True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall

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When Mark Salzman is invited to visit a writing class at Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for Los Angeles's most violent teenage offenders, he scrambles for a polite reason to decline. He goes -- expecting the worst -- and is so astonished by what he finds that he becomes a teacher there himself. True Notebooks is an account of Salzman's first years teaching at Central. Through it, we come to know his students as he did: in their own words. At times impossible and at times irresistible, they write with devastating...
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When Mark Salzman is invited to visit a writing class at Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for Los Angeles's most violent teenage offenders, he scrambles for a polite reason to decline. He goes -- expecting the worst -- and is so astonished by what he finds that he becomes a teacher there himself. True Notebooks is an account of Salzman's first years teaching at Central. Through it, we come to know his students as he did: in their own words. At times impossible and at times irresistible, they write with devastating clarity about their pasts, their fears, their confusions, their regrets, and their hopes. They write about what led them to crime and to gangs, about love for their mothers and anger toward their (mostly absent) fathers, about guilt for the pain they have caused, and about what it is like to be facing life in prison at the age of seventeen. Most of all, they write about trying to find some reason to believe in themselves -- and others -- in spite of all that has gone wrong. Surprising, charming, upsetting, enlightening, and ultimately hopeful -- driven by the insight and humor of Salzman's voice and by the intelligence, candor, and strength of his students, whose writing appears throughout the book -- True Notebooks is itself a reward of the self-expression Mark Salzman teaches: a revelatory meditation on the process, power, and meaning of writing.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
In the hands of a lesser writer the characters in this book could easily be stock players: the orphaned inmate; the feisty nun, Sister Janet; the gruff guard with a heart of gold. But Salzman is too skilled to allow that to happen. He scores his book with sharps and flats, and manages to bring each person into full relief. One of the most interesting characters is the author himself, as he wins over his unruly class with quiet persistence, the odd compliment and one of the stranger cello recitals in literary history. — Douglas McCollam
The Washington Post
Nervous, cautious and self-deprecating throughout the book, Salzman never falls prey to preaching or moralizing about wayward teens; he keeps the focus on the students' poems, essays, raps and conversations. — Stephen J. Lyons
Publishers Weekly
Salzman (Lying Awake; Iron & Silk) volunteered to teach creative writing at Central Juvenile Hall, a Los Angeles County detention facility for "high-risk" juvenile offenders. Most of these under-18 youths had been charged with murder or other serious crimes, and after trial and sentencing many would end up in a penitentiary, some for life. Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program, convinced Salzman that in spite of his reservations-about teaching writing, about being a white liberal offering "art" to darker-skinned ghetto boys-these children needed to be encouraged to express themselves in writing instead of acting out, needed to feel they mattered to someone. So Salzman started coming twice a week to meet with three boys, although their number quickly grew. He tried to structure each session with a half hour for writing followed by each boy reading his work aloud, although after a lockdown or a class member's trial, he had to loosen the routine. While their writing themes are somewhat predictable-their anger and violent impulses, their relationships with parents and gangs, plus a tedious dose of "pussy, bullets, and beer"-the discussions these essays provoked were personal and often explosive. As productive as these classes were, everyone was always aware of the painful truth that students would soon be shipped out to more brutal facilities. Salzman doesn't dwell on that, concluding that "a little good has got to be better than no good at all." Indeed, his account's power comes from keeping its focus squarely on these boys, their writing and their coming-to-terms with the mess their lives had become. (Sept. 23) Forecast: The success of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's recent Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx and, to a lesser extent, Wally Lamb's Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters, along with media publicity, could mean strong sales for Salzman. Knopf plans a 75,000 first printing. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Salzman is one of my favorite authors, I'll say right up front. From his other autobiographical works, Iron & Silk and Lost in Place, his readers have learned about his humor, his passions, and his utter honesty in facing his own limitations. In True Notebooks, we learn that during the writing of his novel Lying Awake, he was miserable, suffering from writer's block and agonizing over characters, one of whom is an adolescent delinquent. He asked a friend if he could go with him to a class in L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall, where his friend was a volunteer who taught writing to boys who were serious criminals, mostly murderers. After this visit, Mark decided to try teaching his own class there, and this book contains vignettes from his first year. His class was small, about six boys at a time; boys caught up in gang violence, from various backgrounds. The only rule was that the boys could not write about their crimes, since that could interfere with their legal cases; otherwise they could write about anything. And they did. They wrote poignant memories of their mothers and their fathers; they wrote of their fears, their loneliness, their feelings of emptiness and worthlessness. Mark includes much of the boys' writing, with only spelling and punctuation changed from the original work. He doesn't censor obscenities or sexual references, either in the writing or in class discussions. Through the vignettes, Mark shows how their writing could be unexpectedly liberating. Most of the students were facing years of imprisonment: after their time at Juvenile Hall, they were moving to adult prisons to complete their sentences. Pragmatists would say their lives werehopelessly lost, and Mark should be spending his time teaching struggling students whose lives are ahead of them, and whose potential can be realized. Mark is no fool and understands that argument well. But, this is where he came to teach, and this is where he learned to care about the lives of these boys, and this is the experience he shares with his readers. One poignant result of his teaching the boys is recorded in "A Note of Thanks," included at the end, in which Mark says, "Although I don't touch on this subject in the text of the book, I'll say it now: they made me decide to have children of my own. It's a debt I can never repay." There are numerous situations Mark describes, recreating conversations, sharing the writing, describing his students' lives at Juvenile Hall, their trials and sentences. One I'd like to mention is about the time Mark was invited to play his cello for a special program for the inmates—he was sure the boys wouldn't like the classical music, but he didn't say no when asked. As he played "The Swan," by Saint-Saens, he heard a lot of rustling and assumed the boys were fidgeting. But when he looked at the audience he "saw a roomful of boys with tears running down their faces. The rustling that had distracted me was the sound of sniffling and nose-wiping." Truly a remarkable book, filled with the unexpected. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 330p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Claire Rosser
"Since I joined Mark's writing group, I've noticed a lot of changes in my life. Writing has helped me open up to other people and have an open mind to their opinions. Writing has taught me a lot about myself that I never knew I had bottled up inside. Everybody thinks I'm a 'hardened criminal' because of the charges against me, but they don't know the real me." These are the words written by Kevin, an incarcerated teenager. Salzman began teaching writing classes at a detention center to learn about juvenile offenders and continued when finding the experience to be intriguing. Readers will get to know the inmates on a personal level through their writing. They touch on topics such as families, criminal behavior, dreams, regrets, and prison life. The delinquents are a lot like regular teenagers. For example, they try to impress others; when the male inmates are able to mingle with the female inmates during a reading session, they use tape to make cuff links on their pants. Some inmates earn their high school diplomas while incarcerated and enjoy the ceremony within the confines of the detention center. The book reads like a novel. Salzman intersperses his feelings about the experience with writings from the inmates, creating a valuable book for anyone who wants to learn more about juvenile offenders and Inside Out Writers, a program that provides writers who teach classes in detention centers throughout California. This book is highly recommended for public and college libraries. 2003, Knopf, 330p., Ages adult professional.
—Sheila B. Anderson
Library Journal
In this memoir of teaching writing to boys at a Los Angeles correctional facility, Salzman (Iron & Silk) paints a revealing portrait of the art of teaching, the craft of writing, the boys and staff members, and himself. The result is both intriguing and disturbing-intriguing for the matter-of-fact details of life "on the street" and at Central Juvenile Hall and disturbing for the evidence of a society more focused on punishment than rehabilitation. Salzman admits that he became involved with the Inside Out writing program only reluctantly, motivated primarily by the influence of a colleague and the dynamic woman coordinating volunteers. But over the years, he befriended many of his students and continued to work with them because they "responded to encouragement and wrote honestly." As he explains, the boys' writing, although replete with anger and graphic language, is also filled with raw emotion. Salzman's own writing is heartfelt and moving, offering a glimpse into this brutal world of parental neglect, poverty, and violence and persuading us that the young people who inhabit it "deserve all the help they can get." Recommended.-Kathryn R. Bartelt, Univ. of Evansville Libs., IN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Salzman (Lying Awake, 2000, etc.) chronicles his experiences as a teacher of writing to young defendants held in Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles. It makes quite a contrast with the gentle tone of Salzman's memoir about teaching in China (Iron and Silk, 1986), having more in common with the how-I-survived-in-a-tough-classroom accounts of George Dennison and Jonathan Kozol. In 1997, needing background for a juvenile delinquent character in his novel-in-progress, the writer visited a class of juvenile criminals taught by a friend and began teaching his own group after succumbing to some arm-twisting from the friend and from a dedicated nun, Sister Janet, who appears throughout the text. An author's note informs us that he "re-created from memory" the conversations he held with these tough young men (most accused of murder), and he must have quite a memory, for the narrative is principally dialogue. Salzman held two one-hour sessions per week as part of a project sponsored by a nonprofit foundation. Here, he describes individual class sessions and reproduces (verbatim, he says, with only the spelling and mechanics standardized) some of the pieces the students wrote during the class. Their work ranges from angry to poignant to ugly to horrifying to horrible to pathetic. Salzman occasionally takes us outside-a particularly effective instance involves watching a meteor shower with his father in Arizona-but for the most part he confines his story, like his students, so readers feel the institutional claustrophobia. The author carefully documents his insecurities, his frustrations, and his occasional inability to coax much work or interest-or even civility-from the class, but he alsodescribes in great detail his many successes, most notably a "retreat" that he helps arrange with writing students from other units in the facility. Neither does he neglect to record numerous laudatory comments about his work from colleagues, students, and corrections officers. A captivating story of hopeless young men whose committed teacher listens-and thereby learns as much as he teaches. Author tour
From the Publisher
“Extraordinary. . . . Everything about this book seems perfect.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Fresh, galvanizing and articulate . . . a narrative that asks as many questions as it answers. Cogent, thoughtful and honest.” —The New York Times

“One cannot read. . . and not be stirred . . . As moving as it is sparse, as revealing as it is concealing, as straightforward as it is complex.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Engaging. . . . Salzman creates a cast of lively, convincing, and hugely sympathetic characters and True Notebooks is filled with powerfully moving scenes.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375413087
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/16/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 352
  • Lexile: 840L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Salzman is the author of Iron & Silk, an account of his two years in China; Lost in Place, a memoir; and the novels The Laughing Sutra, The Soloist, and Lying Awake. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the filmmaker Jessica Yu, and their daughter, Ava.

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Read an Excerpt

Mr. Jenkins unlocked the bolt and pushed the steel-frame door to K/L unit open with his shoulder.
"Look who's back. Nice trip?"
"Very nice." I had just returned from my sister's wedding in Connecticut. "Did we lose anybody while I was gone?"
"Paulino's in the Box, but he'll be back."
"Hey Mark! Whassup?"
Three of the boys in my juvenile hall writing class were already in the library, their folders and notepads spread out on the table. Toa, a seventeen-year-old Samoan with a linebacker's build, stepped forward and gave me a hug. "So you bring us any maple syrup, or what?" he asked.
"Maple syrup?"
"I know 'bout that 'cause a watchin' Mr. Rogers when I was a kid."
Raashad's eyes opened wide. "You seen that show too?"
"Every kid seen that show, fool. Nothin' else to do in the mornin' 'cept break toys an' shit."
"Yeah, I was always like, where that neighborhood at? Nobody got drunk or beat his ass or nothin'."
"Yeah," Toa said, "but check it out: that show be fake. Know how I figured it out? People always be walkin' in and outta his door and he never locked it. He'd'a had all his shit jacked if it was real."
"Yeah! Homies be like, 'It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood--now gimme that train set, fool.'"
"So how was your sister's wedding?" Antonio asked me as I handed out pencils.
"Beautiful. Perfect weather, too."
"Any fights break out?" Toa asked.
"At the wedding?"
"Nah, at the reception."
"No, no fights. Where are the restof the guys?"
"The chapel. They got some kinda meditation retreat over there this morning. Could you gimme another pencil, Mark? This one don't got no eraser."
Toa frowned. "'Cause you bit it off, fool. I just seen you."
"I didn't bite nothin' off. It was already gone, I was just chewin' on the metal part."
"I went to that meditation thing once," Antonio said. "I went 'cause I heard the instructor was this hot female, but then I got there and it was some bald guy in a robe playin' a harmonica. Fuck that."
Raashad checked the eraser on his new pencil, then said, "Yeah, you suppos'ta close your eyes an' picture yourself goin' down some stairs into your workshop in the cellar where you got all yo' tools."
"Your tools?"
"Yeah, 'tools for life.'" Raashad rolled his eyes. "You suppos'ta choose what tools you need and put 'em on your belt, like you some kinda superhero. First of all, I say to myself: What nigga you know got a workshop? What nigga you know got a cellar? Right off I knew this shit ain't for me."
We joked around for a while, talked about a former class member who had just been sentenced to fifty years to life, then the boys settled down to write. After forty minutes, when they had all written something, I asked who would like to read aloud first.
"Let Carter start," Antonio said. Although I addressed them by their first names, the boys followed the example of the staff and referred to each other by last name only. "Carter got some good news last week."
Raashad nodded, propped his notepad on one knee, and read:
At about 2:33 a.m. the night staff came to my door and unlocked it. The sound of the key turning woke me up immediately, that sound always wakes me up alarmingly. The staff said, "Hey Carter, get up." I said, "Man what the hell." He said telephone. The first thing I thought was it was the police telling me someone in my family was dead. As I'm walking to the phone my heart was beating extremely hard like if you could see it beating through my shirt. When I picked up the phone I was relaxed by the sweet soothing sound of my companion and fiance Amika telling me she just gave birth to a little girl. The feeling inside me was indescribable. It was amazing, she said she weighed in at 8 lbs 4 oz. I felt so happy my body felt so numb. I was astounded by the information I had just received. I feel so great. Ever since that day I've been happy and just waiting to see her. I heard her giggle on the phone the feeling was great. I can't wait until the day when I can hold my daughter.
"Congratulations," I said.
He half smiled. "I'm pretty excited about it. I just pray to God I win my case so I can get out soon."
Toa volunteered to read next, promising to take everyone's mind away from prison and back to the freedom of "the outs."
My family weddings are cool and all but my family can't get along. During the wedding it's cool and all but the party that's after it ain't nothin' nice. It's like warfare. As soon as they down a few cases everybody all of a sudden feels like Superman. For example my cuzzin's wedding was beautiful, everything's going smooth, even the party until my brothers showed up. Apparently my brother had shot one of the groom's cuzzins and he was paralyzed. And the best man was that fool's older brother. They weren't trippin' but my brother was. He banked the best man up on the dance floor in front of everybody. People was already drunk and shit so they start jumpin' in wanting to scrap too. My stupid ass cuzzin threw a chair in the crowd and it hit this old man. Everybody stopped right then and there because the old man was the priest. The priest's son started trippin' so we fucked that punk up in the parking lot. That's why I kinda hate family weddings.
As promised, the essay took Raashad's and Antonio's minds off their surroundings. They compared stories of family gatherings that had turned into brawls until we had only five minutes left for class, then Antonio read last.
I am lying in my room incarcerated at Central Juvenile Hall looking at the white painted walls in my room, and how my door is shut with a steel bolt lock to show that I am locked up. It's weird but this room relates to my life I once lived outside, over the walls laced with barbed wire. I was locked in a world where nothing would come in and nothing would go out. I was trapped in my gang life, that's all I knew and all I wanted to know. I chose to stay in my room and not let anybody control me. I had too much pride to open my door and let somebody in. I neglected the people who really cared about me, my family and my loved ones. Sure, at the time it was all fun, but was the consequences really worth it? To me, no, but I was the steel bolt that kept myself from realizing that the world is a lot bigger than a room (my gang). There are a lot more things out there than your homies and homegirls. Don't get me wrong, I got love for them, but how are you going to be with people that are holding you back from blossoming and showing your full potential? I now realize how precious life really is. It's too bad that I am probably never going to be able to show the world what I have to offer. As I sit in my room thinking what would have happened if I would have opened my door and not just stayed in my room.
"This is why we get into so many fights around here," Raashad said. "You don't wanna be thinkin' shit like that, it's too depressing, so you start somethin' with your roommate, and before you know it you both be poundin' on each other till you fall asleep. It's a distraction."
Mr. Jenkins tapped on the glass, letting us know it was time for the boys to return to the dayroom for lunch. Meanwhile, the inmates who had attended the meditation retreat were just returning. They shuffled across the yard single file with their hands clasped behind their backs and most of their heads bowed forward. When everyone had come inside and the door to the unit was closed, one of the boys crossed the dayroom to say hello to me.
"How you doin', Mark? We missed you."
"I missed you, too, Santiago. It's good to be back."
"Sorry about not comin' to class today. I wanted to try meditation, see if it could make me relax."
"How was it?"
"It kinda sucked. The instructor was a guy."
"But you look happy," I said.
"I am happy! Something good happened to me today, Mark." Santiago grew serious for a moment. "I been feelin' really stressed 'cause I started trial last Friday. This morning the chaplain saw me and he asked me what was wrong. I said, 'I feel like a piece of shit stuck under somebody's shoe.' I told him how I had to hear the prosecutor say all this bad stuff about me in front of everybody. It was the worst day of my life. My whole family was there. I felt like I let everybody down. So the chaplain looks at me an' he puts his hand on my shoulder like this, an' he says, 'Diaz, you gotta remember something: You are somebody. Don't ever forget that.' So I thought about it, and I realized--damn, he's right! Nobody could take that away from me. I am somebody! I--"
"Diaz, get your ass over here so we can eat."
Santiago glared at the messenger and gave him the finger. The messenger pointed at Santiago and yanked his hand back and forth to simulate masturbation. The two boys exchanged threatening looks until honor had been restored, then Santiago turned his attention back to me.
"What were we...?"
"The chaplain," I said.
"Oh yeah! I am somebody," he said once more, grinning this time. "Somebody awful!"
2 .
Just Say No
When I can't make up my mind about something, I start a notebook. I use it to think aloud; I fill it with questions, arguments, and reassuring cliches. My notebook from August 1997 read:
--students all gangbangers; feel unqualified to evaluate poems about AK-47s --still angry about getting mugged in 1978 --still angry about having my apartment robbed in 1986 --still angry about my wife's car being stolen in 1992 --wish we could tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean --feel uncomfortable around teenagers
On the next page, I wrote:
--have never seen the inside of a jail --pretended to be enthusiastic when Duane mentioned it
The trouble started after I mentioned to Duane Noriyuki, a friend and writer for the Los Angeles Times, that I was having problems with my novel about a cloistered nun. "What kind of problems?" he asked. I didn't want to reveal the full extent of it: the plot had collapsed, the main characters seemed lifeless, the dialogue rang false, I had lost sight of the theme, and the setting felt wrong--so I limited myself to telling him about Carlos. Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness. Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And "please please please," she urged in one of her notes, "give him a different name."
Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured Duane must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answered, "Not really."
I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, "But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a writing class there. If you'd like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book."
I didn't respond immediately; I wanted him to think I was giving it serious thought. Then I asked, "Are you sure you can't recommend any books?"
--Jack Henry Abbott/Norman Mailer debacle. Who cares if thugs write well? They're still thugs. --Crime victims don't get free writing classes, why should the criminals? --I gave free readings for the L.A. Library and Planned Parenthood this year, I did my bit.
And then there was my deep-seated prejudice against writing classes. I taught creative writing once; at the end of that semester I vowed never to put the words "creative writing" and "class" together in the same sentence again. During our first meeting, a female student read aloud a nonfiction piece about the day her mother discovered her father had been having an affair. As she came to the part of the story where her mother, driven hysterical with anger, scratched her father's face and drew blood, the memory was so painful that she burst into tears and barely made it to the end. When she finished, an uncomfortable silence hung over the room. I was the teacher; it was my job to think of something to say that acknowledged her grief but kept the focus on writing. Should I compliment the way she made the scene more immediate by putting it in the present tense? Should I praise her use of dialogue without tags, i.e., how she always managed to keep the two voices distinct through style and context?
"I have no idea what you're--"
"You're not letting me--"
Before I could decide what to say, a shrill male voice rose out of the silence:
"Your mother scratched your father's face just because he was having an affair?"
The man who was to make the next three months a living hell for me--a middle-aged adult education student who wrote stories about middle-aged adult education students living in Japan who discover love with underage, gender-unspecified Asians with skin like bean curd milk and hands like lotus buds--rolled his eyes and hissed, "She sounds like a real bitch to me."
The class was supposed to run from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., but I concluded that meeting at seven-thirty, went out to the parking lot, and hyperventilated in my car.
Most of the students were taking the class because they needed a minimum number of English credits to graduate. They turned in handwritten assignments on paper torn out from spiral notebooks; they came in late and wandered out of class early; they wrote about dogs that could water-ski, memorable hangovers, and the true meaning of love:
I'm there for you And your there for me Our beatiful baby Makes three.
The student who wrote the poem about her beatiful baby was a senior, one semester away from her goal of becoming a public school teacher. I asked if, in her next draft, she could perhaps tell us more about her baby. Describe the baby, tell us how the baby is beautiful, make us see the baby--avoid generalizations, be specific. She shrugged and said, "I don't have a baby."
From the Hardcover edition.

Copyright© 2003 by Mark Salzman
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Table of Contents

1 Somebody 3
2 Just Say No 9
3 Gentlemen 14
4 Trip to the Museum 22
5 Collision 45
6 Here I Am 56
7 Lockdown 71
8 Dream State 79
9 Arcana 90
10 Prisoner or Pumpkin 103
11 Feeling Special 115
12 Mother's Day 121
13 Played 126
14 A Day of Creation 146
15 Busted 170
16 Happy Birthday 179
17 Family Life 188
18 Two-Face 195
19 Send in the Clowns 210
20 The Buster 226
21 No Mercy Walls 242
22 Window Tappers 253
23 The Man I Was Supposed to Be 261
24 Thanks, Hate 273
25 Father's Day 294
26 The Letter 307
27 Dear Friend 321
Author's Note 327
A Note of Thanks 329
A Note about Inside Out Writers 331
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Mark Salzman

The boys in your writing class were classified as HROs (high-risk offenders). They were charged with such crimes as murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery, and all were facing, if convicted, lengthy sentences in adult prison. Even as they faced these dangerous stakes, the boys seemed to take to the writing assignments immediately and with relative ease. Why do you think that is?

I suspect it didn’t hurt that they were bored out of their minds! Writing class provided a welcome alternative to being locked up in their cells. Even more than that, though, I believe that the kids were starving for opportunities to express themselves in some way -- to prove to themselves, and to their peers and to adults like me, that they had something to offer. Every one of the kids I worked with felt he was a failure. Our writing class provided an excuse for reflection, self-discovery, and creativity without the pressure of knowing they would be criticized for poor spelling or grammar. The topics I assigned tended to be simple: describe a time you felt alone, describe a time you felt betrayed, describe a person who changed your life. The boys were delighted to be asked questions which they could answer immediately, and with real feeling, and doing so gave them a sense of pride and satisfaction.

People who have not been inside a juvenile correction facility might be struck by the lively sense of humor these kids have. Did that surprise you?

I was surprised by just about everything I encountered at juvenile hall, and that certainly includes the fact that the kids were able to maintain a sense of humor in thatenvironment. One kid, after a terrible day at court, looked inexplicably cheerful. He explained that that morning, the chaplain had seen him looking discouraged and told him never to despair. “Just remember,” he told the boy, “you are somebody!” The boy told me that this phrase changed his whole attitude. It made him realize that no matter what happened, no matter what anybody said about him, he was somebody and nobody could take that away from him. “I am somebody,” he said once more — then he grinned at me and added, “Somebody awful!

The humor surprised me, but what surprised me even more was that they were able to express fear, regret, love, confusion, concern for each other, longing for their parents, and respect toward an outsider like me. Not at all what I expected from, as one correctional officer put it, “the cream of the crud.”

At one point in the book, you worry about whether it’s OK to like the kids as quickly and as much as you do. Should you (and we) be more concerned with their criminal histories?

After teaching only a few months, I did wonder how I could have gone so quickly from wishing that all teenage criminals could be packed in crates and dumped into the ocean to feeling such affection for my students, and such pride in their accomplishments. I think the fact that they were, in fact, children -- in spite of having been assigned to adult court -- explains some of it. Their obvious longing for relationships with mentor or parent figures, their need for reassurance, their hunger for attention, their vulnerability, all made it impossible not to respond when they asked for help, and impossible not to feel cheered by the positive effect that encouragement had on them. As for their crimes, I came to feel that it was enough for me to know that they had committed serious offenses, and leave it at that. The full force of the adult justice system was being applied to determine their guilt or innocence and the manner of their punishment; my job was to make them feel that there was still some reason to believe in themselves, and in others.

Did you ever wonder if you were tough enough to deal with these kids?

Oh my, yes. The first time I went to juvenile hall as a visitor, I was terrified. The second time I went there, as a teacher, I was even more terrified. I wasn’t afraid of physical violence; I naively assumed that if a fight broke out, I could always curl up on the floor and let the guards save me. What scared me was the thought of being in a room full of kids who hated me, who hated everybody, and whom I would somehow have to win over by appearing strict but consistent. I am neither strict nor consistent, and I am about as tough as a robin’s egg, so I expected to be overrun by the kids and to have to leave the place in shame, with the sound of their derisive laughter ringing in my ears. Instead, I discovered that the kids were eager to like me; they were ready to like just about anybody whose life was not either imploding or exploding and who was not a direct authority figure, and they were desperate to be liked back. So I did not have to win them over at all.

As a weekly volunteer at Central Juvenile Hall, did you encounter any resistance from the regular staff?

When I first started the class, I got a cool reception from the staff. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t rolling out the red carpet for me; I was bringing free education to their facility, couldn’t they be more grateful? Then I saw how difficult their job was, and I saw how many volunteers show up at places like juvenile hall full of enthusiasm, only to disappear after a few weeks leaving the kids with a sense of being rejected, and I understood their reticence. After I’d been there several months, the reticence disappeared. But there were still moments when I was reminded that their relationship to the kids was different than mine. In one meeting with the superintendent of the facility, he commented that our writing classes made the kids feel special. I took that as a compliment, but he meant it as a criticism. If incarcerated prisoners feel special, he explained, it becomes more difficult for them to return to the group mentality that the staff wants to instill. He wanted us to debrief our students at the end of each class, to remind them that they were prisoners, so they would be properly submissive toward the staff.

When you began teaching at the juvenile correctional facility, you were trying to complete your novel, Lying Awake, and you were experiencing some writer’s block. How did the kids react when you admitted that your own writing wasn’t going so well?

At first they were shocked to hear that I could have difficulties with writing. I was a professional, wasn’t I? I was published, wasn’t I? How could I fail? Many of these kids see the world as being composed of two kinds of people: winners, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and losers. If you are a winner, you triumph all the time and you get all the money and all the women you want and you get to rub everyone’s noses in it every day. If you are a loser, it’s over; you suck and your whole life is going to go down the toilet. I believe it was encouraging for them to learn that someone whose life was not going down the toilet could still struggle, could still have setbacks just like them, and could feel that there was reason to hope for better days to come. It made them feel that maybe their own lives were not entirely lost after all, that they might one day recover from their mistakes and come out from their present struggles as better, wiser people. But when they heard that my editor had rejected the first draft of my novel, they went ballistic. The boys were very protective of me; anyone who criticized my work was their enemy. Reviewers, take note.

After you finished Lying Awake and the novel was published, did you continue teaching at Central Juvenile Hall? When and how did you tell the kids that they were the subject of your new book? Were they hesitant or eager to participate?

I did continue teaching at Central after Lying Awake was published. I ran the class for four years altogether, then passed it on to another writer after my daughter was born and I became a stay-at-home dad. I consider myself on sabbatical until my daughter is able to change her own diapers.

When I decided to write this book, I tracked down all of the kids who had been in the class (all but one is in adult prison), described the book I wanted to write, and asked if they would give me permission to include their work in it. They did give permission, and in their letters back they made it clear that they are very, very happy to know that something they did, which they made valuable through their own efforts, will be shared with others and may even do some good. And they are all still writing.

Having worked with these kids for so long, do you feel now that trying juvenile offenders as adults and sending them to adult prison is the right thing to do?

Certainly, the kids that I worked with needed to be incarcerated. Their lives were completely out of control, they had to be prevented from causing further suffering, and they had to be held responsible for their actions. Personally, I feel that most of them could be rehabilitated, but I recognize that to do so would require an enormous commitment of time and resources — more than I expect to see earmarked for that purpose in the near future. In my ideal world, these kids would be sent to places that would incorporate features of our best mental health facilities (clean, attractive environment; daily counseling and education opportunities; sympathetic but authoritative professional staff) following the discipline model of a well-run boot camp. I am convinced that the high cost of such facilities would, in the long run, be offset by lowered rates of recidivism. Until my ideal world becomes a reality, however, I would like to see more attention focused on early-intervention programs for at-risk children and their families — programs designed to help children who are just starting to show signs of troubled behavior, but who have not yet committed any serious crime. The success rate for these programs has been terrific, and they deserve our full support.

How do you think crime victims, or the families of crime victims, will react to this book? You don’t romanticize the kids — it’s obvious they are deeply troubled, conflicted people — but you don’t withhold your affection for them or your pride in their successes, either. Will some people be offended by that?

I’ve been the victim of several crimes myself, including being mugged, and I’m still angry about every one of those crimes, so I certainly wouldn’t blame the victim of a violent crime for objecting to the idea of a book like this. I wouldn’t want that person to suffer any more than he or she already has, so my recommendation would be: if the very idea of the book makes you angry, don’t force yourself to read it. Life is too short. But I do hope that if such a person were to go ahead and read the book anyway, the experience of meeting these kids in print would have some of the effect that meeting them in person has had on me, which is to make me feel less angry. Knowing something about these kids, and understanding a bit better why they do the awful things they do, has made me feel less fearful of the violence in our society, because the unknown is always more frightening that what is known. And meeting them has made me more hopeful, because as long as some traces of humanity and conscience and aspiration still exist, there is hope that those qualities can triumph over their opposites.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 11, 2010

    I love reading something so real!

    True Notebooks is the story of high-risk offenders in LA's Central Juvenile Hall exposing their vulnerable selves in a writing class. This one opportunity to share their thoughts literally gives the few who attend room to breathe and a window to the sky instead of a tenebrous 10 by 12 cell abutting a brick wall. For their efforts, the prisoners unearth pain and fear and find joy and understanding. Salzman pens the sojourn without pity, emitting the raw energy of these prisoners, showing through his eyes and their voices that they are like so many teenagers we know.they think about girls incessantly, they clown around, they make mistakes, they have yet to discover their true selves. The author moves through scenes with dexterity as he shares his journey­ in a world not his own while contextualizing the stories of his students for whom life is a sentence not an abstraction and endings are rarely happy. Read True Notebooks and remember that life is less black and white but so many shades in between.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 24, 2011

    Highly Recommended!

    Great book, it'll leave you wanting to know more about the students. Pretty sad at thee end recommend it to the high school group and above. Ir's an easy read

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2005

    Writing from the Inside

    This book is an absolutely riveting read. Took me one plane flight--and I don't usually read much on planes. The boys are marvellously rendered--often simply by giving room for their writing. Indirectly this book says more about why writing should be a big part of EVERY child's life than any curriculum guide you'll ever find.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2005

    Amazingly truthful

    Although the language was at times crude I absolutely loved this book. It made me see that just because you wear an orange suit that says INMATE on it doesn't mean that you can think for yourself. I love the examples of writing presented from the boys in the K/L unit. This book was very heartfelt and by far one of the best books I've read over the summer.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 29, 2014

    I am graduating high school now and I still remember reading thi

    I am graduating high school now and I still remember reading this book my freshman year. My English teacher at the time had this ongoing assignment where we had to continuously be reading a book. As soon as we finished one we had to start another one, and each day at the end of class she would give us time to write in our reading journals. I loved this because I read ALL the time anyways, but my point is this: one week she told us we had to read at least one NON fiction book. So I found "A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall" in my school library. I fell in love the with the book right away, from the way it is written, to the 'characters' and their sometimes hilarious sometimes thought provoking and touching banter. There's no other word to describe this book except perfect. The fact that it was nonfiction constantly blew my mind as I was reading it because it genuinely feels like you're reading a novel. I recommend this book for anyone, from teens to adults, to senior citizens. It really is a good read, and it is one that I will never forget the experience of reading. I thank my 9th grade English teacher for that assignment because it helped me discover that nonfiction can be just as wonderful, if not more wonderful fiction at times. It is now four years later and I have my next nonfiction read on my summer reading list: "When Elephant's Weep" by Jeffery Moussaieff. I cannot wait to crack it open! Give "A Writer's Year At Juvenile Hall" a chance and don't be intimidated by the fact that it is nonfiction.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2009

    True Notebooks

    I read the book True Notebooks by Mark Salzman. True Notebooks is about Mark Salzman who visited L.A.'s Juvenile Hall writing class. At the L.A. Juvenile Hall writing class, are teenage kids, many of them who were charged with murder. These boys write mostly about what led them to their crime and about the lives that they have behind bars. Throughout the book, these boys learn what they did wrong and try to believe in their future selves.
    One character from True Notebooks is Mark Salzman. He is the author of the book and also the main character of this book. He was the teacher of L.A.'s Juvenile Hall writing class. I would describe Mark as courageous and he changed people's lives with his class. He inspired his students to move forward with their lives and to start over. Another character from this book is Raashad who is one of the students in Mark's writing class. He is very honest when he writes papers about his life. Also he has a fiancé who had a little baby girl and hopes to be a part of her life very soon. Another character from this book is Kevin. Kevin regrets everything he did to get himself into Juvenile Hall. He takes his writing very seriously and is very compassionate about writing.
    "During difficult times, I think about freedom and what it really is. Some people say that I don't have freedom because I'm in jail but I have freedom and lots of it. I may not have as much as a person on the "outs," but I have enough to make life enjoyable. I can read and write or just sit back and do nothing. Back when black people were slaves they were killed of whipped severely for trying to educate themselves, and that right there helps me to recognize how much freedom I do have. I have spiritual and mental freedom. I can lay on my bed knowing I may never be physically free again, but the Lord allows me to be at peace and have that sense of freedom. Writing also helps me be free. I can create anything with my imagination, pencil, and paper, and before I know it I've created something that was in me the whole time, my pencil and paper just helped me let it out, freely." This passage was spoken by Kevin.
    I feel the passage I picked in this book is very important because it explains that even though these teenage boys are behind bars they still have freedom. Kevin was trying to make a poing that inside every good there's some bad, and inside every bad there's some good. Most teenage boys in this juvenile hall feel that their lives are over, but if you look at it in Kevin's perspective, you still have a chance to start over and do things right.
    I strongly agree with most points in this book because the writing class is making a point that everyone has freedom in their lives, even if others have a harder life to live. Also, there are no serious errors the author made in this book. And there are no new and unusual ideas. This book relates to my life and the lives of people I know because even though these teenage boys in the book are in jail, we have some of the same emotions they have and some of the same obstacles they have to deal with.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2004

    We loved this book!

    True Notebooks brings heart and sensitivity to a Los Angeles juvenile detention center. Author Mark Salzman uses compassion and honesty to describe his experience of teaching a writing class to a group of young men who were lost in the criminal justice system. Through their writing, the boys were able to express themselves and find peace amidst their anger and sorrow. As confined criminals, they could have easily been ignored and forgotten, but because of the Inside Out Writers program they were given a voice, as well as a chance to be heard. Throughout the book, you get to know each individual. Salzman personifies those who would most commonly be labeled as 'just a criminal.' Although each of the boys¿ stories are sad and disheartening, you find yourself applauding their efforts at redemption. True Notebooks is a must read and will open up your mind and your heart.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2004

    Lost generations in penal America

    For a quarter of last year, I carried on a rollicking email correspondence with two of my cousins in affluent suburban Washington, D. C. The running gist of out notes was their imprisonment in the 'juvey hall' of the Montgomery County School System. After devouring 'True Notebooks' over the course of a weekend, the humor of our emails disappeared. Although I'm a 37 year old guy, I found myself squirting tears at various points in Salzman's account of his time teaching in the L. A. prison system; I cried for the kids in Juvenile Hall who had been denied the innocence of childhood and were robbed, in turn, of their future by a system that is more third world than first world. Poignant is a word that has morphed into a cliche, but True Notebooks is poignant and tragic. The sadness that flows throughout this memoir is profound.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2004

    A wonderful discovery

    Looking through the shelves of my local B&N, the cover of this book caught my eye. But Salzman's powerful story, and honesty kept me reading. Looking for a book on Prison Ministry, this one seemed to be my closest option; I found it far more insightful and refreshing. By retelling his experience, Salzman introduced us to real people who have transformed not only his life, but now ours--the reader. He showed us the vast potential and difficult pressures juvenile offenders face. He showed us the struggle felt by many volunteers as they pour their lives, free time and money into other's lives. Most importantly, he showed us the value of making the often forgotten feel special.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2003

    mark salzman succeeds again

    this is a hard book to write with sensitive subjects but mark salzman is able to completely engage the writer in the lives of these kids that has done crime. mark salzman's sensitivity to unsaid emotions and slight humor made this book absolutely compelling and also thought provoking.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2003

    amazing honesty

    mark salzman was very subtly added the inmates writing, which was extremely well written and thoughtful. Mark salzman included his emotions/reactions toward these people that no one thinks about. his experience deeply impacted him, and it did to me. i highly recommend this book because its well written-some parts heartbreaking and some parts funny.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2003


    I absolutely LOVED this book...i am studying to be a prosecutor so my motto is to 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' but after reading this book i now have some compassion and understand that some people are just weak and their background do have a lot to do with their future 'bad' decision making(i still wanna lock them up but now i will vow to really look at a case objectively)...i recommened this book anyone!! Mark Saltzman truly passed on his feeling toward those boys to the reader, i would love an update book eventually on Kevin, Benny and Francisco..oh and Nathaniel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2003

    Profound Impact

    I have never in my life read a book that had such a profound impact on my thoughts and heart. This book changed my life. I am 21 and have been struggling with what direction I want my life to go and this book opened my eyes to want to do something worthwile that will having meaning to others. This book moved me and I will re-read it many times to come. I am not a big reader but I read this book within a week and still cannot put it down even though I've read it through.

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    Posted January 19, 2009

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    Posted November 15, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2011

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    Posted August 25, 2011

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