Sticky is a foster kid who has jumped around from home to home in search of a family life after the death of his mother. Although he never quite finds his family in the home of a foster parent, he feels right at home with the rough and tumble companions he cultivates going to the Lincoln Rec. Sticky is the only white boy to play ball at the Lincoln Rec, but makes his place and finds his way by being the best baller on the court and putting up a tough facade. Basketball is Sticky’s whole world and could be his ticket to college and a better life if he can just keep his nose clean among the dramas of living life on the streets. Sticky has lived a traumatic childhood that haunts him on his journey. He lives a sketchy life of tilted morals that make it okay for him to swipe jewelry from a department store for his girlfriend, yet make it criminal to rob another person outright. Growing up with only the streetwise guidance of his basketball peers Sticky has a tough time navigating right and wrong. In the climax of the story Sticky makes one bad decision that culminates in a hospital stay and a change of heart. It took a terrible misstep for Sticky to find the path to the life he wants and deserves.
There are two very important literary devices at work in Matt de la Pena’s novel. The first is de la Pena’s use of authentic street language. This aspect stood out to me immediately as unique and unlike anything I had ever read before. In using a dialect and language very true to the boys playing ball at the rec center de la Pena is able to paint a very realistic picture of life on the streets. For example, “told ya, dawg. Didn’t I tell him, Big J, right here when he walked his sorry ass in here?” (del la Pena 3) This type of very familiar language with a high use of slang is very typical of the way that these young men speak to one another on the basketball court and took me right into the scene in a very real way. De la Pena makes a distinction between social upbringing in the more formal everyday language of Sticky’s foster group elders and the street language spoken by Sticky and his peers.
Another aspect that stood out to me was de la Pena’s use of present tense in the novel. Having certain scenes written in present tense brings an immediacy and urgency to the scenes in the book that really go well with the dramas presented in the pages. The novel jumps around in time quite a bit and having scenes written selectively in present tense helped focus the immediate moments of the story and really drew me into the action.
This book was more difficult for me to identify with, being written about a demographic I am not familiar with and in a language that I only hear in films. Having grown up in the place and situation I did, I was not exposed to street language or the gentle ribbing of boys playing ball. The story, however was riveting and I found myself wanting very badly for Sticky to overcome his circumstances and become the man I felt he could be. He makes some very serious mistakes in his life, but does the best he can under the circumstances he has grown up under. I really enjoyed the scenes written about the games being played at the Lincoln Rec. There’s a genuine feel to the setting and the interactions between the men playing ball feel loaded with implications. With every scene at the Rec I found Sticky growing as a character and I wanted more and more for him to succeed. De la Pena writes very vivid and realistic characters and I felt pain for Sticky in his weak moments and triumph when he overcomes obstacles. Even the secondary characters in the book are lively and complete. Unlike the last book I read, (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler) there are no mere caricatures of people in this book, only real and well-rounded characters.
I would recommend this book to just about anyone. The book teaches excellent life lessons in owning up to our actions and making smart choices for the future that will resonate with both young adults and adults alike. It also does an excellent job of showing how we are all alike, despite our differences in race and upbringing. Despite the obvious differences between Sticky and the men of the Lincoln Rec, he finds a place among them and learns valuable life lessons from them simply through the fact that they share a love of basketball.