The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales

tequilaworm“I wanted to play soccer on those beautiful playing fields. I wanted to get better at kicking with my head so I could go to college. I could get a good job and make enough money to buy a nice house for my parents and Lucy.

But to go and live at a school? Without my family?”

Sofia’s family loves stories: telling and re-telling them, inventing new ones, and sharing old ones.  Stories are what keeps them together, and keeps their Mexican heritage alive.  There are stories of the Easter cascarones, the stories of loved ones for Dia de los Muertos, and stories of quinceanera preparations and festivities.  Sofia knows that part of becoming a grown-up is being able to share these stories with others.  However, her own story is about to change drastically.

When Sofia is offered a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school over three hundred miles from her home, she is torn: should she stay at home, with everyone she loves, with everything she is familiar with?  Or should she pack up and move to a school where everyone is wealthier, whiter, and more privileged than she?  School may be difficult, but Sofia’s determined to go away, learn, and then come back and help her family.

Sofia’s sense of humor permeates this sensitive story:  from the play-by-play of eating the tequila worm (to prevent homesickness) to the descriptions of her mother’s endless stream of knitted doorstops and pencil toppers, this book will keep you laughing.  Her humorous stories have a deeper meaning, though: through them, Sofia can feel the love of her family and community.  By sharing them, she takes her place as an almost-grown-up in her family.

This is another Pura Belpré winner, named for the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library! I’m reviewing as many of the Pura winners as I can; I hope you like this one. Would you like to read along with me? Here’s a list of past winners!

Author’s website: http://violacanales.blogspot.com/

Happy Reading!

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Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah

tenthingsihateaboutme“How can I be three identities in one?  It doesn’t work.  They’re always at war with one another.  If I want to go clubbing, the Muslim in me says it’s wrong and the Lebanese in me panics about bumping into somebody who knows somebody who knows my dad.  If I want to go to a Lebanese wedding as the four hundredth guest, the Aussie in me will laugh and wonder why we’re not having civilized cocktails in a function room that seats a maximum of fifty people.  If I want to fast during Ramadan, the Aussie in me will think I’m a masochist.

I can’t win.”

Jamilah lives a double life: at home, she’s Jamilah, the girl who plays an instrument in an Arabic band and tries to convince her super-strict father to lighten up once in a while.  However, at school, she’s Jamie, with bleached hair, contacts, and endless excuses for why she can never socialize after school.  She just doesn’t want people to see her as a stereotype; she’s afraid they’ll hear Muslim and think extremist.  However, the strain of constantly hiding who she truly is wears on her, and her friends are wondering why she’s never around.  She can’t keep it up much longer-but what will happen if everyone knows the truth about her?

This is Randa Abdel-Fattah’s second novel about Muslim teenagers struggling to find a place within a larger culture that doesn’t always understand or welcome them.  Her characters are complex, from the hijab-wearing activist Shereen, to a father struggling with the task of raising three children alone-he doesn’t want to create strife between him and his children, but he also feels compelled to raise them in line with his core values.  While Jamilah often feels like an outsider because of her cultural identity, she gets great joy out of sharing meals, playing traditional instruments, and speaking Arabic.

Abdel-Fattah takes pains to differentiate between ethnicity, culture, and religion, and explore the different ways they can be expressed in her characters. It may not always be easy to have a hyphenated identity, but Randa Abdel-Fattah opens an important dialog about faith, fear, and the self in her thoughtful, timely novels.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Ten Things I Hate About Me. Orchard Books: New York, 2006. 297 pp. Ages 15 and up.

Getting It by Alex Sanchez

“‘On three conditions,’ Sal continued. ‘First…’ He held up his index finger.  ‘You tell your creep friends here not to give me shit-ever again.’

Carlos felt his throat going dry.  Didn’t Sal realize this was supposed to be a secret?

‘Second…’Sal added another finger.  ‘It’ll cost you six bucks an hour plus expenses.  Believe me, I’m letting you off cheap.  Start by bringing twenty bucks tomorrow.  And most important’-Sal flicked out a third finger-’you help start our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.’

With the word ‘gay’ all eyes turned to Carlos. He cringed, wanting to crawl beneath the lunch table.

‘Now for your first lesson.’ Sal dabbed a finger across the corner of his own lips. ‘When you’re eating, wipe your mouth.’

Carlos is ashamed that he’s fifteen and still a virgin.  In fact, he’s never even kissed a girl.  To make matters worse, it seems like all his friends are hooking up, and he can’t even get super-hot Roxy to look at him.  What is it?  Is it his broken-out skin, or maybe his over-sized nose or undersized muscles?  While channel-surfing when he can’t sleep, he flips to a show he’s never seen before: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show where gay men give a sloppy straight man a makeover.  And that’s when his master plan is born:  all he needs to do is convince Sal, a classmate that everyone says is gay, to give him a makeover so he can win Roxy’s heart.  However, Sal drives a hard bargain:  in exchange for the help, Carlos has to agree to help start the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.  In order to do so, Carlos has to face his own prejudices and stand up for his new friend, which isn’t easy when you’re just a teenager trying to fit in.

This is my third book for the Colorado Teen Lit conference at the end of March, and it’s fantastic!  Honestly, this is the book that got me excited enough to overcome my terror about having to stand up in front of my future colleagues and speak for an hour; it’s just so exciting and has such a good message that it’s an honor to present on it.  I chose it because it, like the other conference books, isn’t focused on coming-out.  In this story, Sal is out and supported by his family and close friends, and enjoys a healthy relationship with his boyfriend.  In fact, Sal and his sweetheart are nearly the only example of a functional and loving relationship in the story.  To make matters even more awesome, this book features minority characters, like Into the Beautiful North.  I think both of them point to trends in publishing: more books about queer characters that aren’t only about coming-out, and more books featuring characters belonging to minority groups.  It feels like the literature is opening its arms to teens of all kinds, and it’s pretty beautiful.

You will love this book because it’s very real: Carlos is angry, confused, struggles with his self-esteem and identity.  His biggest worry is finding a girlfriend.  Sometimes he’s an amazing friend, and at other times, he lets his friends down.  In short, he’s written as though he were an actual teenage guy.  Adding to the book’s appeal are the other realistic characters: Carlos’ pa, who sometimes comes off as hyper-masculine and insensitive, and Carlos’ friends, who are all mainly concerned with image and hooking up with girls.  Also, in Sanchez’s world, there are gay characters, straight characters, and those who are in-between or even just not sure yet.  It seems to me like all of the different relationships in the book explore different aspects of love and identity.  Plus, it’s a fast, funny story that doesn’t get mired in cliches. I think you’re going to love it!

Alex Sanchez is a Lambda Literary award winner who has written several other well-received books, such as So Hard to Say, Rainbow Road and Boyfriends with Girlfriends.  Getting It won the Meyer’s Outstanding Book Award, 2nd place in the Latino Book awards, and actually caused a public uproar when it was removed from the New York Public Library’s summer reading list.  Patrons staged protests and succeeded in getting the book put back on the reading list.  Awesome, right?  I’m pretty sure Carlos would approve.

Happy Reading!

Sanchez, Alex. Getting It. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 210 pp.  Ages 15-18.

Author’s website: http://www.alexsanchez.com

If you liked this book, you might want to try Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, or Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John

 

 

 

Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

“I shouldn’t have come to a gay beach.  That was wacko of me.  Here I am, terrified of people thinking I’m a tortillera. I was thrown out my school and my house for loving a girl, and what do I do?  I come to a gay beach for the first time in my life.  I’m just the most brilliant kid on the block.”

Do you know how I know when to put a book on the All Time Awesome-est List?  It’s when I’m seriously let down when the book is finished, when I feel like there’s no way the next book will compare to it.  Well, here it is, friends: meet the new addition to the List: Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone.

On the last day of eleventh grade, Laura gets caught reading a love letter in class at her Catholic school.  Worse still, the letter is from a girl, her secret girlfriend of two years.  The nuns drag her to the office, call her mom, and in the same day, she gets kicked out of both her school and her house.  Worst of all, her girlfriend gets shipped off to marry a guy! So that’s no school, no home, and no love…you’d think it would be the end of the world, but Laura works it out, with the help of a colorful (and still authentic) cast of characters

This book sparkles with enthusiasm.  Laura is sassy, funny, and passionately devoted to her friends and little brother.  (She even sneaks in to see him at his school when her mother refuses to let her visit).  During the course of the story, she has to make some difficult choices: coming out, when it might mean that her mom could never speak to her again, or just trying (like her ex-girlfriend, Marlena) to find a guy and live the straight life, because it’s too scary to lose everything.  However, even though she’s really struggling with her identity and feelings, the book doesn’t ever bog down into the “This is Just a Coming-Out Book” pit.  It’s fresh-and that’s mostly thanks to Laura’s hilarious commentary (Dole is a master with dialogue!)  and the great supporting characters.

I love it!  I love it because it features a Cuban lesbian as main character.  The food, the Miami beach culture, the Cuban influences, and the slang all make this book delicious and fun.  But I love it even more because it’s a very honest portrayal of the coming-out process.  For example, Laura tries hard to date a boy, but she ends up just feeling like she can’t get close to him emotionally, even though she doesn’t dislike kissing him.  The story lets you get close to Laura in that way, by following her thoughts, and she’s so positive and funny that you just fall in love with her!  I also like that Dole lets the readers get a little nervous:  I know that when Laura is waffling about coming out to her mom (I won’t ruin it for you, though), I was rushing through the book, because I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do the Brave Thing.

This is an ALA Rainbow List  (a great list of GLBTQ books for young people) Starred selection, and was also nominated for the ALA Best Books list, as well as the winner of the Americas award, for its portrayal of Latinas in the United States.  Good stuff!

Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://mayraldole.wordpress.com/  (She has a blog on Goodreads, too)

What’s even better is that she has a new book coming out next year! Wooohooo!

Dole, Mayra Lazara. Down to the Bone. New York: HarperTeen, 2008. 351 pp.

Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji

“The war-if there ever was one-was over, but the curfew was still in effect.  Every evening at the stroke of six, the lights in every house and every street were extinguished.  And when night fell, the seven hills of Kampala were trapped under what seemed to Sabine like a big black burkha that wrapped them all in the dark while the countdown snared its prey.”

In 1972, the president of Uganda announced a countdown:  the British Indians within the country have ninety days to get out.  Sabine is Indian by heritage, but she and her mother, father, and brother are Ugandan citizens, so they are hoping that they’re safe.  However, things get complicated when Sabine’s uncle disappears and she suspects it’s because he’s been imprisoned, or worse.  To make things more confusing, Sabine and her best friend, who is a Ugandan, fight about their loyalties.

Through it all, Sabine tries to be brave for her family, take care of her little brother, and understand the racism and socio-economic divide between the Indians and Ugandans in Uganda.  In the end, she finds herself growing and being stronger and braver than she ever thought was possible.

There’s a lot going on in this book: political strife, a government kidnapping, racism, class tensions, issues with gender identity and special needs, and fights between friends.  I actually think that each separate thread in the novel could be a story in itself, but the setting is interesting and not very well-known.  That alone makes the story worth reading.

Author’s website: http://www.snanji.com/

Nanji, Shenaaz. Child of Dandelions. Front Street Books: Honesdale, PA, 2008. 214 pages. Ages 12-16.  ISBN 978-1932425932.

If you like this book, try Chain of Fire by Beverly Naidoo, or Frances Temple’s Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti.

Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena

“And if people only knew how that felt.  Having the whole family stare at him and his tortilla, these people he adores.  That’s when he wishes he didn’t get such good grades.  When he wishes he lived even closer to the border than they did…When he wishes he got in more trouble at school.”

Danny’s mother is white, and his father is Mexican.  He goes to a fancy private school in San Diego, where he’s the only boy with brown skin.  His passion is baseball; he’s got a killer arm, but didn’t make the school team because he can’t always control his pitch.

When his mom and sister go to San Francisco for the summer to be with her new boyfriend, Danny decided to go stay with his cousins instead.  He didn’t ever feel at home in San Diego, but he doesn’t speak Spanish and so he doesn’t feel like he fits in with the National City side of his family, either.  However, he meets an unlikely ally-a boy named Uno, who starts off by beating him up over an accident.  The two team up and become fast friends, working up a hustle based on Danny’s pitching.  Together, they trick high school baseball players into betting that Danny can’t strike them out.  See, they need the money: Uno’s trying to save up enough money to visit his father, and Danny’s doing the same thing.  The one thing that Danny doesn’t know is that his father didn’t run off to Mexico; he’s actually in jail.  When he finally learns it, it changes everything, and Danny has to work hard to figure out who he is and what he should do with his life.  The summer passes in a mix of baseball, girls, family, and identity-formation.

So, normally, I don’t like sports books.  I just can’t get into them.  I was doubtful for the first chapter of the book, but then I was completely hooked.  It’s a great story.  It’s a coming-of-age story, full of Danny’s problems with his identity and how he fits into the world, but it’s never sappy or trite.  He has a very real, believable voice, and is surrounded by well-developed, realistic characters.  It’s a fantastic story, and I totally get why YALSA picked it as a Best Book.  There’s some rough stuff about self-injury (not terribly graphic) and issues with spousal abuse and some underage drinking, so this book is probably better for the 15 and up crowd.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.mattdelapena.com/

de la Pena, Matt. Mexican White Boy. Delacorte: New York, 2008.  252 pp. Ages 15 and up.  ISBN 978-0385733106.

If you liked this book, check out another book by de la Pena called Ball Don’t Lie or The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Lawrence Sitomer.