50 pages 1 hour read

Tony Johnston

Any Small Goodness

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide


Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio is a young adult novel originally published in 2001 by Scholastic, Inc. As a meditation on the value of friendship, family, and community, the novel centers the Mexican American Rodriguez family as they adapt to life in a lower-income Los Angeles barrio (Spanish for “neighborhood”). In school, their son Arturo bonds with other Mexican American students, joining them as they reclaim their Mexican roots.

Ever since her early career, Johnston dedicated herself to children’s literature, and Any Small Goodness marks her novelistic debut. Johnston was raised in San Marino, California, just a few miles northeast of the Los Angeles city center, but moved to Mexico to accommodate a career change. Johnston lived in Mexico with her husband and daughters for 15 years, immersing herself in its traditions and cultures. While working in Mexico, Johnston often wrote in Spanish, even gaining writing commissions from the Mexican government. Her many stories and books are deeply rooted in multiculturalism, reflecting Johnston’s lived experience as an American woman amongst Mexican communities.

This guide refers to the 2003 Scholastic Paperbacks edition of the text.

Plot Summary

The novel is narrated by its protagonist, Arturo Rodriguez, whose family recently emigrated from Mexico and settled in Los Angeles. The Rodriguez household includes Arturo, his siblings, his grandmother (“Abuelita”), and his parents (“Mami” and “Papi”). Arturo has a decent grasp of the English language, but throughout the novel, he incorporates Spanish words and phrases, employing a dialect that his parents call pocho (a slang word that refers to Mexican Americans). 

When Arturo begins school, his teacher, Miss Pringle, chooses to Americanize his name and call him “Arthur.” Several other Mexican American students—Alicia, Raúl, and Jaime—suffer similarly, and Arturo seeks out their friendship. At first, Arturo accepts “Arthur,” hoping to blend in with his American classmates. Arturo’s family disapproves of his new identity, and Abuelita regrets that he should sacrifice the legacy of his father and his grandfather. Arturo and his friends eventually vow to embrace their Mexican names, and they seal their pledge on Abuelita’s molcajete (a Mexican pestle and mortar). 

Arturo enjoys a stable family life. Papi, gentle as a dove, works at a furniture store, while Mami and Abuelita dedicate themselves to their cooking. However, Arturo is aware that several gangs roam the barrio, tempting young men with false promises.

Each year, Abuelita tends her small garden, favoring crops of corn. When a black fungus caused by a plant disease (huitlacoche) settles on the corn, Abuelita quickly harvests it, mixing it with onions and chiles to create a special Mexican delicacy. The Rodriguez family eventually adopts a black cat, and they name her Huitlacoche (or Huitla for short) in honor of her dark coloring. 

One day, Arturo’s older brother, Luis, stages his band practice in the family’s garage. The band, dubbed Mega Mango, specializes in loud, clanging music. Huitla, napping in the garage, is startled by their rehearsal and runs off. Deeply distraught, the whole family mounts a search for Huitla but ultimately returns defeated. However, a neighbor named Leo Love eventually returns Huitla to her family. The Rodriguezes deeply appreciate Leo’s kindness, and Rosa—Arturo’s younger sister—promises to write him letters. 

Three years later, Arturo signs up for basketball, a popular sport throughout the barrio. The school’s team, nicknamed the Tigers, struggles with worn equipment and inadequate facilities. However, one day, an NBA all-star arrives at the school, introduced as the new assistant coach. The kids nickname him “Coach Tree,” on account of his large stature, and thrive under his direction. Coach Tree aims to disassociate from his celebrity and instead bond with his students. Coach Tree’s humility inspires Arturo to serve his community. 

One day, as Arturo reads the Los Angeles Times, he comes across an obituary for Leona Scott, a local piano teacher. He reads that, though destined for stardom, Leona Scott preferred to stay close to home, offering piano lessons to the barrio’s youth. To pay for the lessons, many families offered Leona food, plants, or Mexican dulces (candy). In honor of Leona’s sweet tooth, the neighborhood kids nicknamed her “Mama Dulce,” and a famous pianist even immortalized her with a song.

Suddenly, Arturo’s reading is interrupted. Papi reminds him and his siblings that it’s Valentine’s Day, and he intends to surprise Mami while she’s away shopping. Together, the Rodriguez family paints crumpled-up newspaper to resemble stone, fashioning a new facade for their home. When Mami returns, she’s delighted. 

One day, as Arturo walks beside the Los Angeles river, he remembers his local librarian, Ms. Cloud. As Arturo recalls, he and Mami visit the local library. Ms. Cloud thoughtfully selects a few recommendations, encouraging Arturo to read and improve his English. As an easygoing and approachable woman, Ms. Cloud seems content despite the library’s outdated catalog. However, one day, an anonymous donor fills the library with new material. 

Realizing that he doesn’t know much about Ms. Cloud’s personal life, Arturo sneaks behind her as she returns to her car. He wonders if she’s struggling financially or is ashamed of her lifestyle. However, when Ms. Cloud greets her personal driver and hops into a shiny Jaguar, Arturo realizes his mistake. He also suspects that Ms. Cloud had been the anonymous donor all along. When the school board notices that Ms. Cloud is improperly licensed, they quickly remove her from the position, despite her popularity within the community. Arturo and his family mourn the loss deeply.

Mega Mango is booked to perform at the school dance. As Papi drives Arturo and Luis in his slow, outdated car, a group of young gang members taunt them until they lose interest and leave. At the dance, Mega Mango slips into their repertoire of Mexican classics. All of the students, even the athletes, lose themselves to the music. However, the gang members reappear, almost picking a fight. A group of teachers and dancers chase them away. Before the gang leaves, Luis mocks them with an offensive song. One of the gang members vows to seek revenge, warning that he knows where Luis lives.

Arturo and his family grow anxious, anticipating the gang’s retaliation. Rosa, oblivious, asks Papi for a pink lunch box to bring to first grade. Papi and Rosa enjoy a special relationship, and he happily fulfills her request. One night, as the family chats in the kitchen, Rosa leaves her lunch box on the windowsill. Suddenly, gunshots ring out. No one is hurt, but Rosa’s pink lunch box is destroyed. Arturo attributes the gunfire to the gang. Rosa, deeply disturbed, seems to have lost her innocence. Soon after, two police officers respond to the shooting, and the Rodriguez family is touched by their sympathy. The next day, one of the officers returns with a new pink lunch box, delighting Rosa.

In response to the shooting, Arturo forms the Green Needle Gang with his friends and Luis. One night, when the rest of the family is attending a Christmas party, the Green Needle Gang decides to implement a master plan. Enlisting one of Luis’s friends as their getaway driver, they approach their target: an older woman whose bustling household has caught the Gang’s attention. As the car idles, they creep through the darkness and deposit a package on the porch. Arturo rings the doorbell before bolting. The Gang watches as the older woman and her many children come to the door, discovering the Gang’s unusual gift: a fully-decorated Christmas tree surrounded by presents. Ecstatic, the Gang quickly speeds away before they’re caught. 

As Christmas approaches, Arturo reflects on the family’s gift-giving tradition. Usually, each person draws a name from a hat and prepares a handmade gift. As they ready their gifts, the family also participates in a tamale-a-thon, including neighbors like Coach Tree and Leo Love. On Christmas Eve, the family opens their presents, and each member delights to receive their special gift. Papi, for instance, dances around with a scarf that Rosa has made him, while Arturo hangs a homemade ornament on their tree. As the novel closes, Arturo looks at the faces around him, grateful to enjoy such a warm, close family.