A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there is a lot of adult content here: language, sexual references, violence, and drug use (including one very detailed scene of preparation and injection of heroin). See the advisories for details. But the mature material is not glamorized, and instead shows the hardships that Rico faces as a white-looking Cuban growing up in a black and Hispanic ghetto -- and why he is desperate to run away to another life. Teens will find it easy to sympathize with Rico, who mostly tries to do the right thing -- and his story will certainly get them thinking about identity, race, poverty, addiction, and a host of other important issues.
What's the story?
Rico looks white, but he's a Cuban living in Harlem in the '60s. A bright kid who loves to read, he is often picked on, sometimes beaten, doesn't feel he belongs anywhere, has a drunken father and an angry mother, and his only friend is turning into a junkie. There's little that's good in his life. So he decides to run away, dragging the junkie friend with him, and hitchhikes to Wisconsin, where an older friend from his neighborhood is living in a ramshackle farmhouse without running water. There he finds some peace and a gas-station job, but he can't go to school, and still doesn't know where he belongs.
Is it any good?
Pulitzer-winning author Oscar Hijuelos's first young adult book is really for older teens and adults. Its subject matter is unusual: a white Cuban boy from Harlem washing up on a run-down farm in Wisconsin. Though it runs more than 400 pages of not a lot happening in between small incidents of nasty violence, and has more coolness and emotional distance than most YA books, the pages fly by, and it's engrossing from beginning to end. It's easy to see why Hijuelo's won that Pulitzer (for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) -- the man can write.
Rico may steal comic books from the store, but he is mostly a nice kid who just wants to get along, get an education, and get out. Hijuelos adeptly sets Rico up in a no-win situation, then allows him a sort of winning, but at a cost that may be more than Rico is willing to go on paying. While few readers will relate directly to the particulars of his situation, most will relate to Rico himself, and his outsider status is universal.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the intense material here, which includes a school shooting and heroin use. Why do you think the author chose to include so much mature material and language? Is it appropriate to the story -- or does it feel gratuitous? What is the limit of what's appropriate in books for young adults? Is there one?
This book is set in New York City in the 1960s. How have things changed since then? Would Rico's life be different now than it was then? In what ways?
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