Mini-reviews

This week we did not find any new releases. Instead we have two mini-reviews.

Title: Evangelina Takes Flight
Author: Diana J. Noble
Publisher: Arte Publico Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 195
Availability: On shelves now
Review Copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: “If they do come here, they’ll show us no mercy,” thirteen-year-old Evangelina overhears her father say as she gathers eggs in the chicken pen. Back at the house, Mamá brushes away her fears of revolutionaries. There are even more chores than usual to be done at Rancho Encantado because her sister’s quinceañera celebration is rapidly approaching!

It’s the summer of 1911 in northern Mexico, and soon the de León family learns that the rumors of soldiers in the region are true. Evangelina’s father decides they must leave their home to avoid the violence. The trip north to a small town on the U.S. side of the border is filled with fear and anxiety as they worry about loved ones left behind and the uncertain future ahead.

Life in Texas is confusing, though the signs in shop windows that say “No Mexicans” and some people’s reactions to them are all-too clear. At school, she encounters the same puzzling resentment. The teacher wants to give the Mexican children lessons on basic hygiene! And one girl in particular delights in taunting the foreign-born students. Why can’t people understand that—even though she’s only starting to learn English—she’s just like them?

With the help and encouragement of the town’s doctor and the attentions of a handsome boy, Evangelina begins to imagine a new future for herself. This moving historical novel introduces teens to the tumultuous times of the Mexican Revolution and the experiences of immigrants, especially Mexican Americans, as they adjust to a new way of life.

Review: Evangelina is part of a loving family and she enjoys the quiet predictability of their days. Her older sister thinks where they live is boring and wishes to go to someplace like Paris, France, but Evangelina sees the beauty there and never wants to leave. With the revolution coming closer and closer to their home though, her family leaves for safety.

Evangelina has a tender heart and is often helping those around her be they family or strangers. That makes it even more puzzling to her that the people in Texas glare at them, insult them, and have signs in store windows saying, “No Mexicans.” Evangelina cannot understand how people treat her and her family so poorly without even knowing them. They face a lot of hostility as they try to make their way in this new place.

Evangelina has a close relationship with her grandfather. He is a storyteller, but he also encourages her. He tells her to dream and to reach for those dreams. When her family is struggling, she looks for ways to help. She impresses a local doctor and when he offers her a job, she is eager to take it so she can give her earnings to her family. The doctor ends up being a white savior figure, though Evangelina does some of the work to solve problems too.

Recommendation: Those looking for historical fiction will find this a way to get a glimpse into Texas/Mexican relations in the early 1900s. It would be a nice one to pair with Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Shame the Stars which also takes place during the Mexican Revolution


Title: The Cholo Tree
Author: Daniel Chacon
Publisher: Arte Publico Press
Genre: Contemporary
Pages: 248
Availability: On shelves now
Review Copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: This novel follows a young Chicano artist who develops his craft while dealing with the daily struggles of his family, community and his own addictions.

Review: Victor keeps explaining that he is not a cholo. He’s not the thug everyone seems to see when they look at him. His mother, teachers, and many people in his life keep labeling him a cholo based on his appearance since he’s brown skinned and wears clothes people associate with gangs. That’s not how he sees himself though. He sees himself as an artist before anything else.He just wants to be himself and be seen for who he is and not who people expect him to be.

Victor has a few people in his life who see potential in him and they encourage his art and help him to dream and see past the present. He loves to draw and create. He even creates in the kitchen. He enjoys making food and feeding people his creations. His art and cooking are things he can hold onto when things around him are taking a turn for the worse.

The Cholo Tree takes a good hard look at perceptions and assumptions and how those can be at work in someone’s life. This book is harsh and raw at times as Victor struggles to get a vision of who he is and who he wants to be. There are deep moments of introspection and philosophy, but there are also some playful times. Victor has imaginary friends. Yes, this fourteen year old boy has an imaginary chef helping him with his cooking. Sometimes the imaginary bits seemed a little out of place in the midst of things like gang shootings, but it mostly worked.

Recommendation: Get this one someday if you like contemporary books with an interesting character. Victor has a lot of layers. The writing isn’t always smooth, but Victor’s story is compelling.

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Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Title: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Author: Erika L. Sánchez
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

Review: (Note: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, mentions of rape, brief descriptions of attempted suicide, homomisia, sex-shaming, fat-shaming, murder, and a semi-graphic description of an animal being slaughtered.)

This review is going to be a difficult one to write. On the one hand, there are a lot of excellent parts in Erika L. Sánchez’s debut—a prickly, angry heroine who deals with anxiety and depression, struggling to survive in the aftermath of her older sister’s death and trying to forge an identity and future for herself in spite of her parents’ demands and expectations. Mexican culture and the Spanish language permeate every corner of the book, and Julia’s opinion of and experience in Chicago are colored by all of that.

There’s also a lot of discussion about immigration, from the very real dangers and fear that compel some to risk everything to cross the border to the alienation and loneliness of being kept apart from family. At one point, Julia’s English teacher urges her to write about her parents’ undocumented status for a college entrance essay, and Julia’s immediate reaction is fear for her parents and disbelief that he would ask her to do that. Her family and community have seen lives torn apart by immigration enforcement; how can he be so cavalier about suggesting she expose her parents when there have been raids at the plant her father works in?

Julia’s anxiety and depression are also important to see on the page, both how mental illness is generally not talked about in Latinx communities and also in positive depictions of therapy and medication. This is the third YA book I’ve read in the last few years that stars a Latinx character who deals with mental illness (When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez and The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork being the other two), and it is reassuring to know that there is yet another novel out there to help Latinx teens.

Unfortunately, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’s helpfulness will be limited by its unrepentant fat-shaming. While the sex-shaming generally gets a not-insignificant amount of pushback, either from Julia’s commentary on double standards or from a conversation with her therapist, the fat-shaming largely goes unchallenged. And it is pretty awful and omnipresent: “Amá says Paloma has a thyroid problem, and I feel bad for her, but I’ve seen her eat three tortas in one sitting. Thyroid, my ass,” or “She is always sucking her teeth at what I’m wearing or making some comment about my weight, even though she’s more floppy and misshapen than a sack of laundry,” or “Even if they’re fat, they move as if they think they’re fabulous.” That last one is a clear moment where Julia’s own internalized fat-shaming has popped up, but aside from a brief passage where Julia points out that she’s fat on the U.S. side and too skinny on the Mexican side, all of this cruelty and snark and disgust about other people’s bodies is a slap to the reader’s face. It has been a while since I’ve read a book that made me feel this awful about my own fat Latina self, so take that under advisement before you dive in.

Otherwise, IANYPMD felt unbalanced plot-wise. Based on the summary, I expected this to focus mostly on Julia, her best friend, and her boyfriend uncovering the mysteries of Olga, but Olga gets shoved aside for a good chunk of the book to grapple with Julia’s problems, and the best friend and boyfriend do almost nothing to help uncover those mysteries. This had the unfortunate consequence of giving these supporting characters too little depth to be adequate supports for Julia’s story, and Olga’s story turns more into a distraction or an afterthought than anything else. I think I would have preferred there was no mystery to Olga because of how inadequately her story was handled.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday. While I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tackles important and timely issues related to mental health, immigration, and the Mexican-American community, the novel is kept from greatness by its pervasive fat-shaming and unbalanced plot.

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Mini-Review: Code Name: Butterfly

Title: Code Name: Butterfly
Author: Ahlam Bharat, Translation by Nancy Roberts
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 90 pages
Publisher: Neem Tree Press
Review Copy: Copy from publisher
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Should you feel bad if your dad works for the Israeli occupiers? What if he loses his job? And how are you supposed to cope when someone close to you dies?

Butterfly is smart. Some people even say she’s shrewd, but that doesn’t make life any less confusing. Every day throws up new questions and some are too big for her to handle alone. Squirrelling away the difficult ones in her treasure chest, Butterfly creates a place of strength in her imagination. While her classmates turn to protest and violence, Butterfly finds her own form of resilience, her own secret way to find peace in a world of conflict and uncertainty.

Written with ironic humour and touching idealism, Butterfly looks back at a turbulent summer in her early teens, drawing us into her world of adult hypocrisy, sibling rivalries, power struggles with her school friends, unrequited love… and the daily tensions of Palestinian life under military occupation. A teenage perspective on one of the most protracted conflicts of our times, Code Name: Butterfly is a story for all teens grappling with friendship, family and the emotional storms ahead.

Review: Unfortunately American publishers export more novels than we import, therefore we miss out on numerous stories from around the world, specifically books in translation. That is why when I was offered the opportunity to read a book in translation, I jumped at the chance. Code Name: Butterfly allowed me a window in the world of a Palestinian teen who is trying to make sense and find her place in her world.

While no specific age is given, the main character, who never gives the reader her name and refers to herself as a butterfly, reminded me of my 7th grade students. At that age, they become goofy because puberty is hitting hard and they are trying to make sense of what their body is doing, as well as their brain moves into a different developmental stage and all of a sudden they are filled with all these questions and thoughts. Many times young teens tend to keep these questions to themselves, which is what our butterfly does – she keeps her questions in a mental treasure chest. I loved this aspect of her character because it was real to her and they way the author describes the chest and how she “writes” down the questions to put the chest, really brought to life the mind of a young teen.

In addition to her teenage struggles is the backdrop of living under oppression. Living in a village near an Israeli settlement, we learn what life is like for her family, friends, and the other people in her village. The tenuous relationship between the Palestinian and the Israeli people is shown through her father’s work at an Israeli farm in the settlement, as well as through the other systematic ways the Israeli’s control the Palestinian people. In one chapter, during summer vacation, due to the restrictions placed on her village the main character is not allowed to play outside. This completely broke my heart. And while these injustices to her people did not fully bring her down, a number of the questions that the main character asks is in relation to the treatment of her people and the question of when will they ever be free.

I really enjoyed this novella, specifically being with a character who is sweet, thoughtful, and mostly inquisitive. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into her life and the opportunity to set into the shoes of someone whose life is completely different from mine. My only wish is that this book was more readily available. It is on some book sites, but you’ll have to do some searching. I highly recommend librarians and teachers find a way to get this book and share it with your students, as books like Code Name: Butterfly will open up the world to them.

 

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Review: The Day Tajon Got Shot

Title: The Day Tajon Got Shot
Authors: The Teen Writers of Beacon House
Publisher: Shout Mouse Press
Pages: 190
Genre: Contemporary, Issue
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: Meet Tajon.

Tajon is sixteen and black.
He’s tall and skinny, and he wears his hair in dreads.
Tajon works hard and tries his best to be good.
He does OK in school. He has plans.
He’s determined.

Tajon is the kind of son who cares about his family.
He’s the kind of brother who stands up for his sister.
He’s the kind of kid who dreams big dreams to get himself and
those he loves up and out of the hood.

Tajon is the one who gets shot.

Meet the authors: Mikiah, T’Asia, J’yona, Reiyanna, Jonae, Rose, Najae, Serenity  Jeanet, and Temil. Ten black teen girls in Washington, DC started writing this book during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. They began with one central question: What really happens in a community when a black youth is the victim of violence by police? Each writer takes on the perspective of a central character – the victim, the police officer, the witness, the parent, the friend – and examines how it feels to be a human being on all sides of this event. Their stories thoughtfully explore issues of race, violence, loyalty, and justice in a community torn apart but seeking connection.

Review: The Day Tajon Got Shot presents Tajon’s story in a unique way. It’s told from many perspectives using many forms of media. It means that we don’t get to know all of the characters in great depth, but we do get to see this one major event from many angles. The writers were careful to show that the characters are not simply good or evil. They show how complex people and situations can be. I enjoyed the mix of photographs, artwork, poetry, prose, and even tweets. The format makes this book appealing to readers who like quick reads. It’s also just interesting to see the different ways the writers chose to communicate. It appears that they staged many of the pictures, but some of the photos seems to have been from actual protests. Some of the images could be troubling for readers who are fatigued after seeing many instances of violence against young Black people. There weren’t any photos of actual wounds, but there were blood stains on the ground and people in frightening situations. The images definitely do the job of communicating emotion. There is also a much too lengthy list of the people of color who were killed by police during the time they were writing the book. For me, that was one of the most difficult parts to read and it really drove home the reason for the existence of this book.

This is the kind of book that would be useful for inspiring discussion and could even be a model for other teens who would like to write or do something in response to current issues. The writers want to help make a change. They have hope and tell about the way things are and the way they think things should be.

I liked how the different parts of the book worked together. All of the pieces supported the story from text formats to the graphics to the layout. The dedication kicks it off, “This book is for all those who are going through loss and pain, who have protested, and who are sick and tired of what is going on.” The next element is a quote from Justice Sonia Sotomayor referencing, “… people who are routinely targeted by police….Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.” The quote is followed by a preface which was surprisingly lengthy. It provides the context for the project though and has helpful information. Some readers may just skip to the artwork and opening poem, “The Evidence” by Camisha Jones, which is quite powerful.

There are photos and brief descriptions of each main character followed by the narrative which alternates between characters with breaks for media. The writing isn’t incredibly sophisticated, but that made sense within this format of brief sections. Also, I appreciated that the voices of the teens hadn’t seemed to be overpowered by adult editing. The authors took risks sharing the realities they see in their own way. They stepped out in the hope and belief that their voices matter and they created a book that will surely inform and affect many readers.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re looking for realistic fiction about current events, especially if you’re interested in hearing directly from teens.

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Book Review: Disappeared

Title: Disappeared
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 326 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Four months ago: Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juàrez.

Four weeks ago: Her brother, Emiliano, fell in love with Perla Rubi, a girl whose family is as rich as her name.

Four hours ago: Sara received a death threat…and her first clue her friend’s location.

Four minutes ago: Emiliano was offered a way into Perla Rubi’s world—if he betrays his own.

In the next four days, Sara and Emiliano will each face impossible choices, between life and justice, friends and family, truth and love. But when the criminals come after Sara, only one path remains for both the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.

Review: Francisco Stork’s newest novel is a timely one that when put in the right hands would help folks understand how immigration, the hows and whys people come to America, is a very complex subject. Told in alternating voice between siblings Sara and Emiliano we learn the reason why the two are forced to leave everything and everyone they love behind to come to the United States. The alternate voice works especially well in telling this story as the events in Sara and Emiliano’s two stories are linked in a way that as a reader you realize is on a collision course. Of course, these normally close siblings are facing tough adult decisions, but as often when one wants to mull things over quietly, the two never share their concerns with the other. It’s a classic trope to create tension, but it worked really well in Disappeared. Each of the reasons the siblings have for not confiding in the other as they usually would, are compelling and realistic. There are consequences for both if they confide in the other and neither wants to pull their sibling into their drama. Unfortunately, both realize how their two situations are related, but at that point in the story both siblings are struggling for their lives. It is this realization, however, that pulls them closer and helps them cross the border.

I loved that the majority of the novel was set in Juarez, giving a reader a glimpse of what life is like in Mexico as a result of the cartels. In the novel, Juarez is recovering, slowly, from the damage the cartels left on the city but the corruption and influence the cartels had is still felt in some way. Sara and Emiliano have carved out a comfortable life in Juarez, but we do see a perspective of life from the poorest inhabitants to the richest. We learn about the many different ways the people of Juarez either fought back against the cartels or managed to live with them. Sara and Emiliano are examples of this complexity and this novel highlights how despite a community’s struggle, it still has home and home has meaning. Learning to love Juarez the way Sara and Emiliano do really hits home and hurts when they are forced to leave. It truly is a heartbreaking moment when they realize that they have to leave everything they hold dear because their lives are in danger. With any book, you want the main character to win, but with Disappeared you know that the happy ending both siblings wanted for their lives is over and now they have to start a new, and they are not really happy about it. This subverts the “happy immigrant” trope and really highlights how coming into the United States, specifically crossing the border, is never an easy decision for a person to make.

My only quibble with this novel is that I feel it ended to soon. I felt like Sara and Emiliano’s story was unfinished. I wanted to know if the decision they made (can’t tell because of spoilers) really paid off. I was left wanting more by that ending, but then again, the writer in me enjoyed that their story was practically unfinished because the story of immigration is not a complete story. It is forever changing and where we are in our country’s politics, at a point where compassion and understand for our fellow human beings must be reinforced. Therefore, Disappeared is not a novel about what happens when immigrants arrive in the US, but their story of how and why they come to the US. More of these stories must be told and for that reason, for the chance to live in Sara and Emiliano’s shoes for a brief moment, made this novel worth it.


Interview with Francisco X. Stork on Latinx in Kids Lit site. There is a hint about what is next for Sara and Emiliano – yes!

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

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Review: You Bring the Distant Near

Title: You Bring the Distant Near
Author: Mitali Perkins
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Genres: Romance, Contemporary & Historical
Pages: 303
Review copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley & personally purchased final copy
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Five girls. Three generations. One great American love story. You Bring the Distant Near explores sisterhood, first loves, friendship, and the inheritance of culture–for better or worse. Ranee, worried that her children are losing their Indian culture; Sonia, wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair; Tara, seeking the limelight to hide her true self; Shanti, desperately trying to make peace in the family; Anna, fighting to preserve Bengal tigers and her Bengali identity–award-winning author Mitali Perkins weaves together a sweeping story of five women at once intimately relatable and yet entirely new.

Review: In You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins created a beautiful story of family, love and identity. Sonia, a writer and reader, mentions Little Women on more than one occasion. I can’t help but make comparisons. These women have so much love for each other and they show that as they work through their individual challenges.

The relationships of Sonia, Tara and their mother Ranee are the primary focus of more than half of the book. These young women and their mother share many things like genes, culture, and having adapted to multiple countries over time. This is the magic of families. We often share so much, but our personalities and individual experiences shape us and our identities become distinct from each other. As the young women are trying to live their dreams, they are also separating from their mother and the past she clings to. By offering this story from so many perspectives, readers are able to see the diversity present within one extended family. Ranee has an obvious bias toward the Black people in their neighborhood yet she rebels against some of the confining requirements from her own culture. She pushes her husband and provides for her family. Sonia uses her voice and pen to fight for women’s rights and Tara focuses on being a star and keeping peace between her sister and mother. All hold onto and honor aspects of their culture that match their own beliefs. They are at work blending the many parts of themselves on a palette and making their unique mark on the world.

Every part of this book made me want to crawl into the story with this family. Even when certain characters weren’t speaking to each other, I could still see the love there and the belief in one another. The original group of women set the stage and then we get to see the children. The cousins add another layer to the story. I loved seeing how tightly each young woman clung to what and who they valued. These are teens who have doubts and fears, but move forward through them. Like with Little Women, I think readers will likely see bits and pieces of themselves within these characters and will want to cheer them on every step of the way. It sounds seriously sappy, but this book made my heart happy.

Recommendation: Get it now especially if you enjoy realistic fiction involving families. I did not want this book to end.

Extras: Our Interview with Mitali Perkins

 

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