My 5th and 6th grade boys voluntarily gave up screen time in order to keep reading this book. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.
Hernandez has created a snappy plot that clips right along with a clever protagonist who’s emotionally intelligent and genuinely loves the people in his life in a way that doesn’t usually show up in middle grade. He buys the believability of that protagonist (Sal) with two key pieces of backstory:
1. Sal’s Mami died several years prior to the opening of the novel, and that loss functions as a sort of moral and emotional compass for him.
2. Sal has Type 1 Diabetes, which means he’s seen his share of emergency rooms–and what they do to his family–experiences that have given him a profoundly compassionate streak.
The magic in the book, science-y though it is, doesn’t get introduced right away, something that might throw some readers. From a craft perspective, I suspect that move was a nod to magical realism, a tradition that the Cuban-American author is both invoking and subverting.
And, for what it’s worth, this cast is as authentically Cuban-American as I have ever seen on the page. Hernandez introduces some elements of culture for non-Cuban readers, but also just lets some of it exist and expects his audience to get on board–a move that works because he’s earned our trust and admiration so profoundly.
…and I haven’t even mentioned Gabi, who is every inch HERSELF in this remarkable story, a Hermione-ish character who gets full credit both from the author and from everyone else in the story, including Sal.
…or the remarkably fine handling of details around blended families, Yasmany’s family, schools/teachers, and the arts. It is SUCH a world. A wonderful world. I cannot wait to go back to it.
If this is the kind of book that the new Rick Riordan imprint is going to produce, then I say it’s about time we get more of them. Bravo.
Post Script: Those boys who gave up screen time to read this book? They hadn’t been reading for a few months. One of them had told me he figured he had “already read all the good books that were out there.” But when they finished reading Sal and Gabi, they immediately dug out the Harry Potter series and started re-reading it. This book reminded them of what a good book can be. Thank you, Carlos Hernandez.