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Macaroni Boy

Macaroni Boy

4.4 5
by Katherine Ayres

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Mike Costa has lived his whole life in The Strip, Pittsburgh's warehouse and factory district. His father's large Italian family runs a food wholesale business, and Mike is used to the sounds and smells of men working all night to unload the trains that feed the city. But it's 1933, and the Depression is bringing tough times to everyone. Money problems only add to


Mike Costa has lived his whole life in The Strip, Pittsburgh's warehouse and factory district. His father's large Italian family runs a food wholesale business, and Mike is used to the sounds and smells of men working all night to unload the trains that feed the city. But it's 1933, and the Depression is bringing tough times to everyone. Money problems only add to Mike's worries about his beloved grandfather, who is getting forgetful and confused.

Mike is being tormented at school by a loud-mouth named Andy Simms, who calls Mike "Macaroni Boy." But when dead rats start appearing in the streets, that name changes to "Rat Boy." Around the same time Mike notices that his grandfather is also physically sick. Can whatever is killing the rats be hurting Mike's grandfather? It's a mystery Mike urgently needs to solve in this atmospheric, fast-paced story filled with vibrant period detail.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ayres (Voices at Whisper Bend) takes to the gritty streets of the Strip, the warehouse district in Pittsburgh, for a Depression-era tale steeped in mystery and exploring family ties. Mike Costa knows his family is fortunate-their Italian food market, Costa Brothers Fine Foods, holds its own while many businesses are failing. Mike even has his own job, trapping rats in the storeroom. But Mike finds it difficult to feel lucky as a boy bullies him at school and as his grandfather's deteriorating mental health is compounded by increasing bouts of gastric distress. Clues as to what might be making his grandfather sick, and what may be killing rats (as well as two hobos) around town, spur Mike into an urgent and dangerous bit of sleuthing. Ayres peppers her story with vivid period details (including descriptions of the city's immigrant population), but the historical color cannot salvage a disappointing, often unappetizing plot. Though the novel starts promisingly enough, fueled by realistic dialogue and characters, its repetitious structure and rushed conclusion give it a formulaic feel. Ages 8-12. (Feb.)
Mike Costa is a twelve-year-old with problems. His beloved grandfather is showing signs of senility, Mike is being picked on by a bully, and his family's warehouse business is in trouble. Mike lives in Depression-era Pittsburgh in the rough riverfront district. Because he is half Italian, he is called "Macaroni Boy" at school. His father pays him a penny for every rat that he can trap in the warehouse, and Mike spends his earnings on ice cream with his best friend. Lately, fewer rats are showing up in his traps, and many are turning up dead in the streets. Several homeless men in the area have also died after growing weak and coughing up blood, and now Mike's grandfather is showing symptoms. Mike's resolve to discover the cause of the illnesses leads him directly to the uncooperative bully. How he and his friends solve the mystery through their cunning and trial and error makes for a fascinating tale. Actual places and events are interwoven with a heartwarming story of a close-knit family facing difficult times. Mike is a tough youth who learns to use his head rather than his fists. The author is well known for combining American history with intrigue to create stories that are both informative and entertaining. The book should be of interest to all upper elementary and middle school students who read historical fiction, and it definitely has a place on all library shelves in the Pittsburgh region. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2003, Random House, 176p,
— Kevin Beach
Children's Literature
Pittsburgh native Ayres sets her story in the old Strip District of her hometown during the Great Depression. Twelve-year-old Mike Costa is luckier than most kids he knows: he is never hungry because his family owns a wholesale food business. But he still has problems with class bullies like Andy Simms. It is bad enough being called "Macaroni Boy," but when a fistfight escalates, Mike retaliates by tossing Andy one of the dead rats he traps each morning. Now the taunts change to "Rat Boy." Dealing with Andy as well as with his beloved Grandpap's forgetfulness and stomach problems turns into a full time job that also gets him in trouble with the school nuns. How Mike, with the help of his buddy Joseph Ryan, deals with these problems is the grist of the tale. Ayres sets up the difficulties of Depression America with its immigrant mix, hoboes, and general belt-tightening in terms that younger readers can understand. At the same time, she tells a story filled with fisticuffs, rats, and even a little moonshine that boys will enjoy. 2003, Delacorte,
— Kathleen Karr
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7-In 1933, as the Great Depression hits his Pittsburgh neighborhood, Mike Costa has a handful of problems to face. The family business is in financial trouble, his grandfather is losing his memory, and he faces bullying and anti-Italian prejudice at school. Meanwhile, his job as family rat catcher leads him to investigate the mysterious sickness that has killed some local hoboes, and affected his own grandfather. From the start, this fast-paced novel puts readers right into the vivid world of "the Strip" where Mike lives. His confused feelings of guilt about the neighborhood homeless and the squalid home of his bullying classmate add powerful human touches to the effects of the Depression. Though Mike has to rely on help from his archenemy, and helps him in turn, the boys quite realistically remain foes afterward. The mystery of why there are suddenly no rats for Mike to catch adds to the fast pace, though an encounter with moonshiners seems more contrived than other plot developments. As protagonist, Mike seems like an ordinary boy at first, but learns to solve his problems with intelligence, rather than the straightforward resistance his grandpa and uncles preach. His actions and his perceptions give readers an involving and informative kid's-eye look at several aspects of city life in the 1930s.-Steven Engelfried, Beaverton City Library, OR Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Pinning her narrative to a few key historical details, Ayres makes the Pittsburgh Strip during the Depression the setting for Mike Costa's need to find out why his grandfather is so sick. Costa Brothers Fine Foods means Mike's father and his three uncles; his grandfather doesn't always remember that now, and Mike worries about him. Mike likes helping out in the family business-his job is emptying the rat traps in the basement-but he hasn't quite figured out how to stop Andy Simms from picking on him. Mike doesn't like Simms calling him Macaroni Boy, and he likes a new name, Rat Boy, even less. The rats seem to be getting sick even before being caught in Mike's traps, and at first Mike thinks it comes from the rats eating rotten bananas from a warehouse explosion. But when Grandpap begins vomiting blood, Mike wonders if there's any connection. Mike and his best friend, Joseph Ryan, methodically try to figure out what's making the rats, and Grandpap, sick, while getting into occasional trouble with the nuns at school and with Simms regularly. Klavon's, the local ice cream parlor (still in existence), and a local priest who runs a soup kitchen figure in the action, as Joseph and Mike solve the mystery. Vivid touches abound, like Mike and Joseph's fascination with Joseph's sisters' lingerie. While there is little ethnically to distinguish Mike's Italian-American father and uncles from his Irish mother (except their names), the warmth and family feeling is neatly if sketchily drawn. Enough grisly rat details and boyish bravado to keep the boys reading, and enough local color, familial comfort, and historical minutiae for the girls. (author's note) (Historical fiction. 9-12)
From the Publisher
“An involving and informative kid’s-eye look at several aspects of city life in the 1930s.”—School Library Journal

“Vivid touches abound.”—Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.75(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.76(d)
700L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt


Macaroni Boy

"Hey! You! Macaroni Boy!"

Mike Costa whirled. He'd recognize that voice anywhere--Andy Simms, the worst kid in the Strip. And I have the rotten luck to have him sitting right next to me in Sister Mary John's sixth-grade class.

As Mike searched the sidewalk and alley behind him, his fingers curled into fists. With weasel-faced Simms on the loose, a guy needed to be ready.

"Macaroni Boy!" The shout came again, louder and closer this time. "I got a present for you."

A small, round blur flew in Mike's direction. He jumped backward, but not in time. Something smacked hard against his legs, spattering as it landed. Cripes, a rotten apple. Before he could take a breath, two more apples hit, mashing brown goo onto his socks and shoes.

"I'll get you for this," Mike shouted, running in the direction the apples had come from.

"Got to catch me first!"

Mike's shoes slapped against the pavement and he rounded the corner by a fruit market. As he raced onto the side street, he caught a glimpse of Simms, half a block ahead, ducking into an alleyway. Shoving past empty vegetable crates, Mike pushed his legs harder and turned into the alley, closing the distance between them.

In the narrow brick confines of the alley, Simms was a moving shadow, but Mike was sturdy and fast. He reached out to grab at Simms' skinny shoulder. "Got you, you punk."

"Says you, Macaroni Boy." Simms twisted away.

Mike ran and reached again, this time catching a good grip on the sleeve of Simms' coat. "You're a louse, Simms," he growled. Pulling closer, he aimed his fist at the kid's jaw and let it fly.

Simms ducked and theblow connected solidly with the side of his head. He grunted, then spun around and shoved, driving Mike belly-first into the railing of a fire escape. Simms yanked hard, freeing his arm.

For a moment Mike couldn't move, couldn't even breathe, his chest hurt so bad. By the time he could stand up and look around, all he could see was a brick wall. He ran his fingers along his ribs--sore, but nothing felt broken. His lungs burned as he tried to catch his breath, but each time he breathed in, a rotting, apple-y smell hit him smack in the nose.

He kicked at an empty tin can and sent it spinning up the alley, wishing he could kick Simms like that and send the bum into the cold, filthy water of the Allegheny River.

Mom would get after him for this, Mike knew. She had enough to do, keeping up with all the ordinary washing and ironing, she didn't need extra. He dragged himself from the alley and checked his legs to see how bad the damage was. His knickers seemed clean enough, but reddish-brown apple slime covered his socks and shoes.

Mike sped along Penn Avenue, past small shops and big food warehouses. He didn't stop until he reached 29th Street and his house. Ducking into the backyard, he peeled off his socks and shoes first. Cripes, even my legs are covered, he thought. If Mom sees this I'll be in for it. Maybe I can clean up quick and nobody will know.

Careful as a cat burglar, he eased open the back door and peered into the kitchen. Nobody. He inched inside and headed for the cellar stairs. Once in the cellar, he grabbed a tin pail and set it under the hot water tap. While the pail filled, he collected old rags and the bar of strong soap Mom used for washing clothes.

Phew. Even the cellar was starting to smell like rotten apples. Mike turned off the water, grabbed the bucket and his supplies and ran back upstairs and outside. The cold stone of the back step chilled his feet, but he didn't let that stop him, just sat down to scrub the mess off. Once his legs looked clean, Mike dried them on an old ripped towel, then dumped the stained socks into the pail, swishing them around to loosen the worst of the muck.

"Hey there, Michael."

Mike looked up to see Grandpap marching across the backyard toward him with his fishing pole over one shoulder. A couple of ugly mud-brown river catfish dangled from a string in his hand. Mike wondered what sort of mood the old man would be in today.

"What you doing, kid?" Grandpap asked, stopping near the step. "And what's that smell? You smell like a cider press."

Good, Mike thought. Grandpap's making sense. It must be one of his good days. "A kid I know, he threw apples at me."

"Got you in the legs, did he? Must have pretty good aim. You get him back?"

"I chased him and I caught him too . . . ," Mike began.

"You scrubbing those socks to help your mother out? Or to keep from getting in trouble?" Grandpap's dark eyes gleamed.

"Both, I guess."

The old man chuckled. "Smart boy. You didn't throw apples, did you? Hard times like we're having, it's a sin to waste good food. Lots of folks are going without."

That wasn't news. It was 1933 and the whole country was suffering from what the newspapers were calling the Great Depression. From New York to California, men were out of work and their families were going hungry. It was a tough time to be in the food business, Mike knew. The family business, Costa Brothers Fine Foods, hadn't folded yet but it sure wasn't raking in mountains of moolah these days.

"Well?" Grandpap asked. "Did you throw apples or not?"

Mike shook his head. "No, sir. I know better than to waste food. I just popped him one with my fist." He went back to soaping his socks.

"Good for you, Michael." Grandpap set down his fishing pole and reached into his pocket for the knife he used to clean fish. "Scrub your shoes off too," he said. "So you won't muck up your mother's clean floors."

"Yes, sir." I'd like to mop the floors with Andy Simms, Mike thought. I'd mop so hard, Mom's floors would shine for a month. And good old Simms, he'd be waterlogged.

". . . Well, boy, what do you say?"

Darn it. Grandpap was looking at Mike as if he expected an answer to a question. Mike hadn't been paying attention, so he didn't know whether he'd missed the question or Grandpap was having one of his forgetful spells.

"What do I say about what?" He shoved his dark hair back from his face.

"My fish, of course. Caught a couple nice ones. Plenty to share. Shall I have your mother fry up some for you?"

He really didn't need this, not on top of Simms. Mike looked down at the pile of fish guts at Grandpap's feet and tried to decide whether Grandpap was joking or the old man really didn't remember that Mike hated fish, especially those nasty-looking, long-whiskered river cats.

A laugh from Grandpap, then a sharp elbow in the ribs told Mike that Grandpap was joking. Okay, this really was a good day.

Mike wrinkled up his nose. "No thanks, Grandpap. You can keep your ugly catfish. I don't eat anything with whiskers. Besides, those fish stink worse than my socks and shoes." He picked up the left shoe and swiped at it with his soapy rag.

Grandpap laughed again. "Tell you what, once you wash off all the mess, dab a little kerosene onto a rag and mix it with shoe polish. That will kill off the smell and your shoes will look as good as new. Nobody will suspect a thing." The old man winked. "Tough guys like us, we gotta stick together."

Mike grinned and winked back. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. And when you get a chance, get rid of this garbage for me, will you?" Grandpap stood and pointed toward the fish heads at his feet.

"Yes, sir." Mike would have to hold his breath to clean up the fish mess, but it was worth it for Grandpap to be in such a good mood. He was like his old self, teasing and joking, Mike realized. That had to be a good sign.

Grandpap carried his cleaned fish into the kitchen as Mike finished wiping off his shoes.

Holding his breath, Mike shoveled Grandpap's mess onto a thick newspaper and studied the bloody fish heads and guts. Nasty, he thought. How could anybody eat fish, especially after cleaning them?

He was bending to fold the newspapers into a tight bundle when an idea crept into his mind, sneaky as a rat. Those fish guts kinda looked like a present, wrapped up nice in newspaper. And by tomorrow they'd be plenty ripe. They'd smell ten times worse than rotten apples.

Do I dare? Sure, I'll do it, he decided, tucking the package between a rock and the back fence. Happy birthday to you, Andy Simms.

Meet the Author

Katherine Ayres is the author of Family Tree, which has been named to several state award lists, and North by Night: A Story of the Underground Railroad. She is a founding member of the Playwright’s Lab at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. She teaches writing at Chatham College, where she also coordinates the Master of Arts program in children’s and adolescent writing.

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Macaroni Boy 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
OKunewick OKunewick More than 1 year ago
good book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good book and has a great ending. One thing i love about it is that the setting is in Pittsburgh and i LOVE Pittsburgh. The book starts off kind of slow but you have to get through that and finish the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A boy named Mike is living during the depression. His father and his three uncles have a business called Costa Brothers, which is a restaurant. His grandfather is starting to become forgetful, and not even recognize Mike. Mike wants to help his grandfather, especially when his grandfather seems to be getting sick. Dead rats are appearing on the streets and two dead hobos also seem to have what Mike's grandfather has. Mike is worried for his grandfather and he discovers that the toughest boy in the school is also affected by the sickness. The only way to find out what's harming his grandfather is to treat the bully nicely and forgive him so he can find out information from him. Will this boy cooperate with Mike or will he turn him away? Will Mike ever find out what's hurting his grandfather? Read this book to find out. This book was a really nice book and it gave me an idea of what it was like to live in the depression. It's also a book about how to not use your fists, but rather fight with kindess from your heart.