- The Price of Loyalty
For narrator Manny, forming the Conquistadors with his friends Hernan and Cisco seems little more than a harmless way of staking a unique identity as they enter middle school, but Hernan and Cisco quickly bask in the respect and even fear accorded them by classmates, who consider them an organized gang. Loyalty to old friends convinces Manny to go along with some of their milder antics, such as [End Page 72] class-cutting and head-shaving, but as the group steps up into serious pranks and then drugs, Manny’s conscience torments him. However, in the middle-school battle between peer pressure and conscience, conscience doesn’t stand much of a chance, and even as Manny tries to appease his girlfriend and hang with a skater from the neighborhood, he can’t withstand his old buddies as they alternately cajole and threaten him into purchasing weed for their constant partying. Castan ultimately graces Manny with a way out of his dilemma that is half benevolent authorial intervention and half genuine middle-school social histrionics, and readers will be relieved to see that Manny catches a lucky break that lets him wipe the slate clean and start again. There is much here in common with Walter Dean Myers’ venerable Scorpions (BCCB 7/88), particularly in its treatment of the authentic allure a gang can have for even a “good” kid. Middle-schoolers who consider Scorpions’ 1988 copyright date to be old school, and anything with a shiny Newbery sticker suspect, can be directed to Castan’s debut novel.