Plot Summary: Fifteen-year-old Tyrell does not have what anyone would call an easy life. His father is in prison for illegal activities he participated in trying to earn money to pay the ret and put food on the family’s dinner table. His mother seems unable, or unwilling, to provide for or even take care of either of her two sons; Tyrell seems to be the only one looking out for his seven-year-old brother, Troy. The family’s financial problems are so dire that they can’t make the rent payments on their apartment in the projects, and, so their shelter is being provided by the New York City Emergency Assistance Unit. Tyrell calls it “the E-A-U,” and it is not a place he or anyone he knows wants to be living. But, living there, Tyrell is, in the roach-infested Bennett Motel, “The place look like a bombed-out building from the outside, like something you see in them war movies. Inside it ain’t no better. The place stink like old sneakers, probably ‘cause there ain’t no fresh air in here,” (Booth, 2006, p. 19).
At the EAU Tyrell meets Jasmine, a teenage girl in an equally difficult family situation. Tyrell and Jasmine hit it off, they can understand each other in ways Tyrell’s other friends cannot, and Tyrell finds Jasmine extremely attractive. But this attraction is complicated by the fact that Tyrell loves his girlfriend, Novisha, very much and has his whole future planned out with her. Confused by his feelings and living in chaos, Tyrell has a lot on his mind, too much, in fact, for him to bother going to school, a place that he feels is useless. But, even with all of these obstacles, Tyrell comes up with a plan to make some money and get his family an apartment. Is Tyrell a survivor? Will his plan work?
Critical Evaluation: Written in the language of the streets, Tyrell, portrays a stark and harsh world, where a fifteen-year-old is left with way more responsibility than he should have. The indignities and difficulties of homelessness are palpable and Booth’s descriptions of settings provide realistic and disturbing images of the reality that families like Tyrell’s face daily. The story was born of Booth’s experiences as a caseworker, helping families in crisis in New York City, lending it authenticity and veracity. Tyrell’s voice is strong and presents his conflicts in a such a genuine way that readers will likely feel connected to Tyrell and those who have been where he is will hear themselves in his voice, and readers who have not experienced what Tyrell is going through will wonder, “what would I do in that situation?” The words in this novel are carefully chosen and put together. The characters are multi-dimensional, their complexity parallels the complexity of Tyrell’s world, a world beautifully and painfully rendered in Booth’s novel. My one concern about the story is that Tyrell’s mother is portrayed in a stereotypical way as lazy and neglectful and someone who takes advantage of the system. While I do not doubt that there are people who fit this description, it is important to point this out, to make sure that a collection contains a diversity of books that portray urban life, so readers have a chance to see a variety of characters and situations. Additionally, this issue, as well as many of the books’ themes, would make excellent class or book group discussion topics.
Reader’s Annotation: Homeless and broke, fifteen-year-old Tyrell doesn’t have it easy. With his father in prison and his mother is in denial, it seems up to him to care for his seven-year-old little brother and navigate New York City’s social services agencies.
Information about the Author: Coe Booth grew up in the Bronx, NY, and held several jobs working to help families in crisis in the Bronx. The story of Tyrell was inspired by real teens Booth knew and helped, and the book Tyrell grew out of a writing assignment for a creative writing class.
Genre: Issues, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction
Subgenres/Themes: Issues: Life is Hard: Homelessness and Foster Living
Topics Covered: Homelessness, Poverty, Truancy, Love, Racism, Incarceration, sexuality
Curriculum Ties: Social Science
Booktalking Ideas: The description of Tyrell’s anger, conversation between Tyrell and his mother where she suggests he should sell drugs to support the family.
Reading Level/Interest Age: 15-19
Challenge Issues: Sexuality, sexual activity, language, smoking, drug use, truancy, illegal activities
Why is this book included? Tyrell was well received by critics and won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel. It is included in this blog because of its excellence as a novel and because it provides a unique and often underrepresented perspective to a young adult collection.
Jones, P. (2007). Tyrell. Multicultural Review, 16(1), 94.
Margolis, R. (2007). A Bronx Tale. School Library Journal, 53(2), 32.
Prince, J. (2009). Keeping It Real: An Interview with Coe Booth. Teacher Librarian, 36(4), 62-3.
Soriano, C. (2006). Tyrell. School Library Journal, 52(11), 129-130.