By Erika L. Sánchez
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017
Contemporary Young Adult
Additional formats: ebook, audiobook
Honors: National Book Award Finalist
Julia is the black sheep of the family. She wants to go away to college, she loves loud music and wearing black and writing. Her sister, Olga, graduated from high school and stayed home with her parents in their Chicago apartment like a good Mexican daughter, attending part-time community college and maintaining a complete disinterest in boys. But now Olga is dead, and Julia has to handle both her own grief and the full brunt of her parents’ expectations.
In the midst of these tears and arguments, Julia discovers that Olga wasn’t as “perfect” as she pretended to be. Her sister had secrets, loves, dreams, and flaws. As Julia tries to get to the truth of who her sister was, she struggles with her own mental health, falls in love for the first time, and plans her future far, far away from her parents. The pressure becomes too great to bear alone, and Julia finds herself in Mexico for a “break,” where she discovers that her parents are also more complicated than she thought.
This is a powerful novel about the experience of being the child of an immigrant—never American enough, never Mexican enough—and also about how so much of growing up is about realizing that people with whom you think you have little in common are just as interesting and complicated as you are.
But it’s also just the story of a smart, funny, flawed girl having her first kiss, discovering books she loves, and living her life with her friends. There’s so much to relate to here for any reader, no matter where you are from or what age you are. – AN
By Julia Alvarez
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2002
ISBN: 0375815449 / 978-0375815447
Also available in paperback and audio
Awards/recognitions: * ALA Best Books for Young Adults * ALA Notable Book; Miami Herald Book of the Year * Winner of the Amércias Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature * Winner of the Pura Bupré Award
Julia Alvarez is a titan in the world of Latino literature, so it isn’t surprising that a decade past its publication, her first YA novel, Before We Were Free, is still one of my favorites to recommend for middle school readers. The novel is historical fiction, but it’s not based on American history. Instead, it’s set in the Dominican Republic during the early 1960s as the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo was unraveling.
Rafael who? Yes, that’s exactly the problem. This bloody history happened right in our global neighborhood, but ask your average middle school kid about it and you’ll get a blank stare. So, for girls who like world history, a little bloodshed, espionage, and murder plots, this is a terrific pick.
The country is in upheaval, and the secret police are investigating anyone who is suspected of betraying “el jefe” Trujillo. Anita de la Torre’s uncle has already disappeared, and her beloved cousins are fleeing to the United States, plucked from school one day and told to take one thing they cherish. Anita stays behind with her parents, only vaguely aware of her father’s involvement in the plot against the president.
The book touches on the tragedy of those caught in political upheavals the world over. Family separations, secrets kept from children for the sake of safety, and of course, the gut-wrenching decisions people have to make about morality, ideals, torture, and murder. But what is on full display here – and what strong girls will respond to — is the cost to young people: their voice and their innocence. MM
Learn more about Julia Alvarez.