All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island by Liza Jessie Peterson

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I picked this book up as part of a buddy read on #bookstagram. A buddy read is basically a one off book club, you all read the book and then discuss it (through video chat). All Day was the third book I’ve read with this group, and was our first miss, but it led to some great conversations. Before I dive in here is a little more about All Day.

 

Told with equal parts raw honesty and unbridled compassion, ALL DAY recounts a year in Liza Jessie Peterson’s classroom at Island Academy, the high school for inmates detained at New York City’s Rikers Island. A poet and actress who had done occasional workshops at the correctional facility, Peterson was ill-prepared for a full-time stint teaching in the GED program for the incarcerated youths. For the first time faced with full days teaching the rambunctious, hyper, and fragile adolescent inmates, “Ms. P” comes to understand the essence of her predominantly Black and Latino students as she attempts not only to educate them, but to instill them with a sense of self-worth long stripped from their lives.

All Day was a total miss. A book about incarcerated juveniles at Rikers Island and their teacher sounds like it would be a gripping and compelling narrative, Peterson, however, does not deliver. The book is mostly focused on Peterson and her thoughts and struggles, though she never gets vulnerable enough for us to fully see her. She puts up the front of a tough woman, but we never get to see her softer side. She barely shares with us information about her students and their lives and how they got to Rikers (however the few moments she does are great). Peterson mistakes the readers interest in what it is like to be a teacher at a jail, for what its like to be her. I did not care about her as the star of this story, I wanted to know about the boys, their lives, their struggles, and the battles they fight daily to survive. I felt most connected to the book when the boys were centered.

The writing is not great. The style is very casual, using a lot of slang. Peterson is making a point to her reader, that she is in fact a Black woman. Something that no one questions. She has insecurities around her own control and status, and they come across through out the book, both expressly and through inference. The book goes on too long and Peterson loses focus, drifting from subject to subject without any real points to be made. She retells the same stories over and over and tries to turn this book into a sort of comedy, relaying jokes and quippy interchanges between her and her students. Most of this is not funny, and makes little sense in the context of the book.

Peterson herself traffics in prejudices throughout the book. While she doesn’t say it expressly, the way she talks about the boys who come from single parent homes, how she dismisses their learning disabilities, and the words she uses to describe them are problematic and damaging. There is very little empathy toward them and their situation. She perpetuates stereotypes about Black and Latino youths, and even allows her own intuitions to be bases for condemnation. All Day was published by a very conservative publisher (Center Street), and this anti-Black lean allowed the publisher to get credit for a Black narrative by a Black female author, and still push forward damaging ideas about Black and Brown youth to their audiences.

I would not recommend you read this book. There is much better content (books, films, and TV) that captures the experiences of life as an incarcerated youth, and that of the people who work with them. All Day is self serving and has a conservative lean that is troubling and damaging.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Center Street (April 18, 2017)
  • 1/5 stars
  • Buy All Day on Amazon

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