12-year-old Wallace (“Lolly”) Rachpaul lives in St. Nicholas Houses, a public housing project in Central Harlem, New York City. He lives alone with his mother; she and Lolly’s dad split up after his mother decided she preferred women. His mother has been in a happy relationship with her girlfriend Yvonne for a long time. But Lolly and his mother both still hurt from the loss of Lolly’s brother Jermaine; Jermaine got caught up in gangs and drugs and was shot and killed the previous Halloween. Lolly has still not dealt with the pain and guilt over Jermaine’s death.
Lolly loves legos, so in an effort to help Lolly cope, Yvonne starts bringing him great big bags full of legos she said that Tuttle’s, the toy store where she worked, was throwing out. She brings more and more, and Lolly starts to build a castle. It gets too big for their apartment, so he begins it again in a storeroom at the community center where he spends after-school.
Every day Lolly adds on to his castle he names “The House of Moneekrom.” He dreams up a whole fantasy world around it, eventually even developing it into a game his after-school mates can play. The storeroom is a refuge for Lolly – not only from his pent-up feelings, but from the predatory world outside on the streets, where he and his friend Vega must constantly dodging rival gangs, bullies, and attempts to recruit them to “crews.” They sympathize with a local wild coyote they see on the streets: “Our coyote was part of a species in danger. Hunted down and shot up. We knew how it felt.”
After a time the social worker, Mr. Ali, lets another classmate, Rose, into the storeroom to use the legos also, much to Lolly’s dismay. Rose is on the autism spectrum, and is suffering from a loss in her own family. At first Lolly is loathe to share with her, but he slowly becomes impressed with Rose and her skills. They come to an understanding and eventually even to a collaboration and friendship.
When a new fitness program decides to move into the center and use the storeroom, Rose and Lolly are told they have to tear down their cities. They are upset, but when Lolly displays parts of his construction at a community fair, pictures of it go viral on social media along with ecstatic commentary. Lolly gets lots of compliments on his art, which helps him feel better about himself. But then the police come to Lolly’s apartment, and once again they are facing a catastrophic threat to their family.
Lolly finally opens up about what has kept him feeling so awful about Jermaine, and what he has learned from all that happened since Jermaine’s death, especially the long-lasting import of decisions you make. He decides he is not Lolly anymore; he is Wallace.
Evaluation: This is an affecting coming-of-age story about how a young boy and his family learn to cope with the pain of losing a family member to gang violence. The outcome isn’t always certain as Lolly struggles with outlets for his anger. Lolly isn’t perfect, but it’s hard not to love him anyway. Rose makes the perfect foil. There are a number of issues to ponder about the moral choices of the characters, which would make this a good option for book clubs.
Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, 2017