Before We Were Free

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
Before We Were Free Book Poster Image
Moving historical fiction about life under a dictatorship.
Popular with kids

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 13 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational value

Will inform readers about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, which lasted just over 30 years. Readers will also struggle with the same issues Anita and her family do: Is murdering anyone ever justified, even when it's a dictator? Should they stay and fight for their freedom, or flee to safety?

Positive messages

There is a strong message about the importance of fighting for your right to be free. As Anita's mother tells her, "Sometimes life without freedom is no life at all."

Positive role models & representations

Anita is a brave and good-hearted lead character. Readers will empathize with her as she gradually understands what is going on around her, and watches her idyllic childhood become increasingly complicated and dangerous.

Violence

Brief but explicit mentions of torture techniques. Anita's father takes part in an assassination plot against the dictator (whose body is found tied up in her car). Anita's father and his friends have guns -- and later she learns of her father's execution.

Sex

Discussions of the onset of Anita's adolescence: menstruation, growing breasts, first crushes, etc. It is implied that Trujillo rapes young girls, and he is interested in Anita's sister.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, drugs & smoking

Two boys are bullied into drinking and wake up with hangovers.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the author won the Pura Belpre award for this historical fiction book about a young girl from the Dominican Republic whose family is involved in overthrowing the terrifying dictator known as El Jefe in the 1960s. There are some violent details, including some pretty graphic depictions of torture, but there is also a strong message about the importance of fighting for your right to be free. As Anita's mother tells her, "Sometimes life without freedom is no life at all." Through Anita's story, readers will also struggle with the same issues Anita and her family do: Is murdering anyone ever justified, even when it's a dictator? Should they stay and fight for their freedom, or flee to safety? The book includes an author's note and an interview with the author, both of which provide some historical context, as well as a reader's guide.

User Reviews

Adult Written byzowaysiverbeg March 10, 2015

kind of inappropriate

Some parts of the book refer to "developing", which might not be appropriate for smaller children, so I recommend waiting until 6th or 7th grade to re... Continue reading
Educator Written byKeri B. September 17, 2016
It was a great novel. Alvarez does a phenomenal job at covering the political unrest and tension of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo.
Teen, 16 years old Written byhope4me December 3, 2008

this is more for girls

she was pretty brave to make decisions on her on like that, most girls would be intrested in this if they have a lack of courage in decision making.
Teen, 14 years old Written bySophie99 January 16, 2011
I love this book But at the end it wasn't that intersting!!!

What's the story?

Anita has a good life living in an extended family compound in the Dominican Republic. But as she approaches adolescence and her relatives start leaving for the United States, or just disappearing, she gradually comes to understand that her family is involved in the resistance to the island's brutal dictator, Trujillo. Soon they are being watched by the secret police and the American ambassador moves into the compound with them to protect them. But when her family takes part in an assassination plot, Anita and her mother are forced into hiding.

Is it any good?

Told strictly from Anita's point of view, parts of it in the form of diary entries, this moving book manages to give readers a true sense of what life is like under a dictatorship. Readers will empathize with her as she gradually understands what is going on around her, and watch her idyllic childhood become increasingly dangerous. Not only must she manage the usual markers of adulthood -- periods, crushes, etc.--  but her own complicated coming-of-age story also means coming to terms with her own family's involvement in the assassination of  the man she has always called El Jefe. The story is well told, but its messages about freedom are what will leave a more lasting impression on teen readers. They will struggle with some of the questions Anita struggles with, including what would they do in her family's situation? Is better to flee to safety, or fight for your rights?

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about historical fiction. What's appealing about learning history this way? What does it add to your understanding of real events? What other example can you think of?

  • This book won a Pure Belpre award, which, according to the American Library Association, is given "to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth." Why do you think an award like this is necessary? Have you read any of the other award winners?

Book details

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

For kids who love history in action

Our editors recommend

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality and learning potential.

Learn how we rate