Contemporary Hispanic-American Fiction for Young Adult Readers
Title: We Were Here
Author: Matt De La Pena
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (October 13, 2009)
Grade Level 7 and up. Age 13 and up.
ALAs Best Books for Young Adults, 2010
Miguel befriends two boys of different races and religions in a group home after committing a crime—all three boys are struggling to overcome very difficult personal tragedies. Together they make a pact to break out—and do, but finds that the past has a way of haunting you unless you deal with it.
Miguel is a fifteen-year-old Hispanic boy who commits a crime and is sent to a group home for boys in San Jose where he meets Rondell and Mong—two boys of different races, backgrounds and religions. Despite their differences and the fact that they are strangers to one another, they bond when they decide to escape their horrible lives and go to Mexico, where Mong supposedly has some sort of “connection.” Rondell is a giant young African American boy who is both illiterate and violent—yet somehow has a heart that feels very innocent. Mong is an excitable and terminally ill Chinese boy who has nothing left to fear. The three break out of the home, steal six hundred and forty dollars, and head toward Mexico. As they travel south, Miguel remembers his distant past—happy times with his brother, Diego, and his Mom—while immersing himself in the classic “Catcher in the Rye” But the memories don’t last. Miguel seems to want to die, despite the fact that he is a very smart and charming character. This dichotomy makes one wonder what is really going on with Miguel, and this wonder help propel the reader through the book. The boys never reach Mexico, but internally, their journey is filled with both limits and an amazing breadth.
Written in the style of a journal through Miguel’s voice, this story quickly gets under the skin of the reader. De La Pena is a master of street slang in this novel, which gives a true ring to Miguel’s voice, and a sense of urgency to the trio’s plight. This is a departure for De La Pena—who for the first time writes in the first person—and the novel rings true because of it. This journal “narrative” also keeps the reader interested in solving the mystery of Miguel’s past. What would make such a smart and charming boy want to die? Those who have read De La Pena’s other books may be a bit shocked about this one: it has a more realistic and much less optimistic tone throughout. Miguel’s self-hatred seems unusual, and keeps all of us, as readers, wondering why. Interestingly, the adults in this book seem a bit like children. Some are racist, some try to be hip and cool to get along with the teen boys (and it is purposefully cloying), and some are stuck in a time warp, with illusions about youth—both the boys’, and their own that has long passed them by.
Reading level/Interest Age:
Reading level is appropriate for 7th grade and up, but the slang and sometimes depressing content is more appropriate for age 14 and up. It is a great read for young adults and adults alike, but boys, especially those who don’t like to read much, will find this compelling.
Information about the Author:
Matt de la Pena's has written three books thus far: Ball Don't Lie, which was an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA-YALSA Quick Pick (and an upcoming movie), Mexican White Boy, which won several awards including a YALSA Best Book for Young Adult (Top Ten Pick), a 2009 Notable Book for a Global Society, and a Junior Library Guild Selection. We Were Here is De La Pena’s third novel. He has also written many short stories. De La Pena graduated the University of the Pacific, where he played basketball on a full scholarship, and received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teachers creative writing there.
Catcher in the Rye. Since the main character is reading this book, it might be fun to connect the two books and see why!
Booktalking Ideas: If you loved Mexican White Boy and Ball Don’t Lie, you will find this new novel by Matt de la Pena very interesting. It is completed different than his other two novels, but equally engaging. What would you do if you found yourself in a group home with a couple of bizarre and interesting people? Would you break out, and see where life would take you? That is exactly what Miguel did – with interesting and surprising circumstances.
Why I Included This Book:
Many of the Hispanic boys who come to my high school library love Matt de la Pena, because they feel he speaks volumes about their lives. Since I want to encourage all of them to keep reading, I purchased his newest, and found myself reading it before we could get it on the shelf.
Cover image courtesy of: http://www.amazon.com/Matt-de-la-Peña/e/B001IXRRQI/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0