Book Review: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu

By Stephanie Guerra

18079898DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: M.T. is undocumented. But she keeps that a secret. As a straight-A student with a budding romance and loyal best friend, M.T.’s life seems as apple-pie American as her blondish hair and pale skin. But she hides two facts to the contrary: her full name of Monserrat Thalia and her status as an undocumented immigrant.

But it’s getting harder to hide now that M.T.’s a senior. Her school’s National Honor Society wants her to plan their trip abroad, her best friend won’t stop bugging her to get her driver’s license, and all everyone talks about is where they want to go to college. M.T. is pretty sure she can’t go to college, and with high school ending and her family life unraveling, she’s staring down a future that just seems

In the end, M.T. will need to trust herself and others to stake a claim in the life that she wants

Told in M.T.’s darkly funny voice and full of nuanced characters, The Secret Side of Empty is a poignant but unsentimental look at what it’s like to live as an “illegal” immigrant, how we’re shaped by the secrets we keep, and how the human spirit ultimately always triumphs.

MY TWO CENTS: This is an ambitious book, taking on a range of powerful topics including immigration, domestic abuse, and suicide. Maria Andreu approaches her themes head on and unflinchingly. Her writing is raw and honest, and as a result, the book engages at a deeper level than the average YA.

Monserrat Thalia, or M. T., is a conflicted, loveable character and a convincing portrait of a teen struggling with the challenges of “illegal” immigrant status. M. T. is from Argentina, but her desire for rootedness, her grief, and her uneasy relationship with America and Americans all speak to common threads experienced by immigrants from many cultures. As M. T. approaches high school graduation, the differences between her situation and that of her friends emerge in stark contrast: because of her undocumented status, she has no possibility of a degree, and no chance for a job and the trappings of a “successful” life. Meanwhile, her friends are college and career bound.

As M. T. grows increasingly bleak about her dead-end future, even contemplating suicide, her father enters his own spiral of immigration-related frustration, inadequacy, and violence. The book raises provocative questions: When does disciplinary hitting cross a line into abuse? How frequently or severely must violent episodes occur to justify a call for help? What are the products of intersecting adult insecurity, fear of deportation, cultural background, and violence?

I applaud Maria Andreu for taking a courageous look at all these questions through a snapshot of M. T.’s senior year. Andreu’s writing is clean and accessible with sharp-edged wit and darkly ironic undertones sure to appeal to teen readers. Characterizations are strong, with a special flair for finely drawn secondary characters. Best of all, no easy answers are offered. This book calls for thoughtful discussion, and is ideal for illuminating and humanizing an experience that many readers understand only through media coverage and political debate.

Maria AndreuAUTHORMaria E. Andreu is the author of the novel The Secret Side of Empty, the story of a teen girl who is American in every way but one: on paper. She was brought to the U.S. as a baby and is now undocumented in the eyes of the law. The author draws on her own experiences as an undocumented teen to give a glimpse into the fear, frustration and, ultimately, the strength that comes from being “illegal” in your own home.

Now a citizen thanks to legislation in the 1980s, Maria resides in a New York City suburb with all her “two’s”: her two children, two dogs and two cats. She speaks on the subject of immigration and its effect on individuals, especially children. When not writing or speaking, you can find her babying her iris garden and reading post apocalyptic fiction. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Secret Side of Empty, visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out,,,, and

4 comments on “Book Review: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu

  1. Pingback: SLJ’s Shelley Diaz Predicts the 2015 Pura Belpré Medal Contenders | Latin@s in Kid Lit

  2. I am taking an Exploring Socio-cultural Perspectives education class to be a future educator, and reading the review on this book has brought to my attention the kinds of situations my prospective students might be facing. There is a high Latino population here in Atlanta, Georgia and occasionally there are rumors or word of ICE agents roaming the area and quite frankly, it never occurred to me that students in the public school system could also be avoiding deportation if caught. I, myself, am Hispanic but never had to deal with the very real fear of being illegal in my own home. I plan to teach high school and it also seems as though this book touches upon issues not only specific to illegal immigrants, but multiple teenagers of all races and backgrounds. Issues such as abuse, both physical and emotional, and suicide. This book I would imagine also showcases the very real stress of choosing a career path and college path, or lack thereof for some students, and how anxiety stricken teens can be and struggle with identity. I would very much like to read this book for myself and potentially gain a greater insight of how I could empathize with a student that might not know what his or her next move is. What I liked about the main character of this book is the fact that she did not look like the typical illegal alien that automatically comes to mind when the word immigrant is brought to attention here in America. The girl was pale skinned, blonde hair, and blue eyed. She does not fit the typical image that most of us would assume to look out for in a general sense, meaning as teachers, it’s important to be vigilant and know that not all illegal immigrants look the same. So thank you, Marie E. Andreu for further bringing that fact to light. I hope to be a beacon of hope for my future students and students that may be experiencing these same dilemmas for fear of being left behind.

    • Marissa, I’m not sure how I got a notification of your comment, but I’m grateful I did. I am gratified to know that there are thoughtful, committed people like you out there, and that you had kind things to say about my book. Back when I wrote it, I thought it was just a matter of time before things got better for immigrants. Unfortunately, they’ve gotten worse. The fact that there are young people like you, ready to help and be beacons of hope, is a welcome reminder that there is far more good in the world than not and that the arc of the moral universe does, indeed, bend toward justice.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. Good luck with your career. I have a sense you are going to help a lot of people.

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