An affecting meditation on the ability of literature to empower inmates who are too often dismissively diminished by society.




A literature teacher recounts her considerable experience instructing high-security prisoners and argues for a rehabilitation program that includes the liberating effect of creative writing. 

Despite “incontrovertible evidence” that access to education can significantly reduce criminal recidivism, Appleman (co-author: Teaching Literature to Adolescents, 3rd Edition, 2016, etc.) concedes that convincing the public that convicts should be treated to what many regard as a forfeited privilege is a “tough sell.” Nevertheless, this is precisely the position she passionately—and inspiringly—defends. While most of the limited education provided for prisoners is vocational in nature, the author contends that an introduction to literature—in particular, the exercise of creative writing—can transform an inmate’s life. She avers that the “pedagogy of creative writing, with its emphasis on identity construction and narration, seems to provide opportunities for self-reflection as well as powerful clues to where the life courses of these incarcerated students might have been altered.” Appleman thoughtfully discusses her own experience teaching creative writing at a high-security correctional facility and poignantly relates not only the successes she witnessed, but also the limitations of an “environment that is not conducive to learning.” She includes profiles of some of her “incarcerated learners” as well as exemplary excerpts of their writing. Finally, she furnishes a bracingly honest reflection on the “school-to-prison pipeline,” what she considers “one of the most urgent educational issues of our time.” She discusses the possibility that a well-guided encounter with literature and writing could open up new ways of thinking—and ultimately choosing—for disadvantaged youngsters trapped in a grim cycle of self-destruction.  Appleman’s meditation is stirringly hopeful but not naively idealistic: She never denies the “brutal realities of the carceral state and the complexity of the population of those who live behind bars.” She also astutely explores the fundamental inhospitableness of prison to creative learning. A penitentiary is dehumanizing and despotic while education is humanizing and emancipating. Still, her argument is a ringing testament to the “transformative power of literacy” and the extent to which education can provide a “kind of oasis, or a glass bubble that floats fragilely in this sea of indignity.” The author writes not only lucidly, but also with great elegance and power. Her position is based on her profound experience as an instructor and a lover of literature—she has taught 150 incarcerated men. The writing samples she provides are simply extraordinary, not only because of their philosophical and poetical quality, but also because of the insights the writers demonstrate into their lamentable plights. Appleman does more than argue that these men, many of whom have committed heinous crimes and will never be released, are still human beings capable of moral redemption: She shows readers this through their writing. Moreover, the author makes a convincing case for the power of stories, not just to entertain and distract, but also to reimagine the writers’ very selves and supply the sources for inspiration that sometimes life itself refuses.

An affecting meditation on the ability of literature to empower inmates who are too often dismissively diminished by society.

Pub Date: June 18, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-71367-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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Carefully researched and chilling, if somewhat overwritten.


Comprehensive, myth-busting examination of the Colorado high-school massacre.

“We remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and tearing through their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened,” writes Cullen, a Denver-based journalist who has spent the past ten years investigating the 1999 attack. In fact, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold conceived of their act not as a targeted school shooting but as an elaborate three-part act of terrorism. First, propane bombs planted in the cafeteria would erupt during lunchtime, indiscriminately slaughtering hundreds of students. The killers, positioned outside the school’s main entrance, would then mow down fleeing survivors. Finally, after the media and rescue workers had arrived, timed bombs in the killers’ cars would explode, wiping out hundreds more. It was only when the bombs in the cafeteria failed to detonate that the killers entered the high school with sawed-off shotguns blazing. Drawing on a wealth of journals, videotapes, police reports and personal interviews, Cullen sketches multifaceted portraits of the killers and the surviving community. He portrays Harris as a calculating, egocentric psychopath, someone who labeled his journal “The Book of God” and harbored fantasies of exterminating the entire human race. In contrast, Klebold was a suicidal depressive, prone to fits of rage and extreme self-loathing. Together they forged a combustible and unequal alliance, with Harris channeling Klebold’s frustration and anger into his sadistic plans. The unnerving narrative is too often undermined by the author’s distracting tendency to weave the killers’ expressions into his sentences—for example, “The boys were shooting off their pipe bombs by then, and, man, were those things badass.” Cullen is better at depicting the attack’s aftermath. Poignant sections devoted to the survivors probe the myriad ways that individuals cope with grief and struggle to interpret and make sense of tragedy.

Carefully researched and chilling, if somewhat overwritten.

Pub Date: April 6, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-54693-5

Page Count: 406

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2009

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The sub-title of this book is "Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools." But one finds in it little about education, and less about the teaching of English. Nor is this volume a defense of the Christian faith similar to other books from the pen of C. S. Lewis. The three lectures comprising the book are rather rambling talks about life and literature and philosophy. Those who have come to expect from Lewis penetrating satire and a subtle sense of humor, used to buttress a real Christian faith, will be disappointed.

Pub Date: April 8, 1947

ISBN: 1609421477

Page Count: -

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1947

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