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I Am a Taxi

by Deborah Ellis

I Am a Taxi’s 12-year-old protagonist, Diego, lives with his baby sister and mother in a tiny cell in Bolivia’s San Sebastian Women’s Prison; his father is incarcerated in the men’s prison across town because his parents have been falsely convicted of smuggling drugs. Prisoners must be self-sufficient, so Diego helps support his family by being a “taxi,” running errands for the inmates. He is street-smart and enterprising, but, as the novel heartbreakingly demonstrates, still a little boy.

In the poignant opening scene, Diego packs up his family belongings, believing wholeheartedly that the Angel Gabriel will open the prison gates on New Year’s Eve and allow them to return to their coca farm. His youth and desperation lead him to an almost deadly job in the drug trade. His wit and courage (and luck) help him survive this failed get-rich-quick scheme, but the ending is far from triumphant: Diego escapes with his life, but cannot escape the larger nightmare of terrible poverty, and faces a future of scrabbling to survive.

I Am a Taxi is uncompromisingly gritty and graphic, painting a devastatingly accurate portrait of life for kids (and their parents) in the Third World. Since the publication in 2000 of her second novel, The Breadwinner, Deborah Ellis has established a reputation for making her readers grapple with difficult and unfamiliar settings, vocabularies, and experiences, and she has won many loyal fans (and critics) by doing so. This novel certainly fulfills her mandate to educate children about the too-often-appalling realities of life for their peers around the world. But it’s also simply a good story, well told, with a compelling plot and fully realized characters, that will captivate readers.