The Only Road

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Only Road Book Poster Image
Harrowing, heartfelt tale of Central American teen refugees.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 3 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Author Alexandra Diaz, who herself immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as a child, makes vividly personal the current events, from poverty to murderous gangs, driving hundreds of thousands of desperate Central Americans, many of them unaccompanied children, to do whatever it takes to get to the relative safety of the U.S. As protagonists Jaime and Ángela make their way from Guatemala northward through Mexico, readers will learn a lot about culture, regional history, geography, and local sights and sounds. Some of the dialog  is in Spanish, usually translated in the text; there's also a large glossary of Spanish words used in the book. (The book is also available in a Spanish-language version.) In some scenes, regional language differences -- and the kids' ability to adapt to them -- play a crucial role. Also important: perfecting your language skills and accent by watching a lot of international TV.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about courage, family, looking out for your loved ones, and persevering, whatever it takes. Small acts of kindness can make a life-changing difference for both giver and recipient. So can each person's particular skills and talents.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jaime and Ángela are brave, determined, and resourceful as they navigate a dystopian world, trying to do the right thing and stay safe. Their strong, loving families, who sell everything and borrow money to fund the kids' desperate journey, never leave their hearts and minds. Even murdered Miguel appears to be helping from the hereafter. As the teens' journey unfolds, they meet many violent, corrupt, and greedy characters, but also many, often in dire straits themselves, who show great kindness.


The story's events are set in motion when a gang murders Ángela's brother Miguel when he refuses to join them. As the teens soon find out, their road is full of people who will kill and rob you, but many of their fellow travelers are fleeing worse. Some characters die, others are badly beaten or injured. Danger is constant.


In a scene where the teens are part of a group of people who strip down to their underwear to swim across a river, Jaime tells a man he catches ogling Ángela to "keep your eyes to yourself, pervert!" One of the reasons the cousins have to leave their village is that if she stays, she'll be forced to be the "girlfriend" of a gang leader. A young traveler disguises herself as a boy because the road's not a safe place for girls traveling alone. Two adult characters joke about one of them having a wife and a mistress.


Pee and poop are part of the harsh landscape, where plumbing and other comforts are rare. A villainous character calls the refugees "pissants." Occasional "turd," "goddamn."


Occasional mention of brand name for characterization or scene-setting, e.g. a gang member in a dirt-poor village brandishing a brand new iPhone and wearing new Nike shoes. Jaime keeps asking his brother in the U.S. if he's met Jennifer Lopez yet.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cigarettes are a coveted item for the teens -- more as barter items than for smoking, though some young characters as well as adults smoke. Along the journey they encounter adults and kids intoxicated on liquor or glue, and try to avoid them. Gangs force some kids to carry drugs across the border; many are caught.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Only Road is the story of two teen cousins fleeing a violent gang in their poor Guatemalan village and making the perilous, expensive, illegal journey through Mexico to the United States. Courage, their own talents, the kindness of strangers, and above all the love of friends and family sustain them. But the landscape they traverse is as harrowing as anything dystopian fiction has on offer -- freight trains jammed with desperate people, kids and adults happy to rob and kill you, gangs and immigration officers who treat their victims brutally. Author Alexandra Diaz, who also left her home and loved ones in Cuba when she came to the U.S. as a child, affectingly conveys what it's like when your only chance of survival is to leave everyone you love behind and head into the unknown. There's a lot of harsh reality in this fact-based tale, but also lots of heart.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byABookishMom November 28, 2018

Intense, but Hopeful

This book is gripping, suspenseful, and realistic. Having known a child who escaped to the U.S. from Central America, I think that it is a realistic and timely... Continue reading
Parent of a 9 and 10-year-old Written bySascha D. February 25, 2017

Too dark and graphic for my kids now but a wonderful book for teens

This book was given to my children (age 9 and 10) as a gift. From reading the blurb I could tell the subject matter might be disturbing. I read it myself firs... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byHappyWriter3 August 23, 2020


It was written really well, and the book made me cry--and not many books can do that! There's some blood, swearing and drugs, so it's definitely for o... Continue reading
Kid, 10 years old November 5, 2019

Great Book

I love this book because it was so suspenseful and amazing.

What's the story?

After gangs in his small Guatemalan village kill his cousin when he refuses to join them, 14-year-old Jaime and his 15-year-old cousin Ángela know that THE ONLY ROAD to their own survival is the one that leads north through Mexico to the United States. There, they hope to meet Jaime's brother Tomás, who's in a work program in New Mexico. Their families pool all their money and borrow more to pay all the smugglers involved, but as they soon find out, the road is full of deadly danger and they're on their own.

Is it any good?

As two teenage cousins take the perilous journey from Guatemala to the U.S., this harrowing, heartfelt tale brings to life the plight of thousands of young refugees and the dangers they face. Author Alexandra Diaz, herself a childhood immigrant from Cuba, vividly conveys what it feels like to leave all you've known and loved behind, probably forever, and to be on a dystopian journey with thousands of people, good and bad, in the same situation.

"Jaime felt as though he already knew too much. Friends at school talked; advertisements on television and on billboards warned of the horrors. In an illegal journey of four thousand kilometers, they were going to places more corrupt than his village, running from gangs more violent than the Alphas, going to a country where no one, except Tomás, wanted them there. Everywhere they'd go on this journey, they'd be unwelcome."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what refugees go through in The Only Road. Thousands of kids worldwide flee their countries to find safety. How would you feel if you suddenly had to leave everyone you knew and loved and face many dangers on your own?

  • In the story, budding artist Jaime's talent for drawing saves the day several times. Do you have any particular skills or talents that you'd put to good use in a tight situation?

  • Do you like to watch TV from other countries? What do you like about it?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love immigration tales and stories from other lands

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate