Review: Efren Divided

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Review for "Efren Divided" by Ernesto Cisneros (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Woww…this one’s a tearjerker. A powerful and timely middle grades fiction novel about a relevant issue that affects so many children and their families in America.

Efren Nava is a likeable middle schooler living in Los Angeles with his parents and two younger twin siblings. Though the family lives modestly in a one-room apartment, their warmth and togetherness is cherished by Efren, who marvels at his hardworking father and the way his mother makes¬†milagros¬†(“miracles”) happen with little money. Although Efren and his siblings are citizens, his parents are undocumented and he knows that they face an uncertain future if their status is discovered. He keeps this fact a secret from everyone, including his closest friends and teachers.

Efren’s life is upended when he leaves for school one morning and returns to discover that his mother has been taken in a sweep by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and that she has been deported to Mexico. His father begins working non-stop to hire a coyote to bring her back. Efren is left in charge of his siblings, often late into the night. He is overwhelmed and in a constant state of anxiety, his school demeanor suffers. Eventually he and his best friend stop talking, crushed by the fact that he is afraid to reveal his parent’s status to anyone outside of his home.

I won’t reveal the end of the book, other than to say that there is no happy ending here. I respect the author for doing this, because the fact remains that nothing good comes out of separating parents from their children and splitting up families. Whether its Border Patrol placing children in cages in a detention center or ICE rounding up their parents in widespread sweeps, the damage of separation and deportation is devastating and irreparable.

I loved this book because it highlights the struggle of what it is truly like to live as an undocumented person, constantly looking over your shoulder and expecting the worst. There is no political rhetoric, just a child’s story that calls on readers to be compassionate and understand what they are going through. This is definitely a must-read in 2020 and a perfect book for both children and adults.

Review: A Good Kind of Trouble

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“A Good Kind of Trouble” is about a young Black girl named Shayla navigating through typical middle school struggles: boys, school dances, friendships, teachers. Her older sister is an activist and involved with a local chapter of Black Lives Matter but Shayla steers clear, not wanting to risk getting in what she perceives as ‘trouble.’ However, when the police shoot an unarmed Black man near her neighborhood, Shayla decides to take a stand for what she believes and takes on more ‘trouble’ than she bargained for.

I liked this book. I would call it the younger sister of “The Hate U Give” with a similar theme and main characters, but aimed at younger readers. The major difference in the two is that this book expressly mentions Black Lives Matter by name, while THUG doesn’t (THUG’s connection to BLM is assumed, however). Therefore, the explicit naming of Black Lives Matter here is notable. The police violence stayed mostly in the background of the novel as an ongoing trial, and while it’s not the primary plot it’s pretty clear that this is the reason why Shayla speaks out. I would have liked a more direct connection to this plot point, but perhaps indirectly is the best way to expose this topic to younger readers without making this book TOO heavy.

I also appreciated how this book respected struggles that are distinct to youth of color, i.e., the pressure to conform to racialized norms. Shayla’s best friends in the book are Asian and Latinx, however, it’s only in the 7th grade that she begins to receive pushback from Black peers about “acting White.” I enjoy the way the book grapples with the idea of being Black beyond stereotypes and encourages kids of color to be themselves.

Great book about a complex and nuanced topic without being preachy or sad.

Review: Hell is a Very Small Place

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Review for "Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement" by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, & Sarah Shourd (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As an educator I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system–how so many people get caught up it, how they survive there, and of course, how they can stay out. This book is a collection of essays about the subject of solitary confinement, otherwise known as administrative segregation (ad segs), special housing units (SHUs), and various other names depending on the state and institution responsible for their use. Regardless it’s all the same–23 or 24 hours a day in a small cell alone, often with no books, tv or radios, communication with outside people, papers to write with, or any form of stimulation other than the concrete walls. It is such a mind numbing and soul crushing experience that the UN has declared it torture and countless doctors and mental health experts have denounced its use. Yet, it continues on an unprecedented level in our nation’s jails and prisons.

There’s a really good historical perspective on solitary confinement in the U.S. in the beginning of the book. Solitary confinement was used widely in the 1800’s and then abandoned due to its terrifying psychological effects. In the 1970’s, the practice was picked up again, mostly due to prison overcrowding, lack of educational and training programs, higher levels of violence, etc. The essays in this volume are particularly powerful, all of them either from people currently in solitary who have been there for long periods of time (20 years or more) or from people who are now free individuals, living with the psychological effects of this practice. The last section is a series of articles by experts, all of which condemn the practice and offer solutions.

It is easy to dismiss this book and the issues it brings up with the Trump-era view that criminals are terrible people who belong in prison. It’s even easier to say that these terrible people deserve punishment on top of the punishment they’ve already received for not following the rules. This is simply not true. Many of the people who are sent to solitary are sent there for non-violent offenses, sometimes for something as simple as “possessing too many postage stamps,” “associating with known gang members” (California), or in New York state, for “wearing shower shoes outside of the shower” or “using profanity.” Time in the SHU is usually given by prison officials and the prisoner often has no right to a defense. And the punishments can be as long as the officials deem necessary–weeks, months, even years. Or, in some cases, life.

I definitely recommend this book. Despite what we think of the people in the correctional system, the fact remains that many of these “terrible” people will get out–someday. They will live next to us and share our social spaces. The question becomes one of whether we would prefer someone who’s been rehabilitated with kindness or someone who’s been locked in a cage like an animal. I personally prefer the former.

This is a great book. Read it!