It Ain’t All For Nothin’ by Walter Dean Myers

ain't all for nothin'Reading level: 5.4
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

My copy of It Ain’t All For Nothin’ has had a rough life. It lived in the library of a local high school and was “discarded,” the library bar code cut out of the front cover. The public library either tried to sell it at a book sale or deemed it unfit to sell, and so it wound up in a free book pile along with computer manuals for Windows 95 and outdated self-help books.

There’s probably a reason it’s been discarded again and again. The cover screams “dorky, boring, please don’t read me.” In fact, I couldn’t even find a picture on the internet of the cover that I own, printed in the late 1970s. Here are some ideas to help get this book (and other books with boring covers) in the hands of readers:

  • Give a book talk summarizing why students might like it.
  • Display it on the bookshelf under a sign or banner that says “Ugly book cover of the month” and has a blurb about why it’s not a boring book.
  • Create monthly book challenges for SSR/at-home reading assignments. Challenges may include:
    • Read a book with a dorky cover
    • Read a book featuring a main character of the opposite gender
    • Read a book in a genre different from what you’re used to

At the time I read this book, I was also reading Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. She writes that African Americans tend to not tell object-centered stories like White people do. That is, their stories seem to go on and on without a central focus – at least that’s what I understood. It’s just a different way to telling stories and communicating. It Ain’t All For Nothin’ definitely had that feel, not just from sentence structure (some sentences were very long, connected by several conjunctions) but also because it was about Tippy’s 12-year old life, day by day, moment to moment. It’s hard to explain.

I say it’s not ELL-friendly because it’s written in the African American vernacular, aka Black English. Because we’re trying to teach ELLs “formal English,” this book might just be confusing. For African American youth, though, it might be liberating to read a book written in the language in which they speak.

I think this book is better suited for middle schoolers because the main character is 12, the reading level is 5th grade, and the language is fairly simple. However, since the book was originally in a high school library, it could be appropriate for that age group as well, especially for struggling readers. It would also make an excellent mentor text to show Tippy’s internal monologue that really defines this scared 12-year-old boy. It could be used in a lesson about narration, internal monologue, and giving characters distinct voices by using a variety of sentence structures.

There are lots of reasons why this book may not be appropriate for school:

  • references to “herb” i.e. marijuana
  • praying and references to Jesus
  • kids and adults drinking alcohol
  • kids doing illegal things (stealing, buying alcohol)
  • mild swearing

Allow me to refute these “problems.”

The praying comes from Grandma Carrie, a fiercely religious woman. Praying and talking to Jesus is something that defines her, and Tippy struggles to pray in a way that is meaningful to him. Religion isn’t prominent or stressed.

If all books with any swearing were banned from schools, there would be no more school libraries. Really, the swearing isn’t that bad.

Tippy never smokes marijuana and never says anything positive about it. It’s just what Lonnie and his friends do.

Tippy struggles to do what’s right regarding stealing and partaking in illegal activities with his father. By the end, he’s on the straight and narrow. He may not have his life figured out, but he knows he’s no thief. Each time he helps his father steal, something terrible happens and it terrifies him. The lesson: don’t steal.

He really drinks a lot of alcohol, and his father basically lets him except for once. Almost each time Tippy drinks, he gets sick. Once, he passed out in the street. He mentions that he never wanted to be like one of those drunkards passed out in the streets like he was…at age 12. Drinking just sounds like a terrible experience for him every time, so it is definitely not glorified.

Here are some quotes to prove that the book isn’t in favor of kids doing illicit activities:

Mr. Roland: “‘People don’t do things to hurt themselves unless they got problems. And that drinking ain’t doing nothing but hurting you'” (108).

Tippy: “It was good doing things that everybody else was doing if it was a right thing to do. That was because you had fun doing it and because you was a part of the world you always heard about or maybe saw on television” (112).

Tippy: “I never liked people who stole things, not even because of God and the Bible saying it was wrong – I just didn’t think it was the right way to live. I didn’t like people who lived like that, and now I didn’t like me very much either” (182).

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