December 09, 2019

My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders

Written by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books
224 pp.
Ages 13+
October 2019
Reviewed from advance reading copy

Deborah Ellis's opening words "There but for the grace of God go I" from John Bradford are prophetic ones that resonate throughout her latest young adult non-fiction book as young offenders, recent and not, and others unmask family histories, criminal offences and misdeeds, judgements and outcomes. They are stories that could be anyone's but these are their own voices, told as they lived or recall, and they deserve to be heard.

Over twenty young people, named only by their first name and age, were interviewed by Deborah Ellis, a process which she explains in her introduction. Their stories include domestic abuse, poverty, addictions, bullying, foster care, loss, mental health struggles and family dysfunction. Their stories are as diverse as the individuals profiled and we learn a lot about each person beyond the crimes that drove them into the criminal justice system. But there are the crimes, from theft to assault, vandalism and arson, and trafficking of drugs and weapons. Still Deborah Ellis gives these young people the opportunity to explain. To explain where they came from, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, and how justice may or may not have been served. Many are hopeful, trying to see beyond their pasts and their pains and their crimes, and make futures for themselves and their families for which they might be proud. They're not perfect, but then none of us are, and some minimize their responsibilities for choices made while others own their decisions and circumstances.
I don't know if I'll ever get rid of the pain I'm carrying. Maybe I can turn it into something not so heavy. (Lindy, 19)
But Deborah Ellis does more than just give voice to these young offenders. She offers background information about anger, foster care, abusive relationships, witnessing abuse, restorative justice and the importance of a high school diploma. In a question accompanying each young offender's story, she makes the reader think about how they might address the issues which these young people have experienced and makes suggestions about how to make things better in her "Taking Steps" sections. Still the best advice often comes from the young people themselves.
That little thing that's in the back of your head, that says, "Don't do this!"? Listen to it the first time. (Beth, 19)
In addition to the twenty plus young people she highlights, Deborah Ellis also gives voice to past offenders and those who work with young offenders–these are each identified as a "Voice of Experience"–and family members of offenders. Their perspectives, from the distance of time and the other side of the justice system and from the heartfelt viewpoint of family, give different frames of reference to the hardships with which these young people have been dealt or are dealing. 

Deborah Ellis has always sought justice in letting those whose voices are rarely heard speak freely. From Three Wishes (2004) and Off to War (2008) to Kids of Kabul (2011) as well as Looks Like Daylight (2013), Deborah Ellis has let us hear what Palestinian and Israeli children, children affected by AIDS, soldiers' children, Iraqi refugees, and Indigenous kids have to say. She holds true what Maya Angelou acknowledges so eloquently in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

With My Story Starts Here, Deborah Ellis has released the untold stories of young offenders and hopefully provided them with another step forward to healing.


  1. Bravo to Deborah Ellis for writing this book. I worked with youth at risk for a number of years and have heard their heartbreaking stories. I hope all schools stock this book.

    1. I always thought her novel “Jakeman” was unique in focusing on the experiences of children with incarcerated parents. But “My Story Starts Here” goes beyond that humble book and reveals so many stories and issues that needed to be heard. She gives voice to so many.