Pigeon English

by Stephen Kelman

This hilarious and heartwrenching novel follows eleven-year-old Harri Opuku, recently emigrated from Ghana to the rough housing projects of London, as he tries to navigate inner-city life. See what makes our good-hearted protagonist dope-fine, become acquainted with his bo-styles, and find yourself wanting this touching debut to last donkey hours.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547737423
  • ISBN-10: 0547737424
  • Pages: 288
  • Publication Date: 06/19/2012
  • Carton Quantity: 24

About the book

"Intelligent, observant." —The New Yorker

"If your patrons liked Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and if they rooted for Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire, they will love Harri Opoku." —Library Journal, starred review

"In turns funny and tragic . . . Its message is universal." –Huffington Post

Advise yourself! Jump into Pigeon English and experience the jubilant, infectious voice of Harrison Opoku—a boy awed by the city, obsessed with gummy candy, a friend to everyone he meets. See why he is bo-styles. How being the fastest runner in Year 7 makes him dope-fine. And how crazy things get when Harri and his best friend launch their own investigation into the murder of a classmate and one of the Dell Farm Crew’s hutious criminals feels them closing in on him. You’ll want this book to last donkey hours, and you’ll see why Harri is truly a “hero for our times.”*

"Like Room . . . and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time . . . Pigeon English is a novel for adults told in the remarkable voice of a child. In this fine company, Kelman's novel stands out." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, there have been certain rules observed when children play detective. Stephen Kelman throws them all out." —Christian Science Monitor

About the author
Stephen Kelman

Stephen Kelman grew up in the housing projects of Luton, England. He has worked as a careworker, a warehouse operative, in marketing, and in local government administration. Pigeon English was shortlisted for the Man Booker and  Desmond Elliot prizes and has been published in twenty countries.



You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought.

It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt


 Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’

 Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’

 Jordan: ‘One quid then.’

 You wanted to touch it but you couldn’t get close

enough. There was a line in the way:


 If you cross the line you’ll turn to dust.

 We weren’t allowed to talk to the policeman, he had

to concentrate for if the killer came back. I could see

the chains hanging from his belt but I couldn’t see the


 The dead boy’s mamma was guarding the blood. She

wanted it to stay, you could tell. The rain wanted to come

and wash the blood away but she wouldn’t let it. She

wasn’t even crying, she was just stiff and fierce like it was

her job to scare the rain back up into the sky. A pigeon was

looking for his chop. He walked right in the blood. He was

even sad as well, you could tell where his eyes were all pink

and dead.

* * *

The flowers were already bent. There were pictures of the

dead boy wearing his school uniform. His jumper was


 My jumper’s blue. My uniform’s better. The only bad

thing about it is the tie, it’s too scratchy. I hate it when

they’re scratchy like that.

 There were bottles of beer instead of candles and the

dead boy’s friends wrote messages to him. They all said he

was a great friend. Some of the spelling was wrong but I

didn’t mind. His football boots were on the railings tied up

by their laces. They were nearly new Nikes, the studs were

proper metal and everything.

 Jordan: ‘Shall I t’ief them? He don’t need ’em no more.’

 I just pretended I didn’t hear him. Jordan would never

really steal them, they were a million times too big. They

looked too empty just hanging there. I wanted to wear

them but they’d never fit.

Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see

him very much because he was older and he didn’t go

to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and

you never even wanted him to fall off. I said a prayer

for him inside my head. It just said sorry. That’s all I

could remember. I pretended like if I kept looking hard

enough I could make the blood move and go back in the

shape of a boy. I could bring him back alive that way. It

happened before, where I used to live there was a chief

who brought his son back like that. It was a long time

ago, before I was born. Asweh, it was a miracle. It didn’t

work this time.

 I gave him my bouncy ball. I don’t need it anymore, I’ve

got M ve more under my bed. Jordan only gave him a pebble

he found on the floor.

 Me: ‘That doesn’t count. It has to be something that

belonged to you.’

 Jordan: ‘I ain’t got nothing. I didn’t know we had to

bring a present.’

 I gave Jordan a strawberry Chewit to give to the dead

boy, then I showed him how to make a cross. Both the two

of us made a cross. We were very quiet. It even felt important.

We ran all the way home. I beat Jordan easily. I can

beat everybody, I’m the fastest in Year 7. I just wanted to

get away before the dying caught us.

The buildings are all mighty around here. My tower is

as high as the lighthouse at Jamestown. There are three

towers all in a row: Luxembourg House, Stockholm House

and Copenhagen House. I live in Copenhagen House. My

flat is on floor 9 out of 14. It’s not even hutious, I can look

from the window now and my belly doesn’t even turn over.

I love going in the lift, it’s brutal, especially when you’re

the only one in there. Then you could be a spirit or a spy.

You even forget the pissy smell because you’re going so


 It’s proper windy at the bottom like a whirlpool. If you

stand at the bottom where the tower meets the ground and

put your arms out, you can pretend like you’re a bird. You

can feel the wind try to pick you up, it’s nearly like flying.

 Me: ‘Hold your arms out wider!’

 Jordan: ‘They’re as wide as I can get ’em! This is so gay,

I’m not doing it no more!’

 Me: ‘It’s not gay, it’s brilliant!’

 Asweh, it’s the best way to feel alive. You only don’t

want the wind to pick you up, because you don’t know

where it will drop you. It might drop you in the bushes or

the sea.

In England there’s a hell of different words for everything.

It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left

over. It’s very helpful. Gay and dumb and lame mean all

the same. Piss and slash and tinkle mean all the same (the

same as greet the chief). There’s a million words for a bulla.

When I came to my new school, do you know what’s the

first thing Connor Green said to me?

 Connor Green: ‘Have you got happiness?’

 Me: ‘Yes.’

 Connor Green: ‘Are you sure you’ve got happiness?’

 Me: ‘Yes.’

 Connor Green: ‘But are you really sure?’

 Me: ‘I think so.’

 He kept asking me if I had happiness. He wouldn’t stop.

In the end it just vexed me. Then I wasn’t sure. Connor

Green was laughing, I didn’t even know why. Then Manik

told me it was a trick.

 Manik: ‘He’s not asking if you’ve got happiness, he’s

asking if you’ve got a penis. He says it to everyone. It’s just

a trick.’

 It only sounds like happiness but really it means a penis.


 Connor Green: ‘Got ya! Hook, line and sinker!’

 Connor Green is always making tricks. He’s just a confusionist.

That’s the first thing you learn about him. At least

I didn’t lose. I do have a penis. The trick doesn’t work if

it’s true.

Some people use their balconies for hanging washing

or growing plants. I only use mine for watching the

helicopters. It’s a bit dizzy. You can’t stay out there for

more than one minute or you’ll turn into an icicle. I

saw X-Fire painting his name on the wall of Stockholm

House. He didn’t know I could see him. He was proper

quick and the words still came out dope-fine. I want to

write my own name that big but the paint in a can is too

dangerous, if you get it on yourself it never washes off,

even forever.

 The baby trees are in a cage. They put a cage around the

tree to stop you stealing it. Asweh, it’s very crazy. Who’d

steal a tree anyway? Who’d chook a boy just to get his

Chicken Joe’s?


"This this boy’s love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through. Pigeon English is a triumph."

—Emma Donoghue, author of Room

"Continually surprising and endearing ... There’s a sweetness here that’s irresistible."

Washington Post

"[A] work of deep sympathy and imagination."

Boston Globe


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Winning [and] ingenious. . . Pigeon English packs a wallop."

Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Intelligent, observant."

The New Yorker

"Since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, there have been certain rules observed when children play detective. Stephen Kelman throws them all out ... The mystery is secondary to the pleasures of listening to Harri."

Christian Science Monitor

"In turns funny and tragic ... Its message is universal."

Huffington Post

"If your patrons liked Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and if they rooted for Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire, they will love Harri Opuku."

Library Journal, starred review

"Pigeon English is a book to fall in love with: a funny book, a true book, a shattering book ... If you loved Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Emma Donoghue’s Man Booker–shortlisted Room, you’ll love this book too."

The Times (UK)

"Adapting the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye ... Pigeon English convincingly evokes life on the edge ... The humour, the resilience, the sheer ebullience of its narrator—a hero for our times—should ensure the book becomes, deservedly, a classic."

Mail on Sunday (UK)

"This exuberant novel sparkles with wonder and delight ... A vivid snapshot of contemporary urban childhood, it’s Harri’s voice, brilliantly captured and entirely convincing, which makes this book such a joy."

Daily Mail (UK)

"Filled with energy, humour and compassion, Pigeon English is a gut-wrenchingly sad novel that makes you laugh out loud."

Guardian (UK)

"Pigeon English is a fascinating look at a culture pushed to the margins by a nation’s economic and empathic indifference; Harri is our immediately likable tour guide."

Time Out Chicago

"Kelman’s [debut] has a powerful story, a pacy plot and engaging characters. It paints a vivid portrait with honesty, sympathy and wit . . . It is horrifying, tender and funny . . . Pigeon English will be read by millions . . . Parents who do their children’s homework are in for a treat."

Telegraph (UK)

"Writing in a child’s voice is always a high-wire act . . . Those who have pulled it off range from J.D. Salinger to Emma Donoghue. Kelman takes it one step further . . . The result is a tour de force . . . Funny and poignant, Pigeon English is fired with an uncontainable spirit, a rare distillate of boyhood optimism and adult wisdom."

Maclean’s (Canada)

"Kelman’s command of Harrison’s innocent all-seeing eyes makes for an engaging read."

The Daily Beast

"Funny and poignant . . . What might be described as Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets Trainspotting . . . Undeniable."

Toronto Star (Canada)

"Like Harper Lee’s Scout Finch and Miriam Toews’ Thebes Troutman, Stephen Kelman’s Harri is an original who seems to breathe real oxygen. Watching Harri’s exploits will make a reader want to laugh, marvel and cheer, but also cringe in fear . . . To be moved to care this deeply for a fictional character is a rare experience . . . The effect is one of profound transcendence."

Winnipeg Free Press (Canada)

"Told with humour, despite the gritty subject matter and setting . . . Pigeon English charms its way into some hard places."

Financial Times (UK)

"Harri’s joie de vivre is infectious and his voice simultaneously charming and haunting—similar to the narrators of Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And much like those books, Pigeon English is a story for adults."


"Authentic and audacious . . . Harri is . . .tantalisingly sympathetic."

Scotsman (UK)

"Imaginative, gut-wrenching and powerful . . . It’s a window on a world many of us will never experience (thankfully), and it is beautifully and intelligently written."

Edmonton Journal (Canada)

"A charming narrative voice energizes this lively first novel . . . festooned with vivid, funny locutions . . . There’s just no resisting the kid . . . his embryonic wit, street smarts and survival instincts are about as hutious as it gets."


"Hilarious, touching and terrifying by turns . . . In his evocation of the dreaming that brings many immigrants to cities all over the world and the danger and despair they face there, Kelman has crafted a book that soars."

Chronicle Herald (Canada)

"Laced with humour, innocence and authenticity."

The Independent (UK)

"Prepare to fall in love with Harri . . . [A] fresh, funny and ultimately moving story of 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant to London."

Shelf Awareness, starred review

"There is an irrepressible joy in Harri . . . Harri is a hero for all ages . . . He worms his way into your affections and leaves you breathless . . . Pigeon English is a mesmerizing tale of naïveté and discovery that has us rooting on the sidelines, hoping that Harri will triumph."

The Rover (Canada)

"The strength of this debut novel lies in Harri’s voice . . . Teens will appreciate Harri’s winning narration, his child’s-eye view of adult situations, and the rising tension when playing detective becomes a high-stakes matter."

School Library Journal, Adult Books 4 Teens

"Pigeon English has already been hailed as a ‘brilliant’ and ‘deeply moving’ depiction of urban life . . . Far from being a political tract, however, Kelman's book uses Harri to convey a straightforward message about how good can triumph, whatever the odds."

London Evening Standard (UK)

"Well-tuned . . . crisp and mirthful."

Publishers Weekly

"Opoku’s plight is both heart-warming and heartbreaking, as his actions unwittingly speed the inevitable cruel crash of manhood into his quietly contented world."

The List (UK), 4 out of 5 stars

"A book both chilling and charming . . . A coming-of age tale that feels achingly accurate."

Globe and Mail (Canada)

"A startingly assured piece of work [with] . . . a level of sensitivity and craftsmanship which few crime novelists can offer. What strikes the reader all the way through is the superb control with which Kelman writes . . . Kelman is a writer to watch."

 —Mystery Scene

"Pigeon English introduces readers to a Dickensian London...