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About The Book

From Pulitzer Prize–winning author Oscar Hijuelos comes a riveting young adult novel set in the late 1960s about a haunting choice and an unforgettable journey of identity, misidentity, and all that we take with us when we run away.

He didn’t say good-bye. He didn’t leave a phone number. And he didn’t plan on coming back—ever.

Fifteen-year-old Rico Fuentes has had enough of life in Harlem, where his fair complexion—inherited from an Irish grandfather—keeps him caught between two cultures without belonging to either. He pours his outsider feelings into a comic book Dark Dude, with his friend Jimmy illustrating. But when Gilberto, who’s always looked out for Rico, moves to Wisconsin and Jimmy loses himself to an insidious habit, Rico decides enough is enough.

With Jimmy in tow, Rico runs away to the Midwest in search of Gilberto. The heavily white community feels worlds away from Harlem, and for the first time, Rico sees what it’s like to blend in—no longer the “dark dude” or the punching bag for the whole neighborhood. But the less energy Rico needs to put into proving he’s Latino, the less he feels like one. And the more he gets to know the people around him, the more it’s clear that a change in location doesn’t change human nature—and that there’s no such thing as a perfect community.

Faced with the truth that there are things that can’t be cut loose or forgotten, things that keep him from ever having an ordinary white kid’s life, Rico must decide whether he can make a home in the place he ran to…or the one he ran from.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
1. What are some of the main challenges Rico and his family face living in Harlem? Describe Gilberto's and Jimmy's experiences also.
2. List some of the characteristics, beyond the physical, that make Rico different. What characteristics does he show while living in Harlem?
3. How does Rico fit in his environment in Harlem? How does the community relate to him? Consider the Jo Mama School shooting, and the drug dealing and heroin use with Jimmy.
4. How does Rico view his light skin color? How does his view change from Harlem to Wisconsin? Does he feel comfortable in his own skin?
5. Rico hit a low, where he wants to escape his family, school, and street life in Harlem. He asks Jimmy to show him how to use heroin. How does this become a turning point in their lives?
6. The feelings of hopelessness for both Rico and Jimmy culminate in Jimmy catching fire. How does Rico rescue Jimmy? What do we learn about Rico?
7. Discuss the hitchhiking trip that Rico and Jimmy take as they run away from New York. Would this make you more or less likely to hitchhike yourself? Of all the characters they meet, who stands out most for you?
8. Exploring the bonds that bind a family is a major theme in this story. What torments Rico as he leaves New York? How does he relate to his family while he is in Wisconsin? How does the "family" in the farmhouse affect Rico and Jimmy?
9. The book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is Rico's favorite. How does his story parallel that of Huck Finn's?
10. Arriving in Wisconsin feels like a dream to Rico and Jimmy. Describe some of their adjustments and differences. How does Rico's feelings of being an "outsider" continue?
11. Gilberto is a major influence on Rico. How difficult is it for Rico when Gilberto moves from Harlem to go to college in Wisconsin? Then, when Rico comes to the farm Gilberto is Rico's guide. Discuss the bond between Gilberto and Rico.
12. Blond, blue-eyed, educated Midwesterner Sharon becomes Rico's first real girlfriend. How does their relationship help both of them grow?
13. How do Jimmy and Rico feel when they complete the Dark Dude comic book and submit it to DC Comics? What does this show us about Rico? Discuss the outcome of the submittal and the letter from DC Comics. Were you surprised?
14. What do you imagine is the next chapter in Rico's journey?
15. What makes people who they are? Is it how they look? Their language? Their ethnic heritage? Where they grow up? Discuss the elements of the book that support your answers.
1. Rico and Jimmy create a comic book series with their superhero, the Dark Dude. Try creating a comic book. Create a superhero that reflects characteristics you would like to embody. Write or illustrate it yourself, or get a partner. There are good guides in the book on how to get your comic published. Do you think you could get yours published?
2. Regional language is a distillation that reflects ethnicity, culture, and class. The language of Harlem included "jive," "lame," and "dark dude." In the book the language of Wisconsin includes "outhouse," "hankering," and "neat." Find more examples from the book, making lists of New York City words and Wisconsin words. What do these words reflect about the cultures and ethnicities they come from? Can you create a list of words that reflect your region's language? Compare it to other regions.
3. Find Internet images, books, and magazines that have pictures of Harlem and also of farmland Wisconsin in the late 1960s. Try creating a photo collage that reflects the two very different environments. Then make a list of similarities and differences. How strange would it be to move from one to the other for you? How might it change you?

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Oscar Hijuelos (1951–2013) was a first-generation Cuban American and the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He wrote several novels, including Dark Dude and A Simple Habana Melody. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (March 12, 2009)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416994756
  • Ages: 14 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

"Dark Dude's journey toward self-discovery is a compelling read. Today's teens will be thrilled to discover a voice as authentic and accomplished as Oscar Hijuelos's" - Ellen Hopkins, New York Times bestselling author of Crank and Glass

Awards and Honors

  • ALA Best Books For Young Adults
  • International Latino Book Award 1st Place
  • NYPL Best Books for Teens
  • Américas Award Honorable Mention

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More books from this author: Oscar Hijuelos