“With the fire on high” by Elizabeth Acevedo

Rated 5 stars ***** 2019.HarperTeen. 392 p.

With the fire on highSeventeen-year-old Emoni Santiago has been living with her grandmother since her father abandoned her after her mother died in childbirth. At age fourteen she got pregnant but, with her ‘Buela’s help, has been raising little Emma who she calls Babygirl. She struggles with school, work, and her relationship with Emma’s dad and her father. The fear she feels for the unknown after graduation, and her feelings for handsome Malachi combine to complicate her life.

Ever since she was a little girl Emoni has loved to cook and has gotten so good her grandmother insists she’s magical. All she’s ever wanted is to become a chef so, when a culinary arts class starts up at school, she’s fearful she won’t be able to handle the extra work load. Through sacrifice, hard work and stepping out in strength not fear, Emoni learns that maybe dreams can come true as she works towards keeping an even keel in her life despite her circumstances.

As Emoni walks a fine line between her many responsibilities, the love she has for family and her Afro-Boricua culture shine through in her story. Though written in prose, “With the fire on high” has its own poetry in sentences like “…Babygirl is front and center, the candlelight we read the world by.” (p. 53) and “The world is a turntable that never stops spinning…” (p. 60) Acevedo fans will relate to Emoni’s voice, and the beautifully designed book jacket is an added plus.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“Sofi and the Magic, Musical Mural: Sofi y el mágico mural musical” Raquel M. Ortiz

Rated 4 stars **** Piñata Books (Arte Público Press). 2015. (Includes a Glossary and Information about the Mural.)

SofiAndTheMagicMusicalMuralA cold, wintry day in the city is transformed for a young girl when she is sent on an errand by her mother. While passing a mural of Puerto Rican symbols, she finds herself transported into Old San Juan. There she experiences Puerto Rican music, dance and culture, including meeting a Vejigante who had previously filled her with fear.

This bilingual fantastical tale is a light foray into Puerto Rican culture and symbolism, allowing readers to “taste” parts of the Island and learn more about this Caribbean treasure.

Recommended for ages 6-9.

“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.

“Parrots over Puerto Rico” Cindy Trumbore; Illustrated by Susan L. Roth

2013. Lee & Low Books. (Includes footnote-like punctuation guide, “Afterword,” photographs, “Important dates in the History of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican Parrots” and “Authors’ Sources.”)

ParrotsOverPuertoRicoLong before mankind “discovered” the island, Puerto Rico had millions of distinctive green parrots. Over time man’s greed, as well as natural predators, combined to decimate the island’s parrot population along with the trees they called home. By 1967 millions of parrots were gone, leaving only 24 wild parrots alive. As a result, they were officially classified as an endangered species. Sadly, despite their endangered classification, the numbers of Puerto Rican parrots continued to fall, dropping as low as thirteen (13) by 1975.

The history of Puerto Rico and its endangered parrot comes to life before the reader’s eyes through the use of beautifully colored and arranged paper/fabric collages. The cover sets the book’s tone with its bright and intricately arranged feathers and cloth wings, showcasing parrots flying free against Puerto Rico’s bright blue sky – unhindered by any impediments. No title, author or illustrator names stand in their way, as they soar towards their future.

This picture book for readers aged 8-11 will teach much about the Puerto Rican parrot’s battles to survive despite nature’s blows and man’s numerous conspiracies against them. The excellent work of scientists with The Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program (PRPRP) is heavily showcased, lending hope that the Puerto Rican parrot will grow in numbers and roam free once again over its ancestral homeland.

A unique twist to this well researched and cleverly illustrated picture book is the unique way in which the text is arranged. Instead of the usual “right to left” page turns, readers have to turn the book sideways and flip pages from bottom to top. Despite this unusual way of reading, I believe it will be a top contender for several awards this year, including the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award or perhaps even a Caldecott. Remember that you read it here first.

“The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano” Sonia Manzano

ARC (Advance Reading Copy). To be published September 1, 2012. Scholastic Press. 205 pp.

Before I begin my review of this fiction book which has many true elements contained within it, I want to tell the world “Yo soy Puertorriqueña” (I am Puerto Rican), and I was more proud of my heritage than ever after reading Sonia Manzano’s book. Like Evelyn, I was also born and raised in NYC from Puerto Rican parents but, unlike her, never experienced life in El Barrio. Reading about life for Puerto Ricans in El Barrio (East Harlem) during 1969 was an eye opener for me, as I had not been aware of the events from Puerto Rico’s past that Manzano mentioned, nor had I known about the NYC Puerto Rican’s struggle for equal rights in El Barrio as documented through what Manzano shares in her book.

Life in the 1969 El Barrio section of Manhattan meant a whole different set of rules for the Puerto Ricans living there. Garbage was not picked up regularly by the city, leaving El Barrio to become a stinking wasteland of rotting trash. Add the lack of jobs, nutrition, and food for those struggling to make ends meet, and it all set the stage for the events which fill “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano.”

Fourteen-year-old Evelyn’s real name is Rosa but, since one of her middle names is Evelyn and she’s tired of everything Puerto Rican, she decides to be called Evelyn. She is ashamed of her mother for being what she calls a “slave” to her work and, when her long-lost grandmother comes to visit, she is ashamed of her too. No one else’s grandmother looks like hers, and no one else has a grandmother who is a Puerto Rican revolutionary. She is not interested in hearing about stories from Puerto Rico and just wants to be free to be herself.

When The Young Lords, a group of Puerto Ricans determined to change the neighborhood for the better, turn up in El Barrio, Evelyn is ashamed of them too. However, she gradually begins to change her mind as she learns the history of her people and what they suffered during The Ponce Massacre and El Grito de Lares at the hands of those wishing to silence their pleas for freedom. She undergoes a revolution of her own in all things Puerto Rican, while learning important facts about who she is and what she wants for her future.

Sonia Manzano, who would grow up and become Maria from Sesame Street, includes an Author’s Note where she explains the facts behind this story and what it was like for her to be a part of this environment. She also includes a list of Young Lords articles for further reading to help educate readers in grades 6-10 about this period of history.

I will go on record as predicting that “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano” will be a 2013 Pura Belpre Award Winner. It is THAT good. Remember: you heard about it here first!

“If I could fly” by Judith Ortiz Cofer

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

Doris’ parents are unlike anyone else’s in her barrio. They are salseros, as her father manages two bands, and her mother is a singer in one of them. Every night they have a gig, and Doris is left on her own. She feels neglected and lonely, spending her time taking care of pigeons on her roof. While caring for them and watching them fly, she imagines what it would be like to fly away from her life and begin a new one.

Since she’s been told she has facultades, she wonders if her life can be spent as a fortune teller. However, since she has a good voice, maybe she should be a cantante like her mother. Her feelings of loneliness increase when her mother moves back to Puerto Rico and her father finds a girlfriend. Months later, she finds out her mother has a heart condition, so she decides to go to Puerto Rico to help her mom get better.

Through her barrio experiences as well as her time in Puerto Rico, Doris discovers that having wings to fly can mean more than flying away; it can mean to fly towards something too.

Good for Middle School and early High Schoolers too.