Book Review: Who’s Ju? (Seventh Grade Sleuths #1) by Dania Ramos

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Image result for who's ju? book coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.

But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.

Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.

MY TWO CENTS: This book drew me in right away with the title of the first chapter (“DNA Malfunction”) and the first mini-paragraph – “It’s not hard evidence. Just a family photo stuck on our silver fridge with a teapot magnet. Case closed.” It may not be clear to some, but I knew I was in for a good read – and I was right.

As the book begins, Dania Ramos uses a great choice of words to describe the middle school setting and to profile the main character, Justina (pronounced Hoosteenah) Feliciano. She’s just a normal 7th grade girl who’s trying to survive the tumultuous times in middle school while trying to figure out why she doesn’t look like the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With her frizzy blond hair and light eyes, she stands out.

Justina – or Ju (pronounced Hu) for short – has her core group of friends, the Seventh-Grade Sleuths, and she’s not the most popular girl in school, so she’s surprised when former friend Sara asks her for help to solve a very important case. I loved how Ramos wrote the case of the vandalized scenery in a way similar to a decades-old cold case – because to Justina, Ig, and Gunther, it is that big of a deal.

The other conflict in the book involves a genetics assignment in Justina’s health class. Her mother is immediately against the assignment, and she wants to know why – so she finds out. Ramos’ writing compared Justina to Sherlock Holmes and other detectives, which I got a kick out of. I also loved how Justina was so determined to find answers, even when her parents weren’t okay with it.

Another aspect of the book that hit home for me was when Ju decided to change her identity – new clothes, new (blond) hairdo, and a new name. I tried a similar method in middle school myself, which I’m ashamed of now. But on the other hand, when you feel out of place in a way Justina does in the book, it’s an understandable move.

After a runaway scare (and reconciling with best friend Ig), Justina eventually finds out the truth – she doesn’t look like the rest of her family because she’s adopted. She’s heartbroken but is understanding, and even agrees to meet her birth father. Ramos wrote this part of the story in a way that was endearing and welcoming, which I enjoyed.

Overall, Who’s Ju? is a lovely read. I would say the question in the title is certainly answered, but I hope to see more from Ramos about Ju and her friends and family in the future.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be a great way for middle-grade students, especially girls, to learn about something that isn’t taught in many classes before high school – social sciences. It’s important for kids to learn that you are not defined by your skin color and that, like Justina, you can identify a certain way no matter how you look. The book would also help kids learn about adoption and solving crimes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Dania is an author, playwright, and teaching artist. Her middle grade novel Who’s Ju? won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Best YA eBook and was a finalist for the ILBA Mariposa Award for Best First Book.

Dania’s stage writing credits include Mi Casa Tu Casa (Luna Stage, Dreamcatcher Rep, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival) and Hielo (developed through the Women Playwrights Project at Writers Theatre of New Jersey). Her plays have also been featured in the New Jersey Women Playwrights Series (co-presented by Writers Theatre of New Jersey and Speranza Theatre Company), Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Reading Series, Writers Theatre of New Jersey’s FORUM and Soundings Reading Series, Luna Stage’s Short Play Festival, and the Maslow Salon Reading Series at Wilkes University. She’s been a finalist in the MetLife Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition and the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.

Dania is a creative writing instructor and a theatre teaching artist. She has led arts residencies and workshops for organizations including New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Writers Theatre of New Jersey, Writopia Lab, and the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts.

Dania is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, and Actors Equity Association. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from Montclair State University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

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: Even if the Sky Falls by Mia García

 

Review by Troi Genders

24218983DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: One midsummer night. Two strangers. Three rules: No real names. No baggage. No phones. A whirlwind twenty-four-hour romance about discovering what it means to feel alive in the face of one of life’s greatest dangers: love.

Who would you be if you had one night to be anyone you want?

Volunteering in New Orleans was supposed to be a change, an escape from the total mess Julie left at home and from her brother’s losing battle with PTSD. But building houses surrounded by her super-clingy team leader and her way-too-chipper companions has Julie feeling more trapped than ever. And she’s had enough.

In a moment of daring, Julie runs away, straight into the glitter, costumes, and chaos of the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade—and instantly connects with Miles, an utterly irresistible musician with a captivating smile and a complicated story of his own. And for once, Julie isn’t looking back. Together Julie and Miles decide to forget their problems and live this one night in the here and now. Wandering the night, they dance on roofs, indulge in beignets, share secrets and ghost stories under the stars, and fall in love. But when a Category Two hurricane changes course and heads straight for NOLA, their adventure takes an unexpected turn. And, suddenly, pretending everything is fine is no longer an option.

MY TWO CENTS: Mia García’s debut novel, Even if the Sky Falls is a colorful, emotional book that grabbed me from the first page. Set in New Orleans, the reader feels transported to the French Quarter and Jackson Square as you follow Julie and Miles on their night of throwing caution to the wind. Both characters have intriguing backstories that I wanted more of. I found myself caring not only for Julie but also for her brother Adam, who you learn more about through the course of the novel. Miles seemed at first to be a Don Juan–slick, handsome, and a massive flirt, but throughout the novel, you discover he is much more complex.

Julie is a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl who travels to New Orleans as part of a youth group trip to rebuild homes in New Orleans. She is doing so to get away from her family issues at home; her brother Adam recently returned from a tour of service and is not quite the same person he was before he left. While rebuilding homes, she sees a van filled with loud, happy people and decides that she is going to leave “Old Julie” behind and explore the city. She finds herself in the middle of Mid-Summer Mardi Gras, where she meets Miles, who is part of the Mid-Summer Boys band, whose music keeps Julie captivated. A New Orleans native, Miles knows the city and its history, so throughout the night, he shows Julie, who he calls Sunshine or Lila, the ins and outs of the “real” New Orleans. They agree to leave all baggage behind, just for one night. What they do not realize, however, is that they are about to fall hard for each other, and their pasts refuse to stay in the past. They also do not realize that a massive storm is heading straight their way, and it will change both of their lives. Both Julie and Miles have issues that they try to suppress, but it is not until the storm is upon them that they finally face what they have been running from.

In the beginning, I thought the storm was cliché, but it matches the character’s developments, especially with Julie and her refusal to share secrets about her past until they fully consume her. There are some religious aspects, mostly with her Abuela Julia, but it did not feel like García was beating me over the head with a Bible. It was also refreshing to have a Puerto Rican character whose heritage is referred to but not the central issue. At several points of the novel, Julie goes back to a time when she was in Puerto Rico on a trip or how her Abuela Julia helped to shape her into the person she is. I was gripping the book as I tried to figure out what the big moments were that both characters were running from, but García did not give them up easily. The big moment for each character hit me like a punch to the gut and made the characters more believable. Overall, the novel has a simple story structure: girl is unhappy with life, girl decides to be reckless, girl meets boy, they fall in love. But, García has given these characters so much depth and so much at stake that it is hard not to feel for them and want to cheer them on as they navigate both New Orleans during a storm and their pasts.

OTHER REVIEW QUOTES:

From School Library Journal: “The plot itself unravels like a hurricane, building and surging along with the storm. The story plateaus and tensions relax during the eye of the storm, but as quickly as the storm returns, so does the building action, which rages on until the final page.”

From Kirkus: “The author’s rich descriptions of New Orleans make the vibrant city come alive, from the music and ghost stories to the vampire lore and delicious beignets…A compelling 24-hour romance that’s as charged as its New Orleans setting.”

From Booklist: “García’s debut is a wrenching, high-stakes exploration of self-discovery. Readers of GayleForman, Sarah Dessen, and E. Lockhart will find themselves engaged by Julie’s quest.”

TEACHING TIPS: I would be somewhat hesitant to teach this in a class, only for some language usage, but I would definitely keep it in a classroom library so that students could check it out! If someone wanted to teach this book, I would definitely front load it with some information about New Orleans, its history, culture, and weather. It is key for the reader to understand the impact of Hurricane Katrina on this city. I was young when Katrina happened, but I know the repercussions are still felt on the city today. Also, I think it would be helpful for students to learn about what happens to soldiers after they come home from war, so they can better connect and sympathize with Adam.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Even if the Sky Falls, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

For a guest post from the author, about the fear and stress of writing about her culture, click here.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
: Mia García was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to New York, where she studied creative writing at the New School, worked in publishing, and now lives under a pile of to-be-read books. She’s a giant geek with comic book and archery addictions. Even if the Sky Falls is her debut novel. Her second novel, The Year of Everything, is expected to release in winter 2018. You can find her at www.mgarciabooks.com @MGarciaWrites on Twitter and Instagram, as well as on Tumblr at MGarciawrites.tumblr.com.

 

 

 

 

 

12119166_10204875618714252_5373585124158767944_nABOUT THE REVIEWER: Troi Genders is a senior at Ball State University studying Secondary English Education. Troi is a self-proclaimed cat-mom, YA and Contemporary enthusiast, and lifelong learner. You can reach her via email at tlgenders@bsu.edu or on twitter at @MissGendersBSU.