In the land of the free and the home of the brave, who is to blame when an eleven-year old boy born to an abusive, neglectful, drug-addicted prostitute kills a 14-year old girl as he aims at a rival in a gang-related shooting? With more than a few Robert “Yummy” Sandifers walking around various locations throughout the country, how are these narratives symptomatic of deeper societal ills, and how can the graphic novel format call attention to them in ways that can compel change by engaging wider audiences, both young and old?
Told through the eyes of Roger, an eleven-year old Chicago youth, Yummy presents a highly accessible story of urban poverty in America through innocent, curious eyes that are less jaded and more empathetic than most adults who read about Yummy in Time Magazine. Author G. Neri relied upon many sources to craft the book, stating, “I read everything about the incident, lots of detailed daily reporting, in-depth coverage, court transcripts. I talked to experts on the gang and did my own personal research with gangs in Compton. I even went to Chicago to see all the points in the story myself, including the spot where Yummy died.” These links are important. While the graphic text itself is a worthwhile book for independent, group, or whole-class reading, the possibilities for nonfiction exploration and research after reading Yummy present endless opportunities for students to learn more about poverty and gang violence in America. Preview the exposition below.
To begin, if the exposition introduces the main characters, the setting, and the overall situation, this preview offers a great concrete example of how the author develops all of these ideas immediately. Students can evaluate the effectiveness of the author’s story development by listing all of the concrete ideas that are visually accessible — of which there are at least a dozen obvious examples. As Neri and DuBurke develop not just Yummy’s character and conflicts but also the narrator Roger’s struggle to make sense of Yummy’s existence, the reader begins to see Yummy develop into a rounder character who possesses both surface and deeper levels. While the strongest imagery is obviously Yummy’s gang-related activity (who won’t respond at least somehow to images of a gun-wielding eleven-year old?), other moments include his love for candy bars (which earns him his nickname) a pet frog named Jelly Bean, a teddy bear, and Yummy’s childish responses to his grandmother. With this mixture of imagery and characterization, the reader cannot help but think about the internal conflicts faced by a child like Yummy, or even narrator Roger, a much more fortunate child growing up in the same environment. The same body biography activity common in classrooms everywhere would be a great tool to pull out in association with a graphic text such as Yummy because of the complexities of the novel’s main character. Striving readers should take to the task more easily with a graphic text because developing the items to include as visuals relies less upon their ability to visualize what they’re reading and more upon their evaluation of the text. Nearly all of my incoming “on-level” 9th graders generally tell me that they don’t visualize while they’re reading, so a text like this one would allow them to further develop their analytical skills while not penalizing them for lacking literary imagination. As a final thought on literary analysis, Neri employs Roger’s narration as a tool to push through a theme of tolerance, understanding and love. This theme ultimately shines in the novel’s resolution when Roger leaves his final message to Shavon, Yummy’s victim: “I’m sorry you didn’t get to be a hairdresser. Maybe if you see Yummy, you can cut his hair, and help him be a better person” (Neri, 2010).
Since the text itself is a quick read, Yummy invites teachers to use it as a jumping-off point for research, debate, and writing. Related issues include gang violence, urban poverty, sentencing laws, child abuse, prostitution, child neglect, public education, and many others. Students can easily identify these themes themselves, and from there teachers could facilitate individual or group investigations into these issues. Depending on the grade and skill level of students, research projects could develop traditionally as written essays or via internet mediums such as blogs that collect facts, related links, and document other related narratives. The text specifically references the Black Disciples, and a simple Google search reveals a wealth of information that could prove both relevant and helpful to an open, honest dialogue in the classroom. Furthermore, texts like Suddhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day disappear from my reading table just as fast as graphic texts.
An in-depth investigation into life, poverty, and gang-activity in Chicago’s Robert Taylor projects, Venkatesh’s dissertation-turned-bestseller also provides a balanced account of the lives of gang members and other citizens in Chicago.
By combining texts like these and allowing students to investigate related social problems on their own terms, teachers invite students to construct knowledge about gang violence and urban poverty beyond what they might see on the evening news. As Roger points out in Yummy‘s conclusion, it’s hard to hate a child who was never given a chance, and Venkatesh’s time with J.T. and the Black Kings as well as other residents and employees in the Robert Taylor homes gives a more human face and feel to realities that too many of us discover only through far more superficial terms such as the evening news or popular film. Neri says it best: “My telling some kids to stay out of gangs means nothing to them. But Yummy’s story is such a compelling wakeup call that I don’t have to say anything, or moralize on the issues. Readers can draw their own conclusions by seeing what happened to Yummy. There are no easy answers to be found, but hopefully the book will spark a lot of needed discussion.”
A teacher’s guide for Yummy including great discussion questions can be found here.
Visit the author’s site for more images, videos, and articles related to the story here.
A not so favorable review that fails to consider the text’s possibilities in the classroom can be found here.