Score: 88/100 (8.8 out of 10)
On his 18th birthday, Jonah Tarver finds himself at a crime scene with his hands bloodied. Already having suffered several devastating losses in his life, he confronts one of the greatest losses of his life. Lost, confused, and alone, Jonah must overcome suicidal ideation and the many negative influences of his San Francisco community in order to find his way to the light.
At its core, Broken Pencils is a book with a lot of heart and soul. At times, it really packs an emotional punch. At other times, it's a bit of a disjointed mess, flying from one thing to the next. However, we appreciated it for what it is.
There are literal moments of gold in this book, particularly with quotes like:
“...true death arrives when the last person to remember you dies”
“I had become someone new, the man who cared less”
“We're all just broken pencils”
“His brown skin was lighter than mine, unblemished by regret”
There are even incredibly funny yet not PC or NSFW quotes like:
“Spanish pussy is like two-hundred percent more fertile than other pussy.”
It's usually Jonah who is troubled when his drug-dealing, law-breaking peers do and say things that seem immoral or unethical to him. For example, many of them use very strong, racially-insensitive language which he objects to out of principle. He's also respectful and trustful (perhaps overly trustful) of women. He's usually the victim as opposed to the “bad guy” in every situation. This does kinda make him seem like a passive protagonist who allows things to happen to him and just tries to take it in stride like a living, walking punching bag.
It's hard not to feel for Jonah, who is a good kid in some very difficult, tragic, and traumatic circumstances. You can't help the cards you're born with in life, and Jonah was dealt a rough hand. Still, it's admirable to see how he seems to have a strong moral compass and a desire to do right by his father, Keon, and others who'd gone before their time.
This book is full of great quotes and moments, as we've listed. However, they're speckled in between some weaker, less interesting, and more drawn out moments.
Strangely, this book is less than 200 pages long and double-spaced, yet it feels quite a bit longer because of how slowly the first-half of this book develops. For a while, we weren't sure what the point of Jonah's arc (or the story as a whole) was, mostly because of how much is jumped from one situation to the next. Jonah seemed to be thrown into one situation after the next—with Taniesha, with the pole dancer/stripper (Siren), with the random homeless guy (Pater), with the leader gangster/drug-dealer (Wice), etc., etc.
Yes, we eventually go that these are some examples of the “broken pencils” in Jonah's life and community. They serve as examples of who he could be (as cautionary tales) and what kind of person he wants to be. However, if you don't catch onto that until three-fourths through the book, you're going to be viewing this book more like a series of loosely-related short-stories or vignettes.
This is a solid coming of age story with some great quotes.