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Review of Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots

Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots
by Margarita Engle; illus. by Rudy Gutierrez
Middle School, High School    Atheneum    179 pp.    g
5/18    978-1-5344-0943-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-0945-3    $10.99

In 1942 Los Angeles, after working all day at the canneries, teen sisters Lorena and Marisela can’t wait to put on their sharpest swing skirts and high heels for a night of jazz dancing with soon-to-ship-off soldiers at the local USO. After (real-life victim) José Díaz is killed at a party, police round up the neighborhood youth in an act of racial profiling, which the news media further reinforces through biased coverage. This incident and the resulting Sleepy Lagoon trial and conviction of “a bunch / of Mexican kids” spark riots that would see gangs of white navy sailors infiltrating and terrorizing Mexican American neighborhoods, beating and publicly stripping zoot suiters (including Lorena and Marisela’s younger brother Ray) of their clothes. Police are clearly aware of what’s happening but, unsurprisingly, avoid arresting the sailors. Engle’s historical novel in verse offers a look at a seldom-represented moment in U.S. history. Told primarily from the viewpoints of the siblings, she weaves in plenty of voices: Marisela’s Afro-Cuban musician boyfriend; sailors; reporters; police officers; other family members. The free verse brings us inside the characters’ heads, allowing us to feel Ray’s indignation at racial violence and to understand Lorena’s politicization as she connects her experiences of injustice to organizing for better working conditions. Black-and-white illustrations, full of swooping figures that recall dance even as they depict violence, separate the book’s sections.

From the May/June 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.

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