“The cholo tree” Daniel Chacón

Rated 3 stars *** 2017. Arte Público Press. 248 pp.

TheCholoTreeFourteen-year-old Victor is an aspiring artist and cook in his low income, gang filled neighborhood and, like most kids his age, doesn’t like school. He was very close to his father who was killed when Victor was very young, and holds his mother at an emotional distance. Though not a cholo (gang member) she believes he is one, and doesn’t trust him.

Victor doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life and is reluctant to choose a path, despite direction from a teacher he trusts and a very smart girlfriend who gives him some inspiration. As he aimlessly wanders through the life he’s chosen for himself, Victor has to sort through layers of experiences to decide if he already is a cholo. Does he want to be a cholo, or does he want to break free of the mold he created for himself in order to live the way he was meant to live?

Don Quixote-type fantasies intermingled with Victor’s hazy memories of his father, along with stories of his life, are pieced together to show four years of his struggles to discover who he is and what he wants to be. Though I wasn’t a big fan of the book, I did enjoy the author’s portrayal of Iliana as a strong, independent woman. She knew what she wanted, and went for it full speed ahead, the complete opposite of Victor. She didn’t let feelings get in the way of her future, and I admire her for having a goal and sticking to it.

Recommended for ages 14 and older.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


“Deep in the shadows: Undercover in the ruthless world of human smuggling” Hipólito Acosta

Rated 3 stars *** 2017. Arte Público Press. 319 p. (Includes photographs and an Appendix).

DeepInTheShadowsHipólito Acosta grew up in a tiny Texas town and, in 1975, was hired by the U.S. Border Patrol. After working locally for a little while he was assigned to Chicago, becoming one of the first Hispanic agents to work undercover for the agency. There, either single handedly or with fellow agents, he infiltrated gangs and cartels to root out drug dealers, human smugglers, and sellers of false identity papers. Later in his career, assigned to work in higher leadership roles in the Philippines and Mexico, he continued to set the bar high in his single-minded pursuit of justice.

In simple, understated narrative Acosta details his innovative, yet very dangerous experiences working to uphold his oath to protect our country’s borders. His memoir is loaded with names, dates, and facts, which can be overwhelming at times. It would have been nice if an alphabetical glossary or timeline, with associated page numbers, was included to help readers better associate the details of his career.

Recommended for Adults.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Once a King, always a King: The Unmaking of a Latin King” Reymundo Sanchez

2003. Chicago Review Press. 286 pp.

OnceaKingAlwaysaKingThis book has been the most “lost/stolen” book in my high school library. When another copy “took a walk” this year, I decided to check out the remaining copy to see for myself why it’s been so hard to keep on the shelves. “Once a King” is actually the sequel to Sanchez’s first book “My Bloody Life,” however, I had to read this one first since my library didn’t have any more copies of  “My Bloody Life” left for me to borrow as they had also “taken a walk.”

Reymundo became a member of the Latin Kings gang in Chicago when he was just a young kid. His abusive home life, homeless street life, and early gang life with the Kings is detailed in “My Bloody Life.” In “Once a King” Reymundo explains why he decided to walk away from the Latin Kings, how hard it was to turn his back on this former way of life, and how/why he hurt so many in his attempt to rehabilitate himself in prison and in his life without the Kings.

From the first pages of his Introduction, readers are caught up in Sanchez’s life, and his sincerity. He explained why he had to choose a fictitious name for himself and his characters to protect his life and theirs from retaliation by the gang. In “Once a King,” Sanchez gives a no-holds barred look at gang life, and the effects it had on him mentally, physically and emotionally. From his scarred background comes a phoenix rising from the ashes, as we see Reymundo trying to make something of his life. His goal in sharing his painful experiences is to keep teens who are reading his book away from gang life.

“Once a King” is riddled with raw language and descriptive narrative, but its no holds barred method of communication will entice the most reluctant of readers aged 14 and older. Public and high school libraries should make it a point to have many copies of Sanchez’s books on their shelves, including “Lady Q: The Rise and Fall of a Latin Queen” written with Sonia Rodriguez, as teens need to understand that gang life is not everything they have glorified it to be.

Though multiple copies of his first two books have “taken a walk” from my high school library shelves, it is just a matter of time until fresh copies find their way back onto them to educate a fresh generation of students. I will look for “Lady Q” and “My Bloody Life” over the summer, and add them to my reading repertoire. You should do the same.

“Tap out” Eric Devine

ARC (Advance Reading Copy). To be published September 11, 2012. Running Press Teens. 310 pp.

Dubbed “trailer trash” by his fellow high schoolers because of where he lives, Tony is expected to amount to nothing. He’s grown up with drunken boyfriends beating his mother, having her zone out through meth, and scavenging for food to survive. His best friend Rob has found relief from their daily life through fighting with an organized group at the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) gym. When Tony joins, he finds true happiness and a sense of family for the first time in his life. His principal feels there’s a future for him because of his high IQ, and is willing to try and get him into college. Things are finally looking up for Tony.

Unfortunately, a gang of bikers who deal in meth have other plans for him. He has no choice but to become their drug messenger, then hit man. As he reluctantly rises through their ranks, all the plans he’d hoped to have for his future disappear, and he is left facing the fact that he’ll never be free. Tony is determined to find a way out to make a life for himself, but it seems that everything he does drags him down deeper than ever. Despite everything, a small flicker of hope for a better future still lives in Tony, but the gang is doing everything they can to stamp it out.

This gritting, life-on-the-edge novel of poverty and pain for mature high schoolers is a hard hitting, no holds barred of what it means to struggle and live life on the edge. It is honest, raw and emotional, and deserves a place on every high school and public library bookshelf. Its characters are heavy hitting, and any reader who has experienced even a modicum of pain in their lives can relate and understand their struggles as well as their victories. After you read it, pass it on to someone else. It struck an emotional chord in me.

When life hands you nothing, and you struggle to exist everyday, “Tap Out” gives you a chance to breathe and know there’s light at the end of your tunnel. Keep on keeping on. Don’t give up.

“Messed Up” Janet Nichols Lynch

Holiday House, 2009. Hardcover. 250 pp.

R.D. is almost 16 years old, and is still in the 8th grade. Every time something goes wrong at school, the Vice Principal assumes it was his fault, so R.D. automatically gets blamed. He’s been suspended so many times for things he really hasn’t done, but doesn’t care. It’s nice not to be at school.

His mother is in jail, and he never met his father so R.D. lives with his grandmother and her boyfriend Earl. When she abandons them for another boyfriend and moves out of state, life is still cool until Earl suddenly dies. R.D. doesn’t want to wind up in a home, so he pretends Earl is still alive and tries to figure out how to live on his own, get money for food, cook, clean, go to school, do his homework, keep away nosy people, and stay one step ahead of the law finding out Earl is dead.

Lynch shows humor in the trials and tribulations faced by a young boy trying to figure out how to do things as simple as laundry and cleaning, yet draws readers into the sadness of R.D.’s loneliness and having too much responsibility laid on his shoulders.

Messed Up” is a great “breaking stereotypes” look into the life of a Mexican American kid who happens to live in the Hood, is surrounded by the Hood, yet doesn’t let himself become part of the Hood. R.D. shows great judgement and ingenuity as he tries to take a bad situation and make it better.

I’d recommend it for Middle Schoolers in grades 7-8, as well as reluctant readers.

“Ghetto Cowboy” G. Neri

Illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. Candlewick Press, 2011. Hardcover. 218 pp.

I loved the history G. Neri infuses throughout the book, such as learning that slaves who worked with cows were called Cowboys, thus becoming the first to be called by that name. I was surprised to learn that stables actually still exist in the inner cities of Philadelphia and Brooklyn, run by Black Cowboys to keep kids out of gangs and to give purpose to their lives. G. Neri does an excellent job of educating readers of a long ago tradition that still exists in modern times and tying it in with the story of Cole, a young boy struggling to figure out his place in the world. It’s important for all young boys to read about the influence and strength Cole gains, not only from caring for horses, but from the father he’d never met who helps him to stand up for what he believes when faced with injustice.

I’d recommend it to students in grades 4-7 who are interested in horses or learning about the history of Black Cowboys in the United States.