“I’m okay”: Resilience & Depression in Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks

By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

I’m guilty of always saying “I’m okay,” even when I know I am not. Often times, it seems easier to lie than to explain the depths of what hurts. It also seems more appropriate to suck it up than to admit I’m not as strong as I appear. Saying “I’m okay” when I am not is also a way to mask the shame I feel for feeling depressed when I know others have it worse. As Cindy L. Rodriguez explains in her blog post, “Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community,” depression is often associated with trauma and feeling depressed because you’re simply depressed rarely seems like a good enough reason. While causes and effects of depression vary tremendously, I have found that the stereotypes about depression are consistent. The stigma alone associated with depression has made it difficult for folks to speak openly about the issue. Because of this I wasn’t surprised that depression, including suicide attempts and suicide, isn’t a topic that is directly addressed in Latina/o children’s literature.

Tommy Stands AloneThe first book I encountered where a Latino character attempted suicide was Gloria Velasquez’s Tommy Stands Alone (1995). Tommy struggles with coming out as gay because his family and friends are not supportive, and in a moment of desperation, he overdoses on pills and alcohol. At the same time that I came across Velasquez’s book, I was also reading media articles about Dr. Luis H. Zayas’s research on Latina teen suicide attempts which connected suicide attempts to difficulties assimilating to dominant American society. In their March 2010 issue, Latina Magazine published an article that presented Zayas’s findings and discussed the ways in which Latina teens have a more difficult time assimilating because of their immigrant parents’ traditional values. While at the time I found the article to be important and informative, I was very hesitant about placing the blame for suicide attempts on the parents. Zayas has made it clear that there are various reasons why Latina teens attempt suicide and that his specific research has shown that one of the reasons is the tension between the two cultures.

What I feel is missing from an understanding of Latina/o teen suicide attempts and suicide rates is a discussion of how racism and other histories of oppression have made it difficult for these young teens to stay alive. In other words, while parents and families can certainly be a factor in one’s depression, I am weary of saying that Latino youth are depressed and/or attempting suicide because of their families. In this light, depression becomes racialized and parents become a source of otherness. In reading Velasquez’s young adult novel and Zayas’s research, I became interested in the ways that depression is understood as an individual problem rather than addressed as a community issue. Understanding depression as a personal problem also questions one’s resilience; furthermore, one’s ability to overcome depression becomes a signifier for their value.

I was definitely excited to learn that Cindy L. Rodriguez’s debut young adult novel, When Reason Breaks, addresses issues of depression and suicide attempts. Rodriguez’s novel adds to a much needed discussion on depression and Latina/o children’s literature. There are certainly various aspects of the novel to love, but I found the ambiguity of which character attempts suicide to be the most intriguing. When Reason Breaks (2015) tells the story of the uncanny connection between two seemingly different teenage girls. Elizabeth Davis develops a gothic like edge after her parent’s separation. Her new attitude often puts her at odds with her mother, teachers, and peers. Emily Delgado hangs out with the popular crowd, her teachers like her, and her family is well off. Her anxiety, however, gets the best of her and she begins to retreat from those around her. Elizabeth and Emily are forced to engage one another when Ms. Diaz pairs them up for an English project on Emily Dickinson. As the novel develops, Ms. Diaz begins to receive letters from a student describing feelings of depression and uncertainty until she finally receives a suicide note.

Elizabeth’s and Emily’s characters are an opportunity to discuss stereotypes associated with depression. The assumption is that Elizabeth is the one that attempts suicide because she has something to be depressed about—her parent’s divorce. At first, this traumatic event makes those around her sympathetic to her situation. Over time, though, people begin to lose patience with her, which is apparent by how often her mother scolds her and how frequently she’s sent to visit the school counselor. Elizabeth is an excellent example of what I mean by a person’s ability to overcome depression can determine their value. Because it appears that Elizabeth is not getting any better with time, those around her begin to read her as “troubled” and more likely to be trouble. Her behavior is policed and what could be read as typical teenage behavior, such as challenging authority and talking back, are sources for dismissal and punishment. While it’s obvious that Ms. Diaz is a concerned teacher, she, nonetheless, polices Elizabeth’s behavior based on the assumptions that the school counselor has made about Elizabeth and her depression. These assumptions made it difficult to see that it was another student that was really the one in danger. In contrast, Emily gets overlooked because she does not publicly exhibit signs of depression nor does she have a valid enough reason to be depressed. No one questions Emily’s mental health when she begins to pull away from those around her or when she misses homework assignments. Instead, her friends make light of the pressure she feels from her father to perform a certain level of Latino conservatism to protect his political career. That pressure is not recognized as a valid enough reason to feel depressed, much less a reason to attempt suicide. It is Emily’s resilience, however, that allows her to hide her depression and go unnoticed.

You're Lying graphicI read Emily’s resilience as being motivated not necessarily by her desire to overcome depression but her desire to hide it. Her father’s political position is certainly a main reason why she needs to keep it together, but it is also her mother’s silence that makes it difficult for Emily to express her own feelings. Emily’s performance of resilience is a strategy that I believe many people dealing with depression employ—especially if what makes one depressed is not recognized as a worthy reason for being depressed in the first place. Resilience serves as a way for Emily to protect herself from being ostracized the way that Elizabeth is because of depression. Emily expresses concern that if she were to divulge that she struggles with depression that too many people will get involved and ask too many questions. Because of this it is easier to simply say “I’m okay.” This resilience, however, almost costs Emily her life.

When Reason Breaks further presents the opportunity to discuss the impact depression has on families and communities. Ms. Diaz reveals that she, too, struggled with a traumatic situation. At the end of the novel, even Elizabeth’s mom opens up about her feelings and is able to reconcile with her daughter. Furthermore, the novel reveals that it takes a community to support someone with depression on their journey toward healing. Addressing depression as a community breaks the silence on this issue and expands notions of what depression is, what it looks like, who gets it, and what can be done about it. Elizabeth and Emily’s struggle with depression also demonstrates that it is likely that there are others close to them that may also be dealing with depression. Even though Emily’s mother is not a major character in the novel, there are specific moments where her behavior and silences suggest that she also struggles with her emotions. Novels like When Reason Breaks demonstrate the importance of generating dialogues in our communities about depression and the various ways that depression affects us all.

 

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

You're Lying graphicWhen I was 23 years old, I left Connecticut for Boston for what should have been an amazing experience. I had been recently hired to be a researcher for the Boston Globe’s award-winning investigative team, a dream come true for a young journalist. Over the next two years, however, depression slowly ruined me, although many people close to me never knew. I wrote about it for the Courant years later, when my mind was clear enough to make sense of it. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

“It was a rainy February night in 1997 when it became apparent that the depression was no longer a temporary emotion, but a disease that had invaded every part of my life. I had gotten into my car after work and cried all the way home. I can’t remember why. But I remember feeling like I was choking, like every nerve in my body was numb, like someone was squeezing my heart and everything good inside of me had been twisted around. I remember feeling hopeless.

“I knew then that this thing eating away at me would not just go away. For a long time, I was convinced it would. I believed that the admirable traits I inherited from those before me, like frankness and humor, would overpower this flaw.

“But days and months had blurred into more than a year. Fatigue had seeped into my bones and smiling became an effort — a false statement. I was tired all day and couldn’t sleep at night. I called into work sick with a flu I didn’t have. I pried myself off the sheets to make it in other days. My memory was deteriorating. I could listen to someone talk at length and not absorb a single word. I have no detailed recollection of certain events.

“Still, I thought the depression was situational. I was having a rough time at work, feeling beat-up emotionally and unappreciated. With my career being such a significant part of my identity, I felt shaken and unsure of my talents and abilities. Still, something inside of me was fighting back. I thought I could pull myself out of it.

“That February night, it was my mom who convinced me that this was bigger. That it was something that didn’t just belong to me — that I had inherited it. That it belonged to her and my grandmother before her. This was out of my control. ‘You are definitely depressed,’ she said. ‘Promise me you will see someone.’

“Six days later, I sat in a psychiatrist’s office, unsure of what to do exactly. Isn’t this a luxury for wealthy people? Or a necessity for people with real problems, like battered women? It was hard to justify needing this, being an otherwise perfectly healthy and successful 25-year-old. Yet, when I opened my mouth, a load of hurt poured out and the hour flew by.”

WhenReasonBreaks_CompTen years later, I was planning and drafting what would become When Reason Breaks, my debut novel about depression, attempted suicide, and the life and work of Emily Dickinson that releases February 10. While writing, I knew some readers would wonder why either of the two main characters–Emily Delgado and Elizabeth Davis–would want to kill herself. Nothing tragic happened to either of them. To some readers, none of their problems will be seen as good enough reasons to attempt suicide. They’ll want a big reveal moment: “Oh, she was (fill in the blank with a horrible experience). No wonder she’s depressed and suicidal. That’s a legitimate reason.”

When I was depressed, I didn’t think I had a right to be because, like my characters, nothing tragic had happened to me. I wanted to have a significant event, something I could point to and say, “Ah-ha, that’s the reason. If I address this one, obvious, horrible thing that happened to me, then I’ll be okay.” But I didn’t have that thing. Many depressed people don’t. And with the absence of something obviously wrong in my life, I pushed through the days for far too long, thinking what some people might think about my characters: my problems weren’t significant enough.

This kind of thinking can lead to tragedy because the depression goes untreated, which I’ve discovered happens often in the Latin@ community.

National health organizations report that Latin@s are at higher risk for depression than other minorities. Women experience major depression more often than men, and of students in grades 9-12, significantly more Latinas attempted suicide than their non-Latina peers. Yet, most Latin@s with mental health problems go untreated. A lack of access to affordable services and the stigma attached to mental illnesses are cited as barriers to treatment. Untreated depression can lead to suicide, which is the third leading cause of death for all people aged 15-24.

These statistics got me thinking about depression in young adult fiction, and I realized that in the books I’ve read, white characters are more likely to land on a psychiatrist’s couch. Most of the Latin@ characters in novels I’ve read fight through mild to severe depression without medical help, or they are somehow detained, in a treatment facility or group home, and the therapy is required. In When Reason Breaks, one of the main characters visits a doctor and gets medication, but doesn’t take it. She finally accepts real help after her suicide attempt.

As the Latin@ population continues to grow, I hope barriers are removed so that more Latin@s seek treatment for mental illnesses. I also hope more YA writers tackle the variety of mental illnesses and show characters of color getting help at some point instead of suffering through their pain. Maybe more teens will see themselves in these books and understand that their problems are significant enough, that they don’t need a “real reason” to feel the way they do, because in reality, depression is the real reason.

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Hopeline Network: 1-800-442-4673

Suggested by book lovers online, here are some titles with Latin@ characters who struggle with different levels of depression.

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Book Review: Sanctum: Guards of the Shadowlands, Book One by Sarah Fine

13482750By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This month we are taking a look at Latin@s in science fiction and fantasy. On Monday, we had a Q&A with Sarah Fine, author of the Guards of the Shadowlands series. Today, we take a closer look at her debut novel, first of the series, Sanctum, which features a 17-year-old Latina protagonist.

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK“My plan: Get into the city. Get Nadia. Find a way out. Simple.”

A week ago, seventeen-year-old Lela Santos’s best friend, Nadia, killed herself. Today, thanks to a farewell ritual gone awry, Lela is standing in paradise, looking upon a vast gated city in the distance—hell. No one willingly walks through the Suicide Gates, into a place smothered in darkness and infested with depraved creatures. But Lela isn’t just anyone—she’s determined to save her best friend’s soul, even if it means sacrificing her eternal afterlife.

As Lela struggles to find Nadia, she’s captured by the Guards, enormous, not-quite-human creatures that patrol the dark city’s endless streets. Their all-too-human leader, Malachi, is unlike them in every way except one: his deadly efficiency. When he meets Lela, Malachi forms his own plan: get her out of the city, even if it means she must leave Nadia behind. Malachi knows something Lela doesn’t—the dark city isn’t the worst place Lela could end up, and he will stop at nothing to keep her from that fate.

MY TWO CENTS: Sanctum by Sarah Fine offers an engaging blend of fantasy, action, romance, and contemporary social issues, sure to appeal to a variety of readers. Protagonist Lela Santos has spent most of her life in foster homes and the sexual abuse she suffers at one causes her to attempt suicide. Her abuser interrupts the suicide, but Lela was gone long enough to glimpse hell. When her best friend Nadia kills herself and Lela dies accidentally soon after, she is determined to save her friend from the city that preys on souls’ worst fears, insecurities, and vices.

Problem is: Lela doesn’t belong there. The city won’t sustain her, which puts her at risk of dying–again.

Another problem: Creepy creatures called Mazikin claim broken souls and are preparing to bust out of the city. The fights are fierce between the Mazikin and the Guards, and Lela proves to be a badass even before any formal fight training.

Yet another problem: Lela is falling in love with Malachi, the leader of the Guards. And while the romantic tension between them is hotter than Hades itself, a love affair in this setting isn’t likely to last. Plus, Lela is still healing from traumas experienced in her mortal life, which means she doesn’t easily trust people even in the afterlife.

One of the things I liked most about Sanctum was the development of the characters’ emotional journeys through pain and into healing. They all suffered so severely in life they decided to commit suicide, and that decision landed them in a place that continues their torment. Still, as difficult as it is, in life and this afterlife, some are able to overcome the worst experiences and find purpose in life and even love. I won’t give away what happens when Lela finds Nadia, but I will say I wasn’t entirely surprised at Nadia’s response to the rescue effort. The point that we all heal at our own pace is an important one to remember (in real life) when trying to help people with mental health issues.

TEACHING TIPS: One thing the Common Core State Standards asks is for students to compare different treatments of the same subject or analyze how one work of literature has influenced another. One way Sanctum could be used in the classroom, even if only parts are used, is to compare Fine’s version of hell with other versions of hell and purgatory in literature. Discussions about the afterlife and the particular fate of those who commit suicide would be appropriate in higher level English classes that consider the Bible’s influence on literature and history/social studies courses that include a comparative study of religions.

AUTHOR: Sarah Fine is the author of the Guards of the Shadowlands, a YA urban fantasy series (Skyscape/Amazon Children’s Publishing), including Sanctum (October 2012) and Fractured (October 2013). The third and final book in this series comes out in October 2014. In May 2014, Putnam/Penguin published Scan, the first of two thrillers she co-authored with Walter Jury. Her gothic young adult novel Of Metal and Wishes will be published by McElderry/Simon & Schuster in August 2014. When she’s not writing, she’s psychologizing. Sometimes she does both at the same time. The results are unpredictable.

Author Sarah Fine Talks About Hell, Trauma, and Creating Diverse Characters

13482750By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This month, we are taking a look at Latin@s in science fiction and fantasy. Today, we have a Q&A with Sarah Fine, author of Sanctum and Fracture. (Book three is in the works.) Here is a partial description of Sanctum, which features Lela Santos, a Latina main character, a foster child from Rhode Island who has experienced abandonment, neglect, and sexual abuse:

A week ago, seventeen-year-old Lela Santos’s best friend, Nadia, killed herself. Today, thanks to a farewell ritual gone awry, Lela is standing in paradise, looking upon a vast gated city in the distance—hell. No one willingly walks through the Suicide Gates, into a place smothered in darkness and infested with depraved creatures. But Lela isn’t just anyone—she’s determined to save her best friend’s soul, even if it means sacrificing her eternal afterlife.

Cindy: First, let me say that I loved Sanctum. The only part that frustrated me was how long it took for Lela and Malachi to kiss :.)

Sarah: I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I hope the kiss was worth the wait!

Cindy: The premise of Lela going into hell to retrieve Nadia is similar to the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice, but obviously this is not a retelling. How influenced were you by that myth or mythology in general?

Sarah: I actually didn’t think about that particular myth at all as I was generating the idea for this book. When I read that comparison in a review, I was like … you know, that’s actually quite apt! I was a little more influenced by Jewish and Mesopotamian mythology. The Mazikin are mentioned in the Talmud as evil spirits or demons, and the inhuman Guards are very loosely based off protective deities called the lamassu in Mesopotamian myths, where they’re described as half-man, half-bull.

Cindy: Your setting is an interesting kind of hell, with the buildings being alive and able to feed off its inhabitants. How did you create and develop this idea? What kind of research do you do for fantasy world creation?

Sarah: This idea was inspired by the way C.S. Lewis wrote about his version of hell/purgatory in The Great Divorce. The “grey town” is this massive, depressing city where it’s always raining, always twilight—and here’s the part that really got me: people could have whatever they wanted, but it was of low quality. That Grey Town at the very beginning of that book completely inspired the dark city in Sanctum. Obviously, I changed it a lot, including the idea that the city is really one living, breathing entity that grows off the depression of the people residing within, but I give Lewis the credit for the basic idea (and he was clearly influenced by Dante in that work, so he deserves credit as well.)

17667916Cindy: Do you continue to work as a child psychologist? Did your work experiences help you to portray the emotional recovery Lela and the others have to go through in order to heal from trauma?

Sarah: I do, but in a different capacity than I have in the past, when I did a lot of home-based evaluations and therapy. Now I direct programs and supervise clinicians who provide those services to children and adolescents who are at risk for out-of-home placement in psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment facilities. Our goal is to work with families to keep these kids at home and in their communities, where research clearly shows they do best.

My work definitely influences how I see the complexity of trauma and what it takes to heal. A huge percentage of our clients have experienced some type of trauma, and usually not what we think of as single event, “simple” trauma. Though that can be devastating, it’s actually easier to treat than the complex developmental trauma we often see, where the trauma is more chronic and ongoing. This is actually the type of trauma Lela’s experienced—multiple disruptions in attachments, several instances of abuse or neglect. As I show her fragile but growing relationship with Diane, her foster mom, that’s always on my mind. I definitely explore more of that in book three.

Cindy: In addition to the great action scenes, this story focused on the characters’ battles with their personal demons. Thinking about author choices here…because of the issues the characters face, this story could have been developed as a YA contemporary. What led you to decide to develop the story as fantasy instead?

Sarah: I guess it’s a preference thing. There are some brilliant, brilliant authors who have explored these issues with contemporary YA (Nina LaCour, for example), but I wanted to place these characters in an environment where the depression was a tangible, living thing. This fantasy world gave me the chance to explore a lot of philosophical issues, like what is heaven, really, and how could it possibly be the same for everyone? What if you’re not emotionally ready to be there and accept what it offers? To me, that’s not a religious question, but a more concrete way of exploring something very emotional–Can you have some version of that goodness in your life, no matter where you are? What would you have to understand and embrace to receive that?

Cindy: Again with author choices….Obviously you could have created characters of any race, ethnicity, etc. What made you decide to create a Latina MC?

Sarah Fine

Sarah Fine

Sarah: Lela Santos really just materialized to me in that form. However, I will tell you that the majority of the school children in the urban core of Rhode Island, where Lela’s from, are Latino/a. Also, in general, children of color are overrepresented in terms of involvement in the juvenile justice system in this country (with harsher sentences as well—we’ve had court workers outright say that they’re harder on these kids because of the racism they face within society, which is a totally twisted logic that over-penalizes those children and in my opinion perpetuates that racism). Once I considered those facts, it seemed wrong to consider making her anything other than what she was from the beginning.

Cindy: Your secondary characters have interesting back stories as well, which suggests to me that including diversity in your writing is important to you. Some authors shy away from including diverse characters for fear of “getting it wrong.” Did you have any concerns about creating diverse characters? What advice, if any, would you give to fantasy writers about diversity in the genre?

Sarah: This story takes place in the afterlife, and the idea that the only people residing there would be Anglo-American, or any kind of American, is pretty laughable. The world is a BIG place—and the afterlife would be the same, minus the country divisions. Everyone would be there together, right? The dark city where most of Sanctum takes place is where everyone in the world who committed suicide has gone (with some exceptions, I think, but that’s a different interview!). I felt very strongly that having Lela coincidentally meet up with people who were American would just be false and icky.

I did have concerns, of course, because I really wanted these characters to have an impact, and to feel like real people. I did quite a bit of research. I also focused on writing from the inside out, trying to focus on each of those characters as human beings who loved and hoped and despaired in their own ways. I don’t think I’m some kind of expert on this. I’m certain I’ve made mistakes. But I’m curious and always wanting to learn about people who are different from me. And I started from the premise that all those diverse characters—Lela, Malachi, Ana, Takeshi—were on their own profoundly personal journeys, armed only with their intelligence, resilience, perseverance, and the capacity to risk their lives and hearts for a chance at peace. The rest flowed from that.

Check out these other works by Sarah Fine:

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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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WhenReasonBreaks_Comp

 

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!

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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

Book Review: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu

By Stephanie Guerra

18079898DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: M.T. is undocumented. But she keeps that a secret. As a straight-A student with a budding romance and loyal best friend, M.T.’s life seems as apple-pie American as her blondish hair and pale skin. But she hides two facts to the contrary: her full name of Monserrat Thalia and her status as an undocumented immigrant.

But it’s getting harder to hide now that M.T.’s a senior. Her school’s National Honor Society wants her to plan their trip abroad, her best friend won’t stop bugging her to get her driver’s license, and all everyone talks about is where they want to go to college. M.T. is pretty sure she can’t go to college, and with high school ending and her family life unraveling, she’s staring down a future that just seems

In the end, M.T. will need to trust herself and others to stake a claim in the life that she wants

Told in M.T.’s darkly funny voice and full of nuanced characters, The Secret Side of Empty is a poignant but unsentimental look at what it’s like to live as an “illegal” immigrant, how we’re shaped by the secrets we keep, and how the human spirit ultimately always triumphs.

MY TWO CENTS: This is an ambitious book, taking on a range of powerful topics including immigration, domestic abuse, and suicide. Maria Andreu approaches her themes head on and unflinchingly. Her writing is raw and honest, and as a result, the book engages at a deeper level than the average YA.

Monserrat Thalia, or M. T., is a conflicted, loveable character and a convincing portrait of a teen struggling with the challenges of “illegal” immigrant status. M. T. is from Argentina, but her desire for rootedness, her grief, and her uneasy relationship with America and Americans all speak to common threads experienced by immigrants from many cultures. As M. T. approaches high school graduation, the differences between her situation and that of her friends emerge in stark contrast: because of her undocumented status, she has no possibility of a degree, and no chance for a job and the trappings of a “successful” life. Meanwhile, her friends are college and career bound.

As M. T. grows increasingly bleak about her dead-end future, even contemplating suicide, her father enters his own spiral of immigration-related frustration, inadequacy, and violence. The book raises provocative questions: When does disciplinary hitting cross a line into abuse? How frequently or severely must violent episodes occur to justify a call for help? What are the products of intersecting adult insecurity, fear of deportation, cultural background, and violence?

I applaud Maria Andreu for taking a courageous look at all these questions through a snapshot of M. T.’s senior year. Andreu’s writing is clean and accessible with sharp-edged wit and darkly ironic undertones sure to appeal to teen readers. Characterizations are strong, with a special flair for finely drawn secondary characters. Best of all, no easy answers are offered. This book calls for thoughtful discussion, and is ideal for illuminating and humanizing an experience that many readers understand only through media coverage and political debate.

Maria AndreuAUTHORMaria E. Andreu is the author of the novel The Secret Side of Empty, the story of a teen girl who is American in every way but one: on paper. She was brought to the U.S. as a baby and is now undocumented in the eyes of the law. The author draws on her own experiences as an undocumented teen to give a glimpse into the fear, frustration and, ultimately, the strength that comes from being “illegal” in your own home.

Now a citizen thanks to legislation in the 1980s, Maria resides in a New York City suburb with all her “two’s”: her two children, two dogs and two cats. She speaks on the subject of immigration and its effect on individuals, especially children. When not writing or speaking, you can find her babying her iris garden and reading post apocalyptic fiction. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Secret Side of Empty, visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out worldcat.org, indiebound.org, goodreads.com, amazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.