Book Review: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

The Disturbed Girl's Dictionary CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Macy’s school officially classifies her as “disturbed,” but Macy isn’t interested in how others define her. She’s got more pressing problems: her mom can’t move off the couch, her dad’s in prison, her brother’s been kidnapped by Child Protective Services, and now her best friend isn’t speaking to her. Writing in a dictionary format, Macy explains the world in her own terms—complete with gritty characters and outrageous endeavors. With an honesty that’s both hilarious and fearsome, slowly Macy reveals why she acts out, why she can’t tell her incarcerated father that her mom’s cheating on him, and why her best friend needs protection . . . the kind of protection that involves Macy’s machete.

MY TWO CENTS: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is unlike any YA I’ve read in 2017. A raw, unflinching, and surprisingly hilarious book, it’s organized as a series of definitions, like a dictionary, but with vignettes instead of sentence-long explanations. This is an ambitious book with a concept that is effortlessly pulled off, and it has one of the most compelling and authentic voices I’ve come across in a long time. The entire book is presented as the writings of Macy Cashmere MYOFB in real time, and I never once questioned it; that’s just how good this story is. Macy is self-aware of her challenging predicaments—a mother who seems to care more about the men who visit her than her own daughter, a brother stuck in another family’s home due to a CPS intervention, a father in prison—but the book is vibrant in discussing such weighty issues. As dark as this book gets at times (I flat-out bawled the final thirty pages or so), Nonieqa Ramos never lets this book fall into despair. No, Macy is unbelievably alive, and the energy conveyed through Ramos’s immersive writing is one of many things that makes this a compelling, electrifying read. There’s a chapter here where Ramos manages to reference a machete, Fabuloso, and Agüeybaná in the span of a few pages, and not once does it come across inauthentic.

There’s no mistaking how vulgar and gritty the text feels at times, but it’s all part of the convincing, believable world that Ramos builds. These people feel so real, so completely fleshed out that you begin to ache for them before you’re halfway through The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary. And the bulk of that sympathy lands on Macy. While Ramos doesn’t shy away from portraying the full experience of a young girl with ADHD, compulsive behavior, and who has been deemed “emotionally disturbed,” I can only imagine the sheer power this must give to people like Macy who have never seen themselves in a book, let alone as the protagonist. Simply put, this book feels larger-than-life, the kind of endeavor you’d expect from someone who had been publishing novels for years. Somehow, this is Ramos’s debut, which makes me eager to see what they’ve got up their sleeves.

For now, though, this is a book that is easy to devour, but will haunt you long after you finish it. It is unique, shocking, and heartbreaking; it is also the kind of novel I want kids everywhere to read. It is certain to be one of my top recommended novels for 2018.

TEACHING TIPS: There are a number of issues that Ramos speaks on through Macy that are ripe for a moderated class discussion: drug use, sex work, mental illness (and the stigmas that come with having a mental illness), foster care, misogyny, and racism. The book is populated with a diverse cast—many of these people are not common in YA in general!—and the language/slang is modern and convincing, so I expect students will find themselves captivated by Macy’s unique voice. Because of the way that the book is broken up, it will be easy to assign writing prompts or topics based solely on one of the definitions. I would recommend discussions about “CLANG,” “DOLPHIN,” “FEED,” and “GOOD-BYE.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: NoNieqa Ramos spent her childhood in the Bronx, where she started her own publishing company and sold books for twenty-five cents until the nuns shut her down. With the support of her single father and her tias, she earned dual master’s degrees in creative writing and education at the University of Notre Dame. As a teacher, she has dedicated herself to bringing gifted-and-talented education to minority students and expanding access to literature, music, and theater for all children. A frequent foster parent, NoNieqa lives in Ashburn, Virginia, with her family.

WHERE TO GET IT: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary releases a week from today! To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors and is usually busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal to pet every dog in the world. His YA Contemporary debut, Anger is a Gift, is out May 22, 2018 with Tor Teen.

 

Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

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Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

This book talk is based on an uncorrected advance copy.

FROM THE PUBLISHER: School: failure. Romance: failure. Family: failure. Suicide: failure. There’s only one thing left to try: living.

When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital psychiatric ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But there she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experiences with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

MY TWO CENTS: Another fifteen minutes and the pills would’ve done their work, extinguishing all the bright, unrealized promise of 16-year-old Vicky Cruz’s life. Luckily, someone finds her in time. When she wakes up in the psychiatric unit of Lakeview Hospital, in Austin, Texas, her stomach has been pumped, and the first voice she hears belongs to Dr. Desai, a therapist whose guidance and fierce advocacy serve to pull Vicky away from the brink.

At Lakeview, Dr. Desai oversees the treatment of teens hospitalized with serious mental-health issues. Vicky becomes intimately acquainted with three fellow patients, who play integral roles in her healing journey and offer compelling stories of their own:

E.M. came to Lakeview after one of his violent outbursts resulted in court-mandated treatment.

Mona wrestles with bipolar disorder, which was recently compounded by trauma at home. Child Protective Services removed her little sister from the custody of their mom and stepdad.

Gabriel is a young mystic who initially withholds the exact nature of his mental illness from the others in the group. In Vicky’s eyes, he’s a tender soul who moves in and out of functionality.

Lakeview is the primary setting for much of the novel, but some scenes unfold during off-site excursions, including a stay at Dr. Desai’s working ranch, where the patients perform minor farm chores, and go on a wild-river adventure that nearly leads to tragedy but ultimately opens new avenues for transformation. And there are more wild rides as two of the characters plunge into distressing setbacks. Despite her own shaky condition, Vicky responds to others with empathy, leading her to find greater definition in her own life’s purpose.

Vicky’s road to recovery is far from smooth. Shortly after surviving “the deed,” as she calls her suicide attempt, she’s hard pressed to pinpoint what’s so unbearable about her life. But she’s certain she’ll try to escape it again. Strong clues lie in the hollowness of her family relationships. Her mother died of cancer six years before, and less than one year later, her father remarried. Throughout her mother’s illness and even after her passing, Vicky’s father and her older sister, Becca, detached themselves from the trauma. By contrast, Vicky was the sensitive and attentive child who felt her mother’s absence keenly. Afterwards, it was Juanita, the family housekeeper, who served as Vicky’s truest human connection. Unfortunately, Juanita’s arthritis is too disabling for her to continue working and she plans to return to her native Mexico.

Once Vicky leaves the chilly environment of home and enters the warmer climate of the treatment unit, she begins to entertain the idea that life may be worth living. After consulting with an outside therapist, Vicky’s father and stepmother try to convince her to return home and resume normal activities, including school—the general idea being to jump back on the horse after a fall. Vicky’s instinct tells her this won’t work. For one thing, “our house is not a good place to figure things out,” she realizes. Bit by bit, through flashbacks and in conversations in Dr. Desai’s office and with her new friends, we see that Vicky’s family may be well off, but it isn’t well. For example, whether born obtuse or blinded by unresolved grief, Mr. Cruz uses words as bludgeons, and for Vicky, these words and the attitudes behind them strip her of the sense that she is lovable.

Francisco Stork brilliantly depicts the intangibles of interior life, an ability that he ably demonstrated in his 2009 YA novel, Marcelo in the Real World. In The Memory of Light, Stork summons these powers to communicate the nature of depression. Here’s how Vicky tries to explain its mysterious operations to herself: “I imagine a whole bunch of little minerlike elves who live and work inside the dark tunnels of my brain. They wear flashlight hats of different colors and push clanging carts full of words on steel rails from one corner of my mind to another.”

Vicky experiences small, but important epiphanies during her hospital stay. In a particularly shining scene, Dr. Desai shares approaches to unlocking the vicious circle of obsessive thoughts. One of the nuggets from this conversation is a fable from Dr. Desai’s native India that illuminates the self-defeating nature of holding on to such thoughts.

All of the teen characters and many of the adults in this novel are Latin@s, representing a full range of personalities, social and economic classes, and occupations. The Cruz family belongs to the wealthy sector of Austin. Vicky, who attends an exclusive private school, is markedly aware of her privileged status—and of the fact that it doesn’t shield her from mental illness. Her exposure to the less-privileged lives of her new friends alerts her to her father’s snobbish attitude toward working-class Latin@s. She sees the hypocrisy, too. His own grandfather arrived in the United States from Mexico without a penny.

The Memory of Light is a compelling view of teens in crisis. It points the way toward life beyond depression, yet steers clear of romanticizing serious mental illness. Although it’s primarily Vicky Cruz’s story of dealing with suicidal depression and the agony of living in a family broken by loss and dysfunction, the intertwining narratives of the other young characters charge the novel with extra vitality and shed light on the many faces of mental illness.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Don’t miss Cindy L. Rodriguez’s timely reflections on how depression is viewed in the Latino community. Her article includes a list of YA novels featuring Latin@ characters wrestling with mental illness.

On his website, Francisco Stork features two blog posts related to the topic of depression and the writing of The Memory of Light. See them here and here.

In this article, a school psychologist offers tips for teachers on classroom strategies to help depressed students.

francisco_storkABOUT THE AUTHOR: Francisco X. Stork is a Mexican-born author of six novels for young people. Among these is the multiple award-winner Marcelo in the Real World. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he spent much of his law career working in the field of affordable housing. Learn more about Francisco and his books at his official author site.

 

 

 

IMG_1291Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Cover Reveal for When Reason Breaks, a 2015 Young Adult Debut

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

I’m really excited to reveal the cover for my debut novel, When Reason Breaks, which will be published 2/10/2015 by Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books. I’m equally thrilled to share it here because one of the main characters is Latina and the first blurb the novel received is from the wonderful, generous, super-talented Margarita Engle.

Before you scroll down to see the cover, here’s a description of the novel:

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 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 grappling with demons beyond their control.

An extra tidbit for any big-time Emily Dickinson fans: Almost all of the characters represent a real person from ED’s life. Emily and Elizabeth represent Dickinson herself, sharing personal traits and experiences. Tomás Bowles represents Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel Bowles, two important men in ED’s life, etc. You’ll have to read more in the author’s note!

So, now for the cover……………

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Keep scrolling…(I was told to build suspense. Isn’t this suspenseful?)

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TA-DA!!!!

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I love it for lots of reasons! The dark and light, focused and unfocused elements symbolize what the characters experience with their emotional and mental health issues. Same with how the letters start out solidly colored and then fade. Not seeing the girl’s face is also perfect since it’s a mystery as to which of the two girls attempts suicide. And here is the full quote from Margarita Engle, which will be included in its entirety on the back cover:

When Reason Breaks is infused with a rare blend of suspense and sensitivity, despair and hope. The poetic spirit of Emily Dickinson shines through the gloom of daily struggles faced by modern teens, as they discover the possibilities where they dwell.”

I’m so excited to share my debut novel with the world–starting now with a giveaway! One winner will receive a signed ARC of When Reason Breaks. Click on the Rafflecopter link below to enter. I’ll choose a winner in a week!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

CindyRodriguez150For more information about me and/or my debut novel, check out my website. You can also find me here on the About Us page and on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

When Reason Breaks is available for pre-order here:

Indiebound Barnes and Noble | Amazon Powell’s Book Depository | Books-A-Million