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.
All 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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