With each new book, Deborah Ellis continues to pull off a tricky feat. She writes “important” books for young people, that manage to impress critics and teachers and at the same time, have a powerful effect on kids. Her titles are timely, sometimes gritty, and yes, educational. In this case, however, this is not the kiss of death. It’s rare to find books that teach kids overtly about world issues, and do not seem heavy handed, or that aren’t just badly written. Ellis knows how to create characters, and brings her mature subject matter to life in a convincing way through those characters.
I Am a Taxi introduces Diego, a twelve year old boy whose home is San Sebastian Women’s Prison in Bolivia. He lives in a cell with his mother and baby sister and his father is imprisoned in the men’s jail across the road. Diego helps to support his family by working as a “taxi” – running errands into the city for other prisoners. His family is in jail because his parents happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when coca paste (an ingredient used in cocaine production) was found on the bus they were traveling on. Diego is a smart kid, who makes a bit of extra money doing homework for other kids in his school outside the prison. He takes care of his sister and as much as he can, enjoys the limited freedom that his taxi work offers. In spite of trying to make the best of his life, he cannot imagine staying in the prison for 13 more years. After an incident leads to a financial crisis for his struggling family, Diego takes a chance with his best friend Mando on a new job that promises good, quick money. It turns out that they have been manipulated into joining a gang of coca paste producers, and the boys end up in the jungle facing the realities of producing and using coca paste.
Deborah Ellis has a very direct style, and perhaps that’s why her stories work for so many kids. There isn’t a lot of messing around with excessive descriptive passages. The story really pulls you along, and by the end you are more than ready to follow Diego’s experiences in the sequel, Sacred Leaf. While Diego was a well-realized character, I felt the secondary characters were not as rounded as those in Ellis’s Breadwinner series, which gave those books real resonance. Also, while she gives a brief overview of the nature of the coca conflict at the end of the book, the interconnections between the cocalero (coca farmers), the sellers, producers and buyers are vague within the story itself. An average reader would need more background to better understand the relationship between Diego’s forced labour and the rest of the drug trade.
Ellis’s books prove that many kids are not just able to handle reading and learning about difficult issues, but are actually eager to do so. The Breadwinner had just about all students in my class under its spell – boys, girls, “reluctant readers,” sporty types, Play Station addicts, chicklit fans… Everyone had at least one strong reaction to that story. That says to me that it is an important one for kids to experience, and I plan to read I Am a Taxi to my students this year.
For insight into the experiences of kids like Diego, visit Street Kids International a Canadian-based organization that works to help street kids around the world, and has inspired Ellis in her writing.
I Am a Taxi by Deborah Ellis is published by Groundwood Books