by Jeanne Devlin
Every now and again, a book comes along that you have to tell others about—it’s like you’re compelled to do so.
In the process, that book becomes a friend, one you cheer when good things happen to it, and one you turn to in moments of despair.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I was the editor of such a book recently, and our publishing house, The RoadRunner Press published the book. But I think it is safe to say had that not been the case, and had I only had the luck to stumble on Alton Carter’s poignant nonfiction debut, The Boy Who Carried Bricks, I would still be telling you about it here.
It is not a typical title for this blog, but it is a chilling YA true story that Saturday night won the 2016 Oklahoma Book Award, after recently being named a 2016 Top Ten In the Margins Book List Title and a finalist in the 2016 ForeWord Reviews’s Indie Fab Awards. (The magazine will announce the winner in June at the American Library Association conference in Orlando.)
The book’s author is a young man reared in a troubled, drug-plagued home in abject poverty, who at the age of nine decides if he is ever to have the “normal” life he craves that he must go find it himself. After a night sleeping on a big slide in a neighborhood park (no, no one comes looking for him or calls the police), he walks himself the next morning to the local DHS office in the Oklahoma town he calls home.
The next decade will see him bounce from a juvenile detention center (there was nowhere else to send black foster children at the time) to a boys ranch to a series of foster homes. In the end, Alton Carter does what the world always told him he couldn’t do: he becomes the first in his family to not only stay in school past ninth grade but to graduate high school AND college. He becomes a police officer, a husband, and a father of two beautiful sons. For the last eight years, he has been a Methodist youth minister.
Yes, he finally got that normal family he always wanted. He just had to make it himself.
Carter never minces words as he tells his story, and he makes it clear he wrote The Boy Who Carried Bricks both for children living in despair like his younger self but also for what he calls “kids of privilege.” Now, to him, that doesn’t require a country-club address. It just means you have someone—a mom, parents, maybe, a grandparent—who makes sure you always have three squares on the table, a roof over your head, and a ride to school. Bottom line: you have someone who cares about you.
I have tried to put my finger on where this book gets its power, because everyone—from rich to poor children, from avid teen readers to incarcerated teens who have never read a book before, to adults both rural and urban—seems to love it.
I’ve come to believe it is from Carter’s willing to bare his soul and talk about those bricks . . . about his shortcomings, about his struggles then and now. This is not some self-help dude claiming to have all the answers, claiming to be perfect.
No, this is a man who survived what would shatter most people and who lived to tell about it.
He knows your struggle is not his struggle, but also that we all struggle.
And that sometimes, just sometimes, it helps to read a book that understands that, so you don’t feel so all alone.
What book has been this for you?