It’s that time of summer when the heat starts mounting and it seems like it will never be cool! Sometimes, that makes me want to read about winter, and sometimes, it makes me want a book where the setting is even hotter. In Sparrow Hawk Red, by Ben Mikaelsen, not only is there a boy fighting for his own survival, there’s dry desert, no rain, heat baking through the parched earth…and no modern conveniences or relief in sight.
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Ricky Diaz and his father live just over the border from Mexico, in southern Arizona. Their life had been pretty normal until three years earlier, when Ricky’s mother died in a car accident. After that happened, Ricky’s Papa, Benito, quit his job with the Drug Enforcement Agency and became a rancher. Benito had even stopped flying in airshows; something he’d loved doing since his days as a jet pilot in the Air Force. But the only flying he’s doing these days is illegally teaching Ricky, who’s too young for a pilot’s license, how to fly a biplane.
But when Ricky overhears his father being offered a new job with the DEA, he discovers that his mother’s accident wasn’t an accident at all…it was murder. She was killed to distract his father from pursuing a case against a drug lord in Mexico. And it succeeded. When the visiting agents tell Benito he’s the only one who has the skills and ability to help them, by crossing the border, posing as a Mexican drug buyer and sneaking into the headquarters of the drug cartel and steal their new radar-equipped plane, Benito refuses. But Ricky knows that if he were his father, he would do it, to avenge his mother’s death.
And then Ricky realizes that he could do it. He can fly a Cessna. If he could sneak into the drug compound, he could get into the plane and fly it back to the United States. Who’s going to look at a kid, especially a kid who speaks Spanish and looks like a ratero–a Mexican street kid? Ricky makes a plan and sneaks out of the house and into Mexico, bringing some money and a disguise with him.
But Ricky had only planned on playing the part of a street kid, not on actually becoming one. When he’s attacked by a group of real rateros, robbed of his money, his ID, and even his American clothing; he’s left with nothing–and no way to get home. Without money, proof that he’s an American, and looking like every other ratero, Ricky is stuck. What can he do?
Life on the streets is hard, and Ricky is barely surviving. When a girl named Soledad helps him, Ricky is suspicious. What’s in it for her? But Soledad really does seem to care, and even better, she has a connection with someone inside the drug compound. Can Ricky still salvage something from his self-imposed mission? Can he avenge his mother and help the Drug Enforcement Agency…and still get home?
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Originally released in 1993, Sparrow Hawk Red still feels like it could be contemporary. Ricky is a headstrong kid who wants to do the right thing, but who ends up in a really bad situation. Instead of giving up, he keeps on finding new ways to survive, adapting to his surroundings and fighting to keep what he has. He’s determined to survive and succeed.
Survival books are always fun to read, because you can put yourself into the place of the main character and think about what you might do differently. In the case of Sparrow Hawk Red, if you were Ricky, would you have different skills that might help in his situation, or would you even be able to do what he did? Author Ben Mikaelsen has written several great survival stories, all with interesting backgrounds and different scenarios. Although Sparrow Hawk Red is my favorite, other good ones include Rescue Josh Maguire and the Spirit Bear series.
I’d recommend Sparrow Hawk Red to readers in grades four through six; it would also make a great read-aloud for a scout troop or a family with survival skills! It would also be good to read if you’re trying to get a sense of what life is like for kids with no money in another country. I wish it was available as a book on CD or a playaway, because it would be an excellent choice for a car trip.
So check out Sparrow Hawk Red, and see what you think!