Book Review: Because of the Sun by Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

Reviewed by Nazahet Hernandez

Because of the Sun CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Dani Falls learned to tolerate her existence in suburban Florida with her brash and seemingly unloving mother by embracing the philosophy Why care? It will only hurt. So when her mother is killed in a sudden and violent manner, Dani goes into an even deeper protection mode, total numbness. It’s the only way she can go on.

But when Dani chooses The Stranger by Albert Camus as summer reading for school, it feels like fate. The main character’s alienation after his mother’s death mirrors her own.

Dani’s life is thrown into further turmoil when she is sent to New Mexico to live with an aunt she never knew she had. The awkwardness between them is palpable. To escape, Dani takes long walks in the merciless heat. One day, she meets Paulo, who understands how much Dani is hurting. Although she is hesitant at first, a mutual trust and affection develop between Dani and Paulo, and Dani begins to heal. And as she and her aunt begin to connect, Dani learns about her mother’s past. Forgiving isn’t easy, but maybe it’s the only way to move forward.

MY TWO CENTS: Dani Falls has a complicated and fractured relationship with her mother, Ruby Falls, who in Dani’s eyes is a not good mother in any regard. In fact, for dozens of pages, Dani often explicitly states that she hates her mother because she has always felt unappreciated, unloved, and ignored by her. By Dani’s account, we are led to believe that Ruby is objectively a selfish and neglectful mother. It is all Dani has known, and because she is the narrator, we are inclined to empathize with her side of the story. Dani believes she knows who her mother really is deep inside, that her ugliest aspects are the real her. But what Dani doesn’t know is that she really doesn’t know her mother at all.

In the Author’s Note for Because Of The SunJenny Torres Sanchez states that Albert Camus’s The Stranger inspired her novel. In The Stranger, Meursault’s mother dies early on in the story, and his emotionless and detached reaction made Torres Sanchez curious about his mother. Was she a terrible person or simply an imperfect individual?

Like Mersault’s mother, Dani’s mother also dies early in the novel, tragically. She is inexplicably attacked by a black bear in her own backyard. The grisly story shocks the neighborhood, but readers see the aftermath play out through Dani’s perspective, which is bleak, detached, and emotionless. The way Dani deals with the trauma of her mother’s death is fascinating, though often hard to read, and readers may wonder if Dani’s cold reaction is warranted. But people cope with tragedy differently, and we don’t know all the details of her and her mother’s relationship. So it’s best to read on without passing any judgment on Dani.

As she has no family left in Florida, Dani must move to New Mexico to live with an aunt, Shelly, she never knew existed. This is only one of many secrets Dani’s mother kept from her. For weeks, Dani lives with her aunt, but seldom leaves the house and rarely speaks more than two words at a time. This part of the novel is slow and contemplative, when Dani is at her lowest. Hours, days, and weeks blur into each other and become indistinguishable. The language and mood of the book during these pages are bleak and stifling. One wonders if Dani will ever find light in her life again.

But one day, Dani wanders out into the scorching New Mexico sun and walks for miles, until she comes across a gas station. There, she meets Paulo, a young Mexican-American boy who aspires to be a filmmaker. It is after she meets Paulo and his grandmother, Doña Marcela, that the potential for hope and light enters Dani’s life.

It is important to note that Dani is not Latina, a fact that is not explicitly stated until she meets Latinx people at her new school, who make references to her whiteness almost immediately. This happens about a third of the way through the novel, after which Latinxs play a regular and important role in the story. It is Paulo, and especially Doña Marcela, who provide moral and emotional support for Dani when she needs it most. Paulo is ambitious and kind; Doña Marcela is brave and loving. Together, they provide Dani with examples of what healthy familial relationships can look like, and show her that people are allowed to care for and love each other. That Latinx characters are the most positive influence on the novel’s protagonist is worth noting. I certainly appreciated it.

Eventually, Dani connects with her aunt Shelly, who reveals the tragic secrets of her family’s past. Dani then realizes that she never really knew her mother and must face the fact that she hated a woman she only knew on a surface level. This understandably makes Dani resent Ruby even more, for shutting her daughter out all her life. But her budding romance with Paulo, the strong role model she found in Doña Marcela, and her growing bond with Shelly — these relationships teach Dani that there are things to appreciate in the world. Perhaps the trauma of her mother’s death and their lack of closure will always follow her, but Dani has met people who can help her move forward with her life, even if progress is slow.

Though it’s not without flaws, there’s much to like and commend in Because Of The Sun. Jenny Torres Sanchez writes Dani’s story in haunting, beautiful prose that creates an atmosphere that aptly approximates Dani’s bleakest moods and lowest moments. There are several dreamlike sequences in the novel reminiscent of magical realism that stand out as the strongest parts of the story. Reading Because Of The Sun is a singular and somber experience that will resonate with teens who understand the complexities of love and loss.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

To find Because of the Sun, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

Read Diverse BooksNazahet Hernandez is a book blogger who cares passionately about diversity in literature and promoting books written by and about people of color and other marginalized voices. He loves creating reading lists, recommending diverse books to people, and tweeting while at work. He lives in the wonderfully vibrant city of Austin, TX. You may contact him on Twitter (@_diversebooks) or through his blog ReadDiverseBooks.com.

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: Confetti Girl by Diana López

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

Confetti GirlDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Apolonia “Lina” Flores is a sock enthusiast, a volleyball player, a science lover, and a girl who is looking for answers. Even though her house is crammed full of her dad’s books, she’s having trouble figuring out some big questions, like why her father keeps retreating into his reading, why her best friend is changing their old rules, and, most of all, why her mother had to die last year. Like colors in cascarones, Lina’s life is a rainbow of people, interests, and unexpected changes.

MY TWO CENTS: In Confetti Girl, López masterfully blends serious middle school issues, like friendships and first kisses, with the even more serious issues middle schoolers face, such as the death of one parent and the paralyzing grief of the other. Apolonia “Lina” Flores is an easily lovable character with her crazy socks and desire to do well on the volleyball court and in the classroom. But everything starts to unravel as Lina’s dad gets lost in books and her best friend, Vanessa, gets lost in Carlos’s dreamy eyes. With her relationships already strained, Lina’s situation gets worse when she’s benched for failing grades.

What makes Confetti Girl not only an awesome middle grade read but also a great novel about Latin@s is how López seamlessly weaves in cultural details. She talks about how she decided to include certain details here. By using such things as cascarones and dichos throughout the novel, López introduces cultural specifics to readers without being preachy or teacher-like. In other words, I could see young readers responding with, “Cool, let’s make those,” or “Yup, my mom says things like that all the time,” instead of “Oh, that’s a Latin thing” (closes book). The Kirkus review of this novel put it this way: “An appealing coming-of-age novel set in a traditional Mexican-American town, in which Hispanic teachers, students and parents celebrate traditional American holidays such as Thanksgiving alongside such traditional Mexican observances as el Día de los Muertos and a Quinceañera.” Click here for the full review.

Confetti Girl, López’s first middle grade novel, was a winner of the William Allen White Award and named to New York Library’s “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.” It was a commended title for the 2010 Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, and Latinidad’s “Top Latino Book of the Year” for Middle Grade Category. It was also a Scholastic Book Club and Book Fair Selection.

TEACHING TIPS: Lots of great teaching tips, including discussion questions and activities, can be found on the author’s website. Click here for her “Teacher Resource” page and here for a PDF of a Teacher’s Guide for Confetti Girl.

Also, to align with the Common Core State Standards, teachers could easily mix this fictional novel with nonfiction articles that range from cascarones to the grieving process. Teachers could also bring in Watership Down by Richard Adams since it plays a significant role in Confetti Girl. Students could read Watership Down first and then read Confetti Girl to truly understand how the classic novel helps Lina to make sense of her own life.

LEXILE: 660

AUTHORDiana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints and the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl, Choke, and the recently released Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. She is also featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue. She has been a guest on NPR’s Latino USA and is the winner of the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award. Diana teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.

For more information about Confetti Girl visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out GoodreadsIndieBound.orgWorldCat.orgLittle Brown Books for Young ReadersScholasticAmazon, and Barnes and Noble.

You can also click here for a book trailer of Confetti Girl featuring the author!

Diana can also be found on the site Read to Write Stories, where she blogs about how to create conflict with subtext.

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.