“Enchanting” and “unforgettable”

These five books for middle-graders and middle-schoolers draw on realistic Latine experience as well as some fantasy elements. See also our Five Questions interview with Pedro Martín about his graphic memoir Mexikid (Dial, 10–14 years). September 15–October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Latine/x Heritage Month. Find additional books, articles, interviews, and more from the Horn Book here.  

The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía 
by Alexandra Alessandri 
Intermediate, Middle School    Atheneum    224 pp. 
2/23    9781665917056    $17.99 
e-book ed.  9781665917070    $10.99 

As a young girl, Valentina loved the Colombian legends her father told about the magical creatures inhabiting their country. Now that she’s twelve (“almost thirteen”), however, she finds the stories childish fantasies, and she’s less than thrilled when her father brings her and her younger brother on an expedition into the Andean jungle to investigate a sighting of a mythical female vampire-like creature. Valentina dreams of attending the Bogotá Academy of Arts, and she’d prefer to stay at home and work on her drawing portfolio. When a massive earthquake hits the jungle, the siblings fall into a deep crevice that leads to an alternate world — one that mirrors theirs but is inhabited by mythical beings. To get home, the two must travel through the magical land and beg Madremonte, the mother and protector of Earth, to help them. The only problem is that Madremonte hates humans and will stop at nothing to eliminate them from her realm. Alessandri embeds Colombian folklore into a thrilling tale that centers sibling relationships, eco-justice, border crossing, and intergenerational family wounds. Readers who love mythology, adventure, and suspense will root for Valentina as she embarks on her hero’s journey. S. R. TOLIVER 

Something like Home 
by Andrea Beatriz Arango 
Intermediate, Middle School    Random    256 pp. 
9/23    9780593566183    $17.99 
Library ed.  9780593566190    $20.99 
e-book ed.  9780593566206    $10.99 
Spanish ed.  9781644738696    $14.95 

If only life were as straightforward as the Rubik’s Cube that Laura loves to solve. When this Virginia-set verse novel begins, the Puerto Rican sixth grader is on her way to a kinship foster-care placement “on the other side of town” with her titi Silvia, whom Laura has never met. Pulled from her admittedly chaotic life with her parents, who are struggling with addiction, Laura copes with the overwhelming changes that a new caregiver, new rules, new school, and new peers bring, while suffering with extreme guilt over making the 911 call that resulted in her parents’ being placed in rehab. Laura finds purpose in training a dog she rescues near Titi’s house to be a therapy animal; her plan is to bring the dog to the rehab facility so she can finally see her parents. Arango’s writing is intimate and heartbreaking, tackling such hefty issues as cultural identity, addiction, the pain of displacement and the anxiety it causes, and the adulation and rationalization that a child in pain can offer to adults they love. Arango (Newbery honoree for Iveliz Explains It All, rev. 9/22) accomplishes this with the believable voice of a girl in crisis and by tapping into compassion for all the characters amidst moving scenes of joy and connection. AMANDA R. TOLEDO 

Lalo Lespérance Never Forgot 
by Phillippe Diederich 
Intermediate, Middle School    Dutton    256 pp. 
9/23    9780593354285    $17.99 
e-book ed.  9780593354308    $10.99 

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, middle schooler Lalo Lespérance is doing his best to adapt to virtual school and make social connections in his Florida apartment complex. Lalo struggles with severe short- and long-term memory loss, triggered by childhood trauma. He is also frustrated by others’ inability to accept him as both Mexican and Haitian American. Diederich’s descriptive writing stimulates all five senses as Lalo learns about Mexican culture from his neighbor Vivi’s abuela and finds ways to manifest some of his key missing memories with a little help from a seemingly magical vintage radio and belief in traditional Mexican spiritualism. Lalo’s character offers an important portrayal of Afro-Latin identity for contemporary readers. His story provides an example of how discrimination can come from outside and within the Hispanic/Latin community and how traumatizing that can be for a young person trying to form a sense of self. By framing Lalo’s memory issues positively as a reason for “accommodations” in school, Diederich elevates and supports the character’s unique life journey. He is a young man who can help others see the best in themselves. NICHOLAS A. BROWN 

What the Jaguar Told Her 
by Alexandra V. Méndez 
Intermediate, Middle School    Levine Querido    420 pp. 
10/22    9781646141753    $18.99 
e-book ed.  9781646142361    $18.99 

In this novel set in 2001, Jade’s family has recently moved to Atlanta thanks to her journalist mom’s new job. Their new house is bigger (no more sharing a room!), and there is a nice backyard with a path into the forest. But Jade had to leave behind her best friends and her abuela in Chicago, and to make matters worse, Abuela soon suffers a stroke. Amid all these changes, Jade doesn’t find it too strange when during a walk in the forest she meets Itztli, a mysterious old man who also appears in the shape of a jaguar, and who invites Jade to listen to his story, a story that connects him to her family and her Mexican ancestors. The third-person narration flows naturally, sticking closely to the authentic point of view of a middle-school girl as she faces the challenges of growing up during a turbulent time. The novel is deepened through Méndez’s characterization of Jade’s family as rich in cultural traditions and strong relationships and by the presence of magical elements and stories of the Mexica and other Indigenous cultures. “A Note on Research” provides further reading. ALICIA K. LONG 

Barely Floating 
by Lilliam Rivera 
Intermediate, Middle School    Kokila/Penguin    240 pp. 
8/23    9780593323120    $17.99 
e-book ed.  9780593323144    $10.99 

Tween Nat (short for Natalia de la Cruz Rivera y Santiago) is all about body positivity­ and female strength. She feels conflicted, however, when her mother’s values around feminism clash with her own love of pretty things — lipstick, fashion magazines, and especially the spangles on the swimsuits of the L.A. Mermaids, a synchronized swimming group Nat is desperate to join. She blackmails her older cousin, Sheila, into covering for her and facilitating her participation on the team, but the secrets Nat and Sheila start to come between them and their families and friends. Nat navigates the rough waters of racial bias, fat-shaming, economic class hierarchies, and her own issues with impulse control and anger management, all while wishing (and doubting) her parents could be proud of her choices. By building community with her artistic swimming team, whose training Rivera describes in detail, Nat learns that she can’t win every battle, and she reconfigures her concept of winning. Although the book itself sometimes succumbs to Nat’s conviction that sometimes “teachable moments have to be forced,” ultimately Nat, her mother, and even ultra-feminine Sheila grow into a new understanding of what it means to be a chingona — a fearless Latina. LARA K. AASE 

From the September 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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