YA Novel ‘Places to Be’ Takes Young People to the City of Columbia Library and Beyond


by Amanda Ong

In March, local Seattle author Alvin Horn published his first young adult novel – places to be. The story is set in Seattle and follows a young black teenager and star basketball player, Marley. Although he is a good student, Marley meets a group of friends who get him into trouble, and when he misses the story, his mother puts him under house arrest for the summer. But what begins as a punishment becomes a summer of maturity.

Horn was born and raised in Seattle and has lived here since the 1950s. “I’ve lived a lot of lives where things changed drastically,” Horn said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “From when we had Emmett Till, to the Kennedys and the assassination of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.”

Most of Horn’s books are set in Seattle, and places to be is particularly informed by his budding experiences as a teenager here. Horn was a top athlete at Rainier Beach High School, and while he was always a good student, he also regularly struggled due to a learning disability. The summer before high school in 1969, just like Marley, the police came to Horn’s home after some of his friends were filmed failing to pay for candy.

“[It’s] a mother’s nightmare of the police coming to her door about her child,” said Horn. “So all the plans I had to go hang out in Seward Park, see my friends, go swimming, hang out at the Seattle Center, go skating…all of a sudden I’m on restriction for the whole summer. And the only place I could go was to the library. And that’s what happens to Marley in this story; the only place you can go is to the library.

The premise of places to be pulls directly from Horn’s experiments going to the library that summer. Horn says to this day he credits his journey to an older white librarian he met that summer at Columbia City Library.

“[The librarian] comes to me one day, and she says, “If you don’t read, they’re going to put you in jail,” Horn said. “When I went upstairs to look at a book, she reached out and I thought I saw a tattoo on her arm. … In 1969 only sailors had tattoos, not little white ladies.

Despite the expectation at the time for young people to be extremely respectful of adults, Horn couldn’t quell her curiosity without asking her about her tattoo. But the librarian simply gave her a stern look and asked her to follow her into the basement of the Columbia City Library, where the ethnic studies section was at the time. She handed him Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

“And so I read this book, much like Marley does, and I found myself immersed in the book because it was a 13-year-old kid telling the story,” Horn said. “It was the first time I read a book where it wasn’t an adult talking to me or telling the story, it was someone my age. And I couldn’t put this book down.

Marley’s story begins almost the same – but when Marley reads Anne Frank’s diary, things take a drastic turn. While Marley is reading, he falls asleep. He lays his head down to rest, but instead the room begins to crumble. When he stops, Marley sees that it is a young white man in a Nazi uniform, who is ordered by other soldiers to search the Franks’ house.

Thus begins Marley’s summer of reading and time travel, as he continues to read historical books and time travel with them. He begins to take an interest in history and takes his best friend, Alana, with him.

“There are a lot of lessons, because he’s learning leadership, he’s maturing,” Horn said. “He learns to call out the things that are wrong.”

Although Horn normally writes for adult audiences, he was inspired to write a young adult novel based on his work as a public school safety specialist from Seattle to South Shore. He himself went to school in Rainier Beach over 40 years ago and has been a longtime member of the community.

“Why don’t I take the opportunity to do something for my community? Horn said. “I’m writing a book that represents the children in my community and the opportunities available to them. And for our teachers to engage with. Because, of course, the children know me, Mr. Horn, and are interested in the book. And if I write a good book, then they can see the moral lessons from that book.

places to be reflects on the lessons Horn learned as a young black teenager at Columbia City Library, but they are still applicable to young people in the community today. More than that, Horn hopes the portrayal of a well-known member of the community will be inspiring.

“It’s almost like writing a book about my community,” Horn said. “I have something to give to my community. And it will promote my children in my community; it will motivate them.

places to be is available for purchase on Amazon.

Amanda Ong (she) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington’s Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnic and Racial Studies.

📸 Featured Image: Alvin Horn in front of a display of his new book ‘Places to Be’ at the school library where he works. Photo of librarian M. Englert.

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