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Today is a One-Shot World Tour celebrating books about city living, with a focus on books that have managed to stay under the radar and deserve more attention. I've decided to revisit a book I read a few years ago when I was a judge for the CYBILS - a book that is all about what it's like to be a teenaged male in the city of Gary, Indiana. Specifically, what it's like to be poor, and living in a gritty city, dealing with violence and racial prejudice and more. So perhaps this particular book isn't so much a celebration of city living as it is an examination of what inner-city life can be like.

The book is a poetry collection, Tough Boy Sonatas by Curtis L. Crisler, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. It was a pleasure because Crisler has put together a collection of poetry specifically for teenage boys, and more specifically, for kids who come from the 'hood or the wrong side of the track (or those who feel that way, wherever they may be from). The collection includes stories of innocent kids in a bad neighborhood and stories of kids dealing with massive life issues: drugs, crime, racism, social isolation, politics, religion, and more.

As most of you know, I often write about poetry on my blog. One of my reasons for wanting to write about poetry for Guys Lit Wire, where I first reviewed this book, is kinda summarized in the title of one of my favorite poems from the collection: "Boys Love Words".

boys love words
by Curtis L. Crisler

we slog to library to
do reports on satchmo
in rustic brick-red after-
school afternoons. little
brown-faced hood rats
sneaking chocolate-
covered donuts into library.
don't got milk or red cream
soda to stop-stick to roof
of mouth. half in study --
laughing, hungry amongst
tart, stale smell of old
books, cedar chairs -- dead
authors and miss library
-- she looks beyond
her white, cate-framed
glasses like we stink
of piss. we too breathe
the once dank lines of
whitman, the open pores
of petrarchan lady who
makes shakespeare sweat,
and we try nhot to sigh
when we open the hard
backs. she knows we
can smell the sex
bonded and glued,
sandwiched between
black and white lines--
no short attention span,
it's our curiosity in love
w/ the words she oversees,
checks in, hands out, in
love w/ what trickles out
our mouths, we flush her
cheeks, flex our callow
pecs-- callous lotharios
tugging at that new
itch in genitalia.

This is just one of the 39 poems that make up the collection, and it comes from the third section of the book, which is entitled "Tough Boy Sonatas". The first two sections are "Gary" and "Son of a City". The language used is indicative of the sort of rawness that appears in many of the poems, some more dark or violent, others more blunt or sexual. Each poem in this collection packs a bit of a punch.

This book is a great collection for teens interested in looking at edgy poetry for their age group, or who are interested in writing (in poetry or otherwise) about some of the inequities that still exist in today's American society, including racism, poverty, education and societal expectations. Most of the poems in the collection are serious poetry, almost all of them touching on serious issues, although with an infusion of sly humor now and again, as in "The Black of Gray", when Crisler writes:

. . .I prayed to the prototype
re-creation reprint of Jesus, never knowing this
dude was Michelangelo's relative or running
buddy or model . . .

Or in "Day Dreamer", which starts

In third grade on first floor of bliss
or was it hell? at David O. Duncan School

I'd lose chatter of overzealous teacher
talking-talkity-talk 'bout someone famous, white,

and dead or how many manias lived in texbooks--
how history declares, "Columbus revealed America"--

and we knew Indians gave Chris's ass a little help. . . .

The poems in Tough Boy Sonatas will challenge readers and make them think, which is probably one of the reasons that this book was on the 2008 ALA list of Best Books for Young Adults. The illustrations by noted illustrator Floyd Cooper contribute to the ambience of the book.

The full line-up of Under the Radar posts can be found by clicking the link in this here sentence, or that gorgeous graphic below:

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 16th, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)
tanita says:
I think I like best that there's no particular city - "urban" sonatas give that feel of gray, hard-edged grittiness that's shown even in the rough sketch on the cover.
Nov. 17th, 2011 12:52 am (UTC)
Re: tanita says:
Well, it's really about Gary, Indiana. But it's definitely gray, hard-edged, and gritty!
Nov. 16th, 2011 05:02 pm (UTC)
Wow. "Boys Love Words" had me at "like we stink of piss"--I had to take a step backward in my mind because that description just nails that scene, and those words aren't even the best part of the poem. And in another poem, the part about the Indians giving Chris's ass a little help--I like the humor and truth in those words. Great review.
Nov. 17th, 2011 12:53 am (UTC)
Thanks for the comments. And yeah - I tried to convey that the poems are a bit tough (some are rougher than what's here), but there's also some humor in there, which keeps the whole (slim) volume from becoming entirely too heavy.
Nov. 16th, 2011 11:14 pm (UTC)
Well, that is some accurate book title there. Tough Boy Sonatas - indeed. I'm curious to look through the book for Floyd Cooper's illustrations, because I love what he did with the cover. His artistic style, but... hipper. Thanks for sharing it.

Nov. 17th, 2011 12:53 am (UTC)
The illustrations are all pretty grey, really - but they suit the content extremely well.
Nov. 17th, 2011 12:43 am (UTC)
I both love and hate that cover. Love because I think, based on what you've told me here, it matches. Hate, because I think it affects readership.

--Jackie Parker
Nov. 17th, 2011 12:54 am (UTC)
I hear you. It is a depressing cover, which isn't exactly the sort of thing that most readers snatch up - and since it's largely targeted toward teen males, I think that somehow goes double.
Nov. 17th, 2011 01:02 am (UTC)
This was worth bringing back to our radar. Thanks, Kelly.
Nov. 17th, 2011 03:21 am (UTC)
You're welcome, Jeannine. :)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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