73 pages 2 hours read

Brenda Woods

Emako Blue

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Emako Blue is a novel for young adults written by Brenda Woods. Set in Los Angeles, California, Emako's friends and schoolmates relay the events leading up to Emako Blue’s gang-related murder in alternating first-person narration, primarily through flashbacks. The text explores the effects of poverty, gang violence, guns, and how these issues have far-reaching impacts on each member of a community. As the events of the story unfold, each narrator must consider what they want their life to look like moving forward now that it has been touched by tragedy and violence. Emako Blue won the IRA Best Young Adult Novel Award in 2005. Content warning: This guide depicts graphic scenes of gang and gun-related violence from the novel and in one instance quotes a racist slur.

Plot Summary

The novel begins at the funeral of Emako Blue, a 15-year-old Black girl murdered in a drive-by gang shooting. Four of her friends and classmates narrate the events leading up to her death in alternating chapters. Emako and her family live in South Central Los Angeles and are subjected to poverty, crime, and gang violence. The latter threat becomes especially acute when Emako’s brother, Dante, part of a gang, is released from jail. His return home brings trouble to the family and puts them at an increased risk of violence from rival gangs.

The four narrators of the text begin the flashback narration a few months before Emako’s death. Emako arrives at her new school after wanting to escape the violence of her former school. Emako wants to be a singer and already has a promising career ahead of her because of her immense talent. A talent agent even approaches her, but she turns them down to finish school like her mother wants her to. She intends to be a positive role model for her younger siblings. She hopes to eventually use her singing career to escape her current situation and to help move her family out of poverty and away from gang violence.

Monterey Hamilton recalls meeting Emako at choir practice. Emako and Monterey develop a close friendship, despite their differences. Monterey’s family is wealthier than Emako’s, and her parents strive to shelter her from the world, despite Monterey’s desire to be grown up. Monterey’s friendship with Emako teaches her that growing up before one reaches adulthood comes with its challenges, and it causes her to appreciate her more secure upbringing.

Monterey learns a difficult lesson and enters adulthood when she witnesses Emako’s murder. After this, she begins to advocate for herself to her parents so that they stop overprotecting her, as they all realize now that no one can truly protect their children from acts of violence.

Like Emako, Eddie Ortiz also wants to escape poverty and violence, and he shares Emako’s passion for music. Eddie is high-achieving and plans to attend college a year early, but he struggles with fear and anxiety about leaving his family behind and potentially being vulnerable to violence. Eddie and Emako connect because both their brothers are currently incarcerated for gang-related activity. More than any other character in the text, Eddie understands the real threat that gang violence poses to their community and its effects on individuals and families. As he reflects on Emako’s death, he knows more than anyone how easily he could have been a victim of the same kind of crime that kills Emako. This realization only solidifies his desire to leave his hometown, although he feels torn about leaving his family and new girlfriend, Monterey, behind. 

Although he often describes himself as a player, Jamal falls in love with Emako, and she helps him to see a future beyond his “player” mentality. Jamal breaks up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Gina, when he decides that he loves Emako. Jamal and Emako connect over their shared love of music, and Jamal envisions a future where he writes and produces Emako’s music. In some ways, Jamal takes Emako’s death the hardest. Jamal mourns Emako’s death not only because of his feelings for her but because he knows she is the only one that understood the real him and looked beyond the facade he wears.

Savannah is the antagonist of the novel and is jealous of Emako. She begins spreading false rumors about Emako to get back at her and inserts herself into Emako and Jamal’s relationship because she is friends with Jamal’s ex-girlfriend, Gina. Despite her often problematic and bullying behavior, Savannah’s struggles offer insight into her actions. Savannah struggles with feeling insecure about her appearance and a negligent home environment. While privileged, Savannah’s mother and stepfather do not take much interest in her life, and she often feels alone. At the end of the text, Savannah must confront the harm she caused Emako and the fact that she will never be able to apologize.

Emako’s murder occurs at the end of the flashback part of the text. Monterey is present for the murder, as it occurs in front of Emako’s house. After Dante’s release from prison, Emako fears retaliation from a rival gang and worries that the longer Dante lives back at home, the more dangerous the family’s situation becomes. As Dante stands outside with some of his friends, a car slowly drives by and the driver, aiming for Dante, shoots Emako instead. Emako dies as a result of her wounds.

Emako’s family, devastated by her murder, reveals that they will move to San Diego to escape the violence of South Los Angeles. At Emako’s funeral, the preacher talks about Emako’s innocence and how her death was unjust. Emako’s death, the death of an innocent girl with dreams and a bright future ahead of her, illustrates the broad repercussions of gang violence and poverty. Emako Blue’s message is that gang violence not only affects the members of gangs but everyone in the larger community.