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Book Review

American Street by Ibi Zoboi has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Fabiola is an American-born teenager who has lived most of her life with her mother (Manman) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When she and her mother come to America to live with cousins in Detroit, Manman is detained at customs in New Jersey. Fabiola has no choice but to leave her mother behind.

She continues her flight to meet her cousins in Detroit and vows to rescue her mother. Fabiola’s boisterous cousins Chantal, Princess (Pri) and Primadonna (Donna) meet her at the airport. They all seem very different than she imagined them during their phone calls of the past. Chantal is older, more studious and level-headed than the others. Pri and Donna are twins and complete opposites. Pri is gay and dresses like a boy. Donna decks herself out in hair extensions and makeup, largely to impress her abusive boyfriend, Dray.

As Fabiola goes home with them to Aunt Jo’s house, she’s struck by the many cultural differences between Haiti and her new home. Detroit is gray, flat and oppressive-feeling. The family has all kinds of electronic devices and appliances, and they spend more time watching TV than cooking meals.

Aunt Jo, who has suffered a stroke, is disappointed that her beloved sister was unable to make it past customs. She vows to get Manman to Detroit. Fabiola grows increasingly skeptical of this promise when she sees that Aunt Jo spends most of the time in bed under the influence of alcohol and pain-killing medications.

The cousins live at the corner of American Street and Joy Road, names that become metaphors in the story. Manman was a voodoo priestess in Haiti and has taught Fabiola to honor and worship the gods and goddesses of the faith. Fabiola often sees an old man on the corner singing in riddles and learns he’s called Bad Leg. No one knows his story, but most ignore him and say he’s a crackhead. Fabiola becomes convinced he is Papa Legba, the voodoo lwa (or spirit) of the crossroads. She listens to his songs carefully, hoping he’ll give her directions about what to do.

Fabiola’s cousins have a reputation for their toughness. They are known as the Three Bees. Chantal is the Brains, Donna is the Beauty and Pri is the Braun. They tell Fabiola they have her back, but they also let her know she has to prove herself in this tough West Side neighborhood.

Fabiola hasn’t been in town long before she has several strange chance meetings with the same white woman. The woman finally confesses she’s a detective. She tells Fabiola she can help get her mother out of the detention center. In return, Fabiola must help her prove Donna’s boyfriend, Dray, sold the drugs that recently killed a rich white girl at a party.

Fabiola isn’t sure how to respond. The more she sees how Dray abuses Donna, both physically and emotionally, the more she wants to put him behind bars. At the same time, she is falling in love with Dray’s best friend, the kind, sensitive Kasim.

Fabiola learns to stand up for herself in her new environment as her cousins attempt to make her over and help her fit in. Kasim and others call her “Fabulous.” She fights a girl who wants Kasim and has to defend a friend who is receiving unwanted attention from Dray. She’s still trying to get information about Dray’s drug dealing for the detective when she learns her cousins have a dark secret.

A man named Uncle Q and his henchmen come to the house late one night to collect $20,000. Fabiola overhears how the girls, not Dray, were the ones who sold the drugs that killed the white girl. Fabiola is scared and angry, but she knows she can’t rat out her family. She’s especially devastated to realize the money she and her mother have lived on all these years was drug money. The girls watch her carefully when they realize what she knows, and they beg her not to tell.

Meanwhile, the detective gets Fabiola a short phone call with her mother and promises her continued help in setting Manman free. Fabiola decides she has to focus on framing Dray to take any suspicion off of her cousins. Dray is no stranger to dealing, so she tricks him into selling drugs at a specific party. When he’s set to do this, she alerts the detective. She makes sure her own cousins won’t attend the party by telling them she’s had a foreboding vision.

On the night of the party, Kasim is supposed to come over for a date. At the last minute, he cancels, saying he has work to do. It suddenly occurs to Fabiola that Dray will not do his own dirty work. He will send Kasim to deliver the drugs. In a panic, Fabiola tells her cousins about the detective and her own attempt to frame Dray. They rush to the party but arrive too late. Kasim has been shot to death. Police surround the house.

Overwhelmed and weeping, the girls drive home. Dray is waiting there for them. Despite the cousins’ best efforts to protect Fabiola, Dray drags her down the stairs and holds a gun to her head. Fabiola hears a gunshot. When she opens her eyes, she sees Bad Leg. He’s holding what might be his cane or might be a gun. He quickly vanishes into thin air, and Dray lies dead on the floor.

Fabiola is devastated by Kasim's death, but she struggles to go on. She earns the title of the “Fourth Bee,” and says her B stands for Brave. She learns her mother will finally be released. She, Aunt Jo and the girls pack up all of their belongings to get Manman and begin a new life outside of Detroit.

Christian Beliefs

Pri says a Thanksgiving prayer to God, thanking Him for bringing Fabiola to them.

Other Belief Systems

Fabiola’s mother was a voodoo priestess in Haiti, and Fabiola is lives within her belief system. She worships god and the various lwas, or guiding spirits, of the religion. By the end, she has determined many of the people in her world represent various lwas, and all are showing her aspects of the future.

She is particularly tuned in to an old man on the street who sings in riddles. She believes he is Papa Legba, the spirit of the crossroads, and is telling her what to do next. Fabiola sees a vivid vision of her mother in the detention center.

She often lights candles and uses her magic to discern what to do next. When Dray is about to shoot Fabiola, he suddenly dies of a bullet wound himself. Fabiola sees Papa Legba pointing something at Dray just before the old man vanishes into thin air. Kasim tells Fabiola he grew up Muslim.

Authority Roles

Aunt Jo worked as a loan shark to keep her daughters off the streets. She sent money to her sister and Fabiola for many years. Since her stroke, she spends most of her time in her room drinking alcohol and taking painkillers. Manman is a voodoo priestess who has taught Fabiola to use magic and read the signs all around her to get answers in life.


Words including the f-word, the n-word, s---, h---, a---, b--ch, whore, d--k, p---, c--k, and d--n appear frequently. Dray kicks and punches Papa Legba. He frequently beats up on Donna, leaving scars and bruises. He once put someone in the hospital for looking at Donna.

After Kasim’s death, Dray violently pulls Fabiola’s hair and drags her down the stairs. Then he puts a gun to her head. Readers learn something about Dray the other characters don’t know: Uncle Q put a gun in Dray’s hand when he was 10 and told him to shoot a man. Dray shot the wrong man by accident and killed Fabiola’s uncle by mistake. Fabiola fights a girl who says Kasim belongs to her.


Donna and Dray have been having sex for years. Pri dresses boyishly and tapes down her breasts. She has a crush on a girl. Fabiola and other girls wear tight dresses at parties. The cousins warn Fabiola about being in the wrong place and being kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

Fabiola says the same thing happens in Haiti. Fabiola thinks Donna wears her breasts like a trophy. The cousins question and tease Fabiola about her virginity, sometimes making crude comments, such as urging her to keep her legs closed and her pants on around Kasim. Fabiola has sex with Kasim once, but the activity is not described in detail.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 to 18


Ibi Zoboi






Record Label



Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


On Video

Year Published



National Book Award Finalist, 2017


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