, like Yummy, are about to face choices; and those who need to see the dark side of what they may see as a glamorous life.