Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña is gritty. It’s real and it’s tough. It a gives a glimpse of life in a poor Mexican barrio near San Diego.
We see it through the eyes of Danny, a mixed-race teenager trying to come to terms with his mixed up identity. His mom is blond and blue eyed, his dad is Mexican. He feels out of place at his white private school and in the poor neighborhood his dad grew up in. But his dad is gone. His mom is off in affluent San Franciso with her boyfriend. Danny’s left with his extended family, where he doesn’t quite fit.
We also see the neighborhood through Uno, another mixed race teen—black and Mexican—who also struggles to find his place.
Yes, every teen novel is about self identity. Who am I? What’s my place in this world? But it’s that much more acute for these characters caught between borders.
But Danny loves baseball. Unexpected friendship and the love of the game find a way through.
There’s a lot going on in this book. The questions of culture, race and identity are powerful.
At the same time, it reminds me of all the books on baseball I read as a boy (probably during the height of my baseball addiction, just after getting baseball wallpaper). Like Hang Tough, Paul Mather. Alfred Slote was the king of YA baseball stories. At some book sale I remember finding a signed copy of a Slote baseball book, inscribed to someone and dated 1981. I thought that was pretty cool.
I don’t remember much about Slote’s baseball stories. But the descriptions of the game were good. Mexican WhiteBoy doesn’t even include any games, but Matt de la Peña’s descriptions of Danny’s pitching are just as good.
The Dyamonde Daniel series by Nikki Grimes features an in-charge and lively girl name Dyamonde (pronounced “Diamond”) who is confident in who she is. They’re really short chapter books that can be read in one sitting.
The opening book, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel, was about moving to a new place and making friends. It was simple and good.
The second book, Rich, was surprisingly sweet. A poetry contest is announced at school, and while Dyamonde isn’t interested (math is her subject), her friend Free thinks he can rhyme with the best of them. Dyamonde makes a new friend who is also interested in poetry, Damaris Dancer.
Damaris lives in a shelter after her mom lost her second job and couldn’t pay the rent. She embarrassed and trusts Dyamonde to keep her secret.
For some reason I keep coming across fiction stories about homelessness (like 8th Grade Super Zero) and I’ve been impressed at the way it’s presented with dignity and grace. It’s too easy to rely on stock characters, easy answers or some kind of savior complex.
But Dyamonde is a true friend to Damaris and it offers a powerful example.
Plus there’s some good poetry and a nod to poet Eloise Greenfield and her book Honey, I Love. I know nothing about the poet or the book, but it’s always fun when books point you to more books.
The Dreamer, written by Pam Muñoz Ryan and beautifully illustrated by Peter Sis, is the story of the childhood of poet Pablo Neruda. He was an absent-minded dreamer struggling with an authoritarian father.
It’s full of wonder, but it really feels like a mere introduction. I wanted more. And I should confess I’m not into poetry. I preferred the details on Neruda’s life than the excerpts of his poetry.
The end of the author’s note includes a powerful detail about General Pinochet’s soldiers ransacking Neruda’s home just months before his death. Neruda simply told the soldiers:
“Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here: poetry.”
There’s an entire story to the power of words in Neruda’s life, but this book barely touches on it. But I love Pam Muñoz Ryan’s comment about writing at the Festival of Faith and Writing:
“I read because it’s safe. I write because it’s dangerous.”
The Authoritarian & the Dreamer
Shifting gears, what most struck me about this story was the scatterbrained boy and the frustrated father. I saw myself in that father, pushing his son to stop dawdling, to hurry up, to focus.
Hopefully I’m nowhere near as authoritarian and rigid as Neruda’s father, forcing his son into the ocean until he learned how to swim and burning his writings.
But the frustration, the lack of patience, the quick dismissal—they feel too familiar.