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It's Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
It's Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood Book Poster Image
Comic's engaging memoir of growing up under Apartheid.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

This memoir provides a relatable, informative view of life under South African Apartheid and its aftermath. Through Noah's personal experience and observations, and through the publisher's epilogue on the "History of Apartheid," young readers learn about the injustice and division created by Apartheid, and the difficult conditions that persisted in its aftermath.

Positive Messages

Maintain hope in the face of serious adversity. It's possible to rise above poverty, injustice, and abuse and enjoy a successful career. Change can happen in an unjust society.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Noah tells an honest story, including his childhood mischief and petty crimes committed as a young adult. The book is full of life lessons, but no one would say his growing up was exemplary. But he emerges from poverty, injustice, and abuse to enjoy a successful career. His mother's fierce love and personal independence are inspiring, but she also stays too long in an abusive relationship. Noah's father sounds like a nice person, but circumstances keep him mostly outside of Noah's childhood. Stepfather Abel is the opposite of a role model. 

Violence

The story begins with Noah, his mother, and his little brother hurtling out of a moving minibus, because they're threatened by the driver. Throughout the book, kids receive corporal punishment in school and at home, including being struck with a belt or switch by a parent; or getting spanked or rapped on the knuckles with a metal ruler, or having his/her mouth washed out with soap by a teacher. The worst violence in the book comes at the hands of Noah's stepfather, Abel, who attacks Trevor and his mother. Abel beats a neighbor child who threw berries at Trevor and then threatens the child's father when the dad comes over to talk to Abel. Abel beats Trevor's mom, Patricia, with a bicycle. After she finally leaves him, Abel shows up at ner new home one day with a gun and shoots Patricia in the buttocks and then in the head. The book also includes historical facts about white police murdering unarmed black protesters. 

Sex

There's a kiss between teens, and Trevor says that his parents had "sexual relations" in the context of explaining why he says he was "born a crime."

Language
Consumerism

Brands mentioned: McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Converse All-Stars, Dickies, and Jell-O.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Early in the book, Trevor tells how children would take empty bottles from men who are passed out drunk, return the bottles for deposit, and use the money to buy food. When they're teens, Trevor and his friend steel chocolates filled with liqueur from a mall store, drink the booze and eat the chocolates. Trevor's stepfather, Abel, smokes pot and drinks to excess, eventually giving up smoking to dedicate himself to drinking. Abel drinks all of the profits from his car-repair business, and never comes home from work sober. He also sometimes becomes dangerously violent when drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that It's Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is an adaptaion for younger readers of comedian and Daily Show host Noah's 2016 memoir Born a Crime. Noah grew up as the ultimate outsider: the son of a black South African mother and a white European father, at a time when laws under Apartheid made it illegal for mixed-race couples to marry or have children. The book explores gender roles, and the relationships between different factions within the black community, as well as between blacks and whites and "colored" (mixed race) people. There are incidents of disturbing violence against Trevor and his mother, who's beaten and shot by . In addition,his stepfather. The publisher's epilogue on the "History of Apartheid" mentions the Sharpeville Massacre, when white police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed black protesters, killing dozens of people. Noah, who was a mischievous kid, makes a distinction between the corporal punishment he receives from his devoted mother and the callous violence of his stepfather. Abel, the stepfather, is frequently drunk and has a history of marijuana use. Trevor describes the petty crimes he committed as a young adult, as well: He and his friends were loan sharks and music pirates before Trevor began his career as a comedian and television host. Fans of Noah's stand-up comedy or The Daily Show will find plenty of his trademark sharpness and self-effacing humor even as he relates memories of suffering poverty and abuse.

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What's the story?

IT'S TREVOR NOAH: BORN A CRIME, STORIES FROM A SOUTH AFRICAN CHILDHOOD is the adaptation for young readers of comedian Trevor Noah's 2016 memoir Born a Crime. Noah describes growing up as an outsider because he's of mixed race, born at a time when marriage or relations between blacks and whites was illegal in South Africa. Noah was a mischievous kid, and his antics are entertaining, even as his life and observations reveal so much that was wrong in his world of poverty, racism, injustice, and abuse. Noah regales readers with stories of youthful misadventures, from playing with matches to bad first dates to petty crimes, sometimes with amusing results and occasionally with disastrous ones. Through his own experience, Noah gives readers a look at family life, education, gender roles, and religion in 1980s and '90s South Africa.

Is it any good?

Trevor Noah's adapted memoir is the best kind of kids' nonfiction -- his misadventures are highly relatable and engaging, even when things go horribly wrong. Readers will come away with deeper knowledge about what Apartheid was, and the social ramifications of racism, sexism, and poverty. It's Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood entertains while it teaches readers esssential historical lessons, leading them to consider social issues thoughtfully. Information is presented effectively for young readers through Noah's personal experience and observations, and through the publisher's epilogue on the "History of Apartheid." This is not an easy book, but it's easy to appreciate. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Trevor Noah's life changed during and after Apartheid. Did much change for him? Why or why not?

  • Trevor feels like an outsider most of the time. Why is this? Have you ever felt like an outsider? What was the situation?

  • Why do you think Trevor starts the book with his story about being thrown from the minibus? If you were going to write your life story, what would come first?

Book details

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