Book Review: The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Marcos Rivas yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood, away from his indifferent mom and her abusive boyfriend—which seems impossible.

When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program, he meets Zach and Amy, whose friendship inspires Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself. The Closest I’ve Come is a story about traversing real and imagined boundaries, about discovering new things in the world, and about discovering yourself, too.

MY TWO CENTS: As a seasoned reader of Latinx young adult literature, I expect books that centralize male protagonists to fit within a particular, if unfortunate, macho framework; but I hoped that The Closest I’ve Come would buck tradition. While some parts of the book surprised me (like protagonist Marcos Rivas and his pals having a heart-to-heart at the end of the book), others conformed to the stereotypes I’ve grown used to—absent or abusive fathers, drug trafficking, and gratuitous violence.

Based on the book’s description, I anticipated The Closest I’ve Come would deliver a stereotype-busting journey of self-acceptance; but it’s not until the final fifty pages or so of this book that I was able to see this narrative coalesce. In the condensed space of this young adult novel, Aceves juggles quite a bit, sometimes to the detriment of his overarching goal of revealing how Marcos overcomes his circumstances and comes to accept himself. The plot is sprawling. It follows Marcos as he navigates the complex racial hierarchies of his poor, urban neighborhood, Maesta; through the hallways of his high school; into Future Success, the special program he finds himself enrolled in; and inside the four walls of his home, where he battles a tense relationship with his mother and abuse at the hands of her racist boyfriend. Though I had some difficulty keeping track of the plot, as well as the multiple characters corresponding to each subplot, each reveals a new facet of Marcos’s identity—his tenderness, his concern, and his desire to please.

Yet, whereas Marcos—via Aceves’s first-person narration—is fairly open about his feelings of inadequacy and his hopes for the future, he only shares these thoughts with the reader. Marcos longs for the love of his distant mother. He also vies for the attention of his non-traditional crush– Amy, a punk white girl. But he cannot share his feelings with either of the women in his life, nor can he truly connect with his other friends. It is clear from Aceves’s honest and lyrical prose that Marcos is bright and caring, but he is stunted by the cultural milieu of Maesta.

Though I found the book engaging and Marcos to be a sympathetic narrator, I was a little disappointed that The Closest I’ve Come proliferates the narrative that Latinxs (and other minoritized peoples, as the other residents of Maesta are African-American) are poor, destitute, and violence-prone. Eventually, Aceves undercuts this dominant paradigm by having Marcos reveal his true feelings to his mother, Amy, and his friends, but I worry that it comes too late to dispel the single story of tragedy that the rest of the book is situated within.

Nevertheless, in the end, Marcos realizes that to be truly happy, he must be honest, not just with himself, but with his friends and relatives. This message is so important, particularly within the scope of the emotion-suppressing machismo that pervades representations of Latinos in media and culture. The closeness Marcos and his friends share when they reveal their secrets to each other fosters a sense of community and family that had been missing from Marcos’s life. Aceves succinctly explains, “How lucky that I been tight with these guys all my life. With friends like these, who needs family?” (304). In emphasizing the family that Marcos chooses, rather than the terrible one he is born into, Aceves finally delivers on promise implied in the book’s description: to reveal how Marcos remakes himself.

While I am still unsure if this ending sufficiently subverts the other, more stereotypical traits of The Closest I’ve Come, I do think this book could serve as an important mirror for readers whose circumstances are similar to Marcos’s. In other words, though this book does perpetuate some stereotypes and questionable tropes relating to Latinxs, it may reach readers who, like Marcos and his time with Future Success, simply need the right experiences to turn their lives around.

TEACHING TIPS: Because of my reservations about the book, I might be hesitant to teach it as the central focus of a literature class, but for a language arts unit focused on linguistics, The Closest I’ve Come offers several possibilities. It could provide some examples of vernacular English, as Marcos often drops auxiliary verbs or uses double negatives. Students might also discuss Marcos’s disuse of Spanish (he barely speaks it at home and has trouble understanding it when it is spoken to him), which is particularly important within the context of official language debates.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fred Aceves was born in New York but spent most of his youth in Southern California and Tampa, Florida, where he lived in a poor, working class neighborhood like the one described in The Closest I’ve Come. At the age of 21, he started traveling around the world, living in Chicago, New York, the Czech Republic, France, Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico, his father’s native land. Among other jobs, he has worked as a delivery driver, server, cook, car salesman, freelance editor, and teacher of English as a second language. The Closest I’ve Come is his first novel.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.

Guest Post by Author NoNieqa Ramos: Voice Lessons

 

By NoNieqa Ramos

I’ll never forget the sweltering summer in NY, when my soul mate and I dined with a friend and editor from a NYC publishing house, partially because we spent 300 dollars on appetizers. I mean for 20 bucks we could have had arroz con habichuelas y maduros and a friggin bistec, you know?

But we had all gotten into the friend zone–where you want to be when your friend happens to be a Big Wig–and I was loving being back in Manhattan, where I used to bus to the Port Authority and cab it to the Village to get various body parts pierced.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary was a Work-in-Progress. I met said editor at an SCBWI pitch conference and she had told me, “I was the reason she came to these conferences.” That even though the plot of my manuscript was “crazy town”– I was writing about a Korean boy named Yin Coward who shot his nemesis and true love and ended up hiding in the walls of his Catholic school–my “voice” was “OMG.”

Yin Coward later got rejected by a hotshot agent who said “Alas, it had too much voice,” and was eventually put to bed in a C drive. Ultimately, years later, when my agent Emily Keyes sent the completed The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary to my friend and editor at the aforementioned publishing house, she declined, saying “It was too beautiful.” Now I sit with reviews from Kirkus calling my voice “hard to process” but “inimitable” and “unique.” I’m speaking at the ALAN Conference at NCTE to discuss The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary on the Panel: “Giving Voices to Difficult Experiences.” BookList says my writing is “exceptional” and “I’m a voice to watch.”

It fascinates me that Kirkus called the syntax of DDG a “stylistic choice.” What’s of great fascination to me, is as a Nuyorican from the Bronx, it wasn’t until my thirties that I found my own voice, my own place at the table, so to speak. I’ve spent my life, like my protagonist Macy Cashmere, being defined by other people.

In the Bronx, I was 100 Puerto Rican. Let me ‘splain. With my people, it was a source of pride and defiance. In my family, my elders had started in the barrio and worked their way from poverty to being lab techs, social workers, principals, and vice-presidents in the ‘burbs.

In my reality, I learned, there were hidden definitions. So there was this Italian boy I had a crush on. He used to give me extra cannolis with my orders. I’m thirteen. One day I’m walking home and he’s standing on the corner.

He’s saying things like come over here and talk to me. I smiled, but kept walking, not knowing, really, what to do with my skinny-ass self. Then the cursing started. I was a Puerto Rican slut. (Whaaat?) etc. etc. This was one of many delightful experiences with race. I learned boobs weren’t the only thing to enter a room first. My brownness did, too.

Back to that editor and friend. There was wine and three-hundred-dollar lobster rolls. Did I want an actual entree? Well, having a need for food, shelter, and insurance–I had a Catholic teacher’s budget at the time–made that a hard NO.

Anyway, there was witty repartee to fill me up. Have I mentioned, I’m that English teacher that delights in witty repartee, the use of active voice, and sentence diagramming? Then I did it. I code switched. Can’t remember exactly what ungrammatical thing I said. But I do remember being corrected by this friend, this editor, this white lady in public like I was a child.

About the English teacher thing. Command of the English language has empowered me (and my family) throughout life to get awards, attention, scholarships, employment, respect, and lots of comments like “What are you?” (Puerto Rican and literate, that’s what I am bee–)

Losing the Spanish language has done the same, and is one of the biggest tragedies in my cultural life. My protagonist Macy Cashmere’s ungrammatical language is not a “stylistic choice.” It is an outright rebellion. Nod if you feel me. As Macy would say, “Just because you monolingual motherfoes can’t speak my language ain’t my problem. I mean, you could read Faulkner, but you can’t get me because I say ‘a’ instead of ‘an’?”

The thing is, we need diverse voices that speak grammatically correct. We need diverse voices that crush stereotypes like cockroaches under chancletas. We writers love to write from the perspective of the diamonds-in-the-rough who also happen to be literary geniuses. Well, guess what?

Macy’s there, too. If you’re not going to make room at the table for her, she’s bound to do something about it. Maybe sit right on your lap. Maybe toss the table. You find her story hard to read? Intense? Remember the Macys of the world are living that story. She’s been silenced all her life. She doesn’t look right. She doesn’t act right. But she’s stronger than you. If the whole damn world ended, she’d still be standing because her world has ended a thousand times. But what, you want to filter her? Don’t get me wrong, I gave Macy Miss Black. I want Macy to make it. I  want to get her counselors and tutors and have her rescued by librarians.

But Macy doesn’t exist for me or for you. The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is BY Macy and FOR Macy. As Kirkus said, Macy is “aggressive, angry, and intimidating.” And, hello, that’s because she doesn’t get the luxury of magic powers or magic foster parents. One of my foster kids left me to be adopted by her aunt. Years later, I found her back on a foster kids website–now having been abused by her mom and rejected by the only sane relative she had—hoping desperately for someone to be her “forever family” at the age of thirteen. The age kids almost NEVER get adopted. This book is for that kid. Take a listen.

CLICK HERE for our review of The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

 

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

 

Book Review: The Go-Between by Veronica Chambers

 

Review by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: She is the envy of every teenage girl in Mexico City. Her mother is a glamorous telenovela actress. Her father is the go-to voiceover talent for blockbuster films. Hers is a world of private planes, chauffeurs, paparazzi and gossip columnists. Meet Camilla del Valle, or Cammi to those who know her best.

When Cammi’s mom gets cast in an American television show and the family moves to LA, things change, and quickly. Her mom’s first role is playing a not-so-glamorous maid in a sitcom. Her dad tries to find work, but dreams about returning to Mexico. And at the posh, private Polestar Academy, Cammi’s new friends assume she is a scholarship kid, the daughter of a domestic.

At first Cammi thinks that playing along with the stereotypes will teach her new friends a lesson. But the more she lies, the more she wonders: Is she only fooling herself?

MY TWO CENTS: Like many immigrants, Cammi came to her new home in Los Angeles by plane. But unlike most immigrants, her mother’s job security as a telenovela star and her family’s wealth made her transition much smoother. Cammi does share in the immigrant story and her experiences begin to overlap with those of many other Mexican immigrants. Unfortunately, it is the stereotyping and xenophobia that she encounters the most. She is judged by her wealthy classmates at her new private school, immediately labeled as a scholarship kid who is low-income with parents in low-paying and stereotypical jobs and in need of handouts.

For Cammi, this is a great departure from what she usually has to deal with. No one is vying to know her to get closer to her famous mother. Instead, her mother is not the center of attention and she leaves her paparazzi world behind. However, in search of an escape, Cammi begins to promote the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about Mexicans. So in looking out for herself, Cammi forgets about her community and her roots.

It takes long for Cammi to learn her lesson. If it wasn’t for other Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans who have to fight regularly to defeat the stereotypes and get others to see beyond them, she may not have known how her actions perpetuated racism. Albeit slowly, Cammi learns to understand her role not only as a Mexican, but as an immigrant and compatriota to her community.

TEACHING TIPS: Cammi brings into perspective that not all immigrants come into this country in the same manner or with the same opportunities. Some immigrants come with established work or educational opportunities, while others may have left those exact opportunities behind to immigrate to the United States. While Cammi is perhaps not the best role model for the majority of the book, she does allow us to question a diversity of immigrants and their experiences. In a time when our political discord says that immigrants from Mexico are the worst of the pack, what is Cammi bringing to light? Cammi’s story is merely one of many.

RECOMMENDED READING:

 

TransientABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Chambers is a prolific author, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Mama’s Girl which has been a course adopted by hundreds of high schools and colleges throughout the country. The New Yorker called Mama’s Girl, “a troubling testament to grit and mother love… one of the finest and most evenhanded in the genre in recent years.” Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, her work often reflects her Afro-Latina heritage.

She coauthored the award-winning memoir Yes Chef with chef Marcus Samuelsson as well as Samuelsson’s young adult memoir Make It Messy, and has collaborated on four New York Times bestsellers, most recently 32 Yolks, which she cowrote with chef Eric Ripert. She has been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Glamour. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latina heritage. She speaks, reads, and writes Spanish, but she is truly fluent in Spanglish. She is currently a JSK Knight fellow at Stanford University.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries.She has an MA in history and MLIS from Simmons College where she focused her studies on the role of libraries and archives in the cultural preservation of the U.S.-Mexican border. Additionally, she holds a BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University.  Her research is greatly influenced by her hometown of Laredo, TX which has led her to work in serving immigrants and underrepresented communities. Her current work involves exploring cultural identity through oral history in her project, Third Culture. You can find Araceli on Instagram. 

Book Review: Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Set against a future of marauding space scavengers and deadly aliens who kill with sound, here is a frightening, fast-paced YA adventure from the author of the acclaimed horror novel, Shutter.

Tuck has been in stasis on the USS John Muir, a ship that houses Earth’s most valued artifacts—its natural resources. Parks and mountains are preserved in space.

Laura belongs to a shipraiding family, who are funded by a group used to getting what they want. And they want what’s on the Muir.

Tuck and Laura didn’t bargain on working together, or battling mutant aliens who use sound to kill. But their plan is the only hope for their crews, their families, and themselves.

In space, nobody can hear you scream . . . but on the John Muir, the screams are the last thing you’ll hear.

MY TWO CENTS: I read Shutter years ago and was blown away by the seemingly effortless nature of Courtney Alameda’s genre-bending craft. She managed to craft a world that made an unquestionable amount of sense, and it combined disparate elements you don’t often see in the same story. Pitch Dark is no exception. Somehow, Alameda has been able to borrow the visceral, gory, and heart-stopping brilliance of a film like Alien and mix it with the adventure of Tomb Raider or Uncharted. Oh, and there’s also a generation ship. (Sort of.) And horrific monsters. And burgeoning love. And commentary on subjugation, imperialism, and racism.

AND THIS IS ALL IN THE SAME BOOK.

Pitch Dark wastes no time, and while there’s a bit of a steep learning curve at the beginning—the book has alternating first-person narratives that don’t seem connected at all—the worldbuilding pays off just past thirty pages into the book. We are introduced to the shipraiding universe of Laura Cruz, who is exuberant about her love for what her family does. (It’s a neat twist on the trope of kids hating the family business.) She thrives when she gets to dig deep into the history of humanity… which is a big deal within Pitch Dark, set over four hundred years in the future. Humanity is haphazardly spread about the galaxy after a terrorist attack forced them to abandon Earth, so the Cruz family mission is an integral part of the story.

Then there’s Tuck, the nerdy, reference-happy member of the John Muir, one of the ships that left Earth nearly four hundred years prior. He awakes from stasis to find out he’s been unconscious far longer than he was supposed to be. Even worse, something contaminated the stasis machines, and his fellow humans have…well, let’s just say they’ve evolved since then.

Of the two, I preferred Laura’s narration more than Tuck’s, though Tuck grew on me over time. In Laura Cruz, Alameda has crafted a memorable and awe-inspiring character, one I hope is the focus of other books in the future. (Pitch Dark is a standalone, but this could easily be a multi-book series.) Laura’s Spanglish is comforting to read, since I grew up with it in Southern California, and the Cruz family is an eternal delight. If you’re looking for a book with a loving Latinx family, look no further than Pitch Dark.

And if you want an addictive, insightful page-turner, get Pitch Dark for that reason, too. This book is downright horrifying, and when you learn what the Muir crew became, it becomes a significant source of tension and terror within the novel. The two storylines intersect (literally so!) in a shocking way, and seeing each character deal with the world of the other character’s ship is satisfying and exciting. It helps that Alameda manages to imbue all of this with an inventive social commentary about the nature of imperialism and control, most of which appears in Laura’s POV. Who controls a story? What version gets told? And how do you resist a narrative that purports to make you a villain to everyone else?

Above all: I had a blast reading this book, which I devoured in just two sittings. I’ve been itching for more YA horror, and Alameda absolutely delivers. The pacing is incredibly quick, the dialogue is snappy and contains an in-universe context for all the pop culture references, and there are a few sequences in here that made me want to crawl under the covers and never come out. Bravo, Courtney Alameda.

TEACHING TIPS: I imagine that most teachers might shy away from a horror novel, and admittedly, Pitch Dark is very, very violent and gory. But the visceral story is part of the extended metaphor for the environment of current day politics. Alameda crafts a subplot between Laura Cruz and the Smithson family that touches on issues of consent, sexual assault, and colonialism, particularly since the Smithson family is horrifically desperate to do whatever they can to center anthropology on themselves and their own power. There’s a lot of potential for discussion in the interactions between the Cruz family and Tuck, which touch on racism, stereotypes, and white savior tropes.

Courtney Author Photos2013_117.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: A veteran bookseller and librarian, Courtney Alameda now spends her days writing thriller and horror novels. Her debut novel, Shutter, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award and hailed as a “standout in the genre” by School Library Journal. Her forthcoming novels include the science fiction/horror mashup, Pitch Dark (Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends 2018), and Seven Deadly Shadows, an urban fantasy set in Japan. (Co-authored with Valynne Maetani. HarperTeen 2018). Courtney holds a degree in English literature with an emphasis in creative writing. She is represented by John M. Cusick of Folio Literary. A northern California native, she now resides in Utah with her husband, a legion of books, and a tiny five-pound cat with a giant personality. Member HWA, SFWA, SCBWI; and SDCC Creative Professional.

WHERE TO GET IT: Pitch Dark releases February 20! To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

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

 

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

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Book Review & Giveaway: Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer

 

Judith Ortiz Cofer was the first author to win the Pura Belpré Award for her first young adult book An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio. On December 30, 2016, she passed away at the young age of 64, due to cancer. This week, we celebrate her life and work with reviews of four of her books and a giveaway. Please scroll to the end of this post to enter!

Reviewed by Toni Margarita Plummer

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: María is a girl caught between two worlds: Puerto Rico, where she was born, and New York, where she now lives in a basement apartment in the barrio. While her mother remains on the island, María lives with her father, the super of their building. As she struggles to lose her island accent, Mara does her best to find her place within the unfamiliar culture of the barrio. Finally, with the Spanglish of the barrio people ringing in her ears, she finds the poet within herself.

In lush prose and spare, evocative poetry, Pura Belpré Award-winner Judith Ortiz Cofer weaves a powerful and emotionally satisfying novel, bursting with life and hope.

MY TWO CENTS: Meet María Alegre and María Triste. She is María Alegre when as a young girl she makes her mother laugh by insisting they play Celia Cruz and dance mambo. María Triste emerges as it becomes clearer that Papi’s unrelenting depression means he will move back to New York City, his hometown. María’s mother, an English teacher and island girl, will not leave Puerto Rico, and María makes the decision to follow her father, with the plan of one day attending a good American university. As the cover states, this is a novel in letters, poems, and prose, and so María’s story unfolds through letters to and from Mamí, in poems María writes, and in short chapters about her friends, school, and life in a basement apartment in New York City, so different from the life she knew on the beaches of Puerto Rico. The vignette structure could draw comparisons to The House on Mango Street, and also like that book, this offers a portrait of a neighborhood that is burgeoning with life but also tinged by sadness.

María’s resilience is impressive. Despite her loneliness and strange new surroundings, she cooks and cleans for Papí and helps him manage the tenants’ concerns. The assembly of characters is vivid. There’s her wild best friend Whoopee Dominguez, or Whoopee the Magnificent, the sweet-talking Papi-lindo who lives on the fifth floor, Uma and her single mother from India who want Puerto Rican husbands and are practicing their salsa steps, and Mr. Golden, María’s English teacher who recognizes her gift with poetry. Papí, El Súper in a blue uniform, takes up guitar and plays old Puerto Rican songs for his tenants, eliciting a nostalgia for an island that many of them have never even seen. The question of whether he and Mamí will reunite does hang in the air for awhile. But we know that María will be strong enough to carry on and even flourish if that never happens. She is a keen observer of the world and people around her, and it’s a joy to see how her lessons at school ignite her imagination.

Heartbreaking, whimsical, and inventive, this is a beautiful novel which succeeds on many grounds. It’s funny and fast-moving, but boasts true emotional depth. Call Me María is just one example of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s amazing ability to capture the life of young Puerto Ricans in the barrio.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Call Me María, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

judith ortiz coferABOUT THE AUTHOR: Judith Ortiz Cofer is an award-winning author known for her stories about coming-of-age experiences in the barrio and her writings about the cultural conflicts of immigrants. She is the author of many distinguished titles for young adults such as An Island Like You, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, and The Line in the Sun. She was the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. In 2010, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

 

 

toni margarita plummerABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondo Fellow, a winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize, and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and worked as an acquiring editor for more than ten years at a major publisher. Toni now freelance edits and lives in the Hudson Valley with her family. Visit her website at ToniMargaritaPlummer.Wordpress.com.

 

We will be giving away a copy of each of the Judith Ortiz Cofer books reviewed here this week to one lucky winner! The titles are: Call Me María, If I Could Fly, and The Meaning of Consuelo and the picture book A Bailar/Let’s Dance.

 

ENTER HERE TO WIN FOUR JUDITH ORTIZ COFER BOOKS!