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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Social Justice and Inequality

Two passionate nonfiction books top our week.

Just Mercy is a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and activist, which focuses on his work as a co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative–“a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.” 

This is a timely, important, and effective look at the justice system in the United States, and it can be found on various 2014 Best Books lists, including the New York Times, Time, Kirkus, the Washington Post and more.

The Underground Girls of Kabul may be even more intriguing for young readers, as it focuses on a phenomenon about which most teens will be unaware–Afghan girls who pose as boys, known as bacha posh. Author Jenny Nordberg is an investigative journalist who was looking for the more nuanced realities of female lives beyond the well-trodden facts of Taliban suppression of women, and she found them. Take a look at the excellent interview with Nordberg in the Christian Science Monitor.

* STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. 316p. notes. Spiegel & Grau. Oct. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN  9780812994520.  

Only a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and America is one of them. What is the one commonality of people on death row? The race of the victim. If the victim is white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim is black.  In heartbreaking and personal details, Stevenson interweaves these statistics with real stories and his fight to change the injustices. He was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard when he was called to an internship in Georgia where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. This brought him face to face with what became his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, the mentally ill— the imprisoned. This fast-paced and relentless book, told in short chapters featuring different people’s stories, reads like a John Grisham novel. Walter, who was at a barbecue with over 100 people at the time of the murder he was accused of, spent more than six years on death row. All Jenkins wants from Stevenson is a chocolate milkshake, as he cannot understand what is going on. The stories include those of children, teens, and adults who have been in the system since they were teens. This is a title for the many young adults who have a parent or loved one in the prison system and the many others who are interested in social justice, the law, and the death penalty. A standout choice.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

NORDBERG, Jenny. The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. 348p. index. maps. notes. Crown. Sept. 2014. Tr $25. ISBN  9780307952493. LC 2014000295.  

The title and cover give no real hint as to what is inside. The girls portrayed are not resisting with weapons or spying, they are simply living their lives as boys.  The reasons are varied. The family may need help in a store, and will dress a female child as a boy to allow them to do this. Female relatives, not allowed outside unaccompanied, may need this “male” relative to walk them on errands. Frequently mentioned is using their status as a “boy” as a type of magic—by showing that the family is ready for a boy, a real male child may arrive. Often, members of the community know the child is really a girl, but accept this gender switch and go along with the ruse. Nordberg was given access to a few of the girls in this story, but the main character becomes adult Azita. Her father actually educated her, but once she reached her prime childbearing years, she was married off to a rural, illiterate cousin as his second wife. Somehow, Azita manages to win a government seat in her new rural district. Western readers will undoubtedly root for Azita to find a way out of this fiercely patriarchal arrangement, but Nordberg is astounding in her ability to elicit sympathy and rage for the women portrayed, while also attempting to explain why more elaborate female resistance may not yet be possible. Teenagers, who are often finding their passion regarding social injustice and gender differences, will find a great deal to think about in this well-researched and readable piece of reporting.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.


  1. Angela Carstensen says

    For those interested in JUST MERCY, take a look at additional reviews from Amy Cheney, who blogs at Reaching Reluctant Readers:


  1. […] Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. 316p. notes. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN […]