In 1952 eight-year-old Peti's Hungarian relatives come to live with his family in America. His older cousin Gabor is a sullen boy who argues with his parents, and bullies Peti. Peti's only escape is to the local library, where he reads about everything from the solar system to pinhole cameras and secret codes. Peti wants Gabor to move out, but Uncle Jozsef can't find a job, and Peti's mother has to find work instead. The landlady is threatening to evict them, and the boys in the neighborhood are dreaming up trouble. To top it all off, Peti's mother worries constantly about her father, who is behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary. When the librarian invites Peti to go with her on a tour of the Rankin House, once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the day trip turns into much more than a chance to get away from tension at home. Peti comes back with a new understanding of friendship and family, new insights about human nature, and a new resolve to stand up for himself

I wish it was Apaguy who got a visa instead of Uncle Jozsef and Aunt Olga and Gabor. But the government won't give Apaguy one because he lives behind the iron curtain. It's not really a curtain. Papa explained it to me. It's an imaginary curtain, and the people who live behind it can't get out because their government won't let them.
Author perspective

In some ways, my brother and my cousin are the models for Peti and Gabor. When I was little, my cousin bullied my brother. I hated my cousin for pulling my brother on a carpet and burning his back or tossing the baseball into his mitt too hard. Only later did I realize that my cousin had troubles of his own that made him act the way he did. The dynamics of Peti's family are based on my own memories. I missed my mother when she went to work and worried about my aunt's ability to take care of me. The scene at the swimming pool involving the eclipse is based on a very early memory.

School Library Journal

Grade 4-7–This thoughtful novel about Hungarian refugees living in Cincinnati in 1952 invites comparison with many situations in today's politically unstable world. Peti, 8, lives with his parents and is looking forward to having his aunt, uncle, and 12-year-old cousin join them in the U.S. How could he have known how cruel and disturbed his cousin would be? Or that his mother's worry about her father, still in Hungary and able to communicate only through letters with coded messages, would overshadow so much else in their family? The adults in this small apartment all have far too much on their minds to pay much attention to Peter, a curious, talkative child who is sometimes overly eager to please, and his first-person narrative conveys an authentic feel for some of the universal experiences of childhood. Significant plot elements include a friendly librarian, stories about the Underground Railroad, and the boy's growing interest in photography. All of these contribute to his gradual journey toward maturity and a stronger sense of himself. Peti is occasionally too good to be true, and there won't be a huge audience for this sensitive story. Also, the narrator is younger than the intended readership, something else that can get in the way of selling a book to kids. Yet, in its quiet way, this is a remarkable and original book.–Lauralyn Persson, Wilmette Public Library, IL Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Bulletin Center for Children's Books

heng achieves a pitch-perfect characterization for this Hungarian-American boy in the early 1950s. ...His few possessions are well beloved, and his insatiable thirst for knowledge about his world is age-authentic. The metaphors that Cheng provides, her straightforward prose, and the connections she draws between life behind the Iron Curtain and life under American slavery make the difficult concepts Peti must contend with understandable to both him and the reader; children with and without first-hand experience with immigration and relatives in danger in faraway lands will warm to Peti's plight."
     —Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Publisher's Weekly

Fans of Cheng's Marika will welcome this quiet yet deeply moving novel set in 1952 and narrated by Marika's son, Peti, an inquisitive, thoughtful eight-year-old. Though his parents have safely emigrated from Hungary to Cincinnati, Peti notes that his father remains keenly interested in news broadcasts about the Korean War: "Papa wants us to be ready in case something bad happens like another war with the Nazis. The Nazis almost killed Mom and Papa, but they don't like to talk about that anymore." The family frequently does discuss, however, Peti's beloved maternal grandfather, Apa, who is still living behind the Iron Curtain; as a former stockbroker, he is considered suspect and has been removed from his home and sent to live on a farm 60 miles outside of Budapest. Though Peti and his parents long for Apa to obtain a visa to America, instead other relatives from Hungary move in with them: Peti's paternal aunt, her husband and their sulky 12-year-old son, Gabor. When the uncle cannot land a job, Marika must find work. Rather than spend time with the mean-spirited Gabor, Peti takes refuge in the library, where the kind librarian eases his loneliness. Through Peti's credible voice, Cheng insightfully explores multiple themes and motifs, among them hope, light, escape, family, friendship and self-reliance. Ages 8-up. (Oct.)

Book type: 
Middle grade novel
Front Street
Publication date: 
Aug 2006
Interest level: 
Bank Street College Best Children's Books of the Year, Jan 2008