Where We Come From

by Oscar Cásares
First sentence: “No kicking the ball against the side of the house.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Nina is an older woman who has grown up in Brownsville, TX, which is right along the US-Mexican border. Having never married, she’s spent her whole life in service of her family, ending up being the one to take care of her mother while her brothers all married and moved away (and they all treat her like absolute crap). She is a kind woman, and so when her housekeeper asks for a favor in helping get family across the border illegally, Nina says yes. It almost turned into something awful, but the traffickers were caught. Except one boy, Daniel, got away in the raid, and made his way back to Nina’s and she’s been trying to help him find his father in Chicago.

All this is complicated by the visit of Orly, her godson. She doesn’t want word to get back to her brothers or Orly’s father (Nina’s nephew). She doesn’t want her mother to know. So, Orly is given a strict set of rules to follow. Of course, he is made curious about the pink house behind the main house, and discovers Daniel’s presence, which just complicates things.

If this were a middle grade or YA novel, there would be adventure or intrigue and Orly and Daniel’s relationship would be at the center of the book. And to be honest, I almost wish it was. As it was, I didn’t dislike it, but I did feel like there was too much adult book getting in the way. I felt bad for Nina, but I wanted her to grow a backbone. I wanted *something* to happen, but mostly it was a lot of everyday stuff. Which wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t really engaging either.

It’s not a bad book, I’m just not sure it was quite what I wanted out of it.

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The Circuit

by Francisco Jimenez
First sentence: “‘La frontera’ is a word I often heard when I was a child living in El Rancho Blanco, a small village nestled on barren, dry hills several miles north of Guadalajara, Mexico.”
It’s out of print, unfortunately. I found a copy at the library.
Content: It’s a series of short chapters, fictional but with an autobiographic feel. It’s in the teen section at the library, but I really can’t figure out why.

This is basically the fictionalized autobiography of Jimenez. He doesn’t bother to change the names of his family (maybe of the other characters?) or even of the situations he finds himself in over the time that his family — he’s the second of seven children — spent as migrant workers in California. This book covers the time they entered the United States (his father had a green card; his mother, older brother, and he were all undocumented. His younger siblings were all born in the United States) through the time when, in high school, his older brother was picked up by ICE. (Though he doesn’t go into what happened after. Just that he was picked up.)

Jimenez does an amazing job making the migrant worker’s life come to life on the page: the back-breaking labor, the constant moving to follow the work. Not just for his parents — there was a scene when his father was sitting in their meager tent, smoking cigarette after cigarette, cursing the rain that wouldn’t stop and that was ruining the crops and therefore their livelihood that really brought it home to me — but also for the children, how they couldn’t start school until after the cotton crop in November, how they moved often so he went to multiple schools in the course of one school year.

It makes one think about where one’s food come from. Who is out there picking the crops, and what kind of conditions they live in. And yes, it made me think about immigration — this story took place beginning in the 1940s — and the way they are treated, not just by the government but also by business owners. It’s not an easy thing, politically, but I think we often forget that there are people on the other end.

At any rate, it was a fascinating little book.

The Poet X

by Elizabeth Acevedo
First sentence: “The summer is made for stoop-sitting and since it’s the last week before school starts, Harlem is opening its eyes to September.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing, a tasteful almost-sex scene, and some talk of smoking weed. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Xiomara is many things: a daughter, a poet, a twin. But she feels like she doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that her parents — both from the Dominican Republic — don’t really get along, or that her mother is super religious. Or that her twin, Xavier, is super smart, and goes to a magnet school, while Xiomara is stuck going to the not-really-great neighborhood one. And on top of everything, as she starts her sophomore year, her mother is insisting that she go to classes so that she can be confirmed (I think that’s how it is in Catholic churches?). But Xiomara has questions about God, and religion, and the way her parents treat her.

On the one hand, I can see where Xiomara’s mother is coming from. She wants her daughter to have all the things she didn’t have. She wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps, and to have the faith she did. What she doesn’t take into consideration — and this is the conflict at the heart of this elegant novel in verse — is that Xiomara’s feelings and desires might be different than her own. It’s often the conflict at the heart of young adult books: parents who believe they know better and don’t stop to listen to the desires of their kids. I loved getting to know Xiomara through her poetry, to understand her feelings and the tensions she perceived in her family. And I’m glad that, in the end, there was a resolution that didn’t involve someone dying. That Xiomara realized her parents loved her, even if they didn’t always show it in a way she could understand it.

Acevedo’s writing is gorgeous and her storytelling exquisite. This is definitely worth the hype.

Lety Out Loud

by Angela Cervantes
First sentence: “If Lety Muñoz could adopt any animal in the world, it would be Spike, the sweet black-and-white terrier mix sitting across from her on the lawn that very minute.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s aimed at 3-5th graders (and it fits that), so it’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Lety’s first language isn’t English. She’s been learning, since she arrived in Kansas City with her parents and younger brother a few years ago. She knows that she’s not the strongest English speaker, or even writer, but she loves the animals at the Furry Friends Animal Shelter so much that she wants to be the volunteer who writes animal profiles. Except Hunter, who’s a bit of a jerk, wants the job, too. So he creates a contest (that he’s probably sure to win) to see who will be the best profile writer.

But — and this was one of the things I really liked about this book — things didn’t quite go as planned. Hunter, while a bully, had a reason, and a personality and humanity. As do all of the kids Cervantes writes about (even Lety’s friend Kennedy, who could have been Generic White Kid). Cervantes gets kids, and gets their concerns, and knows how to write about hard things — like discrimination and racism and needing to belong — in ways that the readers she targets are able to understand and appreciate.

It’s a fun book, and a delightful story.

We’re Not From Here

by Geoff Rodkey
First sentence: “The first time I heard anything about Planet Choom, we’d been on Mars for almost a year.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 5, 2019
Content: There are some possibly scary situations, but Rodkey knows his audience, and the book is neither too long or too complex. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lan and his family are part of the last of the human race, the part that escaped to Mars when the Earth dissolved into a nuclear holocaust that made the planet uninhabitable. They’re also the part of the human race that decided to take a chance on the offer of asylum from the Planet Choom — a planet full of insect-like creatures, as well as small wolf-like creatures and marshmallow-like creatures — and take up residence there.

However, when they get out of biostasis and arrive at Choom, they’ve discovered that the government is now against the humans settling there and they want them all to just leave. Except the humans don’t have anywhere to go. So the Choom government — which is run by the insect-like creatures — allows Lan’s family to come down on a trial basis. Which means they’re the sole representatives for the human race and whatever they do the entire race will be judged on it.

If you haven’t gotten the allegory that Rodkey is telling here, let me spell it out (mostly because I knew it going in, and it was quite obvious to me): he’s exploring — in a way that is accessible to kids — the idea of immigration and the idea of being the “other”. And since he can’t write an #ownvoices book, he’s doing it the only way he can: through science fiction. As far as an allegory goes, it’s excellent: it allows the reader to feel how it is to be “alien”, even if they (I’m white and while I’ve felt like an outsider, I’ve never really felt “alien”) are not. But, on top of that, it’s fun to read, it’s got great characters (#TeamMarf all the way! She’s brilliant!) and it’s got a good heart at the center of it. It’s quite probably Rodkey’s best work so far.

And it’s definitely one worth reading!

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang
First sentence: “My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There are some uncomfortable and intense moments, but nothing too graphic. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Mia Tang and her parents are immigrants from China. Which means, even though her parents are highly educated, they’re scrambling for jobs.So, when one comes up managing a hotel — for $5 a room per night, not counting the first week, but they can live there for free — they jump at the chance. Except it’s not as easy as all that. It’s a lot of work for two people (no cleaning staff!) to handle, so Mia takes to running the front desk. Even though she’s only 10. And even though she learns to love the hotel and the weeklies — the people who pay by the week, not by the night — she can’t talk about what her parents do or where she lives at school. Because she’s not like the other kids.

There is a small plot to this one: Mia’s parents take in Chinese immigrants who have fallen on hard times, usually for only one or two nights, and hide them from the owner. Mia wants to be a writer, except her mother doesn’t think she can because English isn’t her first language. and she enters a contest to run a hotel in Vermont. She makes friends and makes choices and learns the power of the written word. There’s not much going on plot-wise, but the characters are compelling, and it’s an excellent look into the things immigrants do (and white/rich people do to them!) in order to make it work here in America. It was definitely enlightening.

So, while there’s not much to talk about, it’s an important — and excellent — book.

That Time I Loved You

by Carrianne Leung
First sentence: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some sex (on-screen but not graphic) and swearing, including a few f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Set in a suburb of Toronto, specifically on one street in a particular neighborhood, this collection of connected short stories  follows the inner workings of a dozen people of all ages.  The characters are mostly women, except for one black teenage boy, and many of them are immigrants. Leung explores immigrant expectations and prejudices toward them. She explores female dynamics both with other females and with males. She touches on sexual assault and racism and emotional abuse. It’s a lot. And yet, it works.

I usually have problems with short stories, but I think because these are connected — the characters in the stories appear in their own as well as in the background of other stories — it felt more like a novel. We got to know the characters, we get to know the neighborhood, and because each story focuses on a different person, we get to know them intimately and it means more when they show up in a different story.

I really enjoyed this one!