Reviewed by Marianne Snow Campbell
FROM ANGELA CERVANTES’S WEBSITE: Allie Velasco wants to be a trailblazer. A trendsetter. A winner. No better feeling exists in the world than stepping to the top of a winner’s podium and hoisting a trophy high in the air. At least, that’s what Allie thinks…. she’s never actually won anything before. Everyone in her family is special in some way—her younger sister is a rising TV star; her brother is a soccer prodigy; her great-grandfather is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. With a family like this, Allie knows she has to make her mark or risk being left behind. She’s determined to add a shiny medal, blue ribbon, or beautiful trophy to her family’s award shelf. When a prestigious school contest is announced, Allie has the perfect opportunity to take first —at last. There’s just one small snag… her biggest competition is also her ex–best friend, Sara. Can Allie take top prize and win back a friend — or is she destined to lose it all?
MY TWO CENTS: Fifth grade can be a tough year – it certainly was for me. As kids approach and enter adolescence, many begin to grapple with who they are and who they want to be. Meanwhile, they may fall out with longtime friends who are going through the same transitions. While experiencing these growing pains and periods of uncertainty, kids can find comfort in books. Reading about characters who are undergoing the same journeys and struggles can help young readers see that they’re not alone – it’s normal to feel out of place and unsure of oneself.
Allie Velasco is a fifth-grader trying her best to discover her identity and make her mark on the world around her. For Allie, that means being the best at something – not that she’s sure what that something is. While her siblings excel at acting, soccer, and community service, her mother has been voted Best News Anchor of the Year, and her great-grandfather is a war hero, Allie is keenly seeking out her niche and putting a lot of pressure on herself to “succeed.”
Frankly, I wish Allie, First at Last had existed when I was in fifth grade. Although it’s been a couple of decades since I experienced my own tween tribulations, it was almost therapeutic to revisit that stage of my life through Allie. And I’m certain there are plenty of young readers out there today who will relate to her as well. This book is sure to appeal to kids who are “finding themselves,” having friend problems, or feeling eclipsed by siblings.
But don’t go thinking that this book is all sadness and doubt! Angela Cervantes fills the pages with humor that’s sharp with hints of snark and sarcasm, but never mean. For example, Allie and her best friend write a song about her cat called “It’s Not Easy Being Fluffy.” I approve. Also, although Allie faces challenges and insecurities, she still demonstrates strength and self confidence by assertively confronting rude kids in her class, nurturing a loving relationship with her sister and bisabuelo, and demonstrating a deep, natural appreciation for her Mexican-American roots. A great role model indeed.
TEACHING TIPS AND RESOURCES: Allie, First at Last would be a perfect choice for a middle-grade classroom book club. Teachers can provide students with a list of books (including this one), and students can then choose which book they’d like to read, form small groups with classmates who chose the same book, enjoy, and discuss. With its highly relevant themes and humor, Allie is certain to be a hit, and kids can make it their own as they connect it to their lives and respond collaboratively. Educators should be sure to stock this volume in their classroom libraries and media centers for self-selected reading time. There’s nothing like a fun, engrossing book for motivating kids to read!
Also, be sure to check out Angela Cervantes’s teacher resources, available on her website. She’s created printer-friendly activity sheets with writing prompts for both Allie, First at Last and her previous novel, Gaby, Lost and Found. The prompts present great ideas for journaling, in-class discussions, and even research projects. Enjoy!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela was born and raised in Kansas. Most of her childhood was spent in Topeka, Kansas living in the Mexican-American community of Oakland. Her family also spent a lot of time in El Dorado and Wichita visiting a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins on weekends.
Angela graduated from the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) with a degree in English. After KU, she moved to Brownsville, Texas. In Brownsville, Angela was introduced to the music of Selena, ceviche, and learned to two-step. After Brownsville, Angela moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, where for two years she taught High School English and literature. In 2003, Angela returned to Kansas City, completed an MBA, co-founded Las Poetas, an all-female poetry group, and began working at an international children’s organization.
In 2005, Angela’s short story, “Pork Chop Sandwiches” was published in Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul. In 2007, she won third place for Creative Nonfiction in the Missouri Review’s audio competition for her story “House of Women” and Kansas City Voices’ Best of Prose Award (Whispering Prairie Press) for her short story, “Ten Hail Marys”. In 2008, she was recognized as one of Kansas City’s Emerging Writers by the Kansas City Star Magazine. In 2014, she was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.Com.
Angela’s first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found [Scholastic Press; 2013], won Best Youth Chapter Fiction Book in the International Latino Book Awards. Angela’s second middle-grade novel, Allie, First At Last, will be released Spring 2016. See FAQs about the author.
WE ARE GIVING AWAY A HARDCOVER OF ALLIE, FIRST AT LAST BY ANGELA CERVANTES, WHICH OFFICIALLY RELEASES 3/29/16.
Marianne Snow Campbell is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, where she researches nonfiction children’s books about Latin@ and Latin American topics and teaches an undergraduate course on children’s literature. Before graduate school, she taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Texas, her home state. She misses teaching, loves critters, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.