Gang Bangers and Zombies, You Will Find Them Both In 2013’s Powerful Printz Winner


Ok… I’ll admit that I thought John Green would be a shoe in for this year’s Printz award with Fault In Our Stars and I was momentarily bitter when he didn’t win.  But that bitterness was fleeting because In Darkness by Nick Lake is an incredible read and worthy of this great honor.  I hadn’t read the last two Printz winners so I was determined to read this one.  I couldn’t put it down.  It is raw, painful and at the same time fascinating.  We meet Shorty just after the hospital he is in collapses during the earthquake that devastated Haiti several years ago.  While Shorty is a fictional character, the events and several of the other characters are very real.  Shorty is the only one alive in the rubble.  He is surrounded by dead people.  While he waits to either die or be rescued, he recounts the events in his life that brought him to this point.  Shorty is a gang banger.  He is in the hospital with a gunshot wound.  His experiences bring him in close contact with the infamous Dread Wilme, a real drug lord and leader in the poorest section of Port-Au-Prince.  Shorty has a twin sister who is lost to him, but the two had a mystical bond that made them special in their neighborhood.  When Dread is killed while trying to protect Shorty, he gives Shorty a stone that legend says is home to a Vodou god.  This stone will protect him.  While Shorty sleeps we hear another story from a different character named Toussaint l’Ouverture.  Toussaint is also a real man who lived long ago and helped free the slaves of Haiti during the revolution.  Somehow the stone connects him with Shorty and Dread Wilme.  This is a brilliant mix of historic fiction and modern day gang life.  This will attract both teens who are interested in gang culture and history.  Lake draws these two elements together with chapters listed “Then” and “Now.”  Readers also get a look at Haitian Vodou and how it is still often used in Haiti today.  The Zombi element is also interesting when you learn how the Vodou priests would turn people in real Vodou Zombis.  I highly recommend this book and believe when sold in the right way it may appeal to reluctant readers.  “Gang banger shot and then buried alive when his hospital collapses on top of him.  Oh… and by the way there are real zombies.”

Some ideas for discussing with teens:

What do you think Shorty means when he says “I was in darkness, but now I am in light?”

What do you think Shorty will do with his life after this story ends?

Discuss Haiti history and Toussaint.

Talk about gang life and why Shorty would want to be part of it.

Why do you think people would allow themselves to become Vodou Zombi?

Discuss this passage: “I am in darkness, in a small space, and my mind is a small dark place too, he thought.  We are all trapped in a cave, and that cave is ourselves.  The shape of its walls moves like water; this barrier disturbs what little light gets in and makes everything we see unique to us.”

Discuss Dread Wilme.  What do you think “the site” would be like without men like him?

How would you react if you heard the news about Biggie and your father?

Talk about the relationship between Biggie and Stephanie.  What do you think attracted her to him?