Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, captures the life of two young brothers growing up in the projects of a dangerous city in Chicago. Pharaoh and Lafayette expose the truths about the educational system, social services and the seemingly unbreakable cycle that captures so many families living in poverty. Still, the story of the boys’ lives, as they navigate the violence and the roadblocks to success, delivers hints of hope.
Kotlowitz introduces readers to Pharaoh when he is in the third grade. Pharaoh is a smart young boy, courageous in nature and passionate about spelling. Though he excels in school, he is oftentimes distracted by what happens at home, at the Henry Horner Homes in Chicago. Like most children living in the Henry Horner Homes in the 1980s and ’90s, Pharaoh witnessed crime, violence, injustice and poverty, all of which shaped his academics.
The older of the two brothers, Lafayette, shares similar experiences growing up. Unlike Pharaoh, who has the ability to throw himself into his studies to avoid the daily troubles of his neighborhood, Lafayette becomes easily influenced by the lifestyles of his friends and family. Consequently, Lafayette’s schoolwork suffers and his hopes of graduating high school are delayed.
Life at Henry Horner is unsafe for anyone, but especially for children, who often become victims of violence and crimes. LaJoe, the mother of Pharaoh and Lafayette, desperately wants to leave the projects and raise her children in a safe environment, where they wouldn’t have to hide behind dumpsters to avoid bullets, or go without food until the first of the month. The story of how she wants better lives for her children resonates within the book and oftentimes creates tensions within the family.
Unfortunately for LaJoe, no matter how much she tries to protect her children from the dangers of street life, the more they become involved in it. At Henry Horner, drug dealers prey on the children. Escaping their reach seems almost impossible. Though it’s a shared belief that an education might be a ticket out of the projects, for these children living at Horner, surviving each day is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Both Pharaoh and Lafayette dream about leaving the projects and having their own bedrooms. After the family loses public assistance for a period of time, their oldest brother Terence is sent to jail, and their friends Bird Legs and Craig are killed, they realize their futures are unpredictable. Nonetheless, they remain hopeful that a change will occur.
In the end it seems as if the Rivers will always be stuck at Horner. LaJoe continues to collect public assistance and tries to raise her children the best she can. Pharaoh is performing better in school and Lafayette appears to be repeating the cycle as he accumulates a charge on his juvenile record.
There Are No Children Here is a story of two boys’ struggles to survive a neighborhood filled with violence and the harsh realities that shape urban societies. Both Pharaoh and Lafayette hold onto the slightest beam of hope with the belief that they will someday find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.