Secrets are, by nature, phenomenally interesting. (Also, they're far better when they belong to someone else and you overhear them.) It's why we love James Bond and Alex Rider and Sydney Bristow and Jason Bourne...secrets are their livelihood. It's also why we love novels, because the act of reading fiction in itself is a form of spying, at least in part. I like a character with a secret, and I like it more when it's something unexpected. Usually revealing a narrator's secret in a review would be called a spoiler, but in the case of Eddie Corazon in MUCHACHO, passing on his secret will only do one thing: make you want to read this book more. Eddie Corazon, juvenile delinquent, is a secret reader.
If somebody asks me do I like to read, I say, "Yeah," and then I give them a look that tells them they better not ask me what I like to read because this ain't Oprah's book club.
Eddie lives in small-town New Mexico with his family, which includes a large group of cousins, some of which are in and out of jail on a regular basis. His family has lived in New Mexico for three hundred years--his abuelo says, "We didn't cross the border, mijo. The border crossed us." He's had some issues with the school system, and he's enrolled instead in Bright Horizons alternative school, where the students pride themselves on getting rid of teachers in record time. The lure of his cousins' illegal lifestyle is strong, but he's promised his mother he will get a diploma. While Eddie privately devours The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the collected works of Sherman Alexie, he feigns apathy in his classes and refuses to engage, even though his mind is constantly wrestling with the issues he'll face once he graduates. What kind of future can he possibly achieve when even the brightest kids from his neighborhood can't go to college? Why bother getting a minimum-wage job when he could make easy money now selling with his cousins?
Everything changes on the day Eddie starts taking ballroom dancing to fulfill his fine arts credits, and because his teacher tells him, "You'll meet lots of girls." He is partnered with Lupe, a new girl at Bright Horizons, and he is initially drawn by her looks and the sweet smell of her hair, but upon speaking with her over lunch, he discovers she is brilliant, and funny, and unlike any other girl he's ever met. Lupe dreams of being a doctor, and slowly, Lupe's own desires for a future of her own choosing fuel Eddie's passion to be more than what he is. He decides to write her a poem: I wish I could be Lupe's rosary/ so she could hold me in her hands/ and tangle me up in her fingers/ and press me to her lips/ and pray me into being a good man/ one bead at a time.
Eddie is no longer simply a secret reader; he becomes a secret writer. His poems are scattered throughout MUCHACHO, and they lend a wonderful intimate quality to the story. What I love about Eddie's character is that despite the front he has to maintain for his peers, his family, and sometimes even for Lupe, as we read his story from his point of view, he's actually being open with us. His voice is sincere, and he bares his thoughts and emotions to us as readers, because he can't bare them to anyone else in his world. We become his confessional, and it is a privilege to spend time with him on the page. His journey is not an easy one, and a misstep with his cousin leads to confrontation with Lupe's father, and Eddie is faced with a choice about the kind of man he wants to be. Without revealing any crucial plot elements, I will say there are a few wonderful scenes in the book set at Black Cat Books and Coffee, which is a real independent bookstore in Truth or Consequences, NM. My hope is that teens and adults alike will read MUCHACHO, because Eddie's story is so compelling, and its telling so lovely, that it shouldn't be missed. There is so much beauty revealed in the midst of his chaos, and there are amazing connections to be made across social and racial boundaries. This is exactly the sort of book that should be read in 11th and 12th grade, but very rarely is. This is the kind of book that Eddie himself would like to read, and one that librarians and teachers and parents and volunteers should slip into the hands of the secret readers in their lives.
Note from Melissa: I am fairly desperate to read this book myself, and am ordering it at work tomorrow.Order this book from an independent bookstore!
Kara Martinez's Mexican father was killed in an accident when she was eleven, and ever since then her mother has driven every ounce of evidence that he ever existed out of their lives. There are no signs around their house of their Mexican heritage - not even in the food they eat. Ever. She expects Kara to dress and act a certain way, and because her mother's moods control the household, Kara has learned over the years to suppress her opinions, her bad moods, her deep emotions, and everything that makes her who she is. Because when Kara told her mother that she was seeing ghosts in the hospital during her accident recovery, her mother had her sent to a psychiatric ward. Only after years of therapy and medication and never speaking of the ghosts again has Kara been able to have some measure of freedom in her life.
So it's understandable that she wouldn't mention the signs to her mother either.
Not too long after the ghost incidences, Kara began seeing signs - clues to a person's future. They appear on the person, usually around the chest area, and only in flashes. Sometimes there are a series of signs and Kara is driven to puzzle them out, to figure out the possible future in time to change it positively. Her first sign was fairly benign:
The first signs I actually followed came to me at the age of twelve, and the first puzzle had been simple. I'd seen signs before my first puzzle, but I hadn't understood until then what I was supposed to do.Not until one day in school, when I'd read a story about cats. Later, when I got home, I'd seen a television commercial about cats. Then Mom had come home, holding a magazine with a cat on the cover. When I went out to get something from Mom's car, a cat walked past me, an image of a car on its fur as it strolled into the street.I heard a car coming. The cat had stopped in the street to lick its paws. I ran forward, stomping my feet. The cat startled and rushed to the sidewalk. The car missed it entirely.
Kara hid the signs from everyone - not just her mother and brother, Jason, but also her best friend, Danielle. Everyone, that is, but the readers of her anonymous online blog, Secret Fates. She began the blog because she had to have some outlet for her secret. It gets harder and harder, however, to hide who she really is from the world - especially when she sees a flash of a gun on a classmate's chest.
Her investigation of that sign leads her to an accidental meeting with Anthony, a Mexican former gangbanger from "the wrong side of town." Encounters with some of Anthony's friends and family bring her flashes of other signs, until she no longer knows who she's actually supposed to be protecting. Complicating the matter is the chemistry between Anthony and Kara, which leads them to a romance that's disapproved of by just about everyone they know. Kara refuses to give him up, though, even as the signs get more confusing.
Then one day notes start appearing in her locker. Someone knows that she's the anonymous blogger behind Secret Fates. What do they want? Can Kara keep her secret? And if she can't, what happens if she doesn't figure out the recent signs before it's too late?
One of the things I like best about this book is that Kara just...has the signs. She just does. The book isn't really urban fantasy; she doesn't uncover a secret world of magic under the streets of Valdez, California. She doesn't have any other powers. Her family doesn't have powers. And there's no lengthy descriptions of the signs, or investigation into why they started. They just did. They just are. They're not really what the book's about.
What's really important in this book is what happened to Kara's FAMILY after the accident, not what happened to her, because it's what happened to her family that drives many of the events. You are really going on a personal journey with Kara. You're following her as she tries to figure out the signs, sure, but the whole time she's trying to figure out herself. Trying to figure out how to balance the person she wants to be with the person her mother expects her to be. Trying to live a life where her father is remembered. Trying to eat the occasional forbidden carne asada taco. Trying to be more open with her best friend, to figure her brother out, to fall in love for the first time.
And to a certain extent it's about race relations, especially the divisions that can arise between people of the same heritage who are separated by economic status or location or the portion of their heritage that's full-blooded. It's about being in a gang, and then not being in one anymore. It's about breaking free of what's expected of you and reaching out for everything you want.
I'm looking forward to more from Kelly Parra, and I'm going to need to read GRAFFITI GIRL now. However, I would appreciate it in the future if authors could refrain from using the titles of bad Genesis songs for their books. Intentional or not, it gave me a Very Annoying Earworm. So thanks for that, Ms. Parra.
I also want to say at the end here that I feel like Simon and Schuster has some room for improvement in promoting the MTV imprint with kids' booksellers. (Penguin has the same problem with their teen books that are published under the Berkeley imprint.) I feel like I'm constantly missing MTV books. I'm going to start looking a little closer in the future - I've read several now of very high quality, and I don't want to miss any more.
This book was read as part of the Color Me Brown Book Challenge. Order this book from an independent bookstore!
My dad was in the Navy, so when I was younger we moved a few times. Unfortunately for me, the two moves that took place after I began school both occurred in the middle of the school year. Middle of second grade, middle of fifth grade. This? Sucked. Everyone had chosen their desks, their lunch tables, their friend groups. In the fifth grade the musical had been casts, the safety patrol filled, the library aides assigned. So I know more than a little about how hard it is to be the new kid in the class - even if your classmates are nice to you - and I have a special fondness for books that portray those feelings accurately.
Nikki Grimes does just that in MAKE WAY FOR DYAMONDE DANIEL.
Dyamonde is in the third grade, and when her parents got divorced, she moved with her mom from their quiet Brooklyn neighborhood to a tiny apartment in Washington Heights. She likes her new neighborhood well enough, but misses her best friend and her bedroom and her school and her dad. Still, Dyamonde's a fighter, and she's bursting with the desire to fit in and make a new life for herself. And more than anything else, she wants a new best friend. One right here in her school, who she can sit with and play with and laugh with every day.
Enter Free. New boy. He's sullen and keeps to himself. When Dyamonde invites him to sit with her at lunch on his first day, he tells her to leave him alone. She secretly nicknames him "Rude Boy," but at the same time becomes kind of obsessed by figuring out what his deal is. Why won't he read out loud in class when Dyamonde's seen him reading books in the school yard? Why won't he sit with anyone at lunch? Why does he keep growling at everyone?
And even though Dyamonde projects confidence and Free projects anger, could they be the same deep down inside? Is Free the friend Dyamonde's been looking for?
I love Dyamonde and her whole little world. I love her spunk and her friendliness and her smarts and her determination. I think she's a great character to headline a series, and I highly recommend her.
I just wish that all early reader and elementary series like this were published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback. Unless you're talking about something like Magic Tree House, it is so hard to sell a book like this in hardcover. I understand that libraries and schools need these in hardcover so they don't fall apart easily, but parents of newish readers are often buying books frequently and are more likely to buy two paperbacks than one hardcover.
I think this issue is especially important because there are a billion inexpensive paperback series out there featuring little white children, and almost none with children of color. Children of color from well-off families are going to be able to get whatever books they want. Children of color from families that are not well-off are going to have to get a paperback book, if they get a new book, and if they want a book with a kid that looks like them on the front there are only going to be a couple of choices.
And I think, too, that children from poverty-stricken homes might just be the kids who need books with faces like theirs more than anyone else. They are the ones whose parents will be working so often and so hard that there won't be a lot of time at home to read together. They are the ones who might never become readers because the early reader window was missed. I think you have a greater chance of hooking some of these kids if they can look around at a selection of books and see more than a sea of white faces, and if that selection of books is more affordable to them.
(Please don't think that I am saying that elementary level books featuring children of color should all be published in paperback because all of those kids are poor - if that's what you're taking away from this then I've stated it badly. I think that elementary books in general should be published in paperback more often than not, and turning disadvantaged children of color into readers is only one of many reasons. It's a good one, but it's hardly the only one.)
This book was read as part of the Color Me Brown Book Challenge. Order this book from an independent bookstore!
It is easy, as a white person, to forget about racism - especially in this Obama-centric time. We elected a black President, didn't we? Look at how far we've come!
It is easy, as a white bookseller in a predominantly white community, to look at the shop shelves and not see much of a problem when there are very few faces darker than your own staring back at you.
It is easy to look around at your own diverse bookshelves and know that you yourself are openminded, and believe with your optimistic liberal heart that the tides are turning, the winds are changing.
But they're not, really. Not enough. Not fast enough and not deeply enough. And we're all complicit. Every single one of us.
There is huge outrage over the issue of Bloomsbury's cover for Justine Larbalestier's LIAR. And there should be. It was a stupid decision to take a book about a biracial girl and slap a picture of a white girl on it. It was a shameful decision. It was a wrong decision. And the publisher's response to the outcry is, frankly, a pile of shit:
“The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?” (from PW, here)
Since the author herself has specifically stated that Micah (the main character in LIAR) is black, and if readers believe otherwise, it undermines her entire book, then YES I BELIEVE SHE IS TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT RACE. And I think it's pretty lucky for the publisher that this book is about a liar, because it allows them to craft this supposed truth about why they chose this cover (against the strong objections of the author), when it looks like nothing more than more of the same crap I have been hearing for years: books featuring black faces on the cover don't sell.
But what, exactly, have we done to change that? I'm not talking about the people at The Brown Bookshelf or Color Online. I'm talking about us - the great whitewashed book community. The publishers, the booksellers, the librarians, the bloggers, the reviewers. What have we done? Sure, there are pack leaders among us, people fighting against this stuff every day - but the greater majority of us have been pretty complacent. And many of us have admitted in our blogs this week (as I am doing, right now) that we haven't been reviewing many books about people of color. I just looked back at my review posts, and since I started this blog there have been exactly three books reviewed featuring POC on the cover. Three. And of those, two of them (CHAINS and FLYGIRL) are historical fiction.
The third was SUGAR PLUM BALLERINAS, about which I wrote the following:
This book is so, so charming, AND the little girl is African-American as are some of her new friends but it is not remotely about that. It is just what we keep wishing for - a lovely little book about a black child where race isn’t an issue at all. Every child likes to read books about kids who look like them and guess what, publishers? Every child isn’t white. I hope this becomes a series.
I wrote that over a year ago, and wow, just LOOK at all I did to try to get this point across to publishers!
Oh wait. No, I really didn't. I haven't, really, and not enough of us have. Not loudly enough, not often enough, and not together enough.
If we HAD been, if we has a book community had truly been focused on this, it wouldn't have taken until now for a major author in a major publication to ask why the Caldecott Medal has never been won by a single African-American illustrator. (Leo and Diane Dillon, an interracial married couple, have won twice.) And the author? Nikki Grimes. A black author herself. She shouldn't have had to point this out, and it shouldn't have been a shock to any of us. It certainly was one to me, though. Because just stop and think about this for a few minutes. Stop and think about the people who you probably assume have won a Caldecott, but in truth have not:
And if they've never won, how are Don Tate and Floyd Cooper and Sean Qualls and Brian Pinkney and Nina Crews and Leonard Jenkins and Shadra Strickland (and, and, and, and) ever supposed to do it?
I look at these names and I cannot believe that FREIGHT TRAIN wasn't a Caldecott winner. Or LET IT SHINE. Or THE OTHER SIDE. Or ROSA. Or WE ARE THE SHIP. My daughter and I both love THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT, but just open WE ARE THE SHIP and look at the way Nelson plays with light and tell me that it didn't deserve to be recognized. Or open MOSES and explain to me why FLOTSAM won instead. Do not misunderstand me: I think FLOTSAM is an incredible piece of work, and David Wiesner is a fixture at my old shop and a lovely and extremely talented man, but the art in MOSES is also extraordinary.
And how many Caldecott committees can possibly look at Jerry Pinkney's work and put him on the Honor list...again? I do not care how many Coretta Scott King awards these artists have won. I DO NOT CARE. Jerry Pinkney's won five. It doesn't equal a Caldecott.
After I'm done thinking about this, I move on to thinking about related things that have bothered me that I never addressed with a publisher or a sales rep. The book BASS ACKWARDS AND BELLY UP and its sequel, FOOTFREE AND FANCYLOOSE, feature four girls - 3 white, 1 biracial. The covers? Three girls, all white.This particular slap is one I see over and over and over again: a book features characters of more than one race, but the cover only pictures white kids. So not only do white people only buy books with white people on them, they only buy books with ONLY white people on them?
The picture book TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES is one I love and have sold many copies of, but why, in a book celebrating the sameness of all of us despite our skin color/nationality/place of residence, does the final baby and mother - the true subjects of the book - have to be white? Don't we already have enough new baby books that feature little white babies? (There are some good ones featuring black babies, but not enough, and in those books all of the other people pictured are black too.) Do all of the books about Asian babies have to be about adoption or food or Chinese New Year? (Are there even any books about Hispanic babies?)
Why aren't there more books like CORDUROY, where the little girl just happens to be black and that's just that? She just IS. It's not part of the story. It's not a slave narrative or a book about surviving a crack house or a book where every other character is also black. It's a sweet book about a little bear and the girl who takes him home, and she isn't white, and you know what? White people have been just fine with that since 1968. White people have also been purchasing the work of Mr. Ezra Jack Keats for decades, and oh look - what's that on THE SNOWY DAY? A little black boy! When GRACE FOR PRESIDENT came out a couple of years ago, I was so happy to see that Grace was black and her classmates were a motley assortment of races. And guess what? We sold a whole lot of copies of that book because it was a good book and good books sell. Crap doesn't sell no matter who's on the cover.
And if there aren't covers with black faces on them, then of course they don't sell. But there aren't any on covers because those covers don't sell (supposedly). And around and around and around we go.
I don't know what to do about this, except to start speaking up. Loudly. Persistently. Often. Speak up until I'm heard. Until we're heard. I've been sleeping for too long, and I'm ready to help change this. I don't know if I can, but I know I can't look past it for another minute.
And I'm taking the August Color Me Brown Book Challenge. I've got a whole lot of books that are going to have to wait awhile longer. The brown books have been waiting long enough.