Review for “Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty” by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke (2010)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I was in high school back in 1994, and I remember the case of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer like it was yesterday. My parents used to get weekly subscriptions to TIME magazine back then and I remember staring at the young, barely preteen face in the mug shot on the cover thinking: how could this happen? How can an 11 year old child be both a murderer and a murder victim? Like the 1994 magazine cover, the child’s eyes on the front of this book stare directly at you and you can’t help but to stare back. His gaze is a direct challenge, his eyes are blank, hostile. It’s the coldest stare you’ve ever seen on an 11-year-old kid in your life.
I read that magazine article over and over again and even though I knew the facts of his brief life (abusive past, both of his parents were incarcerated, ran away from numerous foster homes, and had dozens of brushes with the law), the facts offered no comfort or clarity to my burning question of ‘why?’ In the years since, I have never forgotten the details of Yummy’s short, violent life, or his young face on the cover of a national news magazine.
Twenty years later as a middle school teacher, I had seen about a dozen ‘Yummys’ in my ten year teaching span. Not quite as violent at Robert, but the circumstances were the same–black male children living in hellish home situations, caught up in the ever-present, all consuming lure of gang life. I am also a parent myself, of an 11 year old son–ironically, the same age as the boy at the center of this novel. My interest in this case has never wavered over the years, so when I saw there was a graphic novel about Yummy’s life I jumped at the chance to read it.
This was an excellent book. It is narrated through a fictional bystander, a neighborhood child named Roger. It is illustrated in a clear, thoughtful way that allows you to fully understand through pictures the drama of that unfolded in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago back in 1994. The tragic facts of Yummy’s life are presented once again but what is unique about this story is that it accurately showed the detrimental effect of abuse and neglect on Yummy’s life. We see that even though he killed a young girl and committed several other crimes, he was still a kid and in many ways, still a victim. Through Roger’s perspective, we witness another side of Yummy. We learn that he was a child who still carried and slept with a teddy bear, loved his Granny, felt fear, and cried often. It was facts like these and several others that were presented that grabbed me emotionally in such a way that I couldn’t help but to want to reach out and hug this child and sympathize with him. The author never pushed an agenda or preached, but left you to make up your own mind about whether or not Yummy was a cold hearted killer.
This book is undoubtedly a morality tale to warn kids away from the perils of gang life. I wish I had discovered this book years earlier as a teacher and presented it to my reluctant readers, who have no choice but to live in a violent, hopeless home environment like the one in which Yummy was raised. The ending is one of hope, though we know deep down that the problem of gangs aren’t going anywhere soon. This book, however, is a great start.