In elementary school, I stumbled upon a book that I would revisit time and time again as a child: Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I purchased it at the Scholastic Book Fair, lured in by the Spanish name of both the character and the author and the ethereal illustration of Esperanza floating above the farmlands of California, a canary-colored dress draped across her body, raven hair flying through the wind.
Esperanza is Mexican, and I had never seen a Mexican girl on the cover of a book before.
Esperanza's search for belonging and strength in a strange new world resonated with me, the daughter of a border town — a place where nationalities and languages and superstitions collide to form something no one quite understands on either side of the Rio Grande. As a child growing up Mexican-American in El Paso, Texas, this book about a Mexican girl's search for her place in the world was exactly what I needed.
But in a flash, I grew up and grew out of Esperanza Rising. In middle school and in high school, I searched for stories of the 16-year-old Esperanza or the Esperanza who lived in 2007. I found one: Esperanza Cordero, the heroine of Sandra Cisneros' young adult classic, The House on Mango Street . But I was a voracious reader. I sped through four or five books a week, and one book just wasn't enough. My search continued, but I couldn't find any others. They either didn't exist, or they didn't exist where I could find them. So I turned instead to the classics — Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway were my favorites — and supplemented those novels with a sprinkling of YA, namely the works of Holly Black, Libba Bray, and — like every teen in the mid-to-late 2000s — Stephanie Meyer.
Many readers have a mental list of books they've silently filed away for their future children to read. But what about the books they wish they had read themselves as children or teens or young adults? Here's my list of the nine Latinx books that I wish had existed when I was a teenager.
Which books would you choose?
1. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
Bronx teenager Aaron is still trying to cope with the aftermath of his father's suicide. When his girlfriend, Genevieve, leaves for art camp, he turns to a new guy, Thomas, for friendship and support. But when he begins to feel more than friendly towards Thomas, he starts to wonder about the truth of his past — specifically, what happened to cause that smiley-faced scar on his wrist. When his suppressed feelings and memories come crashing to the surface, Aaron turns to the controversial Leteo Institute to erase them. But can you really 'erase' who you are?
I'm not a boy; I'm not gay; I'm not a native New Yorker; I'm not Puerto Rican; and I read this as a 23 year old, so I definitely wasn't a teenager. But this gritty novel hit me right in the gut and mushed up my insides all the same. It had me thinking about all the reasons it's so incredibly difficult to be a teenager. It had me thinking about my own privilege — about how Aaron faced many more difficult situations than I ever did as a teen. This story is devastating, and it tackles so many tough issues: suicide, depression, poverty, prejudice. But it's also a funny novel, one that asks teens to search for their happiness amidst the pain — to be more happy than not. That's an essential piece of advice that I hope every teen takes to heart.
2. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Here's a thing I'm ashamed to admit: I didn't really even know that Afro-Latinx existed until college. hould I say Afro-Latinx are people of African descent from Latin America and the Caribbean I'm light-skinned, and I grew up mostly surrounded by light-skinned Latinx. I didn't see any Afro-Latinx (or any Latinx, really) on TV, and I certainly didn't read about any, so I just stewed in my privileged ignorance until I went to college and met people who challenged that worldview.
Shadowshaper not only features an Afro-Latinx character, it features an Afro-Latinx character on the cover. I mean, she's rocking her natural hair. If you don't think that's a big deal, then you're not paying close enough attention to America's social, cultural, and racial divides. Sierra, a young Brooklynite, discovers she's a Shadowshaper, a girl who can channel the magic of ancestral spirits to make murals literally come alive. You can imagine how an artist like Sierra might find this magic pretty useful — especially when she's confronted by a villain who wants to steal the power of the Shadowshapers.
Author Daniel José Older has been extremely vocal about the need for more books that feature thoughtful, well-researched, and authentic diverse voices, and he certainly set the standard with his first young adult novel. Stay tuned for the second and the third novels in the series, which don't yet have a release date.
3. Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova
Few novels explore the superstitions of various Latinx communities, something that has always seemed to me to be a huge missed opportunity for publishers and authors. In Labyrinth Lost (out Sept. 6, 2016), Zoraida Cordova draws inspiration from Ecuadorian, Spanish, African, Mexican, and Caribbean folklore and mythology to craft a page-turning tale about a young bruja unsure of her place in the world. Determined to reject her future as a witch, Alex accidentally sends her entire family tumbling into another dimension — the land in-between, Los Lagos. Now, she and a mysterious brujo named Nova must travel into the unknown to reclaim her family and close the portal between worlds.
A normal dinnertime conversation with my family almost always includes chatter about ghosts and curses and witchcraft. A Christmas meal just isn't complete until my grandmother spooks us all with a freaky tale about a poltergeist she may or may not have accidentally summoned during a ritual that she probably shouldn't have been doing in the first place. So, I can't express how much it means to me to read about families like mine and see them described as normal and not creepy. I desperately wish this book had existed 10 years ago, but I'm glad it exists now.
4. The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore
Anna-Marie McLemore's debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, is the mesmerizing, whimsical love story I always wanted to read as a hormone-charged teen. Lace Paloma, a swimmer in her family's mermaid exhibition, falls in love with Cluck Corbeau, a non-performing member of a family of a competing family of tightrope walkers. Because their families are rivals, Lace and Cluck keep their burgeoning love affair a secret. But what happens when the history of their families' feud threatens to rip them apart and destroy their happiness? This Romeo & Juliet story is steeped in magical realism — a literary device Anna-Marie McLemore has written about at length — and the vibrant world-building and character details will ensure you never forget Cluck and Lace's breathtaking romance.
5. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
In all the talk about diversity, we sometimes forget to discuss diversity of place. There are painfully few novels set in my hometown, El Paso. The city, which rests on the cusp of Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua, is a place of mixed identity, and many of the people within it — myself included — can't help but reflect that mixed-up feeling.
I didn't learn about fellow El Pasoan Benjamin Alire Sáenz until after I'd left home and gone away to college, but when I discovered he'd written one of the most beloved works of gay YA literature, I knew I had to read it. Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe is the story of two loners who strike up an unusual friendship and later, something more. Their story is peppered with the kind of philosophical musings that I would definitely would've quoted in my Facebook statuses back in the day. Seriously, this book is perfect for teenagers — particular gay teenagers — who think they're alone in the world and alone in their struggles. This book is a reminder that everyone will find their place and you'll find their people. And that's a lesson every teen wants to hear — one I wanted to hear — and one every gay teen growing up on the border needs to hear.
6. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Isabel Quintero — the winner of the 2015 William C. Morris YA Debut Award — spins a story of a chubby Mexican-American girl who's trying to pass Algebra II and get into the college of her dreams all while dealing with some pretty extreme family and friend problems. Gabi is hilarious and creative and the girl you want to be your BFF. She writes to-do lists that include both "learn to put on eyeliner" and "read more." Oh, and she eats Flamin' Hot Cheetos drenched in Tapatío hot sauce and lemon (she calls it her 'thinking food'), a meal which comprised about 80 percent of my diet as a high schooler and about 20 percent of my diet now as a "responsible adult."
This novel is necessary in so many ways. Through Gabi's story, we learn valuable lessons about body image, about cultural identity, about friendship, about feminism, about family.
But when I think about why I needed a book like Gabi, a Girl in Pieces as a teen, I think about Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Tapatío. Writing diverse characters is about more than writing a best friend with a foreign-sounding name. Writing diverse characters is about more than inserting random Spanish words. Writing diverse characters is about imbuing these characters' stories with details that give them life and vibrancy and authenticity. Writing diverse characters is about writing characters who are fully formed human beings, influenced and impacted by the situations and cultures in which they grew up. It sounds simple, but I'll acknowledge that it isn't. It involves research. It takes time. But you have no idea what that effort means to someone like me. Someone who sometimes — just once in a while — wants to read about a character that reminds me of... me.
7. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
Piddy Sanchez has no idea why Yaqui Delgado doesn't like her. Apparently, Piddy's light skin, good grades, and lack of an accent piss off Yaqui, who now wants to kick her ass.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is a wonderful coming-of-age novel, and a fantastic story about a girl who taps into strength she didn't know she had. Many reviewers have commented on how this is a story about being bullied for no reason at all. I disagree. Piddy is bullied — at least in part — because she doesn't have what Yaqui perceives to be a "Latina" attitude. This book shines the spotlight the prejudices that still exist within the Latinx community: Afro-Latinx and dark-skinned Latinx are often the targets of racism and abuse, and light-skinned Latinx or Latinx who don't speak Spanish are often dismissed as "not Latin enough." Both mentalities perpetuate extremely harmful stereotypes. Talking about these issues in literature — especially literature aimed at children and teens — is one way to help dismantle those systems of prejudice and racism.
8. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
Puerto Rican teenager Juliet has just come out to her family. In an attempt to make sense of her identity, she leaves the Bronx and travels to Portland to intern with her favorite feminist author, Harlowe Brisbane.
With humor and heart, Gabby Rivera tackles white feminism, identity, belonging, and love in all its forms. Juliet's story is essential to the YA canon for so many reasons, but mostly because queer Latinx deserve to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. This is an essential read for all teens looking for information about intersectional feminism and what it means to grow up as a queer person of color. It's certainly a book I wish I'd read growing up.
9. Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña
Years before he won the Newbery Medal for Last Stop On Market Street, Matt de la Peña wrote a story about a Mexican-American teen torn between two identities. San Diegan Danny Lopez is brown, a complexion he owes to his Mexican father. But his dad is gone, and his blue-eyed, white mother can't teach him much about being Mexican — including how to speak Spanish. He also happens to be an incredible baseball player, except he's not on a team, because he chokes every time he hits the diamond.
When his mom takes off for San Francisco, he decides to stay behind with his aunt and uncle in National City, where his dad grew up. When he lived in San Diego, he was the brown kid. Now in National City, he's too white. With some help from a new friend, Uno, Danny slowly sorts through his own emotions about his identity, about his athletic talent, about his family, about his dad. For any Latinx who's ever felt like they didn't belong to any community, this is an essential read.