Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada and Gabriel M. Zubizarreta
Atheneum Books, 2011
hardcover, 147 pages.
Juvenile Fiction (ages 8-12)
Mexico may be her parents’ home, but it’s certainly not Margie’s. She has finally convinced the other kids at school she is one-hundred percent American–just like them. But when her Mexican cousin Lupe visits, the image she’s created for herself crumbles.
Things aren’t easy for Lupe, either. Mexico hadn’t felt like home since her father went North to find work. Lupe’s hope of seeing him in the United States comforts her some, but learning a new language in a new school is tough. Lupe, as much as Margie, is in need of a friend.
Little by little, the girls’ individual steps find the rhythm of one shared dance, and they learn what “home” really means. In the tradition of My Name is Maria Isabel, Alma Flor Ada and her son Gabriel M. Zubizarreta offer an honest story of family, friendship, and the classic immigrant experience: becoming part of something new, while straying true to who you are. ~publisher’s comments (jacket copy)
Dancing Home provides the young reader with a valuable insight into an immigrant experience. It isn’t shy about its goal to inform ignorant readers and commiserate with those who are not. I can’t say it is the most lyrical experience or the most “literary,” but need it be? Dancing Home is an ambitious little book, but with so few of these middle-grade stories by their (oft marginalized) authors getting through the Publishing World’s sieve (especially large presses), little wonder why.
Publishers Weekly (July) did not care much for Dancing Home.
“Working with a potentially rich multicultural family story, [the authors] instead deliver a timely but lifeless novel about a Mexican-American girl in California and her newly arrived Mexican cousin. […] The 11-year-olds […] come across as little more than mouthpieces for the authors’ message. While the opening chapter, in which Margarita unhappily brings Lupe to her own classroom, is promising, the authors rely too much on descriptions and summaries, forgoing opportunities to ‘show, don’t tell.’ […] Margarita’s eventual appreciation of her heritage and Lupe’s adjustment to her new country are predictable and too easily come by to have true emotional resonance.”
I rarely disagree with Publishers Weekly, and I am not going to completely disagree here now. The “mouthpiece” complaint is an issue, and one not limited to the two girls. “Lifeless” is a harsh criticism, but wooden did come to my mind at turns—child actors in an afterschool special. Given the content versus the accessible length of the novel, I think ‘show, don’t tell’ is necessarily set aside at points. You have one shot to bring an important sense of awareness to our young people’s consciousness, how much do you leave to chance? Do we want another series? Or another book in verse?*
Admittedly, I do not require all my reads to be lyrical and/or deeply emotional. It is true that the ending did not provide “true emotional resonance” for me either, but my mind was engaged. Does the grade-school reader require and/or exact an emotional resonance with Dancing Home? Is the ending that trite, or does it come off as an offering of hope? Is there insult in an attempt to be heart-provoking, where all it does is provoke our minds?
Dancing Home writes from two primary perspectives, that of the coddled American girl and the mature via fire Mexican girl; one is ignorant–due to sheltering and perhaps carelessness, the other is experienced—due to familial conflict brought on by cultural stressors; one is the outside looking in, the other—the same, just from another window on another side of the house; importantly, there is some overlap. One or more of those perspectives is where we are asked to connect as the Reader. The already large scope of these two narrators are expanded by those they encounter (family, friends, etc) and even more perspectives are offered. Like the offering of perspectives, there are several questions to choose from as well. Relevancy in Dancing Home shifts depending on the Reader and how they approach the novel. Of course, this could be said of any read, but I think it vital to success of Dancing Home in particular.
I felt like it was assumed that the Reader would be an outsider, an on-looker, ignorant of the struggles of a first generation immigrant and a new transplant. At the same time, Dancing Home hardly excludes a Reader in the know, offering vocalization with which they might identify. As the outsider (and adult, critical reader) I often remained in my seat before the stage. I was intrigued in turns, and I was able to relate in others.** That was my experience with the read. Spend some time reading the Goodreads collection of reviews. Stars swing dramatic back and forth. Even with the lower rated reviews, there are still paragraphs, if only to argue the realism portrayed. The greatness of the scope, the multiple entries, Dancing Home is a playground of discussion.
Dancing Home is aggressive in its informative nature, and I know that this is a turn-off for plenty. We like more clever manipulation, at least when we are asked to learn something. However, emotional manipulation in revelatory multicultural stories can be exhausting, to tell the truth. Dancing Home has a definite place.
Could the novel have been more elegant, less clumsy? Perhaps. For some. In the end, Dancing Home can be lifeless. The novel is missing something. An audience. Its Reader. A dancing partner.
*these are not necessarily a rhetorical set of questions.
**If you do not know your own immigrant story, you are past due, I suggest you look into it.
Suey at “It’s All About Books” is pondering a John Waters quote, which, in part, recommends, “You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.” It was on my mind as I wrote this “review.”
a few authors to look into for more (and varied) immigrant stories, which provide Dancing Home some of its competition stylistically: Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Pam Munoz Ryan, Bettina Restrepo.
Doret at “The Happy Nappy Bookseller” wrote this review, and it was the primary reason I picked the book up at the Library. I’m glad I did. Dancing Home would be a great addition to your school-classroom or-library shelf. It reminded me in a lot of ways to Bettina Restrepo’s Illegal (my review), most notably in the way Restrepo is both bold in relaying hard situations and buoying potential despair with hope.