It Was September When We Ran Away the First Time



Engaging look at 1950s kids; some history lessons required.

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Discussion and incidents of racial tension. Kids tell Billy he should "stick to his own kind" and Paolo calls Billy's girlfriend a "China doll." Boys find "Stay away from that little china doll" spray-painted on their garage siding. The boys spy on a teacher and are convinced he is a Communist. They stow away in his truck and end up helping with a biology experiment. Two boys have to live in a car with their mother after their father runs off. One of the main characters is deaf.


Someone throws a rock at Billy and hits him in the mouth. The boys fight with one another. Arsonists burn their treehouse and they believe it's either Communists or a warning from other boys who don't want Billy to date Veronica because she is Chinese. Paolo fears Billy and Veronica are going to jump off a cliff like lovers in a local legend.


Billy has a crush on a girl.

Not applicable

Some brand names, such as Hamm's beer, Camel cigarettes, Sun-Maid raisins, and a Ronson cigarette lighter.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Paolo believes Communists "drink so much vodka they'd want to dance whilst sitting." He says he swore years back not to touch liquor. Paolo's uncle sends him to the store to buy cigarettes for him.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this book addresses racism in a small town in the 1950s. There is little historical context so young readers may be confused by why interracial relationships and Communism are such a big deal. Characters call a Chinese girl a "china doll." There are some references to drinking and smoking by adults. One of the main characters is deaf.

Parents say

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What's the story?

The third in a series about 12-year-old Paolo (the previous novel boasts an even longer name: Probably the World's Best Story About a Dog and the Girl Who Loved Me), IT WAS SEPTEMBER WHEN WE RAN AWAY THE FIRST TIME works as a stand-alone title as well. Set in California in 1951, the novel follows Paolo, his 6-year-old brother Georgie, and his 10-year-old cousin Billy, who is deaf and lives with Paolo's family. The boys search for Communists and struggle with bullies after Billy starts hanging out with Veronica, who is Chinese. When Billy gets hit by a rock and the boys' treehouse is burned by arsonists, they think they know exactly who the culprits are . . . but do they?

Is it any good?


This would make a lovely read-aloud so parents can provide some historical context while laughing at Paolo's precocious first-person narrative. "It has always been our family's way to go along with the Bible or leastways on the interesting bits," he notes. This is novel where the characters shine; Smith adeptly fleshes out adult characters, even within the confines of Paolo's perspective. "My dad is chock-full of virtue," Paolo explains. "He's especially Determined; though sometimes I think Determined is a first cousin to Stubborn." The boys engage in all sorts of antics, from Paolo blowing on Billy's eyeballs to wake him up to Paolo tying Georgie up and nearly suffocating him with a mouth gag. Like readers of any nostalgic novel (fBeverly Cleary's series, for example), contemporary kids may wonder at the freedom young people used to enjoy roaming around town.

The question is whether younger readers will appreciate Paolo's insights, catch references to John Wayne, or understand all the to-do about Communism and interracial relationships.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about how attitudes have changed toward interracial dating in the last 60 years. Most kids will not understand why Billy and Veronica were persecuted, nor will they likely know why Paolo is so worried about "Commies." Parents may want to encourage kids to ask their grandparents what it was like growing up; kids can compare their grandparents' experiences to the book.

Book details

Author:D. James Smith
Genre:Coming of Age
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:September 9, 2008
Number of pages:230
Publisher's recommended age(s):8 - 12
Read aloud:9
Read alone:9

This review of It Was September When We Ran Away the First Time was written by

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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