Monday, May 14, 2012

Reading to Know You're Not Alone

Well, I just finished Matt de la Peña’s Mexican White Boy.  I read it because of the NY Times’ story, Racial Lens Used to Cull Curriculum in Arizona.  This paragraph from the article summarizes what happened:

On Jan. 1, after a new state law targeting Mexican-American studies courses that are perceived as antiwhite was upheld, it became illegal to teach “Mexican WhiteBoy” in Tucson’s classrooms. State officials cited the book as containing “critical race theory,” a violation under a provision that prohibits lessons “promoting racial resentment.”

During his ironically scheduled visit to speak to the students at Tucson High, de la Peña used his speaking fee to buy the students copies of the book.
            What I found in Mexican WhiteBoy was far from a promotion of racial resentment.  What I found was the perfect depiction of my next YA descriptor –young adults read to know they’re not alone.  Richard Peck establishes this point profoundly in his Invitations to the World.
            Danny Lopez is the only Mexican student at predominantly white Leucadia Prep.  He keeps to himself and has stopped talking.  Conversely, when Danny visits his Mexican dad’s side of the family feels isolated, because his mother is white.  It seems no matter where he goes he feels alone.  His racial isolation is complicated by his dad’s unexplained three-year absence and his mother’s solace-seeking in a string of boyfriends.
            Upon his arrival in National City to spend the summer with his dad’s family, Danny is immediately taken with Liberty because she is like him –a mix of white and Mexican.  He finds it ironic that she came to National City to be more American, while he came to be more Mexican.  But he is very intrigued to find someone else like him.  He also find friendship with Uno, also of mixed heritage, half Mexican, half African.  Danny sees not only this similarity but that Uno, like him, is missing his dad and trying to lift himself up out of a place in which he feels stuck.  Danny, like YA readers, needs to know he is not alone.
            There are two corollaries to this point that young adults read to know they’re not alone.  The first is that young people read to experience the kind of relationships they want.  Danny exemplifies this drive.  He is prepared to make a way to find his dad.  He pitches because his dad respected it.  He writes letters to his dad.  He imagines soaring hawks as his dad watching over him.  He chooses to spend his summer in National City with his dad’s family.  He develops a plan to make money to buy an airline ticket to visit his dad.  Though in the novel Danny never meets his dad, on the road he builds to his father he creates the kind of relationships he’s been craving –with his cousin Sofia, his friend Uno, and the girl he likes, Liberty.
            The second corollary is that young adults read to find invitations back into family.  This is certainly the case with Danny.  He chooses a summer in National City because he wants to be part of a family –his own immediate family is disintegrating before his eyes.  Beyond that, he wants to be a real part of his Mexican family.  We see him partake in the culture of eating and drinking.  We see him laugh at Spanish jokes he doesn’t understand.  We see him work out at the field where his dad played little league.  When Uno’s visiting father appears to read Danny’s mind, telling him he sees not only something bothering him inside, but also a big piece of God, Danny is moved almost to tears.  We see Danny discover that establishing a connection with his father is more important to him even than baseball.
            Richard Peck takes this corollary one step further though.  He says not only do young people look for invitations back into family, but, in particular, they crave the perspectives of old people.  Young adult literature is full of young people establishing meaningful relationships with a generation of grandparents.  Now while Mexican WhiteBoy doesn’t host a plethora of gray-haired wisdom, Danny craves not only information of about his father, but also perspective from his uncles.  The kind of probing Danny starts with his uncles often reaches to grandparents and beyond for young adults.  It is a need to understand where and who you come from, what of that runs through your veins, and in what ways you are a new and fresh take on that history.
            The pages of Mexican WhiteBoy are ripe with tension, and maybe that’s because both Danny and his friend Uno are just on the cusp of being lost from their families.  The story’s ending is earned and fulfilling, and maybe that’s because it is within family that Danny finds who he is and that he can be Just Me.  What gripped me about Mexican WhiteBoy was that it is because Danny and Uno find each other --find that they are not alone --that they make it.
Young adults read to know they’re not alone, to experience the relationships they want, and to find invitations back to family, in particular the perspectives of old people.  Young people underrepresented in literature will find themselves in Matt de la Peña’s characters.  If anything promotes racial resentment, I think it is stealing those books away from their readers.

1 comment:

  1. thanks so much for this review, Jill. Will definitely look into these books.