Photo depicting Alvin Horn in a red jacket and a baseball cap standing next to a colorful hand-drawn sign that reads, "New Book by Mr. Horn"

YA Novel ‘Places to Be’ Takes Youth to the Columbia City Library and Beyond

by Amanda Ong

In March, local Seattle author Alvin Horn released his first young adult novel — Places to Be. The story is set in Seattle and follows a young Black teen and star basketball player, Marley. Though he is a good student, Marley falls in with a group of friends who get him into trouble, and when he flunks history, his mother puts him on house arrest for the summer. But what starts as punishment becomes a summer of maturity.

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

Most of Horn’s books take place in Seattle, and Places to Be is especially informed by his nascent experiences as a teenager here. Horn was a high-level athlete at Rainier Beach High School, and though 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 caught on camera not paying for candy. 

“[It’s] a mother’s nightmare to have the police come to her door about her child,” Horn said. “So all the plans I had to go hang out at Seward Park, see my friends, go swimming, go out to 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 takes directly from Horn’s experiences going to the library that summer. Horn says that to this day, he credits his path to an older white librarian he met that summer at the Columbia City Library. 

“[The librarian] comes by me one day, and she says, ‘If you don’t read, they will imprison you,’” Horn said. “When I went up to go check a book out, she reached, and I thought I saw a tattoo on her arm. … In 1969, only sailors had tattoos, not little white ladies.” 

Despite the expectation of the time for youth to be extremely respectful of adults, Horn couldn’t quell his curiosity without asking her about her tattoo. But the librarian just gave him a stern look and asked him 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 that book, much like Marley does, and I found myself immersed in the book because this was a 13-year-old telling the story,” Horn said. “It was the first time I read a book where it was not an adult talking to me, or telling the story, it was someone my own age. And I couldn’t put that book down.”

Marley’s story begins almost the same way — but when Marley reads the diary of Anne Frank, things take a drastic turn. As Marley reads, he gets sleepy. He lays his head down to rest, but instead, the room starts tumbling. When it stops, Marley sees that he is a young white man in a Nazi uniform, being ordered by other soldiers to go search the Frank house. 

So begins Marley’s summer of reading and historical time traveling, as he continues to read historical books and travel through time with them. He starts to gain a love for history and brings his best friend, Alana, along with him. 

“There’s a lot of lessons, because he learns leadership, he is coming of age,” Horn said. “He learns to speak up against things that are wrong.”

Though Horn normally writes for adult audiences, he was inspired to write a young adult novel based on his work as a security specialist at Seattle Public Schools in South Shore. He himself went to school in Rainier Beach over 40 years ago, and has been a long-standing member of the community.

“Why would I not take the opportunity to do something for my community?” Horn said. “I’m writing a book that represents the kids in my community, and the possibilities for them. And for our teachers to engage with. Because, of course, the kids know me, Mr. Horn, and are interested in the book. And if I write a good book, then they get to see the moral lessons in that book.”

Places to Be reflects on the lessons Horn learned as a young Black teen at the Columbia City Library, but they are still applicable to the community’s youth today. More than that, Horn hopes representation from a known community member will be inspiring.

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

Places to Be is available for purchase on Amazon.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

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

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