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.

Cincos Puntos Press: Publishing Diverse Titles for 30 Years

 

By Patrick Flores-Scott

The El Paso, Texas publisher, Cinco Puntos Press, has been on my radar ever since my mother-in-law—who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, an hour away from the Cinco Puntos Press offices—handed me a copy of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s YA novel, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. I fell in love with that book and went on to read Saenz’s follow-up, Last Night I Sang to the Monster. Now my wife and I regularly read Cynthia Weill’s Opuestos and AbeCedario to our toddler and Saenz’s A Gift from Papá Diego is our older son’s current go-to bedtime picture book. (Full disclosure: I cry real tears every time Papá Diego shows up to the party.)

Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces was one of 2014’s most lauded books, winning the Morris Award, and showing up on book of the year lists put out by Kirkus, Booklist and The School Library Journal.

All these great Cinco Puntos titles beg the question: What is going on in El Paso?

Bobby and Lee Byrd, both writers, founded Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Texas thirty years ago. In a phone conversation, CEO John Byrd explained that, “When my parents moved here they sought out folks who were making art. In El Paso, that means Latino artists and folks writing about the Latino experience. We publish the kind of books we publish because we’re in El Paso. Our mission to do this kind of work was a natural outgrowth of where we were.”

Byrd lists El Paso as a strength for Cinco Puntos because it gives the publisher a unique perspective on life and art. He noted that New York publishers are all bound by the confines of Manhattan. “That’s why so much of what they do seems so similar. Being in El Paso, we don’t hear all that industry noise. We can develop our own unique perspective on publishing.”

A critical factor in Cinco Puntos’ growth has been their relationship with indie distributor Consortium, Book Sales and Distribution. “When we first started with Consortium, the industry had made it clear that books by Hispanic authors couldn’t sell through mainstream channels. Consortium helped change that. They successfully place a lot of stuff that really pushes the boundaries and we’re proud to have our books sold alongside others that are distributed by Consortium.”

I asked Byrd about the relationship between independent publishers and the We Need Diverse Books campaign. He noted that about half of the books (according to the most recent Multicultural Literature Statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center) listed as “multicultural” were published by independent presses.

“It’s hard to find anyone who disagrees with the aims of We Need Diverse Bookseven traditional publishers all agree. Still, New York houses just aren’t publishing those books. We Need Diverse Books is crucial, but energy focused on changing New York is misplaced.” Real change, Byrd insists, will come when we support and grow the diverse publishers, small publishers, independent publishers who are already doing the work of producing great “diverse books” by and about traditionally underrepresented voices.

Check out just of few of the notable Cinco Puntos Press titles below, and while you’re at it, grab some coffee and “Pan Dulce” with founder, Lee Byrd, as she interviews Cinco Puntos authors at the publisher’s YouTube channel .

Picture Books:

   

Little Chanclas by José Lozano

Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye, illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd

Cada Niño/Every Child by Tish Hinojosa

Don’t Say a Word, Mamá by Joe Hays, illustrated by Esau Andrade Valencia

Middle Grade:

  

Maximilian and The Mystery of the Guardian Angel by Xavier Garza

Maximilian and the Bingo Rematch by Xavier Garza

Remember Dippy by Shirley Reva Vernick

Teen:

    

This Thing Called the Future by J. L. Powers

The Blood Lie by Shirley Reva Vernick

The Smell of Old Lady Perfune by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Graphic Novel/Poetry-Photography:

 

Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale

Vatos by Luis Alberto Urrea, Photographs by Jose Galvez

 

PatrickFS1Patrick Flores-Scott was, until recently, a long-time public school teacher in Seattle, Washington. He’s now a stay-at-home dad and early morning writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Patrick’s first novel, Jumped In, has been named to a YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults book, an NCSS/CBC Notable Book for the Social Studies and a Bank Street College Best Book of 2014. He is currently working on his second book, American Road Trip

Pig Park and the Cosmic Race: Diversity and Identity in My New YA Novel

By Claudia Guadalupe Martinez

As a kid, I assumed everyone around me was Mexican. I lived less than a mile from the Texas-Mexico border, so we pretty much were Mexican. This neighborhood inspired my first novel, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume–a world vastly different from the one that surrounds my protagonist, Masi Burciaga, in my new novel Pig Park. Masi’s cast of neighbors runs the gamut from the Nowaks to the Wongs.

2236319Nevertheless, Mexican identity is something I thought very much about as I wrote. Two-thirds of the Latino population in the U.S. was of Mexican descent in the last Census, and I can’t help asking myself what it means to be Mexican these days. I didn’t grow up purposefully Mexi-centric. I was a product of my environment. I’d never had the opportunity to truly interact with non-Mexicans, non-Mexican Latinos, or Mexicans with experiences significantly different from mine until I moved to California for college.

Even then, the diversity I experienced was a somewhat artificial one created by a college admissions team. California was still the Southwest, and my new community and I still shared many experiences. But seriously, since I barely knew how to drive, I can hardly say I experienced L.A.

Chicago would be different. One day, I cashed in my airline miles and set off to visit a friend there. I walked into a coffee shop and stumbled onto a flier for an apartment rental. So began my long-term relationship with the city and neighborhood that would inspire Pig Park.

My new Chicago landlady occasionally referred to my neighborhood as Mexican, but my neighbors included Mexicans, African Americans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, and miscellaneous white folks. Everyone just mixed it up.

18528311Mexicans have formed communities in Chicago since the 1850’s. And, while a 2012 Census study from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research named Chicago the most segregated city in America, Chicagoland’s Mexican population is massive enough at 1.4 million that some neighborhood overflow is to be expected. This is how diversity develops naturally. Scholar José Vasconcelos talked about Mexicans as “the cosmic race;” behind it was the idea that we actually have a little bit of everything in us, that we like to mix it up, eventually transcending racial and ethnic categories.

Life happened, as it is wont to do. I eventually got married, moved into a house in a new neighborhood, and became a mom. My husband is of the sort who wouldn’t be caught dead putting ketchup on a hot dog and gladly plays tour guide to visiting family and friends, introducing them to the many surprises of our city. He is a Chicagoan through and through. He is also of Guatemalan and Salvadoran descent. As such, I don’t know if my two-year daughter and my son (who will be born this October) will consider themselves Mexican or not. After all, identity is a fluid thing, partially assumed and partially assigned. My husband and I hope they consider themselves whatever they want, and are never made to feel that they can’t.

I wrote Pig Park recognizing that the world my children will be a part of isn’t exactly one thing, and that this is the type of world many kids are increasingly growing up in.

CGMTZ_photoby neus raffols_color_CROPPEDClaudia Guadalupe Martinez is the author of The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (Cinco Puntos, 2008) and Pig Park (Cinco Puntos, 2014). She grew up in sunny El Paso, Texas, where she learned that letters form words from reading the subtitles of old westerns with her father. She now lives and writes in Chicago.