March 19, 2008

The Voices of the River

Rio Grande Stories, By Carolyn Meyer

Rio Grande Middle isn’t just a typical Albuquerque middle school. It’s a magnet school for kids from all over the city to come and enjoy special projects like the Heritage Project, which studies various cultures and peoples as part of the curriculum. Some of the kids at RGM weren’t too sure about coming all the way across town to a special school, but the Heritage Project has been really interesting, and slowly the students are bonding.

One of the ‘different’ things the Heritage Project kids are doing is writing a book. It’s to help the school raise money for some finishing touches on the remodel. It’s supposed to be a book about the various cultures represented at the school, a chapter written by each student. It’s an idea that everybody can get behind – almost.

Some kids, like Tony Martinez, love the idea – he’s got a great story to tell about his famous ancestor, the story his father’s been telling him since he was little, the story his mother hates to hear… He thought it was a great story, but none of the Catholic kids believe him. After all, how can he be descended from a priest!? Priests don’t have kids!

Kids like April Ellis are horrified at how excited her parents get over the Heritage Project. So far, none of her classmates know she and her hippie parents live in a bus, but unfortunately, that doesn’t last. Her Dad shows up at school to volunteer for the Heritage Project! April is furious. What does her dad, Tom, know about heritage? Or adobe!? Actually, you’d be surprised…

Even though Tomás Jaramillo was born Española and have moved to Albuquerque, he knows how many people think his hometown’s a bad joke, and that the Hispanic people there are poor and short and stupid. So, should he risk being called a cholo and ask his cousin, Johnny to bring his low-rider to school for his part of the Project?

Told in alternating voices – one chapter from a student, one chapter about that student, Carolyn Meyer’s Rio Grande Stories is a tasty mélange of the sights, flavors and sounds of the Latin and Indian cultures of the Rio Grande. Through the student’s stories, the people and history of the region come to life, drawn together with the bright threads of the past and present. Perfect for middle grade students trying to find pride in themselves and their particular culture, this book delightfully reminds us how, across the cultures, we all are much the same.

This review was first published in the February '08 Edge of the Forest Children's Literature Monthly.

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