At the West Athens Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles, principal Barbara Lake could recall no other first day of school when fifth-grade students actually asked to take a textbook home. She could think of no other set of books that prompted parents to jam the school's switchboard, wondering where they could buy their very own copies.
"It was highly unusual," Lake said Monday.
Then again, so is the series of eight anti-gang primers co-written by Los Angeles journalist Barbara Cottman Becnel and Stanley "Tookie" Williams, an inmate on death row here and the surviving co-founder of one of this country's most notorious street gangs, the Crips. At a time when children's literature has grown progressively tougher, addressing such issues as AIDS and family violence, the "Tookie Speaks Out" series is almost surely the first set of books aimed at elementary school students where the glossary includes the words "homeboy" and "gangbanger." Early reaction to the books is highly, even vociferously, mixed.
On death row, where he has resided for more than 15 years, the 42-year-old Williams acknowledged the stern, almost forbidding quality of a collection of books that proselytize against gang violence. Just as readily, he admitted deep regret about the legacy of the group he and Raymond Lee Washington launched in 1971 as "an alliance" to provide neighborhood protection.
"I was a megalomaniac; I was a fool back when Raymond and I started the Crips," Williams said. "We saw ourselves as the protectors, but we became monsters, just like the people we were fighting against. The gangs killed too many people. My people, my own people. I wish none of it had ever happened."
While fellow inmates traded urgent embraces with past and would-be lovers in the death row visitors' area, Williams said he opted to write children's books in hopes of reaching a wide, impressionable audience. In a voice so soft it seemed out of character with his mountainous body, he explained, "These books are not an elixir. There is no magic potion. There is no one element that can reverse the cycle of violence in the black community. But these books can help."
Williams is accepting no money for the books, and under state law it is questionable whether he would be allowed to anyway. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to a Stockton-based group called Mothers Against Gang Wars. He is adamant that his literary effort has nothing to do with the appeal of his case in federal court, a normal path for capital offenses. In fact, he refuses to discuss his case at all.
Many on the front lines of the effort to staunch youth violence were swift to agree with Williams on the value of his writing. Franklin Tucker, director of the National Center to Rehabilitate Violent Youth in Washington, called the books "the best thing I have ever seen." At Southern California's largest Head Start program, the Kedren Community Center in Los Angeles, chief of operations Jeri Deamouchet installed the "Tookie" series as the centerpiece of an anti-violence curriculum for 3- to 5-year-olds. Jakki Dennis, director of the spouses' program at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, selected the "Tookie" books as the focus of a panel on youth violence to be held Thursday.
Dennis is not troubled by the fact that participants at her conference will be reading books co-written by a man convicted of four murders committed in the course of two robberies. "I think that makes it all the more important to our young people," she said. "They learn best from hands-on role models, and this man is actually there, on death row."
Ronald A. LeGrand, who as director of minority affairs for Nabisco Inc. has underwritten the foundation meeting, concurred. "If I could choose my messenger, perhaps I would have chosen someone else," LeGrand said. "But the reality is, sometimes kids need to hear from someone who has gone down the rocky path that they themselves may be about to embark on."
Others, however, had reservations about the "Tookie Speaks Out" books. Prison anthropologist Mark Fleischer, a professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State College, cautioned that a death row epiphany, a kind of "shamanic vision," is a well-known phenomenon. "Take it with a box of salt: A lot of these guys think back about their histories, and they do this kind of conversion reaction. For males, there is this conception of wanting to reach out and help children. These guys sit in prison and think just how much they don't want their children and grandchildren to be like them."
Janice Del Negro, director of the Center for Children's Books at the University of Illinois, questioned the books' "touchy-feely approach" to gang violence. " 'Keep trying to be a good person? I did it? You can do it too?' " she read from "Gangs and Self-Esteem," adding question marks for emphasis. "The guy's on death row? But he's a good person? Come on."
At the Horn Book Magazine, a Boston periodical devoted to children's literature, Editor in Chief Roger Sutton faulted the books for "taking a very serious subject and dealing with it in a superficial way." The books are unsophisticated, Sutton noted: just 24 pages per title with large print and full-page photographs that he faulted as "posed and contrived." Besides, he continued, positioning Williams on the cover of each book and featuring him as a voice of authority represents the latest far-fetched form of celebrity worship. "The publisher is selling these books based on a reputation. He's making Tookie Williams just as important as the content of the books."
Yet Williams soundly refuted any such motive. "I am nobody's hero. I am the opposite," he repeated, over and over. "I have no interest in romanticizing or glorifying gang life or myself as a gang member." His past, Williams said, "is nothing to be proud of."
He was, after all, convicted of murdering convenience store employee Alvin Owens in the spring of 1979. Two weeks after that crime, Thsai-Shaic Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin were killed during a robbery at their L.A. motel. Williams was convicted in both cases of using a firearm to commit murder and received the death penalty.
He is a former drug addict and street fighter. He has one adult son in jail, another works with the homeless in L.A. County. He has never met his 2-year-old grandson but melts when the child tells him on the telephone, "I love you, Grandpa."
In the cacophony of the death row visiting area--"Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez, for example, sat directly behind Williams, affectionately twirling the chestnut tresses of a woman in a deep purple dress--Williams said he became acquainted with his co-author when Becnel was researching a book on the history of the Crips and its most prominent rival gang, the Bloods, that will be published in the spring by MacMillan. During their long series of interviews, Williams told her he had come to despise what gangs have done to the African American community.
He assured her that his transformation was by no means sudden. Williams spent more than six years in "the hole" of solitary confinement as the result of a death row gang fight. Slowly, he said, "I woke up."
Still, in 1994 when he returned to the general death row population of about 440 inmates, prison officials and other inmates feared reprisals. An inmate and onetime gang chief of Williams' stature had only to send the right signal to instigate a gang war behind bars. But Williams, transmogrified in his own mind to a man who abhorred violent confrontation, said he put out an edict of a different nature.
"There will be no retaliation," he decreed, to general disbelief. To date, the dictum has held true. Three years ago, he videotaped a message for a gang summit condemning urban violence.
Becnel, a 46-year-old author and journalist, had her own misgivings. She was streetwise herself, having dropped out of high school to bear a child at 16. By 19, she was attending Adelphi University on New York's Long Island with a full scholarship. She completed her bachelor's degree in 2 1/2 years, graduated summa cum laude and headed off to MIT for graduate work in econometrics.
Becnel was determined not to be snowed by Williams. But after her first interview with the Crips' co-founder, "I walked away thinking, this is not only an intelligent man, this is a leader. Fate dumped him in South-Central. If he'd been born in Sherman Oaks, he'd be head of the Rotary Club."
Except to say that Becnel acted as editor, the co-authors do not discuss the logistics of their collaboration. Charged with getting the project published, Becnel went first to the houses that had published her three earlier books. To a one, she said, they rebuffed the kids' book idea, urging Williams to write his life story instead. (As it happens, Williams has been working for sometime on a memoir he has tentatively titled "Blue Rage and Black Redemption.")
But Roger Rosen, president of the small, New York-based Rosen Publishing Group, signed the project up the moment he saw the proposal. His company specializes in titles that focus on at-risk youth, books that "push the envelope" of social acceptability, on subjects ranging from body piercing to attention deficit disorder to Satanism. In publishing Williams' books, Rosen said, "my basic premise is that an authentic voice, a voice that is speaking to them from death row, someone who has been there, is the most compelling message-deliverer of all. He can say, 'Look, I might be executed, but my last wish is to look after you kids. Do not follow in my footsteps.' I don't think that is a glorification. I think that is redemption."
The 30,000-copy first-run printing represents a large commitment from Rosen's Power Kids Press imprint, whose books are distributed to schools and libraries. To help promote the "Tookie" series, Rosen hired a marketing manager and relied heavily on the entrepreneurial energies of Williams' co-author.
Back in South-Central, an O.G. (for "original gangster") friend of Williams echoed Rosen's opinion about redemption. Gregory "Batman" Davis, who joined Washington in expanding the Crips over to "the East Side," now runs a nonprofit, anti-gang program called Save the Babies. Of his friend's literary debut, Davis said, "I'm going to put it to you like this: When you start buttering up stuff, the kids don't pay no attention. It goes straight through them. You got someone like Took telling them the truth, they listen. The bottom line is: You see where he is. You see where it got him. Death row. It's no joke. It's no glory."