by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable” language or other-wise, but the main character is 14 years old, and the themes seemed a bit more mature than the usual middle grade fare. So, it’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.
Marcus Vega is a very large 14 year old. He’s one of those kids that went through puberty early, and he’s the giant in the hallway. He uses this to his advantage: he charges kids for his “protection” services, walking them to school and home again and otherwise being the heavy, enforcing the principal’s rules (for a fee). The money goes home to help out his struggling single mom, and he’s also super protective of his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. So, it’s not out of character for Marcus to punch a kid — the school bully, Stephen — for making fun of his brother. However, it’s his word against Stephen’s, and Stephen’s parents are the super involved, high donors type, and so it’s Marcus who ends up being threatened with expulsion. Thankfully, it’s right before spring break, and Marcus’s mom decides that it’s about time for them to head to Puerto Rico to meet Marcus’s father’s (who left when Marcus was four) family.
Marcus then becomes obsessed with finding and confronting his father, if only for closure. This takes him, his mother, and his brother, all over the island, meeting different members of the extended Vega clan. But, mostly what this book becomes at this point is an extended love letter to Puerto Rico. The book starts with a blurb about the hurricanes that hit the island last year, and how many of these places in the book are no longer like Cartaya describes them. But, as a reader, you can tell the affection that Cartaya has for the island. It’s a charming, sweet, Spanish- and Puerto Rican-infused book. Sure, Marcus has a happy ending but that’s not the point of the book, I think. It’s more to raise awareness: there is a culture and a history in Puerto Rico that’s rich and rewarding and even though they’re different from us, they’re also Americans too.
And while it’s not as good as visiting Puerto Rico, it’s a good second choice.