Authors Coe Booth and Patricia McCormick Share Their Stories at the DC Jail

By Mbachur Mbenga

This spring, teenagers in our Book Club at the DC Jail had the incredible opportunity to learn from two talented and generous authors, Patricia McCormick and Coe Booth.

D.C. native and two-time National Book Award finalist Patricia McCormick visited the jail to discuss her young adult novel Sold. This was followed by Coe Booth, a long-time favorite of the Book Club, who traveled from New York to talk to the teenagers about her novel Bronxwood. DC Councilmember David Grosso (Chair of the Committee on Education) also attended the session with Bronxwood author Coe Booth. 

We meet with our Book Club members every week at the DC Jail where we discuss literature they can relate to, and guide the teens in expressing themselves through poetry. On February 28th, the young men on the unit came prepared with insightful poems and questions for Patricia McCormick as we discussed her book, Sold, about a young woman from Nepal who is sold into sexual slavery. The young men discussed topics with McCormick such as why she wrote the book, what it was like for her travelling to Nepal, and who some of her favorite writers are.

Free Minds staff with Patricia McCormick outside the DC Jail

Patricia McCormick (second from left) with Free Minds staff outside the DC Jail

When discussing the idea of overcoming stigma, one member said, “Because we’re young they think we’re going to make a lot of mistakes and we won’t become successful. You have to let your actions speak for you.”

McCormick also encouraged the young men to continue using writing and poetry to express themselves. She said, “Writing will help you when you’re back in your neighborhood and feel anger boiling up. You can express it safely. When you want a raise, you can write a really good letter to your boss and express yourself clearly and get that raise.”

One member asked McCormick, “If I try to write a book, can I go to you for help?” McCormick replied, “Absolutely, and I hope that you do.”

On March 28th, the young men on the unit had intriguing conversations with Coe Booth about her book, Bronxwood. Bronxwood tells the story of Tyrell, a young man who is under pressure as his father has just returned from prison, his brother has been placed in foster care, and the drug dealers in his neighborhood are pushing him to sell. The Free Minds members discussed how the protagonist grew up in similar situations as they did, and how they could relate to experiences such as reconnecting with an incarcerated parent, and having siblings in foster care.

The young men were also visited by Free Minds Poet Ambassadors Terrell and Hosea, who hadn’t been inside the DC jail since they were incarcerated as teenagers. They shared some of their own experiences and advice with the teens.

Everyone wanted to know what Booth has been up to, and when she would be writing her next book. The young men read personalized poems for Booth and even gave her suggestions for her next book.

The session ended with words of advice from Poet Ambassadors Terrell and Hosea, and tons of pictures for remembrance after a great session.

Thank you to the DC Department of Corrections, PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools, Councilmember Grosso, and the authors Patricia McCormick and Coe Booth.

Coe Booth with Free Minds and DOC staff, and Councilmember David Grosso and staff member

Author Coe Booth (second from left) with Free Minds staff, Department of Corrections staff, Poet Ambassadors Hosea and Terrell, Councilmember David Grosso, and Senior Legislative Analyst Darby Hickey

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