We think of war as happening to children in other places. In doing so, we fail to think about young people in the United States whose everyday lives mirror the lives of young people in the world’s combat zones. For children who experience severe bullying because of their alleged sexual orientation, appearance, cognitive and behavioral differences, social class, or other reasons, school is itself a combat zone. Children of undocumented immigrants, who live in the shadows vulnerable to exploitation and capture, grow up in a climate of fear that resembles a war zone. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, and lack of medical care steal the childhoods of many of our young people.
And then there are gangs. Why children join and what happens to them when they do is the subject of G. Neri’s graphic novel Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, illustrated by Randy DuBurke and published by Lee & Low in 2010. The story is a fictionalized account of the life and death of a real child, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, who in 1994 at the age of 11 shot and killed a 14-year-old girl in their inner-city Chicago neighborhood in order to impress the members of a gang he wanted to join. The senselessness of the murder and its surrounding publicity led teenage gang members to execute the child and hide his body.
Told in the words of Roger, Yummy’s fictional classmate, the story describes Yummy’s troubled life—his drug-addicted mother, his stints in foster care and the juvenile justice system, the overwhelmed grandmother who tried to raise him along with her other (basically abandoned) grandchildren, his getting the nickname as a result of his love of candy—as well as Yummy’s desperate flight after the media latched onto the story as a symbol of inner-city anarchy and degradation. Roger’s older brother, Gary, is a member of the gang that Yummy wants to join, and as the events unfold, Roger and his parents discover Gary’s gang affiliation and try to persuade him to quit.
Neri successfully weaves real events into the story of a fictional family, though Yummy’s life and death rather than Roger and Gary’s struggles, lie at the core of the novel. This graphic novel is an outstanding example of this increasingly popular genre and a reminder that we need to look no further than our own cities, suburbs, and rural areas to find children traumatized by violence.