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My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders

by Deborah Ellis

With increasing news of youth-related gun violence, heists, hit and runs, gang activity, sexual assaults, and stabbings – in the past year alone – the personal accounts in My Story Starts Here may be the ultimate warning that one wrong move can change your life in an instant.

Kirk was 15 when he was caught delivering drugs. Deanna was 13 when charged with assault. Matt was 12 when he stole a car. In this collection of interviews, conducted by author Deborah Ellis (The Breadwinner series), 23 youth between the ages of 15 and 21 reveal in their own words what led to their run-ins with the law, how they are paying the price, and the ways they are attempting to turn their lives around. 

For most, the first arrest was only the beginning of what would become regular entanglements with law enforcement and the justice system. Some benefitted from diversion programs in which offenders go through rehabilitation, others from the restorative-justice process, where offender and victim come together to discuss the harm done and the best way to repair it. And there are a few who have spent time in juvenile custody, which one youth describes as the equivalent of jail.

The book’s subjects range in socio-economic background, gender, and ethnicity, but certain childhood commonalities are shared or repeated: physical, sexual, or verbal abuse; raised by a single parent; foster care; and drug addiction. In many cases, a kind word, a second chance, or an acknowledgement of a youth’s particular situation is shown to go a long way in helping to push them forward, or to believe in themselves.

Each chapter follows a format. There’s an introduction offering facts and statistics related to that particular story’s theme, such as how a lack of education is a predictor of incarceration or how homeless youth have a greater risk of suicide. That’s followed by an honest and emotional personal story. The occasional sidebar expands on a related topic, from parental violence to abusive relationships. In some instances, a second interview with someone tangential to the chapter’s main subject adds depth and perspective. 

Also included in the chapters are questions meant to get readers to think about what they would do in a similar situation: “If your parents are not good role models, what can you do to find other mentors?” Each section concludes with advice on proactive steps readers can take for themselves and for others, be it reaching out for help with grief or making school posters to warn others about the dangerous effects of crystal meth.

These prescriptive aspects of the book are hit-and-miss; while some readers may stop to reflect, others may reject the didacticism. The collection is most powerful when it feels like peers talking to peers and not when passing on lessons from an omniscient adult writer. And there is, at times, confusion about the book’s audience. Though it is marketed to kids 12 and up, the introduction reads as though the author is addressing adults, using “we” for grown-ups and “them” for children. My Story Starts Here may be best suited for use by high-school counsellors or social studies teachers to initiate discussion about youth crime, rehabilitation, and reparation. The graphics and photos have a textbook feel.

While there are issues with the more editorialized elements, the actual first-person accounts are moving and powerful and advance the argument that children and youth should be educated, rehabilitated, and guided, not imprisoned.