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.

 

 

 

Guest Post: Amber J. Keyser on Heritage and Healing

 

WayBackFromBrokenToday, we’re thrilled to have a guest post by Amber J. Keyser, author of The Way Back From Broken (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015). Amber’s debut novel earned a starred review from Booklist, which described it as “an exquisite and enthralling exploration of loss, love, and healing” and concluded that “this vivid, moving exploration of grief and recovery hits all the right notes.” Here’s the publisher’s description of The Way Back from Broken:

Rakmen Cannon’s life is turning out to be one sucker punch after another. His baby sister died in his arms, his parents are on the verge of divorce, and he’s flunking out of high school. The only place he fits in is with the other art therapy kids stuck in the basement of Promise House, otherwise known as support group central. Not that he wants to be there. Talking doesn’t bring back the dead.

When he’s shipped off to the Canadian wilderness with ten-year-old Jacey, another member of the support group, and her mom, his summer goes from bad to worse. He can’t imagine how eight weeks of canoeing and camping could be anything but awful.

Yet despite his expectations, the vast and unforgiving backcountry just might give Rakmen a chance to find the way back from broken . . . if he’s brave enough to grab it.

And now, here’s Amber.


My debut novel, The Way Back From Broken, is about two young people thrown together by shared tragedy who find healing in the Canadian wilderness. When I set about writing it, I knew I wanted to explore the different ways people navigate the difficult terrain of loss. How do we grieve? What helps us heal? Where are the pitfalls that can trap us? I wanted to write about how loss reverberates through families and threatens to tear them apart.

There are two families at the center of The Way Back From Broken—the Cannons and the Tatlases. Their lives intersect at Promise House in a support group for families who have lost children. Loss is their common ground. It links these families across differences of race and religion.

Fifteen-year-old Rakmen Cannon is biracial. His father, Michael, is black, and his mother, Mercedes, is a Catholic from Mexico. Ten-year-old Jacey Tatlas’s family is white. Her mother, Leah, is an agnostic who would rather be hiking than in church and has little use for organized religion of any kind.

The story that I’ve written belongs to Rakmen and Jacey. The Way Back From Broken explores what happens to them, but in this post, I wanted to write about the relationship between their mothers. Although it is touched upon very lightly in the final version of the book, it is still foundational to the story.

When Rakmen and Jacey’s mothers first meet, Mercedes (Rakmen’s mother) has been coming to the support group for nearly ten months after the death of her infant daughter. She is a woman of faith who does not shy away from the hard work of grief. She goes to group and therapy; she also finds comfort in prayer. She embraces Leah, whose loss is much fresher.

Leah has never been a religious person. She is a biology teacher who likes to hike and canoe. For her, comfort and solace are found in nature. But the loss of her stillborn son has shaken her to the core. She feels as if her own body has betrayed her.

As she and Mercedes become friends, Leah sees the comfort that Mercedes finds in her faith and wishes that she were able to access the spiritual sustenance that Mercedes does. Desperate to find a way to make some sense of her loss, Leah decides to return to the cabin where she spent many happy summers as a child.

This decision—and the trust these two women share—sets many things in motion during the course of The Way Back From Broken. One of the powerful things to come from the crucible of their loss is the way their families become connected, which sets much of the rest of the story in motion. Mercedes chooses to send Rakmen along with Leah and Jacey to Canada, where the stories of their families become even more intertwined. The differences that too often hold people apart make all of them stronger, especially their children. And in the end, they forge a new kind of family.

 

AmberKeyserAbout the author: Amber J. Keyser is an evolutionary biologist-turned-writer, who loves stories about heroes, scientists, and adventurers. She grew up in Oregon backpacking, fishing, and white-water rafting. Now she lives on the dry side of the mountains with her husband, two kids, and dog named Gilda. Every summer she returns to a cabin in Canada that was built by her grandmother, Algonquin Park’s first licensed, female canoe guide. If she had a choice, she would travel everywhere by canoe or on horseback.

Some of Amber’s forthcoming and recent books include The V-Word (Beyond Words, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first time sexual experiences, and Sneaker Century: A History of Athletic Shoes (Twenty-First Century Books, 2015). She is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the middle grade series Quartz Creek Ranch (Darby Creek, 2017). She can be reached by email at amber.j.keyser@gmail.com. Information about upcoming appearances can be found on her website at www.amberjkeyser.com.

Book Review: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie GarciaBy Cindy L. Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: How do you know someone after they’re gone? Frenchie Garcia didn’t know she would be the last person to see Andy Cooper alive. She barely knew him. So why did he choose to be with he before he committed suicide? Her imaginary pal Em (a.k.a Emily Dickinson), who Frenchie visits regularly at her favorite place–the cemetery–is the only one who knows about her last hours with Andy. With guilt and confusion mounting, can Frenchie pull off the one thing that could give her closure?

MY TWO CENTS: Frenchie goes on a road trip with a super-cute new “friend” Colin to make sense of what happened the one and only night she hung out with Andy Cooper, the boy she loved from afar through high school. Frenchie is haunted by the usual questions when grieving: Why? Why him? What could I have done to help him? Could I have stopped him? The last two questions are most painful because she was the last person to see Andy before he died, and, therefore, feels responsible. Sanchez easily blends heart-wrenching grief with regular teen angst, serious moments of conversation with quips like, “Get up, Loser!”from Robyn, Frenchie’s friend who knows something is wrong, but isn’t sure what. Also, Frenchie Garcia is a Latina protagonist in a book that isn’t about being Latina. Frenchie is an artist who likes punk rock and Emily Dickinson; she’s a young Latina who doesn’t speak a single word of Spanish in the novel. Some readers/writers/bloggers have asked for more books with diverse characters who are not dealing with issues of ethnicity, culture, race, etc. This is a good example.

TEACHING TIPS: What student wouldn’t fill an entire notebook about a day they’d like to do-over? This is a perfect before-reading activity that could be revisited and added to as the novel continues. As Frenchie leads Colin through her last night with Andy, students could write about their chosen “do-over” night, what they’d do differently, and what they’d discover. By the end, students have read a cool book and written a personal narrative!

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is made for close reading, which is all the rage with the new Common Core State Standards. Students could read and re-read any of Dickinson’s poems featured in the novel. Close, multiple readings allow students to analyze work down to the word level to gain deeper meaning. In this case, students would gain a deeper understanding of Dickinson and Sanchez’s novel, as they could discuss how the poems fit with the novel.

LEXILE: N/A

AUTHOR: Jenny Torres Sanchez lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband and children. Before writing her debut novel, The Downside of Being Charlie, she taught high school for several years. She credits her eclectic students for inspiring her to write young adult novels.

Her other YA novel is:

The Downside of Being Charlie

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, visit your local library or book store. Also, check out Running Press BooksIndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.

12 Days of Christmas Book Giveaway!!

¡Feliz Navidad! ¡Feliz Natal! Merry Christmas!

We are celebrating the holiday with a 12-book giveaway. Here’s how it works: enter by clicking on the “a Rafflecopter giveaway” link below the book images. From Christmas Day through Three Kings Day (January 6), one lucky winner will win one of these awesome books.

12 days = 12 books = 12 winners.

One of them could be you!

Remember, when you enter, you are putting your name into a pool for any of these books, not one in particular. To increase your chances, you can Tweet about the giveaway, follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page, leave a comment, or share news of our giveaway on your blog or website. Good luck and thanks for entering and spreading the word about Latin@s in Kid Lit! Winners will be notified each day and arrangements will be made for shipping. We will ship only within the US and Canada.

After today, you will also find this information on a page in the menu area so that you can easily find it and enter over the next three weeks!

What Can't Wait    The Knife and the Butterfly    Torn    Billy the Kid     The Savage Blue      Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White     Thunderous whisper     Frenchie     The Living     Aristotle    Feliz    Senor Pancho

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