Book Review: The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

 

On Thursday, we posted a Q&A with debut author Rebecca Balcárcel. Today, Mimi Rankin reviews her novel, The Other Half of Happy.

Review by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

MY TWO CENTS: I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of The Other Half of Happy at TLA from Michaela at Chronicle Books (Thank you!). Although a normal Middle Grade length, I breezed through Quijana’s story without noticing time pass. Quijana is delightfully normal in the best way possible, and yet she still feels wholly developed, along with the other characters throughout the book. By the time I reached the end, I knew these characters as fully realized, multidimensional people in my own life.

My bias as an adult reader of children’s lit is that although I can remember being twelve, I am not reading this as a twelve year old, so I am truly not reading in the perspective of a child. Likewise, I am not a mother, so while I can empathize with Quijana’s mom, I also cannot read accurately through a shared lens of a parent. Still, even with this disclaimer, Balcárcel’s writing allowed me to have both pairs of eyes; to step back into that horribly awkward preteen skin and empathize with the adult woman whose world is crashing around her as she’s spinning ten plates at once.

Quijana’s story is a beautiful yet fairly simple story of a twelve-year-old girl. She has crushes, she is figuring out her passions, and she struggles with certain school subjects. But there are so many layers to Quijana’s story that many middle schoolers may resonate with; layers that they may think no one else could possibly understand. From having a sibling with sensory sensitivities and developmental delays, to losing a loved one for the first time, to one of the most poignant parts of the story for this reviewer, understanding what it means to be a third culture kid, Balcárcel combines the personal with the universal into a story that is likely to be felt deeply by preteens far beyond the Latinx community. Quijana loves her father but feels a barrier of culture in her own home; the culture she is growing up in is not that of her father’s upbringing. Finding her own balance of defining her identity on her own terms is something she will have to decipher on her own, and I find that to be a compelling and inspiring piece of this book.

Another favorite moment was Quijana’s solidarity with other Latinx kids at the bus stop; Quijana’s perspective guesses that they are Mexican. She tries to strike up a conversation with the little Spanish she knows only to be ridiculed by another student at the bus stop who is assumed to be non-Latinx. This moment bonds together the Latinx students at the bus stop, Quijana included, although it’s made clear that they are not all Guatemalan as Quijana is. This brings up a fascinating idea of unity among Latinx communities in the US; there is some bond beyond differing cultures based solely in language and the experience of the immigrant, of coming from somewhere else.

“That’s what it’s really like being twelve. Everything rolling toward you.” -Page 1

Balcárcel effortlessly brings huge conversations about cultural identity and disabled children to a very real and very simple discussion: life as a twelve-year-old girl. When you’re twelve, everything seems monumental, even if it may not seem that way in nostalgic hindsight. Thanks to Rebecca Balcárcel and Chronicle Books for a wonderful read that brought me back to middle school!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

 

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

 

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 11: Rebecca Balcárcel

 

We are back from our summer break with lots of great, new interviews, book reviews, and events planned. We start today with a Q&A with middle grade author Rebecca Balcárcel, who is celebrating the recent release of her debut novel The Other Half of Happy.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 11th in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Rebecca Balcárcel.

Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

The Other Half of Happy is her debut middle grade novel.

It was released August 20, 2019!

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

 

 

Rebecca Balcárcel

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. Storytellers, books, and teachers! My father is an entertaining storyteller, and I absorbed much from his natural sense of drama and comedic timing. He’ll also suddenly quote a poem with misty eyes and point out the beauty of Spanish sounds. All of this gave me a heightened awareness of language’s power. Books served as my dearest friends throughout childhood. From the magic of picture books before bedtime to full novels, I loved being transported to fictional worlds. I always dreamed of creating that experience for others. I still read to apprentice myself to great authors and learn their craft. And a shout out to my third grade teacher, Miss Valentine, who read Where the Red Fern Grows aloud to us chapter by chapter after lunch. I cried in school, but it was worth it! Later teachers encouraged me to write, and their confidence in me helped me take my writing seriously.

Q: Why did you decide to write a middle grade novel?

A: Can you believe that when I started writing, I didn’t know that this book was middle grade, nor that it was a novel?! Trained as a poet, I started writing prose poems in the voice of a bi-cultural twelve-year-old. She had a lot to say, and in one summer, I created about 40 little scenes. I wasn’t sure, though, if this was an adult looking back or a true MG project. It was my agent who said, “I think this would sing as a middle-grade novel.” I decided to go for it! It took two years of revision and rewriting to turn my stack of poems into a novel. It turns out, I love writing middle grade. That age is a time of deepening self-knowledge and broadening world-knowledge, the pivot point between child and adult. So much of who we are emerges in those years. It’s a psychologically rich moment to write about.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. So many! The classics, like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia, still make me cry. But I’m thrilled to be reading many new novels of worth. This year, I’ve especially enjoyed Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn, which has a child with autism like my book does, and the just-released For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama Lockington, whose main character straddles two cultures, as mine does. I’ve sought out Latina writers, and have found an amazing community. Las Musas Books (https://www.lasmusasbooks.com/) is an entire collective of new YA and MG novelists! I’ve also loved Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes and Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres. And let’s not leave out this year’s Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Great books!

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Don’t be embarrassed by what moves you! If a song or an idea touches your heart or blows your mind (in a good way), keep exploring in that direction. That’s the direction in which you will find kindred spirits, true friends, and your own growth. Ignore the people that pooh-pooh your music, your style, or whatever you geek out on. Fly that freak flag and own your joy!

Q. Finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

A.  . . . they inspire us to be our best selves!

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies by Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera

 

Review by Mimi Rankin

9781620147948

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Mo Romero is a zombie who loves nothing more than growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. Tomatoes? Tantalizing. Peppers? Pure perfection! The problem? Mo’s parents insist that their niño eat only zombie cuisine, like arm-panadas and finger foods. They tell Mo over and over that zombies don’t eat veggies. But Mo can’t imagine a lifetime of just eating zombie food and giving up his veggies. As he questions his own zombie identity, Mo tries his best to convince his parents to give peas a chance.

Super duo Megan and Jorge Lacera make their picture-book debut with this sweet story about family, self-discovery, and the power of acceptance. It’s a delectable tale that zombie and nonzombie fans alike will devour.

MY TWO CENTS: This is a fun, silly, and wonderful book about familial acceptance as well as self-acceptance.

Mo Romero is a zombie who comes from a big, wonderful, brain-eating, human-scaring zombie family. His doting parents hope that he will follow in their slow-dragging footsteps by loving comidas de los zombis, like arm-panadas and arroz con spleens. However, Mo has a deep secret scarier than anything on The Walking Dead—he LOVES vegetables!

This book brings up a great conversation about “default” race and ethnicity in literature. Zombies are not monolithic and depending on which canon of origin you adhere to, let’s assume that Zombies are dead humans who have come back to life to eat your brains. Wouldn’t that imply that Latinx zombies exist? Even within fantasy and horror, is society defaulting to white? According to the illustrations in the Laceras’ work, these Latinx zombies are not bound by any particular race as they all have various hues of green skin.

With subtle touches of Spanish (in italics) in this version published in English, the true crux of this story is acceptance within families. Mo desperately wants for his parents to accept that he loves vegetables. He begs and begs to eat veggies, but his parents echo the refrain, “Zombies DON’T eat veggies!” The text goes on to read, “His parents wanted him to accept who he was—a zombie.” As this declaration sets in, Mo struggles to understand his own identity in the light of his parents’ expectations as the text reads, “Mo started to wonder if maybe he wasn’t a zombie after all.” This constant restriction on identity and all the assumptions and implications that go with it contribute to a really great conversation on our own expectations of identity. What is inherent to being “Latinx?” There is a massive range of qualities about ourselves that may make us feel like outsiders in our own families, Latinx or otherwise. In such a beautifully diverse claim of ethnicity, why should there be one definition of Latinx?

In the end, Mo decides to stick up for himself and remind his parents that he is still a zombie and still their niño. This fun and gorgeous story on the importance of family is sure to open up conversations about children’s individual identities.

Check out the book trailer below!

 

Image result for megan laceraABOUT THE AUTHORS & ILLUSTRATORMegan Lacera grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, with a book always in her hands. She became a writer and creator of characters and worlds for entertainment companies, and later formed her own creative company with husband Jorge Lacera. After reading many stories to their son, Megan realized that very few books reflected a family like theirs–multicultural, bilingual, funny, and imperfect. She decided to change that by writing her own stories for publishing, animation, and film. You can learn more about Megan and Studio Lacera at studiolacera.com.

Jorge Lacera was born in Colombia, and grew up in Miami, Florida, drawing in sketchbooks, on napkins, on walls, and anywhere his parents would let him. After graduating with honors from Ringling College of Art and Design, Jorge worked as a visual development and concept artist. As a big fan of pop culture, comics, and zombie movies, Jorge rarely saw Latino kids as the heroes or leads. He is committed to changing that, especially now that he has a son. The family lives in Cypress, Texas. You can find him online at studiolacera.com.

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager for over 20 international children’s publishers. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer or clients. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Book Review: Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno

 

Reviewed by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Rosa Santos is cursed by the sea—at least, that’s what they say. Dating her is bad news, especially if you’re a boy with a boat.

But Rosa feels more caught than cursed. Caught between cultures and choices. Between her abuela, a beloved healer and pillar of their community, and her mother, an artist who crashes in and out of her life like a hurricane. Between Port Coral, the quirky South Florida town they call home, and Cuba, the island her abuela refuses to talk about.

As her college decision looms, Rosa collides—literally—with Alex Aquino, the mysterious boy with tattoos of the ocean whose family owns the marina. With her heart, her family, and her future on the line, can Rosa break a curse and find her place beyond the horizon?

Don’t Date Rosa Santos releases Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

MY TWO CENTS: I had seen this book circulating the Latinx KidLit Twittersphere (Thanks Las Musas! @lasmusasbooks) and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it at ALA Midwinter (Thanks Dina at Disney!). I had an inkling I would like this seemingly sweet YA romance with a Latinx heroine, but the weight this story carries is far greater than a springtime young love. Rosa is a fierce, brilliant, Type A goal chaser, and I am completely here for her. She is unapologetic in figuring out not just what she wants, but is realistic in how to get there. As a former college admissions counselor, I was very proud of Rosa for dually enrolling in a community college and looking into Study Abroad programs while still in high school. So, yes, Rosa is an awesome lead. I laughed out loud at Moreno’s far-too-relatable scenes of awkward first dates and embarrassing parents. If you want an impeccably written YA novel that reads much older and more “real,” this is the perfect spring break read.

Still, Don’t Date Rosa Santos is just the first story in a new narrative for young Cuban-Americans. With the embargo lifted in the last few years, young people of Cuban descent are finally able to see where they come from, where their own narrative began. I myself am of Puerto Rican descent, so while our islands are not super far from each other, our stories are worlds apart. Since all of my relatives are American citizens, they have never had a problem popping back and forth between San Juan and Texas, Louisiana, or Florida. For Cubans, they had to make a decision so much bigger than just “moving”; it was fleeing, knowing that returning was not an option. Now, young Cuban-Americans have the option to visit the island of their people, but it is not without the weighted guilt of knowing the fear of their ancestors. Moreno beautifully illustrates this feeling of being torn that I’m sure many young Cuban-Americans feel: the desire to visit Cuba while battling abuelos y abuelas who still remember the horrors they escaped. This new reality is sure to bring up hard conversations within families—can you be Cuban without taking the chance to experience Cuba? To those who faced exile, is the Cuba they remember the Cuba of today?

Sometimes characters were introduced in a way that felt abrupt and confusing, but the confusion was usually alleviated quickly. Parts of the last few chapters felt slightly rushed in the plot, but Moreno tied up the story in a very lovely manner that was not at all cliché. I am so excited to watch how this story contributes to a very specific Latinx Children’s Literature conversation.

 

ninamorenophotoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nina Moreno is a YA writer whose prose is somewhere between Southern fiction and a telenovela. She graduated from the University of Florida with a B.A. in English Don’t Date Rosa Santos is her first novel.

 

 

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager for over 20 international children’s publishers. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer or clients. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Book Review: The Last 8 by Laura Pohl

 

Reviewed by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOKClover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth as she knows it. When Clover hears an inexplicable radio message, she’s shocked to learn there are other survivors—and that they’re all at the former Area 51. When she arrives, she’s greeted by a band of misfits who call themselves The Last Teenagers on Earth. Only they aren’t the ragtag group of heroes Clover was expecting. The group seems more interested in hiding than fighting back, and Clover starts to wonder if she was better off alone. But then she finds a hidden spaceship, and she doesn’t know what to believe…or who to trust.

MY TWO CENTS: The Last 8 is a solid science fiction read. For those who are passionate about sci-fi, the book presents a really enticing plot that keeps the reader on the edge of their seats. Readers are taken on a journey with Clover and forced to contend with the mysterious beings that have taken over the planet and decimated all forms of life (with the exception of a tiny population of which Clover is a member). Clover can find no way of killing them, and is completely clueless as to why they do not seem to notice her, even though they’ve obliterated every other living thing around her.

Her arrival at Area 51, six months after the initial contact with these otherworldly beings, introduces her to a seemingly random group of other teens who, like her, pass unnoticed by these violent beings. This group of teens, as it turns out, may not be as random as the reader thinks (but I won’t give any spoilers!). The plot is a pretty solid suspense ride, with thrills heightening as these teens try to figure out a way to overcome these new alien overlords.

The best thing about this book is Clover. Clover is a complicated and well-formed character.

She highlights a number of really interesting qualities that are not often explored in YA (or any) literature. First, though it’s never delved deeply into, she seems to be a character who is not immediately looking for romance or any sort of sexual relationship (i.e. Clover is aromantic/asexual – it’s never blatantly stated, but heavily implied). The reader comes to understand her complicated relationship with her ex-boyfriend, as one that Clover was appreciative of because she is able to appreciate people in her life without it needing to be about romance or sex.

Additionally, throughout her journey to Area 51, Clover goes through periods of serious helplessness and severe depression to the point that she realistically contemplates suicide. I find it refreshing that Pohl is up-front about Clover’s feelings as she travels through the country for the six months between the initial alien contact and her arrival at Area 51.

Another great thing about this book is that it involves a large and diverse cast. The readers see young people who come from all areas of this country, and even from abroad. There is a great variety of ethnicities and sexual identities. I appreciate that this is becoming more common in YA literature, but an example like this one, where the characters are intersectionally diverse (ethnically and sexually diverse at the same time) is particularly admirable.

While an overall good start to this series, there are a couple of weaker points. First, though it’s made clear that Clover has been flying planes for a large part of her life and that she is genetically designed to be better at this than any other living being on Earth, it was still hard to wrap my head around the idea that she’s not only adept at flying very high-level military grade aircrafts, but that she’s so adept she can fly several different ones with no training whatsoever. Now, I completely understand that this can be explained by the idea that she’s not entirely human and therefore has superhuman capabilities, but it was still a stretch for me.

Lastly, the ending was not only confusing, but it seemed very rushed and slapped together. This is particularly unfortunate because Pohl spends a good amount of time really building up the middle portion of the book. It would have been worthwhile to focus on continuing that trend through the rest of the novel.

Overall, though, this was a great read, and I’m excited to see what happens in the second book of this duology!

TEACHING TIPS: The Last 8 was a thoroughly entertaining read, and any lover of sci-fi or adventure novels would find it a fast and fun read.

This book’s greatest teaching points come from the conversations about relationships and mental health that the book encourages. I love that many YA writers make it a point to destigmatize the diversity of these two things and challenge the ways readers might think about these topics. Honestly, if you think about the situation that Clover finds herself in, it is plain that anyone would be overcome with a sense of hopelessness and loss. Pohl’s description of Clover’s thought processes is legitimate and accurate and can be a great way to begin having conversations about what loneliness and depression are and how both can affect our mental health.

The book also brings to light relationships and individuals that are healthy and diverse. Clover’s relationships with her grandparents, her ex-boyfriend, and her newfound group of friends illustrate how vastly different relationships can look. Additionally, Clover’s character is one that is in charge of the interactions that she wants to have with people. She’s open and honest about how she feels, romantically or friendship-wise, and that is absolutely something that should be explored more in conversations with youth and adults.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Author’s Website): Laura Pohl is a YA writer and the author of THE LAST 8 (Sourcebooks, 2019). She likes writing messages in caps lock, quoting Hamilton and obsessing about Star Wars. When not taking pictures of her dog, she can be found curled up with a fantasy or science-fiction book. A Brazilian at heart and soul, she makes her home in São Paulo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children. Both paths promise a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.

And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.

Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

MY TWO CENTS: Would it be hyperbolic to say that I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this? Reading We Set the Dark on Fire made me feel fifteen again, devouring every immersive fantasy book with a twist of romance that I could get my hands on. But where those books fell short in both diversity and female empowerment, We Set the Dark on Fire excels and exceeds.

Opening with a brief folkloric backstory, Tehlor Kay Mejia’s shining debut novel submerges its reader in the hierarchical world of Medio and its fraught borders. Medio’s tension with its border towns and what lies beyond its literal border wall finds roots in the mythology established at the beginning of the text: The disintegrating relationship between brother gods, both desirous of the same wife. Ultimately, the Sun God won the right to have a relationship with both an earthly queen, Constancia, and the Moon Goddess—his Primera and Segunda wives—over his brother, the Salt God. Scorned and cursed, the Salt God was banished. Mimicking this folktale, Medio’s contemporary social system is built around the upper classes having a Primera wife, who runs the household, and Segunda, for beauty and harmony. While the upper echelons superficially thrive on this model, the border and beyond—territory of the Salt God—suffers and is subjected to increasing violence.

Mejia’s worldbuilding in the first few pages of this novel are brilliant, thorough, and engaging in a way that doesn’t feel beleaguered. Though Medio’s world may seem leagues away, its tumultuous border disputes feel so grounded in our contemporary moment that readers will instantly latch onto this novel. The orders that those who would risk traversing Medio’s border wall be shot on sight seem jarring when reading the novel, but then I turn on my TV or open social media and I’m reminded, once again, of the exigency of a novel like this.

Additionally, Mejia’s masterfully and lovingly created world plays perfect backdrop to the complex relationship between new Primera wife, Dani, and Segunda wife, Carmen. Dani, an undocumented immigrant from beyond the wall, smuggled across when she was a child, has managed to stay under the radar, even through her new marriage to the most eligible and most politically well-positioned bachelor in Medio. But her passing comes at a cost: being indebted to the rebel group La Voz. As Dani performs increasingly risky tasks for La Voz, she becomes further entangled with their mission. Complicating matters is her at-first catty relationship with Carmen, but as Dani and Carmen grow more intimate, Dani’s investment in the revolution becomes all the more precarious.

We Set the Dark on Fire sets the stage for what (I hope, please Tehlor Kay Mejia, please, tell me there will be more) promises to be a robust and revolutionary universe. Carmen and Dani’s relationship, alone, is a revolutionary prospect. We are getting more and more queer Latinx books for young readers, but to see this kind of representation in a fantasy novel is just lovely and wonderful (even if the plot of the book is dark and gritty). Like I said, this is the kind of novel I would have loved as a teenager. It doesn’t overemphasize its love story, but it makes Dani’s unfolding attraction to Carmen feel organic, naturally growing from their situation and Dani’s own burgeoning self-awareness. What’s more, the attention to Dani’s growth and empowerment will resonate with young readers, seeking similar empowerment from the texts they read. Finally, Mejia’s choice to make this a Latinx story is calculated and necessary. The names, foods, and contours of Medio’s spaces bespeak Latinx culture, but Mejia is careful to not overemphasize and caricaturize. This world feels real because it’s grounded in something real. Mejia’s given us a gift in this lush, rebellious, queer, Latinx story.

All-in-all, We Set the Dark on Fire’s otherworldliness, its devotion to strong and multifaceted female Latinx characters, and its queer romance subplot make it impressive, and Mejia’s immersive prose make it lasting. To be fair, it may be a little difficult to get into because it does move slowly, building tension at the same time as the reader digs deeper into Medio’s innerworkings; even so, it’s worth the wait. For fans of Anna Marie McLemore’s books, We Set Fire to the Dark is a must-read. We’ll be talking about this book for years.

 

Tehlor Kay MejiaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tehlor Kay Mejia is an author and Oregon native in love with the alpine meadows and evergreen forests of her home state, where she lives with her daughter. We Set the Dark on Fire is her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.