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Free Study Guide for There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

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The book is preceded by two poems: Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” and one about children by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In both, the reader is made to think about a world where one’s dream is destroyed and where children are lost. What are the consequences, Hughes seems to ask, if we continually destroy the dreams of the children who are born in the worst conditions our country has to offer? What kind of explosion are we allowing to build up? Longfellow says that if children disappear, are made to grow up long before their time, we can expect that we’ll see a desert behind us and darkness in front of us. In both cases, the poets are attempting to awaken the reader’s sense of outrage that children are made to suffer needlessly, also the goal of the author of the book.



In the Preface, the author explains how he met Lafeyette and Pharoah when he was asked to write the text for a photo essay a friend was doing on the children in poverty in Chicago. The friend had met them at the local social services agency, and Mr. Kotlowitz went to their home to interview them. He had a number of children to interview, but he was unnerved at the time at the relentless violence that Lafeyette described. The boy was only ten years old and already spoke in terms of “if he grew up” rather than “when he grew up.” He wasn’t sure he would make it to adulthood. Kotlowitz also explains that the title of his book came from LaJoe, the mother of the boys, who when asked if he could write about her children, told Kotlowitz, “But you know, there are no children here. They’ve seen too much to be children.” Kotlowitz goes on to explain that one in every three children in Chicago lives in poverty, a higher number than the national average, and by the time they have entered adolescence they have experienced more terror than most people confront in a lifetime. LaJoe comes to accept the idea of a book, because she feels it’s important to tell their stories. She had once said that she occasionally wished she were deaf, because there was so much noise from guns, screaming, and shrieking that she thought it would drive her insane. The book therefore becomes a way to make us all hear, make us all stop and listen. So it turns out to be a narrative which follows the boys for two years as they face many obstacles in their search for some inner peace. It doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending, but it is a beginning, the dawning of two lives, and the story of two brothers and two friends.


The Preface, although important for explaining how the book came to be, is more important for setting the stage. As we begin to delve into Lafeyette and Pharoah’s stories, we already know that it won’t be something we particularly want to hear. However, it is something we need to listen to, think about, and hopefully, become galvanized to help change.




In this chapter, Pharoah is nine years old and Lafeyette is almost twelve. They are making their first visit to this particular set of railroad tracks on a warm Saturday afternoon in early June. There are five tracks in all, leading from the western suburbs of Chicago. From this high point in the city, Pharoah can see the downtown skyline, his own home, a red brick, seven-story building, his elementary school, and the towering spire of the First Congregational Church. He is also distracted from the view by the small amount of nature present here - a butterfly and wildflowers that grow along the rails. Also with the boys are Porkchop, their younger cousin and Pharoah’s best friend, and James Howard, Lafeyette’s close friend. They are each carrying a crowbar or other tool for digging, because they are looking for snakes. An older friend named William had nabbed one the summer before and allowed the boys to touch it and hold it. Of course, that memory is tempered by the realization that William is another statistic of the projects. He died when a friend accidentally shot him with a gun he believed was unloaded. They also try searching in a tenfoot-high stack of worn automobile tires and an empty boxcar. The boxcar quickly becomes refuge from a commuter train heading their way. The children had heard that the suburb-bound commuters would shoot at them for trespassing on the tracks. Pharoah finds himself crouching in the weeds nearby as the train whisks by him. He becomes lost in his thoughts and doesn’t want to leave this place with its smell of flowers and a diving sparrow in the sky. They are not ready to stop for the day, but the sun is going down and the place is dangerous at night. They slide down and begin the long trek for home.


This chapter best presents the kind of impressionable child that Pharoah is. He loves the smell of the wildflowers, the flight of the butterfly, and the diving momentum of the sparrow. In later months, he will recall this place as one of tranquility and he will come to savor this sanctuary when he most needs to escape reality.

Another important aspect of this chapter is the contrast of the gentle sanctuary to the memory of William’s violent death. This is the rule rather than the exception in these boys’ lives.

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Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on There Are No Children Here". . 09 May 2017