We Were Here by Matt de la Peña (YA)

We Were Here

We Were Here     

Matt de la Peña (Young Adult Fiction)

I can sometimes make stuff happen just by thinking about it.  I try not to do it too much because my head mostly gets stuck on bad stuff, but this time something good actually happened: the judge only gave me a year in a group home.  Said I had to write in a journal so some counselor could try to figure out how I think.  Dude didn’t know I was probably gonna write a book anyways.  Or that it’s hard as hell bein’ at home these days, after what happened.  So when he gave out my sentence it was almost like he didn’t give me a sentence at all.

Miguel Castañeda had a plan for getting through his one-year sentence in a group home: write in his journal, keep to himself, pretend to call his mom every Sunday, and read every book on the home’s bookshelves.  Just be a ghost—invisible and non-existent.  That plan was changed when he was assigned to share his room with Rondell, a big black kid that was once his cellmate in Juvi.  And then there was Mong, a skinny, tough, and silent Chinese dude with scars on his cheeks and a psycho smile.  Suddenly a year seemed a whole lot longer.  And then one night, Mong asked Miguel to escape with him to Mexico.  Maybe a new start away from California is just what he needed.  Maybe it’s the clean start he so wanted.

We Were Here was one of those books that I kept checking out and returning—always meaning to read it but getting distracted by something else.  Shame on me for not giving de la Peña’s work the attention it deserved.  We Were Here is gritty, raw, candid, bleak, and insightful.  It’s also a stark reminder to never judge a book by its cover.  The author introduces us to kids like Miguel, Mong, Rondell, and others who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law for one reason or another.  Each has their own story and shows us how one wrong decision or personal tragedy can set off a series of events that ultimately lands them in a group home, juvenile detention, or jail.  We get to meet these kids and understand that many are more than the sum of their parts and just need what Miguel so urgently desires—a second chance.

We Were Here is filled with heart, honesty, and hope.  The characters are realistically portrayed and de la Peña avoids simply making them ethnic caricatures by giving them depth, warmth, a deep vulnerability, and an underlying desire to make honorable and decent choices.  Narrated by Miguel through a series of personal journal entries, this story demonstrates just how far the bands of friendship can be stretched without breaking and the value of choosing loyalty over personal desire.

Matt de la Peña opened his book with an excerpt from Denis Johnson’s “From a Berkeley Notebook” and I thought it would be an appropriate way to close this review.  It beautifully depicts Miguel’s personal transformation and how events in our own lives can make each of us strangers to ourselves:  “One changes so much/ from moment to moment/ that when one hugs/ oneself against the chill/ air at the inception of spring, at night,/ knees drawn to chin,/ he finds himself in the arms/ of a total stranger,/ the arms of one he might move/ away from on the dark playground.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace (YA Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

War and Watermelon

War & Watermelon    

Rich Wallace (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

If you were to rank boys based on “coolness”, Brody Winslow would be near the bottom…low-middle at best.  But things could be worse.  It’s August 1969 and his brother Ryan could STILL avoid the draft (if he just got off his butt), the New York Mets COULD win a game (if they just got off their butt), and Brody MIGHT be a starter on his football team (if he could just stay off his butt).  All in all, things are looking pretty good.  In less than a month, Brody will be starting junior high school and his brother has promised to take him to a farm in upstate New York for some hippie concert protesting the war in Vietnam.  That might be fun.  Big changes are coming and Brody is about to tackle them all…whether he’s ready or not.

Rich Wallace started his early writing career as a sports editor for various New Jersey newspapers and his talent shows in War & Watermelon where the football and baseball references abound.  But what’s really at the core of this tender and sentimental book is the special bond shared by brothers Ryan and Brody.  Unlike the competitive or jealous sibling relationships you find in some books, the Winslow boys are fiercely supportive, loyal, and kind to one another.  As Ryan’s 18th birthday approaches—along with his draft status—Brody senses his brother’s increasing anxiety and is not sure how to comfort him: “I should get to bed; we’ve got another game tomorrow night.  But I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, so I’d rather stay here with Ryan.  He’d been there for me.  Teaching me how to shoot a basketball or cook a hot dog.  Taking me to the movies, even when he goes to the drive-in with Jenny.  Giving me things like a Giants jersey he got too big for, or a flashlight when I was four and scared that there was a monster in my closet.  Now he’s scared.  I’m scared, too.  We might as well sit here together.”  There’s also a tight-knit relationship between Ryan, Brody, and their father.  Nights sitting up cheering on their Mets while eating olives and saltines or laughing out loud to re-reruns of The Honeymooners are clearly enjoyed and treasured by all three.

War & Watermelon is a humorous and delightful book about one young man trying to make a difference and one boy trying to make it through the day.  It’s a little slice of Americana served with grape soda pop and a bag of pretzels in front of a black and white TV.  It isn’t dramatic, suspenseful, thrilling, or riddled with angst.  Some may even go so far as to call it trite or boring.  But as Brody Winslow once said, “We wander around for an hour, shoot some baskets, then go home.  Yeah, it was boring, but that’s life.  Boring isn’t always so bad”.  I would even venture to say that boring can be great…now pass the olives and turn on the TV!

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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