Book Review: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi

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Reviewed by María Dolores Águila

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DESCRIPTION OF BOOK: Fourteen-year-old Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi sets out to win the ultimate date to homecoming in this heartfelt and outright hilarious debut.

Parvin Mohammadi has just been dumped – only days after receiving official girlfriend status. Not only is she heartbroken, she’s humiliated. Enter high school heartthrob Matty Fumero, who just might be the smoking-hot cure to all her boy problems. If Parvin can get Matty to ask her to Homecoming, she’s positive it will prove to herself and her ex that she’s girlfriend material after all. There’s just one problem: Matty is definitely too cool for bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Parvin. Since being herself hasn’t worked for her in the past (see aforementioned dumping), she decides to start acting like the women in her favorite rom-coms. Those women aren’t loud, they certainly don’t cackle when they laugh, and they smile much more than they talk.

But Parvin discovers that being a rom-com dream girl is much harder than it looks. Also hard? The parent-mandated Farsi lessons. A confusing friendship with a boy who’s definitely not supposed to like her. And hardest of all, the ramifications of the Muslim ban on her family in Iran. Suddenly, being herself has never been more important.

Olivia Abtahi’s debut is as hilarious as it is heartfelt – a delightful tale where, amid the turmoil of high school friendships and crushes, being yourself is always the perfect way to be.

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MY TWO CENTS: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi is a hilarious, fun, fast-paced yet surprisingly deep read; long after I read it, I found myself thinking about the themes hidden under the shiny veneer of the Rom-Com label. 

Parvin, pronounced PAR-veen with a hard A, not Par-vin, is about to start high school with a boyfriend she met while playing pranks on the beach during summer vacation, and she can’t wait to flaunt him to her friends, Ruth and Fabián, who may or may not believe he is a delusion. But Wesley is real, and at their high school orientation, he dumps her for being “too much” in front of everyone and the shock leaves her lying on the linoleum, with her friends scrambling to resuscitate her with an empty Hot Cheetos bag. Later, she muses:

Who cared if my friends and family like my ‘amazingness’? If potential boyfriends didn’t, then what was the point? What Wesley told me yesterday was right: I was too much…I was Parvin ‘Loud’ Mohammadi. It seems like everyone knew it but me.” 

After running into Wesley and his perfect new girlfriend, Teighan, who is “everything I was not”, and finding out they are going to Homecoming together, Ruth and Fabián try to cheer Parvin up with an emergency sleepover at which they watch The Little Mermaid, The Princess Bride, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. After watching these films, Parvin “finally cracks the code for why I’d never had a boyfriend before, and why the one I did have dumped me so quickly…I was too chatty for a love story of my own.” Ruth and Fabián try to convince Parvin that she should find someone who likes her the way she is, but Parvin’s set on the idea that she must change herself into a “leading lady” in order to find a new boyfriend and make Wesley regret dumping her. 

She stops wearing the sparkly silver eyeshadow Ameh Sara taught her how to apply via Skype. She stops wearing her favorite clothes. She stops playing pranks and eating Hot Cheetos. She straightens her “…curls that are ‘loud’ in their own way.” She argues with her parents about going to Farsi lessons, even though there’s a cute Iranian boy that seems to like all the things Parvin is trying to change, because she’d rather spend her weekends like a “normal high schooler”.  

The friendship between Parvin, Fabián, and Ruth is the backbone of the story and carries us through the plot to the resolution. Fabián and Ruth are more than just Parvin’s friends – they’re fully realized characters with their own desires, goals, and arcs that intersect, complement, and at times, even oppose Parvin’s. Fabián is a gay Mexican American Tik Tok star who uploads amazing dance videos and whose parents are always busy with their jobs at the Mexican Embassy. Ruth is a pansexual crafter with a demanding Mom who is a professor at Georgetown University, and she’s not sure how to tell her mom about the girl she has a huge crush on. They both urge Parvin to embrace who she is and their friendship becomes strained as Parvin stubbornly clings to the idea that she needs to change. 

A secondary plot is the relationship with Ameh Sara, Parvin’s aunt, who lives in Iran, Skypes with her almost daily, is Parvin’s closest confidant, and is supposed to visit her in the fall. As Parvin’s plans begin unraveling and falling into chaos, Parvin desperately believes that if she can just hold out until Ameh Sara comes to visit her, she can still prevail with her “leading lady” plan. But Trump’s Muslim Ban complicates Ameh Sara’s visit. 

As Parvin gradually and subtly begins losing herself in her quest to become a “leading lady” and snag a date for Homecoming, sacrificing pieces of herself, she must decide: is it worth changing herself for someone else?

Avid romance readers will be able to spot the resolution of various romantic arcs quickly, but it doesn’t take away from the story in the slightest. It still feels fresh, fun, and unexpected.

Where Perfectly Parvin shines is the narrative voice – Parvin’s actions, thoughts, relationships, desires, problems, and mistakes feel authentic and appropriate to that of a fourteen-year-old high school freshman. It was refreshing to read a YA Novel on the younger side of the YA spectrum, especially since around that age, many adolescents are questioning who they are and who they want to be, and Perfectly Parvin explores the answer in all its glorious messiness. Loud, rebellious girls who may not relate to the shy and introverted heroine trope often found in YA literature will connect to Parvin and her struggle to become quiet and demure. There’s something deeply cathartic about reading someone experiencing something you’ve considered doing yourself. 

In the end, the reader is told a powerful message through Ameh Sara, “Just be yourself. I know people always say that, but only you get to decide what that means.” 

In Perfectly Parvin, Olivia Abtahi skillfully explores themes of racial identity, womanhood, family relationships, Western beauty standards, friendship, politics, and first love in a way that never feels heavy-handed or didactic. In fact, it discusses these concepts in such a way that you don’t realize exactly how deep the book is until you’ve finished it and you’re thinking about it later. I highly recommend reading the Author’s Note, as it really ties together why Abtahi made the narrative choices she did. Readers who enjoyed From Little Tokyo with Love by Sarah Kuhn and Made in Korea by Sarah Suk or fans of On My Block and Never Have I Ever on Netflix, will likely be delighted with Perfectly Parvin.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Olivia Abtahi is a film director and writer based in Denver, Colorado. Born to an Iranian father and an Argentine mother, she is a melting pot of distinct cultures. Olivia holds a BFA from NYU’s School for Film and Television, as well as a Masters in advertising from VCU Brandcenter. From print to video to all things online, Olivia enjoys using different mediums to tell better stories for brands, causes, and communities.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: María Dolores Águila is a Chicana writer based in San Diego, California. She writes picture books, middle grade and young adult novels celebrating and exploring the nuances of Chicanx culture and identity. She’s also a moderator of Kidlit Latinx, a writing group dedicated to supporting and amplifying Latinx voices in Children’s Literature. She has a forthcoming picture book coming in 2024. She is represented by Lindsay Auld of Writers House Literary Agency. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.

Book Review: Like a Love Song by Gabriela Martins

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Reviewed by Alexandra Someillan

Cover for Like a Love Song (Underlined Paperbacks)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Natalie is living her dream: topping the charts and setting records as a Brazilian pop star… until she’s dumped spectacularly on live television. Not only is it humiliating–it could end her career.

Her PR team’s desperate plan? A gorgeous yet oh-so-fake boyfriend. Nati reluctantly agrees, but William is not what she expected. She was hoping for a fierce bad boy–not a soft-hearted British indie film star. While she fights her way back to the top with a sweet and surprisingly swoon-worthy boy on her arm, she starts to fall for William–and realizes that maybe she’s the biggest fake of them all. Can she reclaim her voice and her heart?

MY TWO CENTS: Like a Love Song was the ultimate light-hearted book to get me out of my book funk, and it was the kind of book that reminded me why I love rom-coms so much. Gabriela Martins captures pop culture celebrities today and what it’s like living in a microscope. Natalie faces the pressures of being an international pop star as a young Latina trying to please everyone while dealing with one of the most humiliating breakup in front of the whole world.

As a registered celebrity-obsessed addict, nothing fascinates me more than a book that discusses the complexities of social media and how every move a celebrity makes is dissected and judged, even more so when it comes to young female stars. Natalie is the kind of character that reminds us of famous pop stars like Selena Gomez or Britney Spears and the intense media scrutiny they endure daily. She faces the heartbreaking reality of the constant expectation to be the poised and perfect pop star even after having her celebrity boyfriend break up with her on live television seconds before receiving her award.

Just like in the typical pop culture of today, Natalie getting dumped becomes a meme that is constantly posted and retweeted on social media. The author explores the distinction between male and female celebrities in a nuanced way and provides a realistic portrayal of who the public usually chooses to target in the aftermath of a scandal. Unfortunately, Natalie is the target, and her ex-boyfriend Trent comes out unscathed while her PR team scrambles to save Natalie’s career. Of course, the PR strategy involves getting her a fake boyfriend when all Natalie wants is to hide under the covers and stalk her ex-boyfriend’s Instagram.

Even though I thought that the relationship between Natalie and William was one of the most adorable opposites-attract love stories with all the rom-com feels, I came out of the story wanting more between these two characters. Normally, I am all about insta-love stories. Still, I felt that the relationship that developed between Natalie and William was a bit rushed, and this is probably due to the book being a relatively short read. Other than that, there were plenty of swoon-worthy parts in this book, and there were many times I caught myself smiling from ear to ear, loving the dynamic between a world-famous, glamorous pop singer and an indie actor with quirky socks.

One of Natalie’s main struggles that I found deeply relatable revolves around the theme of identity and what it means to be Brazilian. Throughout the story, Natalie questions her heritage and feels alienated from her Brazilian family. She chooses to assimilate to American culture, but she knows deep inside that something is missing. I loved the journey that Natalie goes through to find herself, and it’s something I can understand growing up Cuban-American in an extremely Americanized family.

This book is needed in Latinx publishing because it is one of the few rom-coms written by a Brazilian author, with a Brazilian main character, with queer representation, and features all the rom-com tropes we all know and love! Like a Love Song is the kind of story that reminds us to be ourselves instead of trying to meet other people’s expectations. When you are yourself, the people who accept you are the people who will be around you for life.

TEACHING TIPS: Gabriela Martin’s book could be used in a life skills class, where students could discuss the pressures of representing certain parts of yourself on social media and how to deal with online bullying.

The resource I recommend is from Mike’s Math Mall on https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Anti-Bullying-Campus-Social-Media-Campaign-using-Language-Arts-Story-Elements-436818.

There is a great activity where you can divide students into groups of four. You can have them create a social media campaign poster, skit, video, Instagram post, or short story related to online bullying, challenging the pressures of social media and learning how to protect yourself from cyberbullying. The activity includes many graphic organizers and templates students can use to organize their ideas.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website https://www.gabrielawrites.com/): GABRIELA MARTINS is a Brazilian kidlit author and linguist. Her stories feature Brazilian characters finding themselves and love. She was a high school teacher and has also worked as a TED Ed-Club facilitator, where she helped teens develop their own talks in TED format to present. She edited and self-published a pro-bono LGBTQ+ anthology (KEEP FAITH) with all funds going to queer people in need. When she’s not writing, she can be found cuddling with her two cats, or singing loudly and off-key.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Alexandra Someillan is a freelance book reviewer and teacher who lives in Miami, FL. She has written for Frolic Media, where she has raved about her favorite Latinx romances. Currently, she has been accepted in the Las Musas mentorship and is working on her Latinx contemporary novel with Nina Moreno. Usually, you can find Alexandra obsessing over nineties pop culture and eating too many pastelitos.

Book Review: We Unleash the Merciless Storm by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Being a part of the resistance group La Voz is an act of devotion and desperation. On the other side of Medio’s border wall, the oppressed class fights for freedom and liberty, sacrificing what little they have to become defenders of the cause.

Carmen Santos is one of La Voz’s best soldiers. She spent years undercover, but now, with her identity exposed and the island on the brink of a civil war, Carmen returns to the only real home she’s ever known: La Voz’s headquarters.

There she must reckon with her beloved leader, who is under the influence of an aggressive new recruit, and with the devastating news that her true love might be the target of an assassination plot. Will Carmen break with her community and save the girl who stole her heart—or fully embrace the ruthless rebel she was always meant to be?

MY TWO CENTS: In this action-packed follow-up to her debut novel We Set the Dark on Fire, Tehlor Kay Mejia continues her revolutionary queer romance with a bang. Picking up moments after We Set the Dark on Fire ends, We Unleash the Merciless Storm shifts vantage points from Dani, the Primera wife whose secret identity as an undocumented immigrant from beyond Medio’s rigid borders complicates her life and causes her to tenatively join the resistance, to Carmen, who seemed to embody the social mores of Medio’s stratified and exclusive world, but is actually an undercover operative for the revolutionary group La Voz.

Readers will need to be familiar with We Set the Dark on Fire to fully grasp the extent of We Unleash the Merciless Storm. I found myself returning to the previous book to remember the intricacies of Medio’s social codes and to remind myself of character names and traits. This is not a stand alone book, and, I would wager, it’s a sequel best enjoyed immediately following reading (or rereading) the first novel.

The switch to Carmen as the main character proves an interesting counterpoint to Dani’s narrative in the first novel. Whereas Dani is largely unaware of the mounting resistance to Medio’s restrictive government, Carmen is deeply involved in the resistance. Carmen seems superficial and catty in the first novel, but We Unleash the Merciless Storm unravels that narrative, posing Carmen as an astute and powerful member of La Voz. But, her relationship with Dani was an unforeseen complication to her mission to unravel Medio from the inside.

It would be a typical narrative maneuver to have Carmen torn between her love for Dani and her loyalty to La Voz, but Mejia resists that stale plot. Rather, Carmen sees her loyalties to both Dani and La Voz as intertwined. Mejia’s explorations of Carmen’s motives seem authentic and they reflect the complex and competing emotions of resistance and love. Those who are looking for nonstop action may be frustrated with Carmen’s frequent reflections on her relationship with Dani, but these thoughts don’t seem out of place for someone like Carmen who was undercover for the majority of her formative years. Not only is Carmen contending with the loss of her love, but she’s also relearning how to be a part of La Voz after years away. Carmen’s wondering also reveals important questions about revolution. Is a political uprising necessarily violent? Can change be made without pain? As Carmen grapples with these questions, her loyalties to La Voz are questioned and she must prove herself while also remaining true to her values.

As with my feelings toward We Set the Dark on Fire, I found We Unleash the Merciless Storm to be the kind of novel that I longed for as a teenager (and, frankly, enjoyed immensely as an adult). The romance is there, of course, but it’s not the entire focus–and it shouldn’t be! I love a good romance, especially a queer romance, but the complexities of Medio’s government and La Voz’s revolutionary ideals give contemporary teens an important counterpoint to our own global politics.

 

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo  Editing: Adrian King

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Tehlor Kay Mejia is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult fantasy novel We Set the Dark on Fire and its sequel, We Unleash the Merciless Storm, and the forthcoming Miss Meteor (co-written with National Book Award nominee Anna-Marie McLemore). Her middle grade debut, Paola Santiago and the River of Tears, releases from Rick Riordan Presents in 2020.

Her debut novel received six starred reviews, and was chosen as an Indie’s Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild selection, as well as being an Indiebound bestseller in the Pacific Northwest region. It has been featured in Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and O by Oprah Magazine’s best books of 2019 lists.

Tehlor lives in Oregon with her daughter, a dog that matches her hair, and several rescued houseplants. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children. Both paths promise a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.

And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.

Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

MY TWO CENTS: Would it be hyperbolic to say that I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this? Reading We Set the Dark on Fire made me feel fifteen again, devouring every immersive fantasy book with a twist of romance that I could get my hands on. But where those books fell short in both diversity and female empowerment, We Set the Dark on Fire excels and exceeds.

Opening with a brief folkloric backstory, Tehlor Kay Mejia’s shining debut novel submerges its reader in the hierarchical world of Medio and its fraught borders. Medio’s tension with its border towns and what lies beyond its literal border wall finds roots in the mythology established at the beginning of the text: The disintegrating relationship between brother gods, both desirous of the same wife. Ultimately, the Sun God won the right to have a relationship with both an earthly queen, Constancia, and the Moon Goddess—his Primera and Segunda wives—over his brother, the Salt God. Scorned and cursed, the Salt God was banished. Mimicking this folktale, Medio’s contemporary social system is built around the upper classes having a Primera wife, who runs the household, and Segunda, for beauty and harmony. While the upper echelons superficially thrive on this model, the border and beyond—territory of the Salt God—suffers and is subjected to increasing violence.

Mejia’s worldbuilding in the first few pages of this novel are brilliant, thorough, and engaging in a way that doesn’t feel beleaguered. Though Medio’s world may seem leagues away, its tumultuous border disputes feel so grounded in our contemporary moment that readers will instantly latch onto this novel. The orders that those who would risk traversing Medio’s border wall be shot on sight seem jarring when reading the novel, but then I turn on my TV or open social media and I’m reminded, once again, of the exigency of a novel like this.

Additionally, Mejia’s masterfully and lovingly created world plays perfect backdrop to the complex relationship between new Primera wife, Dani, and Segunda wife, Carmen. Dani, an undocumented immigrant from beyond the wall, smuggled across when she was a child, has managed to stay under the radar, even through her new marriage to the most eligible and most politically well-positioned bachelor in Medio. But her passing comes at a cost: being indebted to the rebel group La Voz. As Dani performs increasingly risky tasks for La Voz, she becomes further entangled with their mission. Complicating matters is her at-first catty relationship with Carmen, but as Dani and Carmen grow more intimate, Dani’s investment in the revolution becomes all the more precarious.

We Set the Dark on Fire sets the stage for what (I hope, please Tehlor Kay Mejia, please, tell me there will be more) promises to be a robust and revolutionary universe. Carmen and Dani’s relationship, alone, is a revolutionary prospect. We are getting more and more queer Latinx books for young readers, but to see this kind of representation in a fantasy novel is just lovely and wonderful (even if the plot of the book is dark and gritty). Like I said, this is the kind of novel I would have loved as a teenager. It doesn’t overemphasize its love story, but it makes Dani’s unfolding attraction to Carmen feel organic, naturally growing from their situation and Dani’s own burgeoning self-awareness. What’s more, the attention to Dani’s growth and empowerment will resonate with young readers, seeking similar empowerment from the texts they read. Finally, Mejia’s choice to make this a Latinx story is calculated and necessary. The names, foods, and contours of Medio’s spaces bespeak Latinx culture, but Mejia is careful to not overemphasize and caricaturize. This world feels real because it’s grounded in something real. Mejia’s given us a gift in this lush, rebellious, queer, Latinx story.

All-in-all, We Set the Dark on Fire’s otherworldliness, its devotion to strong and multifaceted female Latinx characters, and its queer romance subplot make it impressive, and Mejia’s immersive prose make it lasting. To be fair, it may be a little difficult to get into because it does move slowly, building tension at the same time as the reader digs deeper into Medio’s innerworkings; even so, it’s worth the wait. For fans of Anna Marie McLemore’s books, We Set Fire to the Dark is a must-read. We’ll be talking about this book for years.

 

Tehlor Kay MejiaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tehlor Kay Mejia is an author and Oregon native in love with the alpine meadows and evergreen forests of her home state, where she lives with her daughter. We Set the Dark on Fire is her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.

 

 

Book Review: The Victoria In My Head by Janelle Milanes

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Simon & Schuster): A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.

Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.

But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.

From debut author Janelle Milanes comes a hilarious and heartfelt tale of the spectacular things that can happen when you go after what you really want.

MY TWO CENTS: I’m not a voracious reader of romance novels for any age group. This book, however, completely caught me off guard. I won’t say that the book wasn’t predictable. It was, but it would have been disappointing if it had not been predictable.

Without giving too many details away, Victoria Cruz is growing up in a world where all outcomes are designed to please what she thinks others are expecting of her. The Victoria in her head wants so much to be her own person, but she has a hard time dealing with what she thinks her parents reactions will be. Her Cuban parents gave up everything in Cuba and have worked so hard in the United States to give Victoria and her brother the life that is often unavailable in countries like Cuba. Victoria, like so many children of immigrant parents, feels like telling them that she doesn’t want to become a doctor and graduate from Harvard will disappoint them in a way she’s not ready to accept. When she finally takes the plunge and starts rebelling in small ways (which she does with help from her best friend, Annie), Victoria finally starts feeling like herself. In doing this, of course, she lies to her parents, hiding her real self once she begins acting more like the “Victoria in her head.”

Here’s where the predictability sets in. Does Victoria get in over her head with the lies she’s telling to others? Yes. Does she inevitably have to face some truths that she’s been trying to hide from herself? Maybe. Does everything turn out well in the end? Quite possibly, but I don’t want to give any spoilers!

But as I mentioned, that’s not a disadvantage in this case! The version of herself that she tries to hide is a person who is passionate, easy-going, and even incredibly funny. In one passage, Victoria complains about a part of her female anatomy in a way that is “lmao” funny, but in a way that most anyone, regardless of gender, can empathize with. Herein lies Victoria’s real value. She’s a very likable character who makes questionable decisions (just like any of us), is afraid of disappointing her parents, sometimes is a little self-centered, but not maliciously. Readers will want her to succeed, to make the person she is in her head a reality.

Because of her Cuban background, the reader gets a taste of the Latinidad that she identifies with (large family gatherings, celebrating Noche Buena with her abuelita who never lets an opportunity to comment on Victoria’s vegetarianism pass, learning choreographed salsa dances because you’re in your cousin’s quince court). The thing that Milanes does particularly well is she makes Victoria more than just a Cuban-American. While her parents are a little obsessed with her being an exemplary child (for legitimate reasons, of course), Victoria is not defined just by her Cuban identity or her Latina ethnicity. Instead, those things are small parts of the compilation that is a more real representation of identity: where she comes from is important, but so is what she likes and dislikes, who she meshes well with, what her dreams are. The way that Milanes creates a “whole package” character in Victoria is what shines brightest in this book.

TEACHING TIPS: One important lesson to be learned from reading The Victoria In My Head is that it’s important to be true to yourself. Throughout the book, Victoria tries to deny the things that she wants out of life to either please those around her or be the model person that she thinks others want to see. The reader can see her grapple with her identity throughout, and can hopefully associate with her struggle and learn that compromising one’s identity to please the world often leads to catastrophe.

greeceABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Author’s Website): Janelle Milanes is originally from Miami, FL and received her BA in English Literature from Davidson College. A lifelong YA addict, she moved to New York for her first job as a children’s literature associate at Simon & Schuster. For the past five years, Janelle has worked as a teacher and librarian throughout the New York City area. Her first novel reflects many of her own experiences growing up as a second-generation Latina in America. Janelle currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two cats. Her favorite Disney princess is Belle, since she was also a big book nerd.

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

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.