Book Review: I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Majorie Agosín

Image Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

If you’re look for your next middle grade read, why not try one that’s perfect for Hispanic Heritage Month?

I Lived on Butterfly Hill is a gorgeous realistic fiction book for middle grade children. Marjorie Agosín’s background as both Chilean and Jewish makes eleven year-old Celeste’s horrific experiences more authentic. Though what is happening in the book is scary, Celeste’s perspective helps to introduce the Pinochet takeover in a way children can understand without downplaying the seriousness of the situation. 

The focus of the first section of the book is the abrupt transition from a peaceful experience under Presidente Alarcon to the takeover of the Pinochet dictatorship.Though I was personally unfamiliar with the events, Agosín uses older characters to delicately explain the parallels between Nazi Germany and Chile to Celeste and to the reader.

Celeste’s family as well as several families around her neighborhood (Butterfly Hill)  are considered as “subversives”, or those threatening the integrity of the new government’s authority. Celeste loves poetry and her parents are doctors who believe in universal healthcare and other human rights, which threaten the new government’s sense of order. Celeste’s friend Cristóbal carries a pendulum around with him that he claims can predict the future. At the beginning of the book, he uses it in front of his friends, but is forced to hide it from guards as soon as the takeover begins. Just like how Cristobal must hide his interests, Celeste’s parents decide to go into hiding after receiving death threats. Eventually, Celeste is told she must move in with her Tía who lives in Maine and learn and adapt to American culture. 

The book, which is a winner of the Pura Belpre Award, also has beautiful black and white illustrations by Lee White to accompany Celeste’s journey. This book masterfully depicts the hardships and triumphs of those living abroad to escape oppression. 

I Lived on Butterfly Hill 

Written by Marjorie Agosín

Illustrated by Lee White

Ages 10 to 14 | 454 pages

Publisher | Atheneum Books for Young Readers

$9.99 US

YA Book Review: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Image Courtesy of HarperCollins

Clap When You Land is a stunning novel-in-verse following two half sisters…who are completely unaware of each other. Well, unaware until their father dies in a plane crash. Then things get complicated.

Those complications make the grieving process significantly harder, though it does take a while for both of the sisters to realize that the other exists. Set in both the Dominican Republic and NYC, Camino and Yahaira Rios are both struck by the tragic loss of their Papi and the secrets he kept from both of his families.

The book explores many topics: grief, secrets, LGBTQ+ relationships, misogyny, colorism, poverty, and so much more. The contrast and parallels of both Camino and Yahaira’s lives make for a fascinating and exciting coming-of-age book.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author herself, which brought her novel even more to life and read as intended. Acevedo also does distinct voices for both sisters and includes vibrant imagery in each verse, particularly when it comes to describing the sisters’ relationships or fond memories of their father. I particularly liked the way Camino describes the spiritual healing work her Tía Solana does throughout the book and how she uses her own gifts to help her community.

As for Yahaira, her perspective is similar to the avergage American teen, but what I love about her perspective is that her story often refers to her girlfriend, who is a source of comfort for Yahaira. As she grapples with Papi’s secrets, her girlfriend is there as a steady support system. It’s nice to see a relationship in a YA book well-established and not as a “solution” to grief, but still supportive and key nonetheless. Yahaira also feels guilt throughout the book for her the recent strains on her relationship with Papi, particularly over her quitting chess. I think a lot of kids can relate to feeling pressured to continue doing something for their parents, even if they don’t like it or feeling guilt for not continuing it. This is especially true for Yahaira as she struggles with her identity, like in this quote:

“Can you be from a place
you have never been?

You can find the island stamped all over me,
but what would the island find if I was there?

Can you claim a home that does not know you,
much less claim you as its own?”

From Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

I keep revisiting many quotes from Clap When You Land because of their eloquent power, especially when it comes to Yahaira’s perspectives on how the world monetizes death or how Camino references saints and their ancient wisdom. There’s so much more I could gush about, but I’m too afraid to get into spoiler terroritory for the time being. If it wasn’t obvious, go read (or listen) to this book.

Fellow teachers, if you teach a coming-of-age unit, this is an excellent option for that as well.

Book Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

*Note: An earlier version of this review first appeared in Quail Bell Magazine in 2019.

As an educator, I’m always on the lookout for fresh and exciting voices in YA. I’ve also made it a personal mission to find more diverse books to better understand students from all cultural backgrounds. The publishing industry as a whole still has a lot of work to do in order to bring more exclusivity to the reading experience, but a recently published addition has me optimistic about the future of YA. 

One of those voices is Alexandra Villasante, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person during NCTE 2019. I had read her book from the school library prior to the event and was pleased to see that she was there signing copies of her debut YA book The Grief Keeper.

The Grief Keeper paints a contemporary narrative of the realities of immigration for teens. The novel is a brilliantly woven web of a young Salvadoran immigrant named Marisol and her younger sister Gabi as they escape from the gang violence that killed their brother. In a domino effect of events, Marisol’s attraction to another girl kicks off the string of events leading to his death. In order to secure asylum for Gabi, she agrees to participate in an experiment to be a “grief keeper”, or transferring the intense emotions of another person for herself to bare. Though the novel includes ideas based on science fiction, the nature of the primary experiment used on Marisol is a perfect metaphor for the emotional labor we force upon marginalized people; the unwanted tasks of privileged people being dumped upon immigrants’ shoulders. Overall, The Grief Keeper ​is a snapshot of the difficult choices that are given to those society brands as “illegal”. 

Many people criticize the call for more diverse voices in literature because they are convinced the stories will be formulated and forced. Villasante proves the dissenters wrong with the natural, authentic flow of Marisol’s story. Marisol’s idea of America is a picturesque, perfect life similar to sitcoms she grew up watching, but she soon finds the America she dreamed of is not the welcoming, inviting place it is portrayed to be. Villasante turns the idealistic America on its head, and though the current administration is not mentioned, it is easy to hear the sly rhetoric leaking into the voices of the doctor and caretaker in charge of Marisol. Her hope for true freedom ends up being in the very person she is tasked with curing: Rey, a girl who is still suffering from the loss of her twin brother.  

With stunning character development, Villasante creates a gorgeous story about the perseverance of love in times of strife while also refusing to water down the tougher topics. The book is a heartbreaking, yet redeeming tale destined to be a record of our reality and an enduring message of what true humanity looks like.