Target audience: 12+
Summary from Amazon:
When Ty witnesses a stabbing, his own life is in danger from the criminals he s named, and he and his mum have to go into police protection. Ty has a new name, a new look and a cool new image life as Joe is good, especially when he gets talent spotted as a potential athletics star, special training from an attractive local celebrity and a lot of female attention. But his mum can t cope with her new life, and the gangsters will stop at nothing to flush them from hiding. Joe is cracking under extreme pressure, and then he meets a girl with dark secrets of her own.
Rarely do you read a book that can change how you see the world and the people in it. Like many of you I'm sure, I have read hundreds maybe even thousands of books. I'm a librarian and I love reading so it is hardly surprising. Yet only twice in my experience as a reader have I ever so deeply connected with a book that it is engraved upon my very soul and becomes a part of my identity. The first book was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It taught me about injustice and it taught me to have integrity and I love unconditionally it for that. The second is this book When I was Joe by Keren David.
This novel is told by Joe - or rather Ty - a boy who is all too familiar to me. He grew up in inner city London and went to a well-respected state secondary school. He respects his teachers and loves his Gran. He doesn't always see eye to eye with his mum. He is a very believable teenager. The sort of boy that I have spent time teaching, recommending books to - not always successfully - and the type of student that you can see the endless potential to achieve in. I should probably explain further. Before I took the job I have now at my adorable prep school, I used to be an Assistant Librarian at one of the government's glossy new academies in South London. The idea of these schools is to give the best resources money can buy to deprived kids and then the gap between their achievement and their more advantaged peers will narrow. The results have been mixed. So you see, I know boys like Joe. Good kids, great potential, gang members. How does this happen? Thanks to When I Was Joe I finally understand the inner workings of these kids and it brings me to tears now as I write this.
I won't give away the answer. I will say if you see knife crime on the news and feel despair that our young people are at war amongst themselves, read this book. If you walk down the street and feel afraid of a group of teens in hoodies, read this book. If you've ever had the slightest inclination to carry a weapon to protect yourself, read this book.
I connected with this book on so many levels. I can relate to Joe's frustration that he was seen as having an inadequate upbringing because his mum had him at just sixteen and was a single parent. I get so annoyed when I hear David Cameron (UK opposition leader) spouting on about the breakdown of the family. I find it incredibly insulting and I feel incensed on behalf of my mum. She wasn't a teen when she had me but she brought me up single handedly from when I was 11 years old. I know how Joe feels about the assumption that he is somehow tainted by not having two parents in his house. Surely it is better to have one loving parent who you can tell anything to, than two unhappy parents that argue destructively in front of you? It is not the number of parents that count in my mind. It is how much love they give you.
The plot in this book weaves and winds, ravels and unravels. Joe draws you in and hints at the truth. He tells you different versions of the truth and shows us that however hard we try to mould the truth, it is still there waiting. I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through not knowing quite what Joe had witnessed. His voice was amazingly compelling. The way he could morph from one persona to another was spine-chilling and yet completely plausible, such is the strength of the characterisation in this novel. Each and every character had an individual and distinctive voice.
When I Was Joe has such poignance for me. It struck a chord deep inside me. This is a book that I will treasure for the rest of my life for the understanding it has given me about why our young people fall into violence. I find it hard to believe this is a debut novel as the power of this story has changed something in the heart of me. This book is exceptional! Buy it. Read it. Love it. I do!
Follow Keren David on Twitter @Kerensd and check out her blog here.
P.S. Not bad for The Bookette who doesn't "do" realism. I hope my next UK debut author read is as amazing as this.