Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Johnson, Louanne. Muchacho. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 197 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-375-86117-8. This book is appropriate for grades 8 and up, or ages 13 and up, depending on reading level. This novel contains potentially offensive language, but it is a good high-low selection for high school
(3 1/2 stars out of 4).

I am always looking for good books with Hispanic protagonists and voices, because they not only serve our Hispanic population in Pennsauken (over 35%), they also inform the rest of us about the challenges and issues of other folks. When I began Muchacho by Louanne Johnson, I could not help thinking about her previous book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, adapted into the popular Michelle Pfeiffer film Dangerous Minds. I had some problems with stereotypes and portrayals in the movie, and I did not take it that seriously. I know that should not impact my reading of Ms. Johnson’s new novel, but I am not always as objective as I think I am. Therefore, I was greatly relieved that the students of Bright Horizons alternative school had the young, idealistic, wispy, white teacher fired by the end of October. This was not going to be another amazingly improbable saga of a smart and progressive white educator who enters the ghetto and changes the world. Instead, Muchacho is a sensitive and powerful portrait of one Hispanic-American teen and his efforts to discover his creative potential himself, not through a teacher’s lens.

Eddie Corazon feels trapped in his small life. Eddie is a secret reader, because high schoolers in his New Mexico, especially those at Rosablanca’s Bright Horizons alternative school, get attacked for being too smart, too tough, too weak, too much of anything T. J. Ritchie or the bullies think is outside of normal. Eddie is tough enough to survive, and he has his family to protect him and not leave him alone so the drug dealers can enlist him. However, Eddie knows that he is not achieving his potential in the alt school, and total failure is not an option; one year when Eddie forgets Mamí’s birthday he makes her a certificate that guarantees he will graduate from high school. Eddie is an honorable teen who understands what a man’s word means: “I thought about hiding it or tearing it up, but it wouldn’t get me out of the deal . . . It’s probably a good thing I wrote it down, though, because otherwise I might have dropped out of school one of those days when I felt like breaking all the windows just to make something interesting happen instead of all those dumb assignments and tests” (43). With an occasionally abusive father, cousins and friends always tempting Eddie with “easy money,” and low expectations at alt school, Eddie feels he is going nowhere fast until he takes a ballroom dancing class and meets Lupe. Lupe is not only beautiful, smart, and strong-willed, she is able to awaken Eddie’s secret desire: to be Eduardo, an intellectual who is able to unlock and unfetter his neighborhood’s shackles. However, stumbling blocks are numerous on Eddie’s road to becoming Eduardo, and he may not even get the opportunity to make the changes he so desperately seeks.

Eddie Corazon is an Everyman who I like from page one. He speaks in slang and colloquialism at the beginning of the novel, but by the end, his grammar and usage improves, a nice subtle touch by the author. Eddie is acutely aware of his circumstances and he is impossible to stereotype. Lupe sees Eddie for who he actually is, not the front he shows to the rest of the world, and as Eddie’s heart opens, mine does as well. Eddie’s journey to self-improvement is not all that different from most people’s journey. He wants what is best and he is willing to work for it. The moment Eddie is understood on his level, and not on some Anglo’s assessment of what his level looks like, he responds like any intelligent, eloquent young person should, with respect and curiosity. The reader is left with the definite impression that when the Anglos in Eddie’s world finally view him as a peer and not as an outsider looking in, he will be every bit as successful as them, if not more so because of his experience. Muchacho by Louanne Johnson is excellent realistic fiction and a fine example of a modern character study. Readers will like and relate to Eddie (and Lupe), regardless of their station in life.

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