“Letters from Cuba” Ruth Behar

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House). To be published August 25, 2020.

Letters from CubaEsther’s father left his family behind in Poland and headed to Cuba, intent on earning enough money to give them a better life. Though he had been working for 3 years, he only had enough money for one of them to make the trip. Esther begged to be allowed to make the trip and, when she arrived, she was entranced. Cuba’s friendly neighbors made her feel welcome, everyone called her a little Polish girl instead of Jew, the weather was balmy, and the sea was breathtaking. It was wonderful!

Esther decided to tell her story in daily letters to her sister that she saved for when they’d be reunited. Though her father had been a peddler before she arrived, Esther was able to earn more money designing and selling her own dresses. As they worked to earn money to reunite the family, she learned about the heritages of the people in their small village. As Nazi beliefs began to invade their village, former slaves, Chinese Cubans, rich sugar mill owners and poor sugar cane workers were united in their belief that Esther and her father should be protected. Through faith and hope, they all learned that love could overcome evil.

This beautiful story told in letter form recounts many parts of Ruth Behar’s own family history, told from her grandmother Esther’s memories of leaving Poland and arriving in Cuba. Though Ruth and her mother were both born in Cuba, and they immigrated to the United States when it became Communist, Cuba is always in her heart. After reading Esther’s story, her memories will stay in her reader’s hearts too.

Highly recommended for ages 11 and older.

PS – I believe “Letters from Cuba” should be a contender for the treasured Pura Belpré Award, to be announced at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in January 2021. Remember when Ruth Behar wins an award there that you read it here first!

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

 

“Spirits of the high mesa” Floyd Martinez

Rated 5 stars ***** 1997. Arte Público Press. 192 p.

Spirits of the high mesaThrough young Flavio’s eyes, readers are taken on a journey as he remembers the Indian/Mexican way of life spent growing up on a ranch in New Mexico. There everyone depended on the land, the old ways, and on each other. Flavio’s grandfather El Grande was an important man who respected the ways of his ancestors. Everyone turned to El Grande in good times and bad, observing traditions that had been the same for years. He taught Flavio the old ways, and how to work the ranch, but then the Gringos came with electricity.

Electricity made villagers give up traditions in favor of new ways of living. It meant the building of a new sawmill to chop down the forest, which brought more Gringos to build new homes, new roads and changes that would forever change Flavio’s life. Despite everything, El Grande stood firm in his desire to stay with the old ways and to retain his dignity – the most important thing he owned.

This powerful coming-of-age story won the 1998 Pura Belpré Honor Award for Narrative. It’s filled with memories of a time when life was simpler, as well as the love between a grandfather and grandson. It will resonate with readers, as it kept me thinking long after the last page was turned. Though there are many Spanish phrases and words, they are important parts of the narrative.

Highly recommended for ages 13 and older.

“Clap when you land” Elizabeth Acevedo

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Hot Key Books. To be published May 5, 2020.

Clap when you landThis novel of verse is dedicated to the memory of the 265 people killed when AA flight 587, headed to the Dominican Republic, crashed into a Queens neighborhood on November 12, 2001. Over 90% of the passengers were Dominican. I lived in New York at the time, and remember vividly how this loss shocked the city so soon after the losses of September 11th.

Sixteen-year-old Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her aunt. Her mother died when she was six, and her Papi lives in New York but visits every summer. After he’s killed in a plane crash Camino is beset with grief and worries for her future. Papi paid for private school, but what will happen to them without his monthly checks? When she finds out he has another daughter in New York City Camino is angry because Yahaira had led a rich life while she has to struggle. However, though that girl stole her father, she’s also her sister.

In New York City Yahaira’s father is killed in a plane crash, but sorrow is mixed with anger because she’d found out a year earlier that he had another wife in Santo Domingo. When she finds out he had a daughter there too she’s angry that this girl stole her father, but is happy to have a sister. Against her mother’s wishes she’s determined to travel to the Dominican Republic to meet her new sister, Camino.

In alternating voices, Yahaira and Camino tell their stories of grief, loss, love, discovery and forgiveness as the beauty of the Dominican Republic, and the love its people have for their country, is clearly verbalized. Once again Acevedo weaves a story that will keep readers glued to their seats. I finished it in just a few short hours, feeling a great affinity for all the strong women described in its pages. I won’t be surprised if this book wins a few more awards for its author in the 2021 ALA Youth Media Awards.

Highly recommended for ages 15 and older.

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

 

“Spirit run: A 6,000-mile marathon through North America’s stolen land” by Noé Álvarez

Rated 3 stars *** ARC. Catapult. To be published March 3, 2020. 213 p.

Spirit runMigrants, and the hard labor of low paying jobs in fruit factories, abound in the lush apple country of Selah Washington, near the author’s childhood home of Yakima. Noé is a smart student, and wants to make life different for his family. He has dreams of going to college and earning enough money to free his mother from her monotonous, back breaking job at the apple factory. He wants to make a difference.

When his dreams get tangled up in the stress of reality, Noé  likes to run. He dreams of the day he can escape Yakima yet, when he gets a full scholarship, dreams turn to nightmares. He believes his insecurities that say he’s not good enough and, soon, can’t keep up with the workload. When he finds out about a run from Alaska to Argentina for Indigenous Indians Noé decides to drop out of college to participate. In the process he discovers the good and bad of human nature. His journey of self discovery, as well as his foray into understanding his parents, is chronicled in this book.

The problems he encountered, as well as the agonies of running an ultra marathon, are interspersed with reflections of his place in the world. The open ending, the seeming lack of a concrete plan for his life, along with continued disappointment that he’s working class made the book a bit of a disappointment. There will always be those of us who will never get to live a life of leisure without having to work, and I hope Noé can come to peace with that reality.

Despite my misgivings I will recommend this book to Adult readers as there are lessons to be learned, and experiences to be hashed through, which would make for good discussions in book groups.

“Afterlife” by Julia Alvarez

Rated 3 stars *** ARC. ebook. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. To be published April 7, 2020.

AfterlifeAlmost a year after the unexpected death of her husband Antonia wanders through life in her small Vermont town, alternately bewildered and angry. Her fog is lifted as she helps a very pregnant undocumented teenager with no place to stay. Antonia feels herself becoming alive through the good deeds she does in Sam’s name.

Contrasted with the uncertainty she feels for life without Sam is the love she holds for her three sisters. Their bond of sisterhood includes watching out for their older sister Izzy, who has been experiencing manic highs and lows. The sisters combine forces to rein her in, though Izzy wants to be wild. Through upheavals and uncertainties Antonia draws wisdom from authors, poets, her ancestors, her sisters, and Sam. They, along with the quote “If I try to be like you, who will be like me?” give her strength to forge a new path in the midst of tragedy.

I know there is some deep literary analysis waiting to be uncovered, but I will leave that to some other reviewer. I read “Afterlife” as a story of a lost and sad Dominicana trying to find her way in a world that, at times, seemed foreign. I was put off by the many quotations from authors and poets in the narrative, not being as well read as Antonia. I also didn’t like the many shifts from past to present and back again that, combined with the endless quotes, made my mind wander. I did enjoy Antonia’s interactions with the sisterhood, feeling they were the strongest part of the book.

Though there is a lot of hype about this book I was not a big fan, so will leave it up to you Adult readers to decide if you want to read it or not.

I received an advance copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

“They could have named her anything” by Stephanie Jimenez

Rated 2 stars ** ebook. 2019. Little A.

They could have named her anythingMaria Rosario hates almost everything about her life in Queens. Her parents are bossy, she’s too poor, their house is too small, their car is too old, and she hates her name. Having won a scholarship to a prestigious Manhattan high school, where she met the very rich Rocky, has opened her eyes to a different class of people. She knows she can have a better life for herself, if only she can figure out how to get it without having to work for it. Accused of being too white by her boyfriend, and of being too different by her classmates, Maria finds herself caught in a tug of war with herself as she struggles to figure out her own self worth.

I did not like this book. I thought it jumped around too much, told from too many points of views, and that Maria was a wimp. She allowed her boyfriend to do anything he wanted with her. Then, when he broke up with her, she continued to grovel after him in desperation for them to get back together. This behavior was at odds with her assurance that she could get someone better than him in the future. Her constant mood swings were irritating, and there were so many fantastical elements between her, Rocky’s father and others that the whole thing felt like one of those Latino soap operas I used to watch with my mom when I was growing up.

Though I was not a fan, I will leave it up to you readers ages 16 and older to decide if you want to read it or not.

“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.

“The inexplicable logic of my life” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Rated 5 stars ***** 2017. Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 452 p.

The inexplicable logic of my lifeWho am I? The year he turned 17, Salvador’s mind was full of unanswered questions. He had always been able to tell his best friend Samantha anything, as she was like a sister to him, but he felt he couldn’t tell her he didn’t want his wonderful and supportive gay father, who adopted him and who he dearly loved, to know he was thinking of his real father. He’d been getting into lots of fights; leaving him wondering if the anger he felt came from his real dad. Was he an offshoot of his dad? Did he inherit his dad’s anger issues? Who is he really? Sal doesn’t know.

Sal knows he doesn’t want to go to college, doesn’t want to write his admission essay, and doesn’t want his beloved grandmother Mima to leave him. He loves his family but has lots of questions about his place in the world. While Sal tries to figure out some answers to the craziness going on in his head, stuff keeps happening. Death, sadness, grief, anger and sorrow keep entering his life; along with the love that comes from a close knit family and good friends. Why does his life feel so messed up? Who is he really?

Many of Sal’s questions will ring true with teen readers, along with his emotional ups and downs. I was moved to tears by Mima and Sal’s friend Fito’s problems, and loved the strong friendship between Sal and Sammy. The strong and powerful love given to Sal by his dad is an example for all dads to follow. Once again Sáenz pens a winner.

Highly recommended for readers age 14 and older.

“Dominicana” by Angie Cruz

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. To be published September 3, 2019. Flatiron Books. 324 p.

DominicanaThe Dominican Republic, and life in New York City as an immigrant in 1965, is explored in this memoir-like novel about a young fifteen-year-old girl named Ana Canción. Unrest caused by the United States’ invasion into the Dominican Republic, along with chaos from the New York City race riots, form backgrounds to Ana’s story.

Ana was her mother’s only hope. If she married thirty-two year old Juan Ruiz, then she could send for her family so they could all come to the United States to work and have a new life. There Juan makes good money, and Mamá knows Ana can help them all to live their dreams so, before she knows it, young Ana is married and living in a strange, freezing cold city where she knows no one.

Life in New York is not what Ana expected. Juan works hard, but has a mistress and no time for Ana. He’s abusive, and expects her to stay home, take care of the house, and meet his needs in bed. Ana wants an education, to learn to speak English, to live her dreams, and to make something of herself. She wants to fly.

Ana’s metamorphosis from Juan’s little Dominican bird to a New York City pigeon is detailed in this very realistic novel about the immigrant experience. I hope that readers will realize that, fifty-four years later, the dreams of immigrants remain the same. They hope to escape the poverty and violence of their homeland for a place where they can work hard to gain a better life for themselves and their families. That has always been the American Dream.

Highly recommended for ages 16 and older.

“A library for Juana: The world of Sor Juana Inés” by Pat Mora

Rated 5 stars ***** 2019. Children’s Book Press. (Includes a Glossary and Author’s Note).

A library for JuanaUna biblioteca para JuanaThis biographical picture book tells the story of Juana Ramírez de Asbaje.

Juana was born near Mexico City in 1648. Her grandfather loved books and, from the age of 3, she loved pretending to read them. Though she and her older sister were allowed to attend school to learn to read and write, her mother knew only boys could go to the university because girls were supposed to stay home. Her mother’s words, and the constrictions of the time against women, didn’t keep Juana from her dreams of studying and writing poetry.

Juana was persistent in wanting to learn so, when she was 10 years old, her mother sent her to Mexico City to live with relatives. This proved to be a good thing because she grew even more in her knowledge, always seeking answers in books, and writing poetry. In time Juana became a lady in waiting for the Viceroy’s wife, enjoying learning from books in the palace library while spreading her knowledge among scholars of the time.

Eventually Juana left the palace to become a nun, and changed her name to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She continued to expand her library and her learning until her death in 1695.

I had never heard of Juana Ramírez de Asbaje, and enjoyed reading about her persistence and dedication to learning. Vidal’s full page, colorful illustrations are rich with details of the time period such as headgear for men and women, food, clothing, musical instruments, and more.

Young readers will get an education from Juana’s life through Mora’s well-researched book, but will also learn about the time period from Vidal’s equally well-researched illustrations.

(There is also a Spanish translation of the book titled “Una biblioteca para Juana: El mundo de Sor Juana Inés.”)

Highly recommended for ages 7-11.

I received a copy of these books from Lee & Low in exchange for an honest review.