Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Pigeon English

What do Room, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Pigeon English have in common? Stephen Kelman joins an Adult Books for Young Adults tradition, using the voice of a young, naive character in peril to narrate terrible happenings that he doesn’t fully understand.

The setting for this book reminds me of another – Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faiza Guène (Mariner, 2006), which is narrated by an Algerian immigrant living in a Parisian project.

Huge hype surrounded the March publication of this title in the UK, and it was shortlisted for the 2011 Desmond Elliott Prize (for a first novel published in the UK).

There is a discussion guide available on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website.

KELMAN, Stephen. Pigeon English. 288p. Houghton Harcourt. July 2011. Tr $24. ISBN 978-0-547-50060-7. LC number unavailable.  Pigeon English

Adult/High School–This novel opens with 11-year-old Harrison describing the scene as a classmate is found stabbed to death. Harri and his friend Dean know how to be proper detectives from watching CSI, and possess just enough knowledge to get themselves in over their heads. As they attempt to solve the murder by collecting fingerprints, making suspect lists, and conducting surveillance, they are doing what boys do–playing pretend. It’s when they don’t realize exactly how close they’ve come to solving the crime that things escalate to a disturbing end. The strength of this debut novel lies in Harri’s voice. An immigrant from Ghana living in the projects of London with his mother and sister, Harri provides a running monologue punctuated with colloquialisms that lend a distinct cadence to his commentary. As a bright and curious boy, he maintains a sense of innocence even as the crudeness of his environment threatens to become dominant. Some vulgar and sexual language peppered in Harri’s retelling of events is quite jarring as he often misunderstands what he sees and hears, but readers recognize the serious implications. Early on it’s apparent that Harri’s monologue is directed at a pigeon that lives near his building. The device doesn’t quite work, particularly when the bird’s thoughts are expressed, but this is a minor distraction. Overall, teens will appreciate Harri’s winning narration, his child’s-eye view of adult situations, and the rising tension when playing detective becomes a high-stakes matter.–Priscille Dando, Robert E. Lee High School, Fairfax County, VA

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.


  1. Priscille Dando says:

    Just saw that Pigeon English made the Man Booker Prize fiction longlist….

  2. Priscille Dando says:

    …and now the shortlist.