I am thrilled and honored to be a judge for the Nerds Heart YA tournament this year. As many of you know, Nerds Heart YA is an effort to showcase some of the lesser-known YA books published within the last year. It is a bracket-style competition with one book being the ultimate winner. I participated as a judge last year and had so much fun that I was happy to throw my hat in the ring to judge again this year. Together with my judging partner, Natalie from This Purple Crayon, I chose between The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez and Tell Us We’re Home by Marina Budhos. Here I have for you some of my thoughts on each book as well as which one Natalie and I decided should move forward in the competition.
So, The Red Umbrella is YA historical fiction set in Cuba in the early 1960’s. Lucia Alvarez is fourteen and life for her is very happy – she has loving parents, a younger brother who she gets along with pretty well, and tons of friends. But when soldiers begin arriving in her small town, the Communist Revolution becomes a reality for Lucy and her whole world changes. The freedoms she’s always taken for granted are stripped away, friends’ parents go missing, and her family is being watched. So her parents take drastic measures to keep Lucy and her brother safe – they are sent to the United States to live with strangers in Nebraska, with the hope that eventually her parents will be able to join them.
So many aspects of The Red Umbrella appealed to me. I love the fact that it is historical fiction, in a time and place I can only assume most teens don’t know much about (I’m making that assumption based on the fact that I personally don’t know much about the Communist Revolution in Cuba). I love the fact that Lucia is an incredibly likable character – to say I fell in love with her instantly would be an understatement. She is smart but naive, resourceful yet not knowledgeable about her new life, protective of her brother yet seeking to be taken care of herself. In other words, a perfectly normal teen thrown into an unbelievably difficult, scary situation. I love how close Lucy’s family is, and how her parents do the unthinkable to keep their kids safe – what parent wants to send their kids away to a place they know nothing about, to be cared for by complete strangers? And I also love the fact that I read the entire book in one sitting – I literally could not put the thing down! This book is fabulous for so many reasons, and I’m very thankful to the Nerds Heart YA tournament for giving me the opportunity to experience it.
Tell Us We’re Home is set in the present day, in a wealthy New Jersey suburb called Meadowbrook. Jaya, Maria, and Lola are ordinary teens with one thing that sets them apart from their peers – their mothers are maids and nannies, making their moms their classmates’ families’ employees. While the three girls have completely different backgrounds (Jaya is from Trinidad, Maria is from Mexico, and Lola is from Eastern Europe) they form a quick bond when they realize they are so different from the rest of their peers. But things go very bad for their friendship when Jaya’s mother is accused of stealing from a wealthy elderly woman in their neighborhood. Racial tensions erupt in Meadowbrook, and each of the three girls must find a way to carve out a space for themselves in a very difficult situation.
I enjoyed Tell Us We’re Home quite a bit. The three girls all captured my heart and I really felt for what they had to deal with just being different in America. It made me sad to see that just because they didn’t have money like their peers they were such outsiders in their school. I enjoyed reading about how they were so supportive of one another, in some cases even at personal risk. I think that any teen who is seen as different by his/her peers will see themselves in Jaya, Maria, or Lola. The book is also a great selection for teens who can relate to the immigrant experience, as each of the three girls’ cultural backgrounds are much different from the culture they experience in the United States.
While both books were good, The Red Umbrella was the clear winner for both Natalie and I so that is the book that will be moving on in the tournament. We were equally passionate about this choice, and I really want to encourage you all to pick up The Red Umbrella for yourselves. Also, keep watching the Nerds Heart YA blog to see how the rest of the books fare!