Alex Kotlowitz describes his first encounter with Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers in 1985, at the Henry Horner Homes public housing complex, when Lafayette was ten and Pharoah seven. Kotlowitz was writing the text for a photographer’s essay about childhood and poverty. After seeing a picture of the two brothers and noticing how, despite their youthful clothing, they looked like old men who have suffered through traumatic events, he was intrigued to learn more about their lives. When he finally meets them, he is shocked by the continuous violence the two children experience and is deeply upset to realize that Lafeyette cannot project himself into the future, as he believes that he is likely to die at an early age.
Even though all three characters live in the same city, Kotlowitz’s early description of Lafeyette and Pharoah emphasizes the difference between Kotlowitz’s reality and the two Rivers brothers’ reality. What might seem normal to the young boys, such violence and an inability to think about the future, strikes Kotlowitz as sad and disturbing. These disparate understandings of the world highlight a deep inequality in American society, as people’s entire worldview depends on their social identity—for example, which neighborhood they live in.
Two years later, in 1987, Kotlowitz returns to Henry Horner to report on Lafeyette and Pharoah’s lives for an article in The Wall Street Journal about the impact of urban violence on children. As he spends time with the two boys, taking part in their daily activities, from basketball to video games and walks, he becomes friends with them. Soon, he asks their mother, LaJoe, if she would allow him to write a book on the children in the neighborhood. Realizing that it is important for these children’s stories to be told, LaJoe accepts but adds hesitatingly that there are no real children here, as these children have seen too much to retain their innocence.
LaJoe’s comment becomes a central problem that There Are No Children Here attempts to address—namely, what are the effects of being forced to grow up too fast because of violence, and how can children retain their innocence in such a chaotic environment? Kotlowitz emphasizes that his approach to this problem is highly personal, aimed at understanding important societal problems from the in-depth perspective of a few individuals.
Kotlowitz notes that in Chicago, one in three children live in poverty. Through his reporting on the Rivers family, he realizes that these children’s lives are often filled with horrors, as well as the need to make adult decisions about their life choices at an early age. However, while many of these kids have seen death up close and have contended with the difficulties of gang life, drug trafficking, and gun violence, they have also played games and, in that sense, remained children. Over the course of two years, Kotlowitz reports on Lafeyette and Pharoah’s lives, following the changes they undergo as they struggle to grow up and establish their identities in a chaotic world of crime and insecurity. Kotlowitz notes that while their story does not have a perfect, novel-like ending, its central axis remains Lafeyette and Pharoah’s process of growing up, as well as their close friendship.
Kotlowitz identifies what will become a central paradox in the book: children can be both adults and children at once, as they adopt their behavior to the responsibilities they are given and the circumstances they find themselves in. Kotlowitz’s insistence on childish activities aims to show that a person should not be reduced to the neighborhood they come from or, perhaps, the crimes they have committed, but that we should recognize everyone’s inherent vulnerability through understanding and compassion. The author also suggests, through Lafeyette and Pharoah’s friendship, that people are capable of love and resilience even in the most dire of circumstances.