If you happen to be looking for a book that will warm your exhausted, wintery soul, then look no further than Nancy Osa’s Cuba 15. Always one to be seduced by a fine cover, I snapped this book up at one of the best bookstores for teachers in Toronto (and possibly anywhere): Another Story Bookshop. Another Story has an unparalleled collection of books that focus particularly on social justice, equity and diversity. No proper teacher could possibly walk out empty handed. I was looking for a few of the titles for my Expanding Horizons Challenge booklist. I didn’t ending up choosing Caramelo, as planned, because I picked up Cuba 15 and practically started reading on the spot.
Osa’s story is completely charming. It’s warm, rambunctious and peopled with kind-of-crazy, endearing characters. It’s a bit like going to dinner at someone’s place when you don’t know them very well and then finding that the rest of the party-goers are mostly cuckoo but you stay up all night long eating and drinking and having the best time you’ve ever had in your life. In fact, Osa’s story is about a party, a quinceañero. When Violet Paz turns 15, her Cuban grandmother announces that she’s going to start planning Violet’s quinceañero (the traditional party where 15 year old Latinas celebrate their coming of age with family and friends). Violet is not loving this plan. She hasn’t ever exactly felt “at one” with her Cuban heritage, mostly because Cuba is a bit of a taboo topic in her house. No one ever really talks about the family’s history there, and so Violet feels disconnected from all of that. She’s also half Polish. Violet has no interest in the traditional quince, with the tiara and girly pink gown. Mostly to please her Abuela, Violet agrees to the whole production on the condition that she organizes everything and everyone involved. With Quinceañero for the Gringo Dummy close at hand, Violet begins serious party-planning. Along the way, she draws closer to her family and discovers what matters to her, beginning to grow into herself. There’s another thread to this story, as Violet joins up with her school public speaking team, and finds a way to bring her often hilarious family life into her performances. Toss in a little romance and some well-wrought secondary characters and you’ve got a lovely jumble of happy, mixed-up, heart-warming real life. I sunk into this book and finished it with a smile on my face.
Possible discussion points for the classroom: making your own traditions, learning to compromise with family, cultural and parental pressure on young adults, coming of age traditions, cultivating a talent… There’s a Reader’s Guide and Author Interview included in the book. It’s also won tons of prizes, if that’s your thing: Pura Belpré Honor Book, ALA Notable Book, ALA Best Book for YA, Américas Award Honor Book, Booklist Top Ten First Novel for Youth and it was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. I think it merits each and every one of this awards. As for the degree to which it serves the purpose of this challenge (providing insight into a different culture), I think it does this quite well. It certainly made me want to head out and learn more about the quinceañero tradition and Cuban culture and music. I imagine many young people would want to do the same after reading this.
It’s made me want to check out a few of the many quinceañero-themed books out there, including:
Fifteen Candles – by Adriana Lopez
Estrella’s Quinceañera – by Malin Alegria
Once Upon a Quinceañera – by Julia Alvarez
These should tide me over while I wait for Nancy Osa’s next book.