LATOYA HUNTER knows what it's like to grow up in urban America today - she's smack in the middle of it.
"When you're young, your opinion doesn't count. I think that's the hardest part," says this teenage author during a recent interview at her home just north of New York City.
This month, Latoya's opinions about everything from school to politics will gain a wide audience when the diary she kept as a 12-year-old seventh-grader is published.
"The Diary of Latoya Hunter: My First Year in Junior High" provides a rare peek into the thoughts and emotions of a young student.
During the year, Latoya endures school, witnesses a fatal shooting across from her house, escapes from a man trying to lure her into his car with money, participates in her brother's wedding, and gains a nephew when her unwed sister has a baby.
"I don't think I would have had the money to go to college if it wasn't for this book," says Latoya, a shy, soft-spoken teenager dressed in a bright shirt, jeans, gold-hoop earrings, and polka-dot sneakers.
Born on the island of Jamaica, Latoya joined her parents in the United States when she was in the third grade. She's always loved reading and writing.
"When she was one-year-old I would come in and find her writing with little papers in her crib," says Latoya's mother, Linneth Hunter, whose lilting Caribbean accent reveals the family's background.
When she graduated from sixth grade, Latoya received an award for "best writer." "The world is waiting for Latoya Hunter," her teacher said.
After reading a New York Times article on the graduation ceremonies at Latoya's school, an editor at Crown Publishers took an interest in this "best writer." He contacted Latoya's teacher and requested some samples of her writing. He liked what he saw and proposed that Latoya keep a diary of her first year in junior high - for publication.
In the time that it takes to transform a diary into a book, Latoya has turned 14, graduated from junior high to high school, and moved from the Bronx to nearby Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Many American students wouldn't be willing to make their personal diary public. "It was hard at first," Latoya says about being honest in her diary entries. "I think I was kind of holding back."
Even though she knew everyone would read it eventually, Latoya wrote about her relationships and conflicts with family, friends, teachers, and boyfriends. (Some of the names were changed in the book.) No one other than the editors read her diary before publication.
"I tried to glance when she just started," Mrs. Hunter says. "And she said, `You're not supposed to look.' So I'm looking forward [to reading it]."
During the interview at their home, Latoya and her mother got their first look at the finished book jacket. Reading a description of the book, Latoya's mother fights off tears of pride and anxious anticipation. "I hope you only said nice things," she tells her daughter.
Latoya squirms. "At least now she'll know how I felt, how I feel," she says after her mother leaves the room. Latoya says her mother is too strict and just doesn't understand what it's like to be young.
She hopes that adults like her mother will read her book. "I think it will help them understand their kids more.... We're just discovering who we really are. But while we're doing it we try to please people."
More than anything, Latoya says, she wants her book to reach other girls her age. "A lot of girls are going through the same things. I want to show them that they're not going through it all alone."
Latoya went to junior high at J.H.S. 80 in a tough section of the Bronx. She was a good student but didn't enjoy school. J.H.S. 80 is "like an earthly version of hell," she writes early in the diary. Teachers are the main problem, explains Latoya. "Most teachers are just interested in getting paid. They don't care about the students. If you're having a problem, they don't care to look into it. They just give you the lesson, and that's it."
Although high school is better than junior high, Latoya says she still hasn't found a teacher who compares to her sixth-grade teacher, Robert Pelka. "He was so caring," she remembers. "He really cared about us."
Latoya thinks schools in the United States should be more like they are in Jamaica, where there is more emphasis on discipline. "Here it's like a playground; it's not strict enough. The things they get away with here they could never get away with in Jamaica." Jamaican students also wear uniforms to school. "It makes you feel like somebody," Latoya says.
American students are more interested in material things than in learning, she observes. "They don't know they can't get those things without learning."
Latoya is interested in politics, but she's not happy with President Bush and other incumbent politicians. "They're so concerned with foreign affairs. And there's so much going on here in my neighborhood. Why can't they do something about the homeless people?" she asks.
Latoya comes face-to-face with the woes of urban America every day. "At school, somebody got shot this year," she says. An argument between two students escalated and one of the students was killed. "There's violence everywhere," Latoya concludes.
The war on drugs may be making some inroads with the young people in Latoya's neighborhood, however. Although drugs are apparent on the streets, "everybody thinks it's stupid to take drugs," she says.
Teenage pregnancy is prevalent. Even in junior high, some girls were getting pregnant, Latoya says.
But "it's considered shameful to get pregnant," she points out. Latoya doesn't plan to have children until after she graduates from college, gets a job, and gets married.
In the diary, Latoya writes: "I've never come across discrimination against me for being black." But that's changed lately, she says. When she and her friends go into stores, she's begun to notice that they are "always being watched like criminals."
Recently, Latoya went to the editorial offices of a magazine for an interview connected with her book. The receptionist assumed she was there to deliver something. "She didn't ask, `Can I help you?' or `Do you have an appointment?' " remembers Latoya. "She looked pretty surprised when I said I was there for an interview. I felt good then."
Latoya plans to use the income from her book for college. She hopes to become a journalist. "It's really important that I go to college," she says. New York University is her top choice right now. Latoya's sister, now married, has just enrolled in college and is working toward a teaching degree, but no one else in the family has ever attended college.
Latoya doesn't keep a diary on a regular basis these days, but she hasn't given it up entirely. "I write on days when I'm really mad," she says. "That's how I let off steam."