The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones by Dominic Carrillo

Do you remember what it was like to be a 13-year-old in 8th grade? Did you breeze through those years without any awkwardness, teasing, or issues with confidence or self-esteem? Probably not –I certainly didn’t. Being 13 was one of the worst years of my life! Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic, but I sure was awkward and confused. Many of us can relate to this experience, which is why reading a book like The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones is so familiar and immediately relatable.

Even if you weren’t a biracial, half-Mexican, half-white kid like Paco, it’s easy to relate to and empathize with him. But for young people who can personally identify with Paco’s struggles, I think this book would resonate with them and leave quite an impression.

We meet Paco Jones as he begins the 8th grade in a new school, Walden Academy. The majority of the students at this private school are white, so the teasing that ensues is not particularly surprising. I would have preferred the narrative to explore the troubles of a teenager like Paco in a more ethnically diverse school. The whole new-brown-kid-at-a-white-school trope is a bit overdone, to be frank. However, despite a slightly predictable beginning, the plot develops into something more nuanced yet familiar. This is a good thing.

Paco is quite ordinary. He doesn’t have many talents or a shining personality, but he has a good heart and loves the Beatles. When the school year begins, he would have preferred to remain unnoticed and blend in. But on the first week of school, kids started calling him “Taco” Jones because he was eating tacos for lunch. They also call him “Dia De Los Muertos” because he’s Mexican. Kids are jerks. He also got pooped on by a bird that week — admittedly a terrible way to begin the school year if you want to blend in.

Paco JonesAll his problems become less important when he meets Naomi Fox, however. She is beautiful and popular — and of course he falls immediately in love. Puppy love, a 13-year-old kind of love, though Paco swears his love is true and is ready to marry her. The insta-love aspect of the story is only tolerable because these characters are children, so I assumed they were just being dramatic. Or am I misunderstanding and diminishing the ability of a 13-year-old to feel romantic love?

The rest of the story is actually quite entertaining! We see Paco’s “improbable rise” from a kid who was teased and mocked into one who makes a name for himself at his new school. I won’t go any further into the details of the plot, but I do think that teenagers would find it fun to read and very relatable.

A minor issue I had with the novel was that it felt too mature for the age group it’s targeted for. It’s very possible that I have no idea what 13-year-olds talk about or care about, but I felt some of the scenes and language in the story were inappropriate. Paco spiking the punch with tequila at the Valentine’s Day dance and getting all the kids drunk? I suppose that could happen and it’s a little funny, so I bought it. 13-year-olds talking about sex and losing their virginity? They probably do talk about that, but should that be explored in the novels they read? Some would say yes. I personally don’t think so, which is why I found some of the content to be inappropriate.

Thankfully, the story ends with a lot of heart. The romance plot is handled very well and in a realistic way, which I appreciated. I would have loved to read this book when I was a teenager! It’s entertaining, Paco is a great and relatable protagonist, it’s educational and touches on more serious subjects that teenagers should be reading about. I highly recommend this novel for mature 13-16 year-olds. There’s much to like about Paco’s improbable rise, so adults should read it too.

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

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36 thoughts on “The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones by Dominic Carrillo

  1. Heh I actually enjoyed being 13, I found the years after that it got worse what with everyone having weird crushes and life -or-death relationship drama. But apparently that’s teenage life for most, it took me ages to find out that it’s apparently “normal” and I’m the weird one. I think the identity aspect of this book would appeal to me though you’re right, it would be interesting for this to be set in not-predominately white school. But that cover is just amazing!

    1. Bina, I was going to say the same! I came to the States at 12 so had a lot of issues around that age related to language and just not knowing what the heck this new environment was. I think when I was 13 I was too naive/oblivious to realize all the drama, talking behind people’s backs, stereotypes, etc. As I grew into HS… well, let’s just say I pretty much blocked that era from my memory. Hugs to your HS-self from my HS-self <3

      Naz – great review. I think I also agree with you about the inappropriate topics – just because some kids at that age may be drinking does not mean we should glorify this behavior in fiction. He may be 13 in this book but such a story-line sounds like it would have helped me at 16! My timeline of teenage-awfulness was a bit delayed.

      1. Iona, I like to erase that era of my life from my memory as well. haha. Well, it wasn’t so bad but I wasn’t able to be myself for a lot of reasons, so I wish I could do it over sometimes. But I’m happy and fulfilled now, so that’s all that matters in the end. πŸ˜€

        I didn’t want to sound like a prude, but I was a little uncomfortable reading about kids discussing sex. I couldn’t help but place myself in the kids shoes while reading this. Perhaps they would appreciate it because they’re lives are being reflected truthfully, but I can’t help but think that they’re too young to be talking about that! I guess I am a prude. :/

    2. You make a great point! It’s great to hear being a tween/teen wasn’t terrible. I can’t say the same. D:
      I really would like to see what Paco’s experiences would be like in a school that was more diverse or perhaps mostly Hispanic. I imagine he would still get teased. Kids would definitely notice that he’s biracial and take jabs at him for that. Because kids are jerks.

  2. 1. I got pooped on by a bird on my way to school once in junior high! I turned around and went home, had a shower, and went back to school (late). So, not as bad, but I haven’t thought about that in a long time. πŸ™‚
    2. It terrifies me to think about what kids at that age talk about and do. But, as long as it’s not my own kids, which of course it’s not… πŸ˜‰
    3. My son is 13 right now (I really hope he’s not spiking the punch!). He would probably like this, but most of his reading is done through me, and I feel pretty sure he doesn’t want me reading to him about losing his virginity. I’m very careful when I pick out the books we read! But he does read a little on his own, and I’m thinking that cover might draw him in.

    1. Naomi, this was such a delightful response. You made me smile and laugh. Thank you <3
      I have never been pooped on by in my life and I hope to keep it that way. Sorry you had to think about that again.
      I never thought I'd be one who'd be screaming "think about the kids"! But I do want to shelter them from certain topics, I can't help it. Who knows what they're really talking about though. I'm terrified as well.

      Your son would definitely not like for you to read a book together that discusses such a topic! But I think he would like this the story. It's more entertaining and funny than inappropriate.

      1. I’m glad you enjoyed my response, Naz. I was a little worried after I posted that I had shared too much information, but that’s what discussions are for, right? And after reading your review, I found I had lots of things to say!
        I’ve actually been pooped on twice – the other time was when I was outside playing with my kids. They thought it was pretty funny.
        I think it says good things about you that your instincts are to protect children. πŸ™‚

  3. 4. 12 was the worst year of my life. My best friend stopped talking to me, because she started hanging out with the ‘cool girls’ (just like in all the middle-grade chapter books!). And we didn’t have a lot of money (I have 5 siblings), so my clothes were really bad, which is not good at that age. But in grade 8, I made some new friends who were a lot like me, and we are still all very close. So, it all turned out! πŸ™‚

  4. 13-year-olds talking about sex and losing their virginity? They probably do talk about that, but should that be explored in the novels they read? Some would say yes.

    They definitely do. I would also say yes to it being explored in novels, but I’m not sure how well it could be handled. This book is on my TBR. When I eventually read it, I’m sure I’ll have something to say about the way the sex talk is handled.

    1. Oh no! A teen mom at 13? It’s terrifying to thin that some kinds do actually think like that.
      Sometimes I wish I could be a teenager again and relive those experiences knowing everything I do now. But that’s impossible and I’m much smarter, wider, and happier now. πŸ™‚

  5. You know, when I read your review I immediately thought about Sherman Alexie’s All True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Although the character in that one is a little older, in high school, right? Would you say these two books have things in common?

    By the way, middle school sucked for me. 12 and 13 were the pits. High school was a big improvement!

    1. Yes, Junior is a bit older than Paco. The books do have a few things in common, but True Diary deals with much heavier subjects.
      High school for me was OK. Middle school was not! I had the worst acne at 13. It was a terrible year I’d never want to revisit. ;'(

  6. Bring 13 was awful, but I do remember going to a party when I was in 6th grade (I was 11) and the girls were smoking and talking about losing their virginity. Honestly, it would have been helpful to have more serious books to give me ideas about what other kids would do in a similar situation.

    1. It mortifies me to think kids are talking about that, but it’s probably been happening for decades or even longer. I must be becoming an old person who wants to protect the children.
      I think kids would love what this book has to say about bullying, sex, and other issues they probably care about a lot.

  7. Snap.. his first week of school sounds like a nightmare.. Poor kid. This book however does sound like a delightful adventure. I’m curious of all the things he would do to make a name for himself. Great review man! πŸ˜€

    – Lashaan

  8. Ha…this book made me think about my 13th year. Not my most shining moment πŸ˜› But eh, we all go through it don’t we?
    This sounds like a funny and profound read. Poor Paco (though I think birds pooping on your head is considered good luck), all the stuff he has to go through. I might have to disagree with you on the book being too mature thing – I definitely think 13 year olds talk about this, and acknowledging that in books is probably safer than sweeping things under the rug and pretending it doesn’t happen. Certainly, it should be discussed safely, but turning a blind eye doesn’t help. I remember reading all sorts of books when I was thirteen, most of them YA, and most of them about teens who went to parties, made mistakes, got into dangerous situations, etc. The books can point out where and how the teens can seek support, or how to deal with such things, it ultimately helps I think πŸ™‚ sorry, I’ve rambled… :\

    1. There’s no need to say sorry! I didn’t enjoy the book any less because I thought some parts were too mature, I was just a little uncomfortable but still understood that kids would probably appreciate more realistic representations of their lives. I’m glad the author didn’t listen to me and wrote the story he did, haha. He’s a teacher so he probably knows what 13-year-olds are like more than I would.

  9. Great review. 13 is certainly one of the worst ages in the life of a child. The title is very catchy right? And it sounds like the book has touched on the different aspects of a teenager’s life.

    But spiking drinks and talking of virginity at 13? Well, I am not really sure. Talking about it yes, being curious-yes; but talking about losing it at thirteen sounds a bit unreal to me. O fcourse it might be due to regional differences in the places I grew up in. Love how you highlighted the good and bad in the book.

    1. Kids in America probably talk about wildly inappropriate things every day. haha. While I did feel a little uncomfortable that the book discussed these topics, an actual teenager may find it very interesting and fascinating.

      1. I was sent a book for review once. I only reviewed on GR and not on blog. It was called Teacher misery and it was about the sorrows and trials American teachers go through. I couldnt relate to it at all. She was talking about very young kids having sex on the stairs in public and I was like “what? so what are the authorities doing? and why are the kids thinking like this”. Perhaps it has to do with cultural differences.

  10. My kids are 3 and 5 and I absolutely dread the day they become teenagers. Especially because they will be American teenagers, and all I know about American teenagers I learnt from TV, movies and books. And that is just kinda terrifying to me.

  11. I remember being saved at 13 by a Girl Scout leader who told me that 13 was just terrible and that all those people who said that high school was the best time of one’s life were lying. I’m with you on thinking that’s way too young for sex! If they’re a couple years older – I feel like I’d rather have teens read about teens having sex and facing the consequences in books written by responsible adults than just rely on locker room talks or what “everyone else” is doing – but I have met many parents in the library who disagree with me.

    1. Even though I was a little uncomfortable with some of the subjects discussed in this novel, I agree with you that I’d rather them learn about topics like sex through the books they read. I’m curious if this novel would be accepted in a Middle School library. I have no idea because I’m not a MG librarian, but there’s discussion of heavy subjects in parts of the novel. Is every book inspected and assessed to see if it passes a certain level of appropriateness? I’m very curious!

      1. Well, I’m a public librarian, so I can’t answer as to school libraries – but if books are upper middle grade or borderline MG/teen, we tend to just put them in the teen section here.

  12. I think all 13-year-olds are awkward because we’re growing into ourselves, but some of us are more awkward than others. I enjoyed those years, but more in retrospect than at the time. This novel sounds really interesting. I’ve added it to my TBR. I don’t mind mature content in these types of books because I think preteens and teens should explore some of those themes in fiction before they explore it in real-life (and they will whether we want them to or not). That said, I appreciate the warning and will be cautious about when I recommend this book to my kids (who are too young at this point).

    1. Hah, yes some of us are definitely awkward than others.
      If I had a hypothetical teenage child, I would want him or her to read this book because it address some serious and important topics. You’re right about them experiencing mature topics on their own through reading first. I was a rather sheltered child and this kind of book would have been fascinating and scandalous! Definitely would have motivated me to keep reading.

  13. I had the opposite experience in high school – I was one of the few white kids in a predominantly non-white school! But unlike Paco, I actually had an awesome high school experience, so it is possible!

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