In Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, Jonathan Kozol traces disadvantaged kids’ struggles as they make their way into adulthood.

Where did the children you write about start out?

The book has painful stories of kids that I met in the 1980s in [Manhattan’s Martinique Hotel] homeless shelter. The city placed them there. It was right out of Dickens. There was an open drug market. The guards, many of them ex-convicts, exploited the young women. I did a Nightline documentary there, and the guards broke in and beat us up. I also follow kids from the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, which has some of the worst housing and most unhealthy neighborhoods in the Western world.

How did those environments affect kids as they grew up?

At the Martinique the youngest kids underwent less damage than the older ones, who, late at night, saw people shooting heroin in the stairwell and the sexual predations. And the boys, rather than the girls, suffered the most devastating damage, like Pietro’s son, Christopher, and Vicky’s son, Eric.

Both of them garnered criminal records and committed suicide. But there are hopeful stories, too.

The heart of the book is kids like Pineapple—a child of Guatemalan immigrants, going out into a world totally different from anything she’d known, working hard without losing her joyful personality. She’s a senior in college now, determined to go back and help the people she left behind.

How did you get people to open up?

I would visit schools and sometimes tutor a particular child at a local church. I’d start running into them in the streets, and they’d say, “Want to come up? I think my mom’s home.” I’m not a sociologist, I’m a storyteller. I’m interested in the details—like Pietro’s keeping a duck in his apartment and enjoying his fight with the welfare system over it, or little Leonardo munching on cookies as he showed me the neighborhood’s medical waste incinerator.

Many people might see these kids’ destinies as the product of their own good and bad choices. Is that a tenable view?

Some kids made very poor choices. But the strongest force determining their lives was the physical, social, and intellectual isolation in which society placed them. They lived cut off from the mainstream, in virtual apartheid; their schools were as segregated as the schools of Mississippi 100 years ago. None of these kids chose to be born in Mott Haven. None of them are responsible for the absence of modern medical care in their neighborhoods, or for environmental hazards that tormented them with asthma. Those choices were made by people who have power.