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Posts Tagged ‘foster children

The Boy Who Carried Bricks is a sad and inspirational true story by Alton Carter about his years as a foster child. It’s sad because of the horror Carter experienced during his formative years, but equally inspirational because of how Carter stayed true to himself even while the rest of his family fell apart. The Boy Who Carried Bricks will enlighten you about the realities of the foster care system, as well as pull on your heartstrings.

Anyone who reads The Boy Who Carried Bricks will not fail to question how terrible our society sometimes treats children. In a straightforward and honest narrative, Carter describes how he grew up with a life full of fear, hunger, and loneliness. When his mom finally married, after dating and bearing children to five different men, the guy turned out to be violent. More than once, the step-dad physically abused the family. Life should have better after the step-dad left, but the mom didn’t seem to know how to care for anyone. She spent more hours drowning her sorrows and partying than acting like a mom. As a result, the five boys often had nothing but moldy food to eat and at times showed at school with roaches in their ears. Even when the grandparents step into help, life doesn’t really improve, and Carter often felt that he had no one to turn to for comfort or protection. As you can see, the novel makes for a tough read, and even worse happens in the first few foster homes that Carter lands. The matter-of-fact tone, however, kept me from putting the book aside for lighter fare. I had to know what would happen to this young person who seemed determined to succeed, against all odds.

Anyone who reads The Boy Who Carried Bricks should also not fail to feel inspired by the hope that Carter carried within him. Even in the unhealthiest situations, Carter held onto the belief that normalcy could be his. When living with his grandparents, he also often encountered his uncles. One of them in particular turned sadistic when drunk. Yet he could also treat the five boys to an evening of stories and trademark greasy fries, an event which Carter viewed as a happy time. Fortunately, along the way, he also met kind and caring individuals who were to have a long-lasting impact on him. One of them was an elderly lady for whom he mowed her lawn and performed other summer chores. She believed that Carter should improve his reading and so provided him daily with a newspaper article. At the end of the summer, she gave him a novel to read too. Her pride in him helped him believe more in himself. Eventually, Carter encountered enough positive influences that Carter decided to take charge of his own life by contacting the Department of Human Services himself. His tributes to others allowed me as a reader to keep faith in a book that often felt full of dark times.

My final commendation of The Boy Who Carried Bricks involves the subtle lessons that Carter imparts. One that stands out is an incident with a teacher whom Carter accused of picking on him due to his color. In reality, she simply wanted him to do his best, but he kept rebuffing her because of how alone he felt in his troubles. Through her continual affirmation of his abilities, he came to realize that he needed to take responsibility for his own actions. If he pursued a life of crime, this was his own choice and had nothing to do with his being a foster child, poor, or black. And if he wanted to experience love and all the good things in life, he needed to work for them.

According to Carter’s introduction in The Boy Who Carried Bricks, there are over 400,000 children in the United States living without permanent families. In writing his story, Carter hoped to make a difference in the life of readers. He wanted adults to be the best they could and to know they have the opportunity to give young people a chance to believe in themselves. He also wanted young people to know that they can become whatever they dare to dream. The Boy Who Carried Bricks should motivate anyone who reads it.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Abandoned by his father, neglected by his mother, shuttled between foster homes and a boys’ ranch for most of his formative years, a young man refuses to succumb to the fate that the world says should be his.

The above description comes from the inside flap of The Boy Who Carried Bricks, an autobiography from Alton Carter. Writer Space quotes Carter as saying that the title is both literal and figurative. One of the punishments Carter faced at a ranch for boys where he lived for a while as a teen was to pick up, carry, and stack bricks over and over again. The boys sometimes did it for seven hours straight. At the same time, Carter also carried the weight of many issues, all of which caused him self-esteem and relationship problems.

AUTHOR

AltonCarterAlton Carter grew up in Oklahoma, where he still makes his home with his wife and two sons. At age eight, he entered the foster care program, where he was placed into multiple homes throughout the state. About many of these homes, Carter says, a lot of his foster parents shouldn’t have been foster parents. They just didn’t take care of the children entrusted to them.

Against all odds, Carter was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college. Previously, no one in his family had even passed grade nine. He graduated from Cushing High School with no intentions of attending college, but a former Oklahoma State University staff member kindly enrolled him without his permission, and he used the opportunity to receive his bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Now the director of youth ministries for the First United Methodist Church of Stillwater, Oklahoma, Carter has dedicated his life to working with young people. In 2015, Carter founded the Alton Carter Inspire Foundation with the goal of assisting young people who have lived in foster care, group homes, or DHS juvenile facilities in securing a college degree.

Carter waited to write The Boy Who Carried Bricks until his mom passed away. He tells OColley.com that his autobiography isn’t meant to gain pity or compare it to the trials others have faced, but instead to give inspiration to youth who may be in a similar situation. “There are kids still hungry, still abused with so many problems and we just need people to help,” Carter said. “This book is aimed at bringing light on the idea that there are still kids out there like me.”

CULTURAL SETTING

There are over 400,000 children in foster care. Young people end up in foster care, through no fault of their own, but are removed from their families due to abusive or neglectful situations. In the case of Carter, his mom had five children through five different men, and rarely stayed at home with them. His memoir is just one example of how a child might end up in foster care.

  • 70% of children in foster care never graduate high school
  • 74% of children in foster care end up incarcerated
  • 50% of children in foster care will be unemployed at the age of 24
  • 1 in 5 children in foster care will become homeless by age 18

Repeatedly in his autobiography, Carter refers to his other siblings and the sad outcomes of their lives. One of them died young, while the others turned to a life of crime. Although he typically didn’t stay in touch with others he met in foster care, he does tell of one boy who ran away rather than face time in jail. His memoir puts a face to the heart-breaking online statistics about today’s youth in foster care.

Tomorrow I’ll review The Boy Who Carried Bricks. Save the date: April 21!

Cover of "The Road to Paris (Coretta Scot...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to the fourth installment of Andy’s Sack o’ Books.

The Road to Paris By Nikki Grimes

Paris Richmond is trapped by love. She loves her foster family, who has taught her what a family should be. She loves her brother, who has lived in a group home since he was deemed “incorrigible” for stealing from a previous foster family. She loves – and hates –  her alcoholic mother, whose weakness and selfishness has sabotaged her life.

Paris’ happy life with her new family is shattered by a phone call from her mother, who wants her back. The rest of the story is about how Paris came to live with, and love, her new family. It is also about her conflicted heart. She wants to love her mother. She wants to completely belong to a family. She wants to be with her brother again. But she also wants to remain with the family that loves her.

That’s a lot to put on an eight-year-old girl.

The Road to Paris gets many things right. In some cases, I know with certainty that it does. In other cases, it convinces me that it does even though I have no way of knowing – it sounds right; it fits with what I think I know of human nature.

The author creates a very real and perfect conflict for Paris. For the most part, there are no villains in this story. Paris’ mother has her problems; often Paris hates her, but she also wants to love her and she wants her family to be whole again. When Paris goes to visit her halfway through the book, we find out that Viola is not a monster and that a spark of love has survived the years of hurt. The foster family too is not composed of monsters. How many stories have we seen and heard about kids who bounce from once horrific foster family to another? Paris and her brother have certainly bounced around, but the book is not about those families; it is about the one family that turned out to be the right family.

Nikki Grimes is interested in real life and real feelings, not melodrama. We’ve all seen television shows and movies, and read books, where a character suddenly and without warning has an extreme reaction to something seemingly insignificant. This leads to the realization that the character has A Secret, which of course leads to the inevitable Discovery or Disclosure of The Secret. And of course that Disclosure or Discovery is drawn out as long as possible, for maximum emotional impact. Because that’s drama and drama is good. Right? In The Road to Paris, Paris does in fact have the occasional “freak out” that, to those around her, must seem unwarranted. For instance, there is an early meal at the Lincoln house where Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln each decide to have a can of beer. Why should this send Paris running to the bathroom to throw up, and why does she then seclude herself in her bedroom for the rest of the evening? And why is she surprised the next morning that normal life has continued uninterrupted? The Lincolns don’t know, and never know. Or do they? It doesn’t matter.

At another point in the story, Paris has an unfortunate reaction to sleeping in a completely dark bedroom. And again, this Secret is not kept through the entire book. In fact, Paris immediately spills the beans to one of her new brothers, and the situation is quickly and perfectly resolved.

What I really appreciate about Nikki Grimes’ writing is that she “gets” that many of us have hot button issues, and that we usually don’t take the time to explain our inner workings to everyone we meet. And so we often have reactions that take others by surprise and must make us seem somewhat crazy. However, Grimes does not use this for cheap drama. And the way that she avoids going for cheap drama is that while the Lincolns and others may not understand what sets Paris off, we do. Because while Paris has her secrets, they are not kept secret from the readers. And this is as it should be – the story is told from Paris’ point of view, and so to share some of her thoughts with us but not others would be, well, cheap.

Another aspect of this that Grimes gets right is that Paris’ reactions always fit the circumstances. We understand why she reacts the way she does to the beer. It fits. And we understand why she reacts the way she does to the pitch black bedroom. There is also a situation involving a perceived betrayal by her best friend. Readers may not agree that Paris has been betrayed, but they can certainly understand why she would be upset and why she would never want to go that girl’s house again. We even understand why she would build a wall around herself when another girl tries to be her friend.

 The Road to Paris is a very realistic depiction of a very real situation for many kids. And while alcoholism and foster care are not happy topics, this is not a depressing book. In a way, it is the story of a girl who, after years of pain, finds herself with too much love.

“Most of the characters in Breaking Through are … members of my family. All of them appreciated my writing their story because they felt that their story was the story of many, many families who experienced the migrant way of life and many families who are experiencing that same life today.”–Francisco Jimenez, Scholastic Interview

From the time he was four until he was fourteen-years-old, Francisco Jimenez lived in constant fear. It all started in 1940, when his parents moved the family from Mexico to California, with the hope of leaving their life of poverty behind. At the border, the family dug a hole underneath the wire wall and thereby illegally entered the United States. Although Francisco’s father always hoped to return to Mexico, Francisco liked getting an education. If the family returned, he’d lose this because there wasn’t any school in their village. And so naturally his fear of being deported grew daily. Then in eighth grade, it happened. The first chapter in Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez is about how the family comes to the United States, is forced to return to Mexico, but then re-enters legally with visas. The rest of this autobiographical book, told from the viewpoint of Francisco, is about how the Jimenez adjust to their American life.

What stood out most to me about Breaking Through is how eagerly Francisco tries to learn the ways of his new country. To fit in with his peers, he pays attention to what his peers talk about and do. This leads him to take an interest in music and dances. Many of the songs such as Rock Around the Clock and Venus in Blue Jeans he doesn’t initially understand: “I tried to make sense of them and picture them in my mind. Why would a rock circle a clock? Why would the planet Venus dress in jeans?” He convinces his brother for the two of them to teach each other to dance, because this will help them meet new girls and make new friends. When invited out to a restaurant, he watches for social cues on how to behave. For example, this is how he learns the proper place for a napkin is not on table or floor but on one’s lap. Not everything is about being socially accepted; Francisco also tries to excel in school. When he finds an old Doctor Doolittle book in the dump, he reads a few pages every night to help him learn English. He also watches movies to improve his English. Typing is one of the classes he needs to take to get into college. When he finds an old one, he types every night to improve his accuracy and speed. Last, he copies notes from school onto cards that he studies while on the job.

Breaking Through is largely about being poor. The Jimenez family first moves to the United States from Mexico to escape a life of poverty. For a long time, it seems as if those dreams aren’t going to be fruitful. The father and the children work in the fields, sometimes even during school hours. Despite their multiple jobs, the family isn’t regularly able to pay their rent on time or even put food on the table. Countless times, the family has to find things they need such as sneakers for gym class by rummaging through garbage. This leads to Francisco’s father feeling depressed and to some of the family arguments. Just like Finding Paris is partly a picture of being part of foster care, so Breaking Through is partly a picture of being caught in poverty.

Yet Breaking Through is also about being Mexican. There are references to Mexican foods, music, and heroes. Sadly, there are also run-ins with prejudice. When Francisco’s mom rubs garlic on him to cure him of ringworm, Francisco is called “stinky Mexican”. The two eldest boys have their hearts broken, when girls break up with them after finding out that the Jimenez family is from Mexico. Last, some employers even advise them, “Don’t tell people you’re American. You could easily pass for Americans.”

Happily, in the midst of their struggles are many supportive adults. When Francisco informs his school counselor that he wants to be a teacher, Mr. Kinkade tells him that he’ll need to go college and that this will be expensive but that there are scholarships available. He also looks at Francisco’s schedule and makes substitutions of classes more suitable for college. Later, Francisco’s English teacher also tries to help by writing comments on his papers about how to improve. She encourages him to read for fun to improve his English, but there is no time for newspapers or books. Yet when she gives him Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to read, Francisco is finally able to identify with a novel. The last example I’ll give you is from an assembly. After reading about how valiantly Francisco tried to become American, I wondered if he would ever have a chance to share from his Mexican culture. One day in assembly he does.

Other than a Scholastic interview, I found little information about Francisco Jimenez. In that interview, he shares how he wrote Breaking Through. Besides relying on memory, he interviewed family members and looked through family photographs and documents, obtained his junior high and high school records, and visited some of the places where the family lived in migrant-labor camps.

Never judge a book by your first read. Two years I ago, I read Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes and disliked it. Although I still don’t care for the ploy in the preface of a “deadly” phone call, this time around I did really enjoy this foster care story.

Eight-year-old Paris and her older brother Malcolm have been deserted by their mother. When they run to their grandmother for help, she tells that she’s already raised her own kids and is too old to start again. As for foster parents, being as abusive as their mom’s boyfriend, they haven’t worked out well either. Then Paris moves in with the Lincolns. Now the question is can Paris ever trust anyone again?

Why am I rereading a book that I initially disliked? Well, Road to Paris was a 2010 Golden Sower nominee. If you read author Nikki Grimes’ bio, you’ll find that the book seems largely drawn from her real life. Her parents were separated and united several times, before they divorced. Consequently, Grimes and her older sister were bounced around from relative to relative and foster home to foster home. Many of those experiences sadly were horrendous. Is it any wonder that several of her books including Road to Paris are about foster homes?

As for multicultural aspect, the first clue to the ethnicity of Paris occurs on page nine: “Paris’ white blue-eyed father abandoned her when she was four. Apparently, he couldn’t handle walking down the street with a child whose skin was so much darker than his own.” The next clue comes on page twenty: “…. pressed her brown face against the cool window of the train….” Then when Paris meets the Lincolns, we learn that they are one of three black families on the block.”

Paris suffers prejudice in two ways: one due to being a foster child and other due to her color. For example, although Mrs. Lincoln acts loving and kind, her sister reacts to Paris by saying, “This is the new one, huh? My God, Sis, you collect sick kids like strays.” Then later Paris feels ready to give up on white folks when her best friend’s father calls her “a nigger face girl”. After the latter incident, Mrs. Lincoln has a heartfelt talk with Paris about how to handle hateful people.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?


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