Gary Soto originally published his poem “Oranges” as part of his 1985 collection titled Black Hair. Republished ten years later in New and Selected Poems. The poem also makes a cameo appearance in his 1991 young adult collection of free verse poetry: the closing line of “Oranges” provides the title for that volume.
The poem itself is brief, consisting of a mere 56 lines. The timeline covered by the narrative makes up its content is also short and only three major characters are featured. Nevertheless, “Oranges” has become one of the most widely anthologized pieces of American verse published in the last quarter of the 20th century. Why?
Perhaps because of universal theme of first love that underscores its simple tale of a young boy going on his “date” with a girl. The date is a simple walk to the store that results in the purchase of candy and holding hands on the sidewalk. Or, perhaps, the universal appreciation is due to the economy of what Gary Soto manages to fit into a 56 line poem about a boy and girl walking to a store.
The poem touches upon the social aspects of economic disparity in its story about a boy who brings two oranges to his date along with money to buy candy, but not the candy the girl picks out. It also manages to work in the social aspects of human understanding of how economic disparity extends far beyond the paycheck in the form of the store clerk who silently facilitates the ability of the boy to afford the candy costing more than the money he brought. Ultimately, “Oranges” winds up as a coming of age story in which the traditional romantic plot driving the character to the next level of maturity is transcended to become a coming of age about the subtle transactional dimension of mature romantic pursuits.