Book Review: Barely Missing Everything by Matt Mendez

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Simon & Schuster): Juan has plans. He’s going to get out of El Paso, Texas, on a basketball scholarship and make something of himself—or at least find something better than his mom Fabi’s cruddy apartment, her string of loser boyfriends, and a dead dad. Basketball is going to be his ticket out, his ticket up. He just needs to make it happen.

His best friend JD has plans, too. He’s going to be a filmmaker one day, like Quinten Tarantino or Guillermo del Toro (NOT Steven Spielberg). He’s got a camera and he’s got passion—what else could he need?

Fabi doesn’t have a plan anymore. When you get pregnant at sixteen and have been stuck bartending to make ends meet for the past seventeen years, you realize plans don’t always pan out, and that there some things you just can’t plan for…

Like Juan’s run-in with the police, like a sprained ankle, and a tanking math grade that will likely ruin his chance at a scholarship. Like JD causing the implosion of his family. Like letters from a man named Mando on death row. Like finding out this man could be the father your mother said was dead.

Soon Juan and JD are embarking on a Thelma and Louise­–like road trip to visit Mando. Juan will finally meet his dad, JD has a perfect subject for his documentary, and Fabi is desperate to stop them. But, as we already know, there are some things you just can’t plan for…

MY TWO CENTS: This book felt so real to me for a number of different reasons. First, as a native El Pasoan, it’s hard to not immediately feel pulled to any novel which takes place there. Though likely not recognizable by the average reader, Mendez does an incredible job of capturing the city’s personality, and displays the city’s many characteristics through descriptions of the neighborhoods and characters.

I appreciated that Mendez wrote with such authenticity. He explains that the experiences in the book are similar to those that he went through as a youth in El Paso, which makes the authenticity reasonable, but it’s more than that. Mendez writes Juan’s and JD’s characters in an incredibly life-like manner. They have genuine teen personas and voices. They make realistic teen decisions: they’re emotional, impulsive, and reactionary, but the reader can also see the calculated thought processes that happen in their heads. The characters develop in nuanced and genuine ways, becoming deeper, more advanced versions of themselves as the plot advances and they confront new situations.

Like many youth who grow up in the city, Juan wants to leave as soon as possible to achieve lofty goals elsewhere; whether his goals are in any way realistic or attainable is a conversation that adults often have with teens (again, authenticity!). JD is coming from a household in the midst of tumult, and, as expected, his easygoing persona is his crutch. He tries to be the best person that he can be, even in the midst of cynicism and negativity from his family. But even though both JD and Juan struggle to keep their heads straight while their family lives become chaotic and challenging, their ability to pursue their dreams despite the chaos is so genuine and, to me, exemplifies exactly what teens everywhere struggle to do every day.

The icing on the cake of this book was Fabi’s character. It was so refreshing for a YA novel to portray an adult who was trying as best they could to help their family succeed, but who was very much struggling in the process. Fabi’s character was, to me, very unlikable initially. I assumed she was going to be the sort of parent who had checked out of their teenage child’s life and never looked back. As the book continues, though, the reader can see her hidden depths, much in the same way that we see Juan’s and JD’s multiple layers shine through as we get to know them. Mendez does a phenomenal job of creating characters that are complex, intricate, and very well-developed.

The plot of this book, particularly the ending, is a fast-paced, interesting, and very realistic portrayal of the lives and experiences of a couple of families living in an area of the country that is currently a political, social, and humanitarian hotbed.

TEACHING TIPS: The point of view: Mendez’s use of three narrators makes the storyline feel varied and interesting throughout the book. This novel offers a great opportunity to speak about how using these varied points of view make the story feel fuller and more complete, as well as helping to give further perspective about the characters themselves.

Representation: The book also offers an opportunity to speak on a number of issues involving representation. First, these characters come from low socioeconomic communities, and their experiences are contrasted a number of times with those of people in higher socioeconomic groups. Readers can see how belonging to the group that Juan, JD, and Fabi do often have to navigate around the world, how their class can affect the decisions that they make, and how they interact with people in other classes.

image20ABOUT THE AUTHOR (From Simon & Schuster): Like his characters, Matt Mendez grew up in central El Paso, Texas. He received an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of the short story collection Twitching Heart. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tucson, Arizona. Barely Missing Everything is his debut young adult novel. You can visit him at MattMendez.com.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the manager of the New York Public Library’s College and Career Pathways program. 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. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Review: Color Me In by Natasha Díaz

 

Review by Maria Ramos-Chertok

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, sixteen-year-old Nevaeh Levitz never thought much about her biracial roots. When her Black mom and Jewish dad split up, she relocates to her mom’s family home in Harlem and is forced to confront her identity for the first time.

Nevaeh wants to get to know her extended family, but because she inadvertently passes as white, her cousin thinks she’s too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices African Americans face on a daily basis. In the meantime, Nevaeh’s dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen, which guarantees social humiliation at her posh private school. But rather than take a stand, Nevaeh does what she’s always done when life gets complicated: she stays silent.

Only when Nevaeh stumbles upon a secret from her mom’s past, finds herself falling in love, and sees firsthand the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has her own voice. And choices. Will she continue to let circumstances dictate her path? Or will she decide once for all who and where she is meant to be?

MY TWO CENTS: In Color Me In, Nevaeh Levitz shares her adolescent journey as a bi-racial girl trying to find herself in the races and cultures that make up her ancestry.  Daughter of a Jewish father and a Black mother, Nevaeh is caught between two worlds when her parents get divorced. I was very excited to read this book because I identified with many of the themes:  parents getting divorced, Jewish heritage, multicultural family, and trying to find myself in the two distinct cultures that make up my background. What I was reminded by reading this book is that despite the many levels on which I could relate to the themes, every journey is unique. This is particularly the case when dealing with the reality of what it means to have black skin in a country founded on racism and white supremacy.

The book exposes how skin color plays out not only in Nevaeh’s family, but when she’s out in her community trying to live life. It also exposes the implications of how the class divide operates to create different realities in education and access to material goods.

The book does a wonderful job of grappling with the challenges and gifts of a dual identity (and in some instances dueling identities). Nevaeh is looking to find herself in places that don’t have a blueprint for her existence. I wish this book had been available for me forty years ago.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the letter from the author at the end where she talks about what this book means to her and why she wrote it. That is where the entire book came together for me at a deeper level.

TEACHING TIPS: While the primary audience for this book is adolescents, I think anyone of any age with a bi-racial identity could relate to the themes.

Nevaeh’s grandmother is portrayed as overbearing, controlling, and unloving, so if this is a class’s first introduction or discussion of Jewish people, it might leave a negative impression, especially given that the Jewish father is a philanderer and not a very sympathetic character either. Nevaeh is able to find a foothold in Judaism despite them, but not because of their full support or acceptance. I’d encourage teachers to provide a larger context for understanding Jewish people.

The theme of bullying and racist language used against Nevaeh by her classmate and former friend Ally allows for an opportunity to discuss how words hurt and can be used as weapons. This could lead to an interesting discussion about hate speech, how the Supreme Court defines and classifies hate speech, and how the legal standard doesn’t necessarily help someone being bullied at school. Identifying strategies to respond to bullies and bystander intervention role plays could be fruitful.

There is an opportunity to discuss the role of ritual in developing and maintaining cultural identity. Students could be asked to examine the rituals in their life and how they offer (or don’t offer) them a way to deepen their understanding of who they are.

Given Nevaeh’s friendship with Stevie, I could imagine a meaningful discussion about what it means to be a good friend, how friendship makes a difference in one’s life, and what Nevaeh learned about friendship over the course of the story.

The topic of police brutality and misuse of power also stands out in two scenes where racial profiling occurs. Both of these situations help open Nevaeh’s eyes to the reality of racism and could lead to a discussion of how folks walk in the world with or without white skin privilege.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Natasha Díaz is a born and raised New Yorker, currently residing in Brooklyn, NY with her tall husband. She spends most of her days writing with no pants on and alternating between E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy binges. Natasha is both an author and screenwriter. Her scripts have placed as a quarterfinalist in the Austin Film Festival and a finalist for both the NALIP Diverse Women in Media Fellowship and the Sundance Episodic Story Lab. Her essays can be found in The Establishment and Huffington Post. Her first novel, Color Me In, was published by Delacorte Press/Random House August, 20 2019.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey.  In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost.  Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.   Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018) http://nothingbutthetruth.com/all-the-women-in-my-family-sing/. She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.organd a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas. For more information, visit her website at www.mariaramoschertok.com

 

Book Review: Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

 

Review by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?

MY TWO CENTS: As soon as I read about Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal (Tor Teen), I was determined to get my hands on a copy. YA horror-crime set in Puerto Rico? Everything about this called my name.

Lupe Dávila is a “Gringa Rican” spending her summer in Puerto Rico, leaving her alcoholic dad in Vermont to explore his homeland on her own for the first time. The niece of the police chief, Lupe finds herself attempting to solve a mysterious murder case when it seems like her missing cousin, Izzy, might be the next victim. One of Izzy’s oldest friends, Javier, is trying to make peace with himself and his sobriety, but when his old pals, Los Congregitos, keep being murdered in gruesome and inexpiable ways, all on their 18th birthdays, he fears as his own draws near. Can Javier and Lupe track down a vicious murderer before it’s too late?

First things first: I could not put this book down. I seriously considered taking a personal day from work to finish it (I tweeted this and both Cardinal and Tor Teen told me I was allowed to). The book combines mythology, crime, and a stark look at addiction, all set in the greater San Juan, Puerto Rico area. Each page sparked a new question in the best way possible. Is El Cuco real? What’s the deal with the ominous abuelita? I was pulled into the stories and backgrounds of the various characters and could not inhale the book quickly enough. The last few chapters felt slightly rushed, but there is so much action and detail packed into the climax, the racing could have just been from my own heartbeat.

One of Cardinal’s greatest strengths came through her characters. In particular, Marisol was one of the most fascinating and complex characters I’ve encountered in YA literature. She is bold and electric and passionate about her country and community. There is a sincere depth to her, and I would love nothing more than to see her succeed. Another character who I truly felt like I was getting to know as a human being was Javier. His struggle and battle with his addiction, his relationship with Padre Sebastian, and even his relationship with his family, all felt whole. The text even went as far to explain the socioeconomic misunderstanding of addiction; a favorite line is “My dad is a g—d—n lawyer.”

The world that Cardinal has created in San Juan was so tangible, painting both the stunning aspects of the city like the Spanish blue bricks of Old San Juan and the harsh realities of an island struggling to come back from a devastating hurricane and a corrupt government. Five Midnights invites readers to the captivating supernatural realm of an island just as mystifying with the resilience and heart of its people. I fully plan to champion Tor Teen to pick up a sequel—there is more havoc for El Cuco to cause and more stories to be told from Puerto Rico.

Photo by Carlos Cardinal - 2018ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ann Dávila Cardinal is a novelist and Director of Recruitment for Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). She has a B.A. in Latino Studies from Norwich University, an M.A. in sociology from UI&U and an MFA in Writing from VCFA. She also helped create VCFA’s winter Writing residency in Puerto Rico.

Ann’s first novel, Sister Chicas was released from New American Library in 2006. Her next novel, a horror YA work titled Five Midnights, was released by Tor Teen on June 4, 2019.

Her stories have appeared in several anthologies, including A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Sons (2005) and Women Writing the Weird (2012) and she contributed to the Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, And Society in the United States edited by Ilan Stavans. Her essays have appeared in American ScholarVermont WomanAARP, and Latina Magazines. Ann lives in Vermont, needle-felts tiny reading creatures, and cycles four seasons a year.

 

 

 

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. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 12: Tami Charles

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the twelfth 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 Tami Charles.

Former teacher. Wannabe chef. Tami Charles writes books for children and young adults. Her middle grade novel, Like Vanessa, earned Top 10 spots on the Indies Introduce and Spring Kids’ Next lists, three starred reviews, and a Junior Library Guild selection. Her recent titles include a humorous middle grade, Definitely Daphne, picture book, Freedom Soup, and YA novel, Becoming BeatrizWhen Tami isn’t writing, she can be found presenting at schools both stateside and abroad. (Or sneaking in a nap…because sleep is LIFE!)

Becoming Beatriz released September 17, 2019.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Beatriz dreams of a life spent dancing–until tragedy on the day of her quinceañera changes everything.

Up until her fifteenth birthday, the most important thing in the world to Beatriz Mendez was her dream of becoming a professional dancer and getting herself and her family far from the gang life that defined their days–that and meeting her dance idol Debbie Allen on the set of her favorite TV show, Fame. But after the latest battle in a constant turf war leaves her brother, Junito, dead and her mother grieving, Beatriz has a new set of priorities. How is she supposed to feel the rhythm when her brother’s gang needs running, when her mami can’t brush her own teeth, and when the last thing she can remember of her old self is dancing with her brother, followed by running and gunshots? When the class brainiac reminds Beatriz of her love of the dance floor, her banished dreams sneak back in. Now the only question is: will the gang let her go?

Set in New Jersey in 1984, Beatriz’s story is a timeless one of a teenager’s navigation of romance, her brother’s choices, and her own family’s difficult past. A companion novel to the much-lauded Like Vanessa.

Tami Charles

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

First and foremost, my mother played a huge role in my love of reading. She was a teacher (and eventual principal) at my elementary school, so I didn’t really have a choice, ha! She introduced me to many of my favorite authors: Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Lois Lowry, Beverly Cleary, etc…When I became a teacher, I experienced the joy of reading more diverse books that I wasn’t exposed to as much while growing up. This really reignited my passion to become an author.

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

I clearly remember this period of my life when I was trying to figure out who I am and who I wanted to be. It only seemed right to get those feelings on the page. My debut, Like Vanessa, was born out of similar personal experiences I went through as a 13-year-old.

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

For sure, the One Crazy Summer series by Rita Williams-Garcia. I also love Crossover by Kwame Alexander and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

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

Put your blinders on! Don’t worry about what other people are doing, how smart they are, how athletic they are, etc…Just follow your own path.

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

they provide real connections for readers that will stay with them for years to come.

Books by Tami Charles:

    image2  image5

 

 

 

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 Reviews: ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market by Raúl the Third and Babymoon by Hayley Barrett, illus by Juana Martinez-Neal

 

Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Richard Scarry’s Busytown gets a Mexican-American makeover in the marketplace of a buzzing border town from Pura Belpré Medal-winning illustrator Raúl the Third.

Bilingual in a new way, this paper over board book teaches readers simple words in Spanish as they experience the bustling life of a border town. Follow Little Lobo and his dog Bernabe as they deliver supplies to a variety of vendors, selling everything from sweets to sombreros, portraits to piñatas, carved masks to comic books!

MY TWO CENTS: Where to begin?! Raúl the Third’s illustrations are unique and like no other. If you’ve read Lowriders in Space then you know what I am referring to. His attention to detail, and similar to a graphic novel format, adds another dimension of following Little Lobo to the market in a town in Mexico.

I learned so much about the daily ins-and-outs of this community through the text, but most of all, its illustrations. The number of illustrations and words reflect a life of the hustle and bustle of the town, while also showing the love of la comunidad. Overall, it’s a fun and rich graphic picture book addition to add to your library. I highly recommend this book as a read-aloud at school and home, and an interactive text to use for students to learn about communities and the different pieces and people that make it thrive!

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a grades K-5 setting.

  • Use as a writing mentor text
    • for describing a small moment in time (a day at the market, shopping with family) or
    • writing about what makes their community a community
    • How the placement and use of illustrations enhance an author’s writing and storytelling
  • Focus on cultural artifacts and items that represent their own culture or are similar to their culture

 

RaulThirdABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Raúl the Third was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up going back and forth between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. He is the Pura Belpré Award-winning illustrator of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth. Raúl lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Elaine Bay, and son, Raúl the Fourth. Learn more about his work here!

 

 


Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: In a perfect gift for new and expectant parents (and siblings), a gentle story pays tribute to the wonder and emotion of a family’s first quiet days with a newborn.

The house is hushed. The lights are low.
We’re basking in a newborn glow.

Inside the cozy house, a baby has arrived! The world is eager to meet the newcomer, but there will be time enough for that later. Right now, the family is on its babymoon: cocooning, connecting, learning, and muddling through each new concern. While the term “babymoon” is often used to refer to a parents’ getaway before the birth of a child, it was originally coined by midwives to describe days like these: at home with a newborn, with the world held at bay and the wonder of a new family constellation unfolding. Paired with warm and winsome illustrations by Juana Martinez-Neal, Hayley Barrett’s lyrical ode to these tender first days will resonate with new families everywhere.

MY TWO CENTS: A touching story to share with all about the blessing of a baby. The story begins from the outside where a sign is hanging on the door, “See you soon”. The ambiguous message leaves readers to wonder if they are expecting someone soon, if the family is out of town, or if it is a message for visitors. A great moment to stop and give readers an option to infer from the title and the message on the door. The next page reveals a full spread of a family surrounding their new family member–a newborn. Words are weaved in and out of this new world that consists of long embraces, collaborative games, and peaceful smiles.

Juana Martinez-Neal does it again! The way she utilizes her strokes and warm palette adds a softness to all the images that leave readers with a peaceful feeling–the feeling of home. Many readers describe this feeling of a “warm hug” as we journey with this family’s new life, and boy they are not wrong! The family’s pet is also part of this new life, as the reader notices facial expressions and adds a comical and realistic experience for all animal lovers who welcome new babies (we all know that “look”!).

Overall, this is an amazing addition to your school and home library that represents the love that is multiplied in the family. I highly recommend this book as gifts for families expecting babies and a read-aloud for students who are expecting new siblings!

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a grades K-5 setting, with a focus on the primary grades.

  • Teaching descriptive vocabulary words and phrases
  • Lesson on phonemic awareness such as focusing on rhyming words
  • Focus on the illustrator’s purpose of using certain colors or placement of illustrations to convey meaning and book themes
  • Great addition to any family unit in a reading curriculum
  • Mentor text for writing about family life, changes, or life moments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hayley Barrett is the author of three upcoming picture books, Babymoon (Candlewick 2019), What Miss Mitchell Saw (S&S/Beach Lane, 2019), and Girl Vs. Squirrel  (Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House, 2020). She lives outside of Boston with her husband John. Their two terrific kids have flown the coop.

 

 

Photo of author-illustrator Juana Martinez-NealABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Juana Martinez-Neal is the recipient of the 2018 Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration for La Princesa and the Pea (Putnam/Penguin 2017). Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick 2018), her debut picture book as author-illustrator, was awarded the 2019 Caldecott Honor.

She was named to the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Honor list in 2014, and was awarded the SCBWI Portfolio Showcase Grand Prize in 2012. She was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband and three children.

 

 

img_0160ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is also a current doctoral student in NLU’s EDD Teaching and Learning Program with an emphasis on Reading, Language, and Literacy. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!

 

Book Review: Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When three very different girls find a mysterious invitation to a lavish mansion, the promise of adventure and mischief is too intriguing to pass up.

Ofelia Castillo (a budding journalist), Aster Douglas (a bookish foodie), and Cat Garcia (a rule-abiding birdwatcher) meet the kid behind the invite, Lane DiSanti, and it isn’t love at first sight. But they soon bond over a shared mission to get the Floras, their local Scouts, to ditch an outdated tradition. In their quest for justice, independence, and an unforgettable summer, the girls form their own troop and find something they didn’t know they needed: sisterhood.

MY TWO CENTS: The stakes of activism are not the same for all who engage. Skin color, gender presentation, age—all of these are contributing factors to who is most at-risk when being a visible activist. But, as Celia C. Pérez’s sophomore novel, Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers, rightly notes, “’[s]ometimes the desire for change is bigger than anything else’” (270). For Ofelia, Aster, Cat, and Lane—the desire to change the outdated traditions of the scout troop, the Floras, is bigger than the risks they encounter. Spurred by Cat’s passion for birds, the girls decide to campaign to change the Floras’s most cherished symbol: the feathered hat worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest. The hat, however, is a relic of a past that nearly caused the extinction of multiple bird species across the United States.

AudubonWhile the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 outlawed the practices that lead to the creation of hats like those worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest, it didn’t outlaw the hats that already existed. The hat’s persistence in the lore of the Floras is problematic, but the hat represents different things for each girl. For Cat, the hat is the Floras’s suspension in the past; for Lane, the hat is an opportunity to rebel and make friends; for Ofelia, the hat is a chance to broaden her journalistic horizons; and for Aster, the hat parallels her desires to learn more about her own family history. Each girl’s storyline weaves together into a mission for change, even if the desired outcome (getting rid of the hat) stands in for something divergent for each.

When I first started reading, I struggled a bit with remembering the distinction between each character, but I settled into the text quickly and was soon immersed in the community of Sabal Palms, Florida. On an aesthetic level, the text is upbeat, funny, and conversational. It makes the reader feel like they’re right beside Lane, Cat, Ofelia, and Aster as they plan their various (and often ill-fated) maneuvers against the Floras. The book also contains paratextual material corresponding to each character—like recipes from Aster or journalism tips from Ofelia. Like many recent books for young readers, Strange Birds is a good introduction to activism for young people who want to become more engaged in their worlds.

Further, in these unique, young characters, Pérez has created an ensemble cast that will resonate with a wide array of readers. Each girl is quite different—in fact, when Pérez revealed the cover of the novel on Nerdy Book Club, she included a personality quiz that lets readers see which girl they are most like (I’m an Ofelia, for the record, por supuesto).

Nevertheless, with a cast of characters like this, of young women from such different backgrounds, there is always tension. That Pérez doesn’t shy away from these moments is significant. Rather than sugarcoat their friendships and smooth over any dissonance, Pérez reveals the ways each girl wrestles with what could easily become asymmetrical relationships. Lane, the granddaughter of Sabal Palm’s most affluent family, has a distinct privilege among the other characters, not just because of her wealth but also because of her race. Often posed against Aster—the granddaughter of the first Black professor at Sabal Palms University and whose ancestors worked for Lane’s—Lane’s privileges are thrown into sharp contrast. When she must confront these privileges, all of the characters, including the Latinas Cat and Ofelia, take a look at their positionality within their community. In confronting how their social statuses are stratified by race and class, the girls grow closer because they acknowledge their differences. Resultantly, I view this as a strong text to introduce readers to the concept of intersectional feminism, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain that “because of [women of color’s] intersectional identity as both women and of color within discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, women of color are marginalized within both” (from “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” published in Stanford Law Review).

Ultimately, this is not a novel of single experiences. This is a novel that celebrates diversity. As with her debut middle-grade novel The First Rule of Punk, Pérez has invited readers to experience childhood as a time of transformation and self-actualization, a time of difference and discovery. Importantly, Strange Birds allows space for and encourages those discoveries to unfold, spread their wings, and take flight.

 

image.pngABOUT THE AUTHOR: Celia C. Pérez is the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father.  Her debut book for young readers, The First Rule of Punk, was a 2018 Pura Belpré Award Honor Book, a 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards honor book, a winner of the 2018 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, a Junior Library Guild selection, and was included in several best of the year lists including the Amelia Bloomer List, NPR’s Best Books of 2017, the Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books, the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids, School Library Journal’s Best of 2017, The Horn Book Magazine’s Fanfare, and ALSC’s Notable Children’s Books. Her second book for young readers, Strange Birds, will be published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers in September 2019.

She lives in Chicago with her family where, in addition to writing books about lovable weirdos and outsiders, she works as a librarian. She is originally from Miami, Florida, where roosters and peacocks really do wander the streets.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.