Jennifer Baker on Restorative Justice in Young Adult Fiction
How far would you go for forgiveness? This is the question stamped on the cover of Forgive Me Not (Nancy Paulsen Books / Penguin, 2023), the debut young adult novel by Jennifer Baker. The novel follows two siblings navigating the growing pains of high school and young adulthood. This comes to a head when Violetta gets drunk and gets behind the wheel of a car, killing her younger sister. As a minor, Violetta is presented with two options: to undergo sentencing and serve time in detention, or participate in The Trials to prove her remorse and willingness to learn from her mistakes. While Violetta is away, her star-athlete brother, Vince, faces his own obstacles with the pressures of school, relationships, and drug use while dealing with the recent family crisis. Individually, the two learn about the expansiveness of accountability and forgiveness.
In the latest episode of PEN America’s Works of Justice podcast, Malcolm Tariq, senior manager of editorial projects, speaks with Baker on restorative justice, her experience researching the criminal justice system, and writing for young adults.
Below is an excerpt from the transcript of the podcast.
Malcolm Tariq: We’re joined for this episode by Jennifer Baker, author of Forgive Me Not, which is out August 2023 this month with Nancy Polson Books. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us. How are you doing?
Jennifer Baker: I’m good. So good to see your face. And just talk to you.
Malcolm Tariq: Yes, it’s so nice to meet you. After knowing each other for a few years.
Jennifer Baker: Yes, and if y’all haven’t read Heed the Hollow, please do after listening to this wonderful podcast.
Malcolm Tariq: Thank you. I was so excited to see that your book was coming out. And once I saw what it was about, I knew that I absolutely had to have you on the podcast for us to talk about it.
So, thank you so much for agreeing to be here. Would you like to give us a quick summary of the book?
Jennifer Baker: Oh absolutely. And thank you again. So, Forgive Me Not follows two biracial teenagers from Queens, New York, which I’m also from, and it does look at a form of quote, unquote “restorative justice,” and I say “quote, unquote” because as we talk you’ll see it’s not quite that.
Essentially, and unfortunately, Violetta, who is one of the central characters, gets into a drunk driving accident. She’s a teenager, 15, that unfortunately also her young sister dies in. Under the juvenile justice system in this world, which is, you know, very much parallel with ours, but skewed a bit, those who are considered the victims get to decide what happens. And so there are choices.
There is one you can forgive someone, in which case they can go home and go on a path towards healing. Or, you, they can be incarcerated for a determined amount of time. Or, they can do this thing called The Trials, which is a form of rehabilitation, as they call it. And where there are different categories of which you will be assigned tasks or jobs or assignments and whatnot to see where you’re at in terms of comprehending and understanding and, again, being rehabilitated. And you also follow Violetta’s older brother who’s also a teen, they go to the same high school, Vincent, and dealing with the family perspective of what that looks like on those who are making the decision. And he has his own things going on that he’s hiding and feeling a lot of guilt.
Malcolm Tariq: Thank you. Yes, this is such a rich story. So many turns. So many questions, actually, to think about and grapple with. I haven’t read a YA novel in a very long time, but I got so much out of it. It actually inspired me to go to the YA shelf the next time I’m at the bookstore to see what’s there.
So, I guess good way to start, can you tell us what inspired you to write this story?
Jennifer Baker: Yeah, it was a TV show. Ironically or not, but there was this TV show called Forgive or Forget, and it was a syndicated show. And there was a woman named Mother Love who hosted it. And essentially… do you remember it?
Malcolm Tariq: Yes. Yes, I remember it. I definitely remember this show.
Jennifer Baker: Yes, yes. And I’m sure you can find it on YouTube for those who don’t know. And essentially the premise of that show was if someone wanted to apologize for something awful, they would fly you out in front of a national, live audience to talk about what you did and to try and get forgiveness from whoever you hurt, harmed, etc.
And that person could choose to come and face you on TV, or they might come up on a screen and explain why they chose not to get on the plane. I just found that very, very intoxicating in a way of just like…Well, why would you think that’s the best way to…cause this was, it was like…you know, it’s like cheating, debt, you know? It was very Jerry Springer-esque in that way.
It was kind of like a judge jury, and then you had the Jerry Springer element of people like, “Ooh, I can’t believe you did that.” And so that was what started it all. And I said, well, what if this is how the justice system worked? What if this was how we did quote unquote “justice” of, well, someone either forgave you or they didn’t. And it was the person you had impacted.
And I mean, to an extent, our criminal justice system works in that way, but it does not either, you know. And technically I wanted to eliminate people and essentially it’s still a system that is in place. There is still very much a system in place and that can manipulate and make you think that this is a way to quote unquote “fix people.”
Sorry, I use quotes a lot.
Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional of 20 years, the creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and a faculty member of the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and a writing consultant at Baruch College. Formerly a contributing editor to Electric Literature, she received a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship and a Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant for Nonfiction Literature. Her essay “What We Aren’t (or the Ongoing Divide)” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2018. In 2019, she was named Publishers Weekly Superstar for her contributions to inclusion and representation in publishing. Jennifer is also the editor of the all PoC-short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018) and the author of the YA novel Forgive Me Not(Nancy Paulsen Books, 2023). She has volunteered with organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and I, Too Arts Collective, and spoken widely on topics of inclusion, the craft of writing/editing, podcasting, and the inner-workings of the publishing industry. Her fiction, nonfiction, and criticism has appeared in various print and online publications. Her website is: Jennifernbaker.com.
Malcolm Tariq is the senior manager of editorial projects for PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program. His collection, Heed the Hollow(Graywolf Press, 2019), is the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, Tariq lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.