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By Amy Sherman

Hope Dreams, Part 1

At the Edward Jenner Elementary School on Oak Street in Chicago, fire drills are complex affairs. As Daniel Coyle, author of "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," explains, the school is situated on the boundary between two rival gangs, the People and the Folks. "To compensate," Coyle writes, "the school [is] careful to keep the students' comings and goings arranged by gang affiliation, using separate entrances and allowing teachers to divide their classes during fire drills: People out one door, Folks out another."

Here in the Other America, as social critics have labeled it, gunfire is discussed like the weather:

"Better go shopping early, because they're gonna shoot tonight. They sure were shooting last night, weren't they? They was shooting early this morning, but then it let up and I got to go to my grandmama's."

Here, a woman named LaJoe spends $80 per month from her welfare check on burial insurance for her two (healthy) sons--ages 9 and 12; she's uncertain they'll reach age 18. Here, it is not unusual for 14-year-olds to plan their funerals with the same eye for detail with which brides-to-be plan their weddings.

Even for our hardened, seemingly unshockable society, the accounts of life in the Other America told in this spate of recent books are jarring. Three of the narratives are set in inner-city Chicago. Ben Joravsky's "Hoop Dreams: A True Story of Hardship and Triumph" (which became an acclaimed documentary film) chronicles five years in the lives of two teenage basketball stars, Arthur and William, who hope to use the game as their ticket out of the ghetto. Alex Kotlowitz's "There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America" focuses on LaFayette and his little brother Pharoah, who live with their mom, siblings, and assorted relatives in a decrepit apartment in the city's Henry Horner Homes. Daniel Coyle's "Hardball" covers the triumphs and tragedies in the 1992 season of the Kikuyus, a Little League baseball team composed of ...

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