From School Library Journal
Grade 8 Up—Efrain, 17, is the pride of his Bronx high school. He's respected by students, teachers, and family, and will probably make valedictorian. He tutors failing students after school. He wants to be the first Latino mayor of New York. If he can get his SAT scores up to 2200, he (we're meant to believe) has a shot at Harvard. His guidance counselor thinks he won't cut it at an elite school with his inner-city education, so he shouldn't bother applying. His divorced parents are poor and he knows dealing drugs is the only fast way to make tuition money. So starts an excruciating 50 pages of should he or shouldn't he, followed by 100 more of the slow buildup to Efrain's de rigeur arrest and tailspin. Quintero has an exacting ear for street slang, and despite the occasional expository creak, her dialogue sings. She has an obvious affection for her narrator, yet he never surprises readers. Nestor, his longtime friend and drug-dealing mentor, is more creatively realized. The last quarter of the book is action-packed and emotionally potent—it's a shame that the lead-up is so painstaking. The far-fetched premise—that Efrain feels he must deal to make tuition—calls Quintero's entire narrative into question. Even the worst guidance counselor has heard of student loans, let alone top Ivy League tuition waivers for poor students. Middle school teens, however, may relate to the novel's strong characters and gritty, if contrived, situations.—Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library
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*Starred Review* To 17-year-old Latino valedictorian-to-be Efrain, the number 1650 is like a death sentence. With an SAT score like that, there’s no way he is going to get into Harvard and escape the poverty that has so exhausted his single mother, estranged Dominican father, and South Bronx community at large. With a $32,000 tuition staring him in the face, Efrain turns to his old pal Nestor, a dropout drug peddler who hooks him up with a similar gig. Even the arrival of a new girl in school, a gutsy Katrina survivor named Candace, can’t knock Efrain from his resolve to earn some serious cash. There’s nothing new here in terms of plot—you can see the hard life lessons and tragedy coming from way up the block—but Quintero imbues her characters with unexpected grace and charm. Nestor, for example, is perceptive and funny, and the drug-dealing scenes are filled with realistic small talk and buffoonery rather the pulse-pounding terror seen in movies. Mostly, though, it is Quintero’s effortless grasp of teen slang that gives her first-person story its heart. “Don’t front now like you weren’t stressing me,” Efrain tells Nestor, and hiding behind the code is an entire lifetime of conflicted emotions. Grades 8-11. --Daniel Kraus