When We Wuz Famous

Book review by
Denise Sullivan, Common Sense Media
When We Wuz Famous Book Poster Image
Gritty, moving tale of boy trying to escape his barrio past.

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age 13+
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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Readers from cultural and socio-economic backgrounds unlike those in the story get a feel for life among lower income families of color and may glean that every person alive shares the human condition and the same basic needs.

Positive Messages

It's hard to escape your past. Sometimes you need to leave your old ways -- or old friends --  behind as you try to move forward in life. One bad decision can take you back to where you don't want to be.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Reignbow is very responsible. She cares for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis, and takes care of herself when she feels Francisco has behaved inappropriately. She also keeps her heart open when he offers a sincere apology with an intention to start over.

Violence

Though generally the story does not contain violence except for a scuffle on the basketball court, the book largely describes the events leading up to a murder. 

Sex

Flirting and temptation is alluded to, and there's an implication that sex occurred or soon will between the monogamous high school senior couple.  There's a rumor of a pregnant teen and an abortion, and a joking reference to masturbation in the prep school dorm.

Language

Profanity is rarely used (one instance each of "bitch" and the "N" word spelled "nigga"), so it's jarring when "motherf-----r" is used once in a threatening way. "Spic" is used as a racist taunt. 

Consumerism

One character eats at McDonald's for breakfast in a moment of desperation because it's all he can afford.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens Francisco, Reignbow, and the rest of their group of friends are not depicted using substances of any kind. However, drugs are in and around their environment. Vincent, because of his family history and general erratic behavior, appears at risk of developing a drug problem, especially when he becomes a drug runner.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that When We Wuz Famous is the story of Francisco, a boy from New York's Spanish Harlem, who goes to prep school on a basketball scholarship but finds himself torn between his past and future. His best friend, Vincent, has been repeatedly abandoned by family, his mother is an intravenous drug addict and a prostitute, and he gets mixed up with loan sharks, pimps, drug dealers, and a gun. There's a police investigation into the murder of a teenager. It's implied that a monogamous high school senior couple had or will soon have sex. The ethnic slur "spic" is used, and while profanity is minimal, when used for impact, it's particularly harsh ("motherf----r," just once). A cocaine transaction is a part of the plot, but drug dealing is not the main theme here, just one of the realities in the life of a young man trying to move forward while his loyalties to Spanish Harlem conspire to hold him back. 

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Teen, 14 years old Written byBetty L. June 28, 2013

Moving, well-written, realistic story of growing up. AWESOME!!!

WHEN WE WUZ FAMOUS is an awesome book! The protagonist, Francisco, is intelligent and mostly serious, while his best friend, Vincent, is not a positive role mo... Continue reading

What's the story?

Francisco Ortiz has it made with his basketball scholarship to an exclusive prep school -- it's his ticket out of Spanish Harlem and the first step toward a better life. But four hours by train outside the city is a long way from home, and instead of hanging with his girl Reignbow and his best friend Vincent, or eating his mom's homecooked arroz con pollo, Francisco is consigned to enduring cafeteria slop and living with two snooty roommates in a too-small dorm room. Admittedly ill-prepared for his new life at Seton Grove, he returns home for the weekend to find he no longer fits in with his friends from Alvarez High. Back at Seton, Francisco finds no matter how big a star he becomes on the court or on campus, he can't shake the the rumors haunting him as he struggles to adapt. Trying to please everyone -- from new friends and teachers to Reign and his wayward friend Vincent -- it seems his troubles bind him forever to the barrio.

Is it any good?

Author Greg Takoudes' true-to-life teen scenarios should resonate with anyone who's been singled out on campus, particularly for racial and income-disparity differences. Takoudes brings personal experience as a scholarship student and working with Spanish Harlem youth to WHEN WE WUZ FAMOUS, based on the award-winning indie film Up With Me (2008)which he wrote and directed.

One ethnic slur ("spic") on the basketball court and the general taunts Francisco receives from his roomates may seem mild in comparison to the bullying some students receive on a daily basis. Yet the verbal wounds pack a punch, as does the culminating act of violence that underscores the tragedy of young lives wasted, a situation all too real, particularly in low-income areas and communities of color. The characters of Francisco, Reign, and Vincent are archetypal yet sympathetic, and readers will be moved by how tough it is for them to escape the confines of their neighborhood, even when opportunity knocks. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about potential pitfalls and hazards of relocation, sports scholarships, and racially charged situations at school. Have you had friends from troubled backgrounds? What did you learn from them about their lives? 

  • Do the characters in When We Wuz Famous realistically portray what it might be like to be a high school senior in Spanish Harlem? What other stories you've read or movies you've seen do a good job of reflecting high school dynamics?

  • What's the root of Vincent's problems? Did his parents fail him? Does low self-esteem always lead to a life of crime? What impact did poverty have on the three main characters, Francisco, Reign, and Vincent?

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