The life of young Issa is full of unhappiness and questions. As THE KINGDOM OF BROOKLYN opens, the three-year-old relates scenarios from her family life. She wishes to spend time with her maternal aunt, Gilda, who lives and runs a beauty parlor upstairs. Instead, her mother forces Issa to stay around their part of the house. Issa recognizes that she has no choice in the matter, that her mother owns her. She also recognizes that something terrible is going to happen in the house.
Issa’s mother scares Issa about the outside world. She forces Issa to rehearse how she will behave at school when faced with any of the many unhappy or frightening contingencies she conjures up. When Issa misbehaves, her mother threatens to send her to the Peter Pan Nursery, where children who throw up are forced to lick their own vomit off the floor.
Issa’s school experience turns out to be pleasant. She makes her first friend and discovers that other children have lives that are different. She begins to spend time at other children’s homes, but she finds that they too have problems. One of Issa’s new friends dies of polio soon after hosting a party to show off the family’s television set. Issa makes more friends and learns more about other families and how they find happiness. At home, however, her life remains filled with events that cause her distress, particularly the constant fighting among family members. All through the book, as Issa grows to the age of fourteen, the narrative is filled with portents of tragedy. Issa becomes so used to disaster that when a ball of lightning comes through one of the windows at home, she treats it as just a normal part of a Sunday afternoon. Her attempts to cope with her situation make an engrossing but overwhelmingly sad tale.