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

 

Finding a Home in Stories: A Guest Post by Middle-Grade Author Adrianna Cuevas

By Adrianna Cuevas

In my debut middle grade novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Publication date: 5/12/20, FSG/Macmillan), military kid Nestor Lopez moves houses so much, he loses his sense of place. He finds a home trading books with his deployed dad, father and son writing notes and questions in the page margins while artistic Nestor adds illustrations. Stories connect him to his dad stationed thousands of miles away.

When Nestor reads a book with his father, he’s able to explore his dad’s military experiences in a new way and the book enables conversations service members are often reluctant to engage in. As Nestor explains:

“I flip through the pages of this book, Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, and stop the first time I see Dad’s handwriting. I press my fingers over his words, closing my eyes and imagining him sitting in his rack, reading. I flip through each page, looking for his handwriting, scanning for evidence of the life he lives when he’s away from us.”

Stories connect Nestor to those around him and deepen his relationships—particularly important for a boy who feels that home is something impermanent and unreliable.

Not all young readers will relate to Nestor’s constant moves. Not all will connect with the concept of a parent who is far away. But regardless of their current situation, readers can see books as a home. A place to retreat. A place to feel seen and accepted.

Growing up, that’s what books were to me.

My teenage social life summed up in one photo

As a child, I devoured any story I could get my hands on. With parents and a sister who were all avid readers, trips to the library to fill up bags of books and evenings spent browsing bookstore shelves were as expected as pastelitos for Nochebuena and Celia Cruz on the radio. I knew the bookstore and library at the University of Miami, where my dad was a professor, as well as my own house.

The books of my childhood transported me to places I’d never been. As a Florida girl, I was obsessed with the snowy wilderness in Jack London short stories. A solitary introvert, I marveled at the friendships in the Babysitters Club series. My early thirst for the gruesome and grim was satisfied by an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. I didn’t think I needed books with Cuban-American main characters because my culture was all around me in Miami—in the food, the language, the music.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I realized what a haven books can be for readers. I’d never lived anywhere so homogenous, both culturally and ideologically. In Miami, I was allowed to be a book-obsessed hockey fan who was bad at sports and loved to travel. In my new surroundings, I was Latina, nothing more and always less. I was complimented on my mastery of the English language, even though I didn’t speak Spanish fluently until I was in my twenties. Despite receiving an academic college scholarship, I was required to attend seminars about how not to get pregnant and drop out, the expectation for minority students. I was met with confused stares when I confessed that I didn’t like spicy foods because don’t all Mexicans like that? No longer able to see my culture or myself in my environment, I turned once again to my reliable home—books.

I shielded myself from ignorance and microaggressions I had never before experienced by diving into books by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, and Isabel Allende. Their words were familiar, a hand on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t alone. In their stories, I saw loud, boisterous families that mirrored my own. I read mouthwatering descriptions of the food I missed, whose ingredients weren’t even available to me anymore. My language was presented as something beautiful and poetic, not something to be overcome and unlearned. I had never understood the importance of seeing yourself represented in stories until I wasn’t represented in the society around me.

In Total Eclipse, Nestor moves from a place where he is seen and accepted to a place where he is misunderstood and othered. For the first time in his life, he lives off-post and experiences what it’s like to live away from a military base.

“Fort Hood had a Whataburger, a video arcade, and a comic book shop… Most kids at school had parents in the military, so everyone understood if you didn’t want to talk in the middle of science because your dad had flown across an ocean the night before. Now Mom’s moved me to a town where I’m a circus freak. An alien from a distant planet. My only comfort is knowing I might not be here long.”

Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t have the option like I did to dive into stories and see himself in books, as military family representation, especially Latinx families, is incredibly small in children’s literature. How much would it have meant to him to have books like Pablo Cartaya’s Each Tiny Spark to help him while his father is deployed?

Similarly, my choices when I moved to the Midwest were limited and it was difficult to find books that reflected my Cuban-American experience. Twenty years ago, the catalog of stories featuring characters like me was microscopic. How much more at home would I have felt with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos or Laura Taylor Namey’s The Library of Lost Things at my disposal when I was an awkward freshman? I would have taken Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe to college with me, turning to them when I felt othered and isolated.

Children deserve to see themselves in stories, not just as caricatures of their culture, but as representatives of the diversity that exists within a culture and as humans with all their quirks and flaws. Nestor Lopez isn’t just a Cuban-American kid who scarfs down his abuela’s croquetas de jamón and plays dominos with his abuelo. He loves dart gun battles, Pokémon cards, and random animal trivia. He’s quick with a snarky remark and his fingers are constantly smudged with pencil lead from sketching. It is my hope that in Nestor, young readers will find a friend they can relate to who shares their eccentricities and hopes.

In a world increasingly antagonistic toward Latinx people, our words as authors have the opportunity to whisper to children, “You are not alone.” Our books can serve as a blanket that warms them when they’re surrounded by the coldness of indifference and ignorance. Our characters can show them they can be heroes.

Our stories can welcome them home.

 

 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adriana currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food. Learn more about Adrianna on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!

 

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: 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: 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.