My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

Book review by
Barbara Saunders, Common Sense Media
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Tween uses vivid imagination to cope in confusing novel.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

The story is set in Harlem in the 1980s and includes lots of authentic detail, including the rise of hip-hop and NASA's Challenger space mission. That said, in many cases, there isn't enough context for readers who weren't there to understand the importance of a reference.

Positive Messages

Don't be too quick to judge people, places, and experiences. Have an open mind.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The main character is a smart Black girl. But other characters provide iffier examples. Ebony-Grace's grandfather, one of the first Black engineers to integrate NASA in the 1960s, is in trouble at work. Her Uncle Rich has women (possibly prostitutes) coming in and out of the house, and it's said that her grandfather was similar. In one scene, the dad and uncle get into a fight in the street and end up in jail. Grace's mother tends to use religion and old-fashioned values as means to deny what's going on around her.


E-Grace's father and uncle get into a fight in the street as Grace watches; police break it up. The fight is glamorized a bit, with an implication that the blowup between the brothers was a long time coming. References to the dad having lingering injuries a couple of days later.


Many references to prostitutes and pimps. Prostitutes approach E-Grace's father and make innuendos while he's walking with two young girls. The uncle who lives with E-Grace and her father is depicted with more than one woman going in and out of his room in a single day, and some neighbors think he's possibly a pimp. 


Non-gratuitous mentions of products such as Dapper Dan's to set the scene in Harlem in 1984.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Grace takes cough medicine even though she's only pretending to be sick.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich,by National Book Award Finalist Ibi Zoboi (American Street), is the story of Ebony-Grace ("E-Grace"), a 12-year-old African American girl from Huntsville, Alabama, who spends the summer of 1984 in Harlem with her father. At home in Huntsville, E-Grace lives with her mother and a grandfather who was one of NASA's first Black engineers. E-Grace and her grandfather share a rich fantasy world that's heavily influenced by Star Trek. But her grandfather has gotten into some kind of trouble, and her mother thinks it's best that E-Grace not be at home until that's resolved. Grace has a hard time adjusting to life in Harlem due to culture shock, her underdeveloped social skills, and her father's bumpy relationship with his brother. There's a fist ight between adults that's a bit glamorized. And there are many references to the uncle being involved with multiple women, possibly prostitutes. And there's a reference to pimps.

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What's the story?

In MY LIFE AS AN ICE CREAM SANDWICH, 12-year-old Ebony-Grace leaves her home in Huntsville, Alabama, to spend a summer in Harlem with her father. In Huntsville, she lives with her mother and grandfather; he was one of NASA's first black engineers, but now he's in some sort of trouble. At her father's house in Harlem, E-Grace experiences culture shock in "No Joke City," as she calls New York, which is on the cusp of the hip-hop boom. She struggles with fitting in, navigating the tensions between her father and uncle, and homesickness for her beloved grandfather. E-Grace's primary coping mechanism is a fantasy world ("imagination location") that she and her grandfather created together. At the center of those fantasies are Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura and Nichelle Nicols, the actor who portrays her.

Is it any good?

Author Ibi Zoboi does a good job conjuring up the 1980s, but some of the nostalgic detail may be out of reach for the target audience. A 12-year-old reader in 2019 may not understand a joke about the song "Ebony and Ivory" or appreciate the irony of E-Grace's excitement when Ronald Reagan announces the plan to put a teacher in space. Even the Star Trek references may be obscure to some young readers. Also difficult is the way E-Grace floats in and out of her fantasies. It's hard to tell whether Zoboi intends her to be a girl with a vivid imagination or whether she might have a developmental or neurological disorder; that makes it challenging to figure out what My Life as An Ice Cream Sandwich's message is.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how who E-Graces seees as a rolel model in My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich. She looks to both the fictional Uhura and real-life actor Nichelle Nicols for inspiration and aspiration. How does E-Grace relate to the two women differently?

  • When she feels stressed, E-Grace retreats into an imagined world. Can you think of some other ways she could have handled conflicts?

  • My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich is set in 1984. What are some things you notice about how the kids' lives then were different from your life today?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories featuring characters of color

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