“Refugee” Alan Gratz

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. Published July 25, 2017. Scholastic. 337 p. (Includes Maps and Author’s note.)

RefugeeJosef was almost thirteen-years-old in 1938 when Kristallnacht sent the strong message that Jews were not welcome in Germany. Soon afterwards, he, his father, mother and little sister, along with hundreds of other Jews, boarded the MS St. Louis bound for Cuba where they hoped to escape bigotry and start a new life.

In 1994 Isabel lived with her mother, father and grandfather in Cuba but, with the fall of the Soviet Union, food, gasoline and medicine had become scarce and people began to starve. After riots began, Castro allowed them to leave without fear of arrest. Knowing their only chance of survival was to flee to Miami, Isabel and her family joined their neighbors on a rickety homemade boat. Their 90-mile trip would be dangerous, but they were willing to risk everything to be free.

Twelve-year-old Mahmoud lived with his father, mother, little brother and baby sister in Aleppo Syria in 2015. Four years ago people revolted against their dictator president, which led to war and constant bombings. Their apartment building was blown apart and they had nowhere to go, so Mahmoud and his family joined thousands of other Syrians on a long march to Germany, hoping to start a new life without fear of war.

Real-life occurrences from World War II, the early 90’s, and current events are combined in alternating voices to tell the story of three children who all hope to grow older. This well-researched book will get conversation flowing about immigrants, xenophobia, acceptance and intolerance. It is excellent for book clubs, especially in middle schools.

Highly recommended for ages 11-15.

 

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“Martí’s song for freedom: Martí y sus versos por la libertad” Emma Otheguy

Rated 5 stars ***** 2017. Children’s Book Press (Lee & Low). Includes “Afterword,” “Author’s Note,” and a “Selected Bibliography.”

Marti'sSongForFreedomJosé Martí (1853-1895) was born when Spain ruled Cuba with an iron fist. Slave labor on sugar plantations allowed the rich to become richer, oppressing natives of all races. Determined to free his people José advocated for freedom from Spain, which led to imprisonment and deportation. Despite being away from the island he loved, José continued his fight to abolish slavery from his new home in New York through poetry and speeches. Ultimately he gave his life for his country, remembered for the words he left behind which deeply illustrated his love for freedom and justice for all.

Otheguy’s well-researched bilingual picture book tells the story of Cuba’s greatest poet and patriot, as Vidal’s simply drawn, yet colorful paintings, illustrate his struggle in a clear, straightforward manner. It will appeal to older elementary readers, especially those in grades 3-6, and may well be a contender for the upcoming Pura Belpré award. If it wins or places, remember that you read it here first.

Recommended for ages 8-11.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Sofrito” Phillippe Diederich

Rated 1 star * Ebook. ARC. 2015. Cinco Punto Press.

SofritoFrank Delgado was born in the United States from parents who had fled Castro and the Cuban revolution. All his life he hated his father for being a boring, “typical” American, who didn’t seem to have any interest in life other than work and home, and who seemed to hate anything that had to do with his former homeland.

Frank is part owner of a failing restaurant in New York, (while also failing at relationships and college.) When his business partners convince him to go to a famous restaurant in Cuba to steal a recipe for chicken that had been stolen from his Uncle, Frank discovers that Cuba (and his father) are not what he had thought.

I didn’t find the plot line of “Sofrito” to be believable. I felt the things Frank did to try and get the recipe were very unlikely, his interactions with the secret police were not plausible, and the fact that he fell in love with a prostitute in less than a week was the final nail in “Sofrito’s” coffin. In addition, I am pretty sure Cuban people don’t start every sentence with the curse word “coño.” I lost track of how many times it was said while Frank was in Cuba.

I know this book was more a “take” on the political scene of Cuba and how exiles feel disconnected or connected to the island and its memories, while locals feel very patriotic or hate its leader. However I didn’t like it, as the unrealistic storyline kept me at arm’s length.

Though I wasn’t a fan of “Sofrito,” I will leave it up to you to decide if you want to read it or not.

“The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist” Margarita Engle

Rated 3 stars *** 2013. Harcourt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 182 pp. (Includes Historical Background, Historical Note, The Writing of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, and References). Winner of the 2014 Pura Belpre Author Honor award.

TheLightningDreamerGertrudis, known as Tula, lived during a time in Cuba’s history when it was ruled by Spain, slaves abounded, women didn’t have any rights and those having thoughts of independence were severely punished. From an early age, Tula believed in emancipation for slaves and women, feeling the magic of books and words flowing from within while being denied their solace because she was a woman.

Undeterred by her mother’s anger and ridicule Tula found ways to release the words and injustice felt in her soul by writing poems she was forced to burn and telling tales to orphans which contained hidden meanings. At the age of 15, she refused an arranged marriage, thus finding a freedom of choice denied to other females.

Through her trademark style of writing in verse, Engle tells Tula’s story through her own voice and those who knew her. In the “Historical Note” section, readers learn more of Tula’s struggles in her personal life and how she influenced her world through her thoughts on women and slavery.

By bringing Tula’s story to light, Engle has enabled readers learn of this brave and outspoken woman at the forefront of equal rights who would otherwise have been relegated to historical footnotes.

Recommended for ages 12-16.

“The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” Oscar Hijuelos

Rated ***** stars. (Originally published in 1989). 2013. ebook. RosettaBooks

TheMamboKingsUsing the past and present, as seen through the eyes of various key characters, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” tells the story of Nestor and Oscar, two brothers who left Havana, Cuba for New York City in 1949. Nestor and Oscar were complete opposites in personality yet were talented musicians, looking to bring their mambo style of music to NYC and make it big.

The story of Cuba, its culture, and its immigrants, along with the NYC of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, are interspersed with the story of melancholic Nestor and his overly sexually active brother Oscar as told through the screen of time. Along with stories and memories of their friends, lovers and wives, Hijuelo weaves in history lessons of music’s time and place, teaching readers about famous Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians like Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz (among others) who set the stage for Nestor and Oscar while placing the music world on its head. Heartache and happiness, love and hate, death and life are just some of the emotions adult readers will feel as they read of a time when Mambo was King.

Hijuelo was the first Latino author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1990 for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” and it was also made into a movie in 1992. Though Hijuelos passed away in October 2013, his Mambo Kings will live on forever.

Recommended for Adult readers.