This post is a little different from our usual Libros Latinos features in that it focuses on the release of our very own Cindy L. Rodriguez’s debut YA novel, When Reason Breaks, which is available now. Cindy wasn’t sure she wanted us to blog about her book at all, but we persuaded her that readers would want to know more about the rock-star author whose initiative brought Latin@s in Kid Lit into the world. This post is more a celebration than a review, but we aim to celebrate in a way that’s useful to readers, teachers, librarians, and advocates of Latin@ literature. Read on to hear from Latin@s in Kid Lit bloggers Ashley, Lila, Zoraida, and Sujei!
Publisher’s Description: A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy. In an emotionally taut novel that is equal parts literary and commercial, with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls fighting for their lives.
What We Love
Ashley: Whatever the similarity of their names, there’s an immediate outward contrast between quiet, cautious Emily and bold, impulsive Elizabeth. Yet When Reason Breaks powerfully illustrates the animosity—and, ultimately, kinship—that develops between these two as they each become more aware of the inner demons the other faces. This emerges in a rare private encounter between the two girls:
“I see you, Emily Delgado,” she whispered. “Your problem isn’t really about your friends of Kevin or your dad. You try to hide it, but I know.” Elizabeth patted Emily’s leg. “Trust me, I know.”
In the oblique understanding of inner struggle communicated in this relationship, When Reason Breaks passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Whereas no one can miss Elizabeth’s explosive temper and sometimes contentious behavior, Elizabeth “sees” Emily’s struggle with depression in a way teachers, counselors, parents, and friends do not. (Even Emily’s supportive and observant boyfriend Kevin doesn’t recognize what’s going on with her.) Still, for me a crucial point of drama in the novel was the question of whether Emily and Elizabeth would ultimately help each other or perhaps instead enable each other’s self-destructive tendencies.
Other highlights in the novel for me were the fabulously written group scenes–both between family members and the girls with their friends–and the graceful incorporation of Spanish.
Lila: I adore a novel that takes me somewhere I’ve never been. In When Reason Breaks, that new territory is the intricate relationship of two high school classmates whose personal styles and family backgrounds sharply contrast. They’re forced to cross the divide when their teacher pairs them in an assignment involving Emily Dickinson’s poetry. As the story moves forward, the girls’ opposite natures create conflict, but you sense that they’re somehow on intersecting paths. At one point, deep in the book, a bridge seems to form between them.
It’s a beautiful scene that takes place in the woods, framed by autumn trees. (I’m a craft geek, and one of the elements I admire in a strong work of fiction is setting.) But it gets better. In this scene, the characters exchange funny stories that somehow morph into poignant, self-revelations that reveal far more than either girl has allowed her closest friends to see. Cindy pulls off this delicate dance in such a natural, believable way, primarily through dialogue. And just when I thought the girls’ friendship was cemented, something else comes along and the tension between them ratchets up all over again.
Sujei: Cindy captures the emotional journey of the main characters through rich descriptions of what they do, think, experience, and feel. Above all, what came to my mind while reading the novel is its “New England” feeling and how it brings a new voice and view to Latin@ literature. The references to Thoreau’s Walden, Amherst College, Red Sox, the woods, Emily Dickinson contribute to that feeling as do other details. Here, Cindy brings us a YA novel that portrays a Latino family living in New England, a very real experience that is often marginal (if not invisible) in broader literary and media depictions of Latinos.
Zoraida: This is the first book I’ve read in a long time (or maybe ever) that made me choke up by the end of chapter 1. When I was in high school, I fell madly in love with Emily Dickinson and her poetry—and poetry in general. So for that, this book has a special place in my heart. I love the way each chapter starts with a short epigraph from one of Emily’s poems. I also love that both girls share the same initials, and despite coming from different backgrounds, also share the same internal struggle. Cindy deals with the strong emotions in this book so subtly that when you realize what’s happening, it hits you in the gut. Here are some of the many, many things I loved in this book:
#1 Two individual and smart girls.
#2 Girls that don’t let themselves get bossed around by boys.
#3 Complicated and complex relationships between girls/girls, student/teacher, boys/girls, children/parents.
#4 Dealing with depression and anger in a way that is very real
#5 Straight up beautiful and emotionally subtly powerful writing.
#6 An incredibly diverse cast that is genuine.
#7 All the feels.
While I was reading the book I kept seeing myself in both of these girls. As a teen. As an adult. And I think that was my takeaway from this. I’m a little bit of both, and maybe so is everyone else.
When Reason Breaks has received praise all over the blogosphere and on review sites. Check out these awesome write-ups: What Sarah Read, The Lifelong Bookworm, Disability in Kid Lit, Rich in Color, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.
Teaching Tips from Ashley
How I wish this book had been around back in 2007 when I was teaching a thematic unit on mental illness. As Cindy discussed here, one of the crucial contributions of the novel is that it shows depression and mental illness apart from especially traumatic circumstances. It also provides ample opportunity for discussion of the subtlety of many of depression’s symptoms.
We see Emily’s gradual withdrawal from her personal relationships and the slow creep of fatigue taking over ordinary functioning. It also powerfully illustrates the challenges of managing anger. As Zoraida notes, “I remember feeling like Elizabeth all the time as teen. I had (and sometimes still do) have this anger that I feel is overwhelming and don’t want other people to see. Yet, her acting out is a sign that she WANTS to be seen, which is the opposite of Emily who shies away from that and internalizes her feelings.”
For additional recent works that deal with depression, suicide, and mental illness, see this School Library Journal post and this post on Stacked. These are great resources for finding companion pieces to read along with When Reason Breaks.
Teachers may also find this an easy sell to students intrigued by Emily Dickenson’s life or poetry, and Cindy’s subtle incorporation of biographical details in fiction—combined with an author’s note that unpacks many of these connections—offers a fine model of the use of fiction in multi-genre research projects. For an overview of the multi-genre approach, check out this general introduction to multi-genre writing from Colorado State, and for an online workshop module focused on teaching multi-genre writing in middle school, see this site. Once you’re sold on the idea, Tom Romano’s pioneering books on the approach will become indispensible. The key texts are Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres (1995) and Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers (2000).