Six teens in a Victoria kiddy-slammer teamed up to write a graphic novel.
The project may well be a first in Canada, says the counsellor who oversaw it.
The aim was altruistic: to help other young folk deal with the consequences of their crimes. The newly published booklet is titled In and Out. The 14-page work - more of a comic book, really - follows the journey of a young man and his brother who are on probation. They're hauled into custody after breaking curfew.
In and Out is, in part, an illustrated explanation of how probation - and breach of probation - works. Sounds dry, but exciting stuff happens, too. One brother's girlfriend gets pregnant. There's an armed robbery; somebody even dies.
As young offenders, these authors are identified only by their first names: Kristian, Shymon, Lorne, Brandon, Devon and Mark. The book is illustrated by an artist on the outside: Meghan Bell. The project was overseen by Kate Creedon, a counsellor at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.
If kids in custody have created anything like this before, Creedon is unaware of it. She says In and Out is primarily aimed at the young person navigating the consequences of his or her first criminal charge.
"I asked [the teens who wrote it], 'What do you wish you had known when you first started?'" she said.
Poor literacy is typical of teens in trouble with the law. In and Out, written in simple colloquial language ("Don't be a wimp dude ... shut up, man" etc.) is much easier to comprehend than any official brochure.
In and Out will be available at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, other youth custody centres in Burnaby and Prince George, and probation offices throughout B.C.
The $8,000 project received funding from the Victoria Family Court and Youth Justice Committee and the 2010 Legacies Now Victoria School District 61 Community Literary Plan Project. It was overseen (and co-funded) by the Centre for Youth and Society at the University of Victoria, where Creedon was a graduate student. Also a counsellor at Victoria Youth Custody Centre, she was the perfect choice to spearhead such a project.
The writing was completed at the youth custody centre last summer over two months. It wasn't easy. The kids had never worked together as a team. The weather was nice outside. Some were self-conscious about limited reading and writing skills.
"There were good days and there were bad days for sure," said Creedon. "Your average teen wouldn't want to be a small room, writing a novel."
Part of the idea is to try, through education, to erode the in-and-out cycle for young offenders. They call themselves "frequent flyers," the ones for whom crime and incarceration is a revolving door. The recidivism rate in British Columbia for young offenders is a whopping 76 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.
Lack of literacy goes hand in hand with youth crime. In B.C. the incarcerated adolescent typically reads at a Grade 4 level.
"This project is important because these youth know what they need to transition successfully. While they're getting the message to other youth, they're building their own literacy skills," says Anne Marshall, director for the Centre for Youth and Society.
Creedon was surprised and touched by her writing team's genuine interest in helping others avoid their mistakes. The teens, meanwhile, were impressed the Centre for Youth and Society wanted their input. In this case, they were the experts. "It was cool because it was real kids talking about real stuff," one wrote in a feedback form.
The teenagers were also heartened by media interest in their book. They are, for a change, being recognized for doing something good.
Creedon says one lesson the young graphic novelists learned was that, by working hard and staying focused, a "really great reward" can follow.
She shows an almost maternal pleasure in the success of her young charges. When I met Creedon, she had a stack of newly minted copies of In and Out in her car. She was going to give some to the writers, who'd yet to hold one in their hands.
"I'm incredibly proud of those six kids who worked so hard and pulled it off," Creedon said.
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