Tuesday, February 07, 2017

YA Novel Without Rose-Colored Glasses

Review: Lilliam Rivera. The Education of Margot Sanchez. NY: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2017. ISBN 9781481472111

Michael Sedano

I hope early teenage girls are not as shallow as Margot Sanchez, and that the incredibly spoiled child who narrates the disaster of her coming-of-age summer is merely a foil in Lilliam Rivera’s plan to get a YA audience talking about serious life-changing issues. The Education of Margot Sanchez is a book parents and teachers will want to read in order to have lesson plans or an agenda to discuss vital issues with a growing mind.

Margot wrapped up her first year in an exclusive private high school stealing her father’s credit card to go shopping. She's a smart girl but a stupid kid.

School’s tough for the exotic Boricua surrounded by sons and daughters of rich New Yorkers. In Junior High, Margot had lots of friends who were like her. In high school she’s the odd one, alone, ignored, ostracized. Then she falls in with Camille and Serena.

The girl from the Bronx becomes putty in the rich girls’ hands. They dictate Margot’s fashion and make-up look, disparaging her eyeliner that makes her look like a raccoon. The lure of acceptance by the Other estranges Margot from best friend Elizabeth. When a devastated Margot turns to Elizabeth for solace, the friendship is gone and Elizabeth turns a cold shoulder to the bereft, truly alone, Margot.

That credit card shopping spree gives Margot’s parents a chance to inject some responsibility into la consentida’s disorderly life. Margot must spend her summer working for no wages in the family grocery store. The cashieristas and stockboy taunt “la Princesa” as her familia calls Margot, just by saying her nickname. Jasmine, only a few years older than Margot, takes Princesa under wing yet holds the child at a resentful distance.

Margot sucks it up, tends the Doña’s at the deli, stocks shelves, cleans up messes. Her principal concern isn’t working but missing dreamboat Nick's summer-end bash at his beach home in a one-percenter Long Island enclave. All the cool kids at Somerset school will be there.

The cast of characters at the grocery store builds the plot in unexpected directions. Margot isn’t happy being Puerto Rican, and being thrust into the heart of a neighborhood exacerbates her self-hate. Until she meets Moises. Then she's just confused. Moises, the neighborhood activist, has a history with Margot’s brother, who chafes under his father’s thumb as an assistant manager of the store.

Junior is a failure at twenty-something. He’s lost his athletic scholarship and been kicked out of college. He’s full of money-making ideas that are going nowhere unless his father springs for serious money. The once buff wrestler is losing a lot of weight and goes through wild mood swings. Margot figures Junior, a ladies man, is screwing his way through the cashieristas. The suspicion appears well-grounded when Jasmine lets on she’s pregnant. Margot figures it’s Junior’s, and that explains all sorts of stuff. She’s wrong and when she discovers how wrong, her world comes crashing down.

What a terrible summer. Dreamy Nick reaches out to Margot—she thought he didn’t notice her. He wants her to score some beer for his party. Desperate for acceptance, she steals several cases and gets kindly Oscar fired for the discrepancy, and embezzlement.

Rivera has no pity for most of her characters. All in service of a strong moral outcome, however, so by the end of the novel most are on their way to resolution of a sort. The world is not all soft and fuzzy, kids have to grow up fast if they're going to take adult stances in their society.

Margot will be redeemed after reaching a drunken nadir on the beach in a wham bam lost my virginity to Nick and it hurt minute.  Is that all there is? And she complains she got sand in her ass, that's what she remembers about her first intercourse.

Junior will go to rehab after being discovered as the embezzler. Jasmine will keep the baby—it’s Papi’s. Margot caught them in his car, another nadir. The parents will likely get divorced. Mami knew but refused to admit it. Elizabeth forgives her friend. Margot and Moises make goo-goo eyes at each other as the story closes.

The Education of Margot Sanchez offers a solid set of issues for young people’s discussion in a classroom or living room. Some tightly-wound parents might complain at a few “fuck you” speeches. Margot’s wanton pursuit of Nick's body may make a parent squirm that the child is such a pendeja—but at least Nick had a rubber. When I went to high school, only the assholes drank. But then, I was a nerd and Margot is desperate to fit in with the assholes at school. There's some weed, stronger drugs are disparaged. No outright racism colors the book, but it's there, subtly, not truly Rivera's casus belli.

If there’s a serious problem with the book for a general YA reader, that would be its New York urban setting. Hopefully west coast kids will accept the ease Margot moves swiftly around the city by bicycle, train, cab. Vast stretches of the LA landscape have crummy bus service that requires over an hour to get anywhere. LA kids will understand a taqueria or coffee shop in place of a diner. They’ll recognize gentrification and greedy landlords no matter the setting.

Coming from a major league publisher like Simon & Schuster children’s imprint marks a major win for raza writers. If Lilliam Rivera can blaze a trail for raza characters and settings, perhaps other rich publishers will see the large market for similar work in other genres and spread the wealth. We are not all Puerto Ricans, we’re not all New Yorkers, we are everywhere, we read, and we need books that raise serious issues.

The Education of Margot Sanchez is on sale now. Order your copy from your local independent bookseller or publisher direct here (link).

Put On a Zoot Suit, Buy A Ticket, Get Wowed

La Bloga attended the opening preview night of the re-staging of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez' landmark musical--with Lalo Guerrero's music--last week. Based on that first night staging and performance, once the kinks are worked out Zoot Suit is a guaranteed blockbuster. With support, the production will either be extended beyond March 19, or will move to another theatre just as happened in 1978.

The play opens Sunday, February 12. It will be a sold out house. Tickets are at a premium, but seats will be available via the Center Theater Group's ticketing site. Look for La Bloga's review on February 21. Our tickets are for the 18th.

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