Reader Spotlight: Ted and Gerald 'J-Man' Best, of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop

Book World is pleased to present two young avid readers of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a program founded in 2002 by Kelli Taylor and Tara Libert at the DC Jail.

"Free Minds uses books and creative writing to empower incarcerated teenaged boys in Washington, D.C. to transform their lives," explains Taylor. "By mentoring and connecting them to supportive services throughout their incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential, achieve new goals, and walk a positive new path in life.

"We believe that books and creative writing have the incredible power to teach, build community, inspire individuals and change lives."

Ted and Gerald's book discussions appear below, following introductions by Kelli Taylor, Free Minds' executive director.

(Photo by DC Department of Corrections)

Kelli Taylor:
Eleven weeks ago, Ted was incarcerated as an adult at the age of 16, and is currently awaiting sentencing. In those eleven weeks, he has read 36 different books! When we go into the jail, he now runs up to us to see if we brought any new titles.

We cannot keep up with Ted's appetite for books. He has raced through James Patterson's Maximum Ride series, and is about to finish the sixth Harry Potter book. In all, he's read 39 books in less than twelve weeks.

Ted's dream is to become a chef. When he recently turned 17, we gave him G. Garvin's cookbook Turn Up the Heat. He has already read it from cover to cover.

What impresses me most about Ted as a reader is his curious and open mind. There does not seem to be a book that he isn't interested in reading. He takes to heart the idea that while his body is locked up, through books, his mind can remain free.

When I was 13, my cousin introduced me to Triple Crown books. I liked them because they talked about everyday lives and they always teach you a lesson. Then when I was 16, I came to jail and I met Kelli and Tara. I started looking at the books they gave me. I feel like it's made me more open to new kinds of books.

I just finished two great books: Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling, and Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas. Now I am reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I think the Harry Potter books are good because she puts a lot of imagination, effort and hard work into writing them. If I were on the outside, I might not have read them, but now that I have so much time, I can actually sit down and read without being distracted. I like Harry because he escapes danger and is brave in whatever he does.

I read in my cell. I don't usually read until my lunch comes (at about 11 AM). That's when I start, and I don't usually put it down until 10 o'clock.

To find new books, I remember authors that I see in the library or stories at the movies I see. I try to search for adventures, thrillers or mysteries. Free Minds brings me all kinds of books.

I love reading because it helps me escape what I'm going through. If I have troubles, I can pick up a book and just imagine what's happening!

Kelli Taylor:
Before being incarcerated, Gerald "J-Man" Best, 17, had never read a book. He will complete his sentence and return home in July.

When I first met Gerald, he was in his cell, lying on his bunk reading Harry Potter. I went to introduce myself and told him about the Free Minds Book Club and asked if he was interested in being a part of it.

He was extremely polite but said that he wasn't a reader and didn't really like books. I pointed out that he was reading Harry Potter and he confessed that he couldn't put it down. Since that day, he has been an enthusiastic member of our group and an avid reader. He is now exploring the idea of becoming an author himself.

Gerald "J-Man" Best:
It was about two months ago that I learned to love books. It was when I read Dark, by Kenji Jasper. His character was a young African American in D.C., just like me. He was going through so many things like I do.

The first time I finished a whole book was here in my cell. It was the first Harry Potter book. And that was a thick book! Finishing that whole book made me feel like I could actually do something. It made me feel good. I had never even picked up a book before!

Currently I'm reading Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas. I also just finished reading Dark, by Kenji Jasper, and Street Pharm, by Alison van Diepen.

I liked Street Pharm because I can relate to the main character. His name is Ty Johnson. He was out there hustling, but he showed that you can give up the game and take the right road.

In Dark, Kenji Jasper shows how everyone gets scared once in a while, but you can always take a time out and just start over.

This is the first time I started reading. I started because of Free Minds. When I was out there I had never even read a book. Now I read at night in my cell on my top bunk. That's when it gets really quiet.

About finding books, mostly I go on books that relate to me. If it's not real or about D.C., I'm not as interested. Right now I want to read Snow, by Kenji Jasper, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The book that has had the biggest impact on my life is Tupac Shakur's The Rose that Grew from Concrete. That book taught me how to write poetry. Now I know that writing is something I want to still do when I get home.

By Mary Ishimoto Morris |  May 5, 2009; 6:41 PM ET Mary Morris
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This was wonderful to read --- thank you for posting this!

Posted by: Maalik | May 6, 2009 5:36 PM

Thank you very much for your feedback, Maalik!

Posted by: marymorris | May 6, 2009 7:44 PM

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