By Matt Berman,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Misfit escapes inner city. Moving identity story for teens.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Parents and teachers can use this book to look at a variety of issues, such as asking kids what they would do in Rico's place -- or what factors most shape his identity. The publisher has produced a sharp reading guide to help delve into the plot's issues. Parents may also want to consider the questions in our "Families Can Talk About" section.
From Rico's story, readers will learn how difficult life can be for kids growing up amid drugs and violence in the inner city. There is also a message about learning to accept yourself -- even though acceptance has been something hard for outsider Rico to find.
Positive Role Models
Rico may steal comics from the store and hitchhike, but he also saves his drug addict friend and eventually learns some self-acceptance. While few readers will relate directly to the particulars of his situation, most will relate to Rico himself, and his outsider status is universal.
Violence & Scariness
A boy is shot, others are badly beaten, including having teeth knocked out. A father punches his son repeatedly. A junkie accidentally sets himself on fire while high on heroin.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
References to falsies, Playboy, masturbation, condoms, making out, sodomy. A man pulls out his penis and tries to get two teen boys to masturbate him. It's implied that the teen main character has sex.
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Lots of swearing throughout the book, including the s-word, the n-word, the f-word, and other words like "d--k" and "ass."
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Products & Purchases
Candy, sneaker, snack, cigarette and tobacco, ice cream, soft drink, fast food, gum brands.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Lots but certainly not glamorized: Major and minor characters, both adults and children, drink, often get drunk, smoke tobacco and marijuana, and in a detailed scene, one prepares and injects heroin. Major characters grow and sell marijuana. Drunken, angry parents mistreat and abuse children, a son has to get his falling-down-drunk father home from a bar and up four flights of stairs. References to hashish, LSD, and junkies.
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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.
Where to Read
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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?
- Author: Oscar Hijuelos
- Genre: Contemporary Fiction
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Atheneum
- Publication date: September 16, 2008
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 12 - 12
- Number of pages: 439
- Last updated: July 12, 2017
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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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