Wednesday, October 13
by G. Neri
illustrated by Randy DuBurke
Lee and Low Books 2010
The tragic account of an act of inner city violence that briefly gripped the nation and put a young face to seriousness of the problem.
In the spring of 1994 there was a shooting in the Roseland area of Chicago, on the city's southside. Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, age 11, out to make a name for himself in a local gang called the Black Desciples attempted to shoot rival gang memebers and killed 14 year old Shavon Dean by accident. With the aid of the Desciples Yummy hid from police for three days but was then found shot dead by members of the gang he was trying to impress.
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty tells the story of those last days from the perspective of a fictional narrator named Roger who, under better circumstances, might have been Yummy's friend. In unraveling the story after the fact, Roger attempts to see Yummy's life from all perspectives, to try and understand how someone as young as him could end up both a killer and killed at such a young age.
Yummy is a true tragic character. Neglected and beaten from an early age, parents in and out of jail, lost through the cracks in social services, Yummy is a poster child for what was (and still is) wrong with the inner cities. He starts out shoplifting and holding up people at ATMs with a toy gun, then moves to stealing cars for members of the local gang. These attempts to get attention and find himself a stable and safe family are almost textbook examples of how kids end up in gangs but what was so shocking to many was how young Yummy was as he ascended into gang life. The gangs use younger kids – nicknamed shortys – to do their dirty work because they can't be tried as adults. And there's always an endless supply of kids looking to impress the gang leaders and become "made." The mortality rate in the socioeconomically depressed areas makes a gang member over the age of 19 is a senior citizen. Yummy barely made it half way there.
The ugliest side of this story was that when Yummy was on the run there were people who knew where he was and didn't really act on his behalf. The gang only hid Yummy initially because they wanted to keep the heat of their activities. When Yummy, acting as a scared 11 year old naturally would, calls his grandma to pick him up he gets swept up by local people who want to get rid of him as quickly as possible for fear of attention being drawn on them. It isn't clear why the women who are keeping him "safe" until his grandma can fetch him are quick to let him go with a pair of Desciples who clearly out to clean up the mess Yummy made by driving him to a secluded location where he would later be found dead. The implication is that the moment Yummy pulled the trigger on the gun he was officially on his own and no one would be able to save him – a chilling thought the reader gets to chew on long after they've closed the book.
Neri isn't interested in taking sides here or pointing the figure but instead lets the various sides of the story speak for themselves, trusting the reader will understand that sometimes there is no right answer, that regardless of circumstances there is always a choice and that you need to be careful about the choices you make.
There's a grittiness to the black and white illustration in this graphic novel that both fit its dark mood and, for me at least, push the issue back into history. And if I had any criticism it's that the story does feel pushed back in a way that might make it easier to dismiss. Given that teen readers will barely have been born when all this originally took place it might be seen more as an historical graphic novel and not a reflection of modern times. I think it might have been nice for there to be some back matter or a coda that tied these events to the present and perhaps made the readers feel more inclined to want to change the way things are.
This review is cross-posted over at Guys Lit Wire today. Guys Lit Wire, where reviews of books of interest to teen boys are posted fresh each weekday.