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

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Parts of America are War Zones

The first important theme is: parts of America are warzones. Inner city Chicago as examined in this book is a place where children live in sub-standard housing, often with only one parent (usually their mother), and who face gang violence everyday. They frequently have little to eat, do poorly in school, have a miniscule support system, and are let down by their own government. Their futures are bleak and the rest of America would rather hide its head in the sand and pretend these children are doing fine.

The Ravages of Poverty

The second important theme involves the ravages of poverty. The Rivers family is in a “Catch-22:” they will never escape the projects without a good job, but they can’t get a good job without an education and they can’t get an education, because they have no money. Of course, they have no money, because they can’t get a good job! It is an existence that defeats them at every turn. It will only be with outside help that they’ll be able to break the chains that bind them and outside help is slow to arrive.


Yet another theme is racism. The Rivers family and all the poor blacks living in their neighborhood repeatedly face the white people who would rather ignore them and pretend that they don't exist. The gangs are allowed to rule with impunity in the community, the CHA is mismanaged and no one cares, innocent black children are killed, no newspaper covers it, and the law seems unwilling to investigate it, and the people in the projects are often arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. The miracle is seen to be that good people like the Rivers family can survive in spite of everything stacked against them.

The Deferral of the Dream

The final theme is that of the dream deferred. In his poem, Langston Hughes says that having to put off one’s dream can mean many things. It can dry up and blow away forever. Its loss can fester like a sore and create deep bitterness. The bitterness can then be like rotten meat, stinking inside you and reminding you of what you could have had. Its loss can weigh you down like a heavy load or it can make you explode with rage. All of these outcomes are possible for Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the other children in the projects, and the author wants us all to wake up to the consequences of ignoring the plight of a dream deferred.


The mood is almost entirely dark and gloomy because of the daily existence the two boys face. However, there are moments of hope such as Pharoah’s second place in the spelling bee, Dawn’s graduation from high school, and Lafeyette’s deep compassion for children. By the end, the mood seems even more hopeful as Pharoah thrives at the private school and Lafeyette seems to be finding his way as well.


Alex Kotlowitz-There Are No Children Here Summary
Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz was born and raised in New York City. He is the son of an author with four novels to his credit (Robert Kotlowitz) and a social worker mother. His mother Billie, who died in 1994, ran the Thematic Studies Program at John Jay College. His brother, Dan, is a professor of Theatrical Lighting Design at Dartmouth. Alex attended and graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Prior to working for the Chicago bureau of the Wall Street Journal beginning in 1984, he worked on an Oregon cattle ranch for a year and then contributed to a local alternative newspaper "The Lansing Star", in Lansing, Michigan for a year. For the next five years he freelanced, writing articles and contributed to The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on PBS television, the New York Times, and National Public Radio. His focus remained tied to urban affairs, poverty, race relations and other social issues. The Wall Street Journal noticed his work and hired him in 1984.

Alex is perhaps best known for writing There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, published in 1991. This book was a surprise bestseller and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Helen B. Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, the Carl Sandburg Award and a Christopher Award. The New York Public Library also selected There Are No Children Here as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century.

The story was originally adapted from an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1987. It was about the effect growing up amidst violence was having on the lives of Lafeyette and Pharoah. In response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, Alex suggested that they should follow the story as it unfolded in other communities. In the fall of 1993, There Are No Children Here was adapted for television as an ABC Movie-of-the-Week special starring Oprah Winfrey.

Alex left the Wall Street Journal in 1993 and concentrated on books and selected writing. Between books, Kotlowitz has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and public radio’s This American Life. His articles have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and The New Republic.

He is a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University where he teaches two courses every winter, and a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame as the Welch Chair in American Studies where he teaches one course every fall. He currently lives with his family just outside of Chicago.


1998 Heartland Award
Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award
Helen B. Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism
Carl Sandburg Award
George Polk Award

Writings and books by Alex Kotlowitz include:

The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America's Dilemma (1998)
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up In the Other America
Stories of Home -
a collection of audio essays for Chicago Public Radio (2003) co-producer
Love Stories -
a collection of audio essays for Chicago Public Radio (2003) co-producer
Stories of Money -
a collection of audio essays for Chicago Public Radio (2004) co-producer
Never a City So Real

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