Engle, Margarita. Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal
March 25th 2014
by HMH Books for Young Readers
This novel in verse is in alternating viewpoints that include the howler monkeys and trees. The main narrators are Mateo, a Cuban boy who has pretended to be Spanish to get a job working on the Panama Canal so that he could escape his abusive father; Henry, a Jamaican who at first hates Mateo; Anita, a native girl who sells herbs; and Augusto, who has studied in New York and does drawings. We also hear from Theodore Roosevelt (the first US president to leave US soil while in office), and various members working on the canal. The story of prejudice against and mistreatment of the workers with darker skin is the main concern of this story; not only did they make less money, but it was thought that even giving them an extra blanket or clean shirt was a waste of resources. There is also a bit of romance, and the difficulty of the working conditions is contrasted well with the grandiose plans for the canal.
Strengths: I can't think of any other books set at this place and time, but now I want to know more! There is, of course, the wonderful The Secret of the Yellow Death
by Suzanne Jurmain, but that only addressed the medical side of this project. This is definitely an underexplored topic.
Weaknesses: While the verse is okay, there is a lot lost that would be great to read in prose. I would have loved more descriptions of the work, the living conditions, etc. so that I knew more about how they looked and worked and less about what they felt like, if that makes sense. Especially with Henry and Mateo fighting at the beginning, and Mateo's relationship with Anita-- there was so much more that could have been told to make this an exciting adventure book while still addressing the mistreatment.
Ryan, Pam Munoz. Becoming Naomi Leon
September 1st 2004
by Scholastic Press
I can't imagine why I didn't have this in my library! I have one student who wants to read everything about any Hispanic character she can, so I ordered this one for her. I'm very glad I did.
Naomi and Owen have been left by their alcoholic mother, Skyla, with their great grandmother, who is trying very hard to raise them in a trailer park near an avocado orchard. Owen has many special needs, but is very bright. Their close knit community includes the grandmother's friend, Flora. When Skyla shows up with a boyfriend who has decided that they can provide a companion to his daughter and get money for raising the children, the three are afraid that she will carry through on this, especially since she does not feel capable of raising Owen and intends to split the children up. When this looks likely, the grandmother gets her friends to help take the trailer to Mexico to find the children's father and visit Flora's family. They look for the father at a Christmas radish carving festival in which Naomi participates, since she has long carved things out of soap. The grandmother gets a letter from the father stating his wishes that she raise the children, and when the group arrives back in the US, there is a hearing to determine custody.
Strengths: This has a lot of good cultural information, and has the best librarian ever! The real appeal of this, though, is the strong family and the grandmother's devotion to her grandchildren. This will be popular with girls who like problem novels. Very good sense of different places as well.
Weaknesses: Sign that it was written ten years ago-- Naomi is trying to find her father by calling his residence and runs up a large bill by making phone calls "out of the area". What does this mean?