Classic children’s novel ‘The Cay’ as relevant today as ever

Writer shares how the novel helped her understand the experience of her mixed-race brother


Sadie Larios

The author, with her older brother, BJ (left), began seeing the world through his eyes after reading Theodore Taylor’s novel, “The Cay.”

Although “The Cay” was published in 1969, it spoke to a little girl in 2012. 

“The Cay” is one of my favorite books. This was due to the relationship I had with my brother and the relationship the world had with him.

His name is Balo Jesse, but we call him “BJ.” Though we are separated by nine years, I looked up to him. I was shocked to discover others didn’t have the same perception. 

Our age wasn’t our only difference. We also have different dads. Our mother is Hispanic, but instead of having a Hispanic dad like me, his was Black. Still, our mother was a single mother and not home most of the time. Being the head of the family was left to him. 

BJ took care of me and my siblings as best he could, and for that, I looked up to him.

I was also very tomboyish and having an older brother who was a huge basketball fan and a skater made him the coolest person ever. I followed him around like a puppy to the skate park and the basketball courts. We even caught the bus when we had the cash.

During those bus trips, I remember the stares. At first, I thought they were innocently staring at a brother and sister. I quickly realized they were not looking at me. They were looking at BJ in his oversized hoodie, basketball shorts, and beat-up old Jordans he had saved for. I was confused about why my brother caught their stares, but I naïvely dismissed them as a coincidence. 

Until he also caught those same stares in stores. In restaurants. In basically every room he entered. 

We lived in a predominantly Hispanic area of Los Angeles, but there was no one of color like my brother. He was alone.

I had a book.

“The Cay” begins with a dedication to Martin Luther King:“To Dr. King’s dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand.” Author Theodore Taylor saw the potential and insight of children, and wanted them to see that for themselves. 

Taking place in 1942, the novel tells the story of a child named Phillip Enright, who becomes shipwrecked and is saved by the help of a black man named Timothy. At first, Phillip is distrustful of Timothy because of his color. They form a bond after the shipwreck blinds Phillip and Timothy becomes the boy’s eyes.

The reason I loved the book so much as a kid was because I believed many people were like Phillip, already prejudiced against my brother before meeting him and giving him the chance to show his character. They looked at his cover and assumed they knew the words on his pages. 

BJ never stopped drawing stares, but he would act like they didn’t bother him. I knew it was just an act. He started taking off his hoodie and wore nicer shoes. We both knew it didn’t matter what he wore. We felt helpless. 

I envied how Timothy was able to form a bond with Phillip after Phillip had a prejudice against him. That’s all I wanted for my brother. I wanted him to receive the opportunities I had by not being immediately judged, or seen as a threat based on the color of my skin. I wanted my brother to have the world see him the same way I saw him. 

Taylor’s novel showed me the importance of my brother’s voice and that a person’s a person no matter how small. This was true in 1969. It was true in 2012. And it is true today.