Book Review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

26594801DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:

Things/People Margot Hates:
Mami, for destroying her social life
Papi, for allowing Junior to become a Neanderthal
Junior, for becoming a Neanderthal
The supermarket
Everyone else

After “borrowing” her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts. With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal. Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

MY TWO CENTS: It is no surprise that life, for a teenage girl, is complicated: trying to fit in, finding purpose, inspiration, friends, and dealing with family dynamics. Add to all of this, growing up bicultural! We meet Margot Sanchez, our Puerto Rican protagonist, spending the summer working at her father’s bodega in the Bronx, as punishment for using her father’s credit card without his permission. We quickly find out about Margot’s family dynamics; her family sent her to a prep school to give her a better education and a brighter future—for herself and the family. Her brother, Junior, is a college drop-out who now works in Papi’s bodega and is expected to take over the business in the future. Both Papi and Mami want the best for their children and operate under traditional Latinx gender values that allow Junior to easily occupy the public space, drink, smoke, and be sexually active, while Margot cannot.

Margot’s understanding of her own place in society is complicated by her parents’ decision to send her to a prep school. She quickly begins to change her look, part of her identity, and adopt those of Camille and Serena—white, rich classmates who often treat Margot as a project by giving her fashion tips, relationship advice, and suggesting that it was perfectly fine to “borrow” her father’s credit card to shop for clothes that were clearly beyond her family’s budget.

In The Education of Margot Sanchez, Rivera tackles issues of peer pressure, family expectations, gender bias, and community. While Margot has several people in her life who are constantly suggesting what she should look like, how she should act, and what she should do, Moises, a local community activist, and Elizabeth, her childhood friend, are the people that make her face her own insecurities, question her sense of belonging, and deal with her constant desire to fit in with her prep school values. Rivera walks us through Margot’s summer of “real” life education, full of lies, sex, and betrayal.

Although the novel hints at a romance between Moises and Margot, their interaction is one that helps her grow, accept herself, and understand how her community is being negatively impacted by gentrification and big corporations moving in; in fact, even her own family business is feeling the change. Throughout the story, Margot learns about her family’s shortcomings and how unhealthy family traditions and cultural norms can push each of them to make wrong choices.

As I was reading this book, I could almost hear my teenage daughters say, “Get over it, Margot! Quit listening to Camille and Serena!” Because Margot, quite frankly, is annoyingly desperate for their approval. Yet, we also see that Margot is trying not to be an outcast at her new school and does anything to be accepted by the popular girls, including stealing. Rivera helps us see that teenagers, although subject to peer pressure, also have the capacity to change, re-invent themselves, ask for forgiveness and restore relationships.

TEACHING TIPS: The Education of Margot Sanchez can be used to teach about public vs private education, formal education vs life/street education, and, although minimal, the values of different Latinx families.  It is also an opportunity to talk about family relationships, love, friendship, and gentrification—this last topic is a current trend, happening in many mid-size to large cities across the United States. Who experiences gentrification? Are “clean up” the neighborhood projects always negative or positive? How can people who face gentrification organize? What communities typically experience gentrification? What minority groups? Only minority groups? Research on these topics can add value to class discussion and can help further understand this present day issue affecting our communities.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about The Education of Margot Sanchez, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Hi-res image. Photo by Julian Sambrano Jr. 

Photo by Julian Sambrano Jr.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer and author of The Education of Margot Sanchez, a contemporary young adult novel forthcoming from Simon & Schuster on February 21, 2017. She is a 2016 Pushcart Prize winner and a 2015 Clarion alumni with a Leonard Pung Memorial Scholarship. She has been awarded fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her short story “Death Defiant Bomba” received honorable mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s 2014 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, selected by author Nathan Englander. Lilliam was also a finalist for AWP’s 2014 WC&C Scholarship Competition.

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. She is currently working on a digital oral history collection about Latin@s in Ohio, which has been published as an eBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.

 

Book Review: Nothing Up My Sleeve by Diana López

 

Reviewed by Marianne Snow Campbell

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Sixth graders Dominic, Loop, and Z stumble upon a new magic shop in town and can’t wait to spend their summer mastering cool tricks to gain access to the Vault, a key holders-only back room bound to hold all kinds of secrets. And once they get in, they set their sights even higher: a huge competition at the end of the summer. They work on their card tricks, sleights, and vanishing acts, trying to come up with the most awesome routines possible….Problem is, the trip is expensive, and it’s money that each guy’s family just doesn’t have.

To make things worse, the shop-owners’ daughter, Ariel (who just so happens to be last year’s competition winner), will do anything to make sure the boys don’t come out on top. Even pit them against one another. Will they make it to the competition? And if so, at what cost?

Diana López, author of Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, offers a story that’s just the right mix of heart, high jinks, and a bit of magic.

MY TWO CENTS: There’s a reason that magic trick kits sell so well at toy stores. Lots of kids love the thrill of stage magic – practicing illusions until they’re just right, creating mystery with visual puzzles, and tricking others with sleights of hand. Performing magic can help build kids’ confidence and give them a sense of agency when they might otherwise feel powerless. That’s certainly the case for Dominic, Loop, and Z, three friends who venture into the world of illusion at Conjuring Cats, the new magic store in Victoria, Texas. Each of the boys is facing a quandary that makes him feel powerless. Dominic’s parents are divorced and refuse to speak to each other, which frustrates him to no end. Meanwhile, Loop just found out that his father is actually his stepfather, and Z, the youngest child in a large family, always feels invisible. Their new magical hobby, however, leads to a summer of discovery that none of the friends expect.

One of the most valuable lessons I took away from Nothing Up My Sleeve is that hobbies are important. Once Dominic, Loop, and Z get involved in magic, they blossom. Sure, they encounter struggles along the way – jealousy, in-fighting, money troubles, family drama – but these difficulties only cause the boys to grow cognitively, socially, and emotionally. The teacher in me loves how practicing magic stimulates their critical thinking skills as they write patter (“what a magician says while performing a trick,” p. 134) for their routines and synthesize new tricks by putting their own personal spins on classic illusions. Really smart stuff! As the friends puzzle through magic, you can see how clever each boy is in his own way. This is the beauty of hobbies – kids expressing their intelligence and creativity through fun, personally meaningful activities.

OK, enough with the nerdy teacher musings. Another quality that I love about Diana López’s books is their attention to character development, and Nothing Up My Sleeve doesn’t disappoint. With magic as the backdrop, she conjures three well-rounded, realistic characters who face struggles and earn triumphs just like any real kid might. López creates a strong balance between the boys’ magical endeavors and their personal and home lives that gives this book the perfect blend of excitement and real world relevance.

Furthermore, I have to stress how much it means to me that López sets this book (and her other books) in South Texas. Catching references to places I know – Victoria, Refugio, Corpus Christi, and Houston – made me smile. Like me, a lot of young readers appreciate it when stories are set near their homes. A familiar setting can create a comfortable feeling, which, in turn, can make a book even more personally meaningful and engaging. With so many books, movies, and TV shows set in well known locales like New York and Los Angeles, it’s refreshing to find home in the pages of a book. Thank you, Ms. López for an enjoyable, relatable read!

TEACHING TIPS: As I read through Nothing Up My Sleeve, I couldn’t help thinking what a wonderful summer reading book it would be. Dominic, Loop, and Z’s adventures take place during the summer, and I can easily imagine kids soaking up this book on languid afternoons in June, July, and August. If you teach upper elementary or middle grades, consider putting it on your summer reading list.

Nothing Up My Sleeve is also an excellent book for classroom use. López fills her writing with various literary elements, which makes the book a solid model for student writing. Two particular elements that she focuses on in this book are metaphor – drawing comparisons between magic tricks and problems the boys face – and alternate perspectives. Each chapter assumes a different point, making the story richer and more complex. Unpacking these literary devices with students and encouraging them to incorporate the devices into their own pieces can really help them hone their creative writing skills.

Photo credit: Todd Yates

Photo credit: Todd Yates

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A former middle school teacher, Diana López has written several books for children, young adults, and adults, including Confetti Girl, Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, Choke, and Sofia’s Saints. Her writing has also been featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens. In 2004, she received a writing fellowship from the Texas Commission for the Arts and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation, and Emporia State University honored Confetti Girl with the William Allen White Award in 2012. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Houston—Victoria and serves as managing director for Centro Victoria, an organization that celebrates Mexican-American literature and culture. To learn more about her work, you can visit her website or check out her Twitter.

 

 

MarianneMarianne Snow Campbell is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, where she researches nonfiction children’s books about Latin@ and Latin American topics and teaches an undergraduate course on children’s literature. Before graduate school, she taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Texas, her home state. She misses teaching, loves critters, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.