A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
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.
Talk to your kids 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.