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