December 15, 2006

Bad Dresses, Awful Bands and Family Affairs

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

quinceañera...1. traditional party (one that I refuse to have). According to my mom, a girl's fifteenth birthday is supposed to be the biggest day in her life. The quinceañera is like a huge flashing neon sign for womanhood. Back in the olden times, it meant that a woman was ready to get married and have babies. 2. The way I see it, it's just a lame party with cheesy music and puffy princess dresses.

Welcome to the world of Estrella Alvarez, who is a funny, distracted 14-year-old with a lot on her mind. The speech-robbing horribleness of the dress on the cover of this book prepared me for the story I found within -- that of a girl being raised in a strict and loving home, trying to find her own identity and having it sort of plopped onto her, like an awful dress, and smoothed out over her frame. Estrella is so conflicted about who she is that she can't even decide on her name -- she's Estrella at home, but at her swanky private school, she's Star. At home, her grandmother makes her menudo, the tripe-rich soup that she believes cures all ills. With her Caucasian friends, she stuffs down sushi, even though she hates it, and it never leaves her feeling satisfied and full. Obviously, there's a problem with how Estrella is living her life, and that kind of division can't last. Now her best friends from babyhood who are expected to be her damas -- attendants -- at her party are no longer speaking to her, and even the boy she likes realizes that she's splitting in half -- and he doesn't know which half is his friend. Her father won't even allow her to talk to boys, much less party with them like her other friends do, and all her mother and aunt can do is point to her sister, Marta, who got pregnant before she was married, and "shamed" the family name.

Meanwhile, Estrella's mother and aunt plow full-speed ahead for a party that Estrella's sure she doesn't want, while her father worries about expenses. Estrella/Star blows off her parent's plans for what she thinks is a cheesy quinceañera in favor of her school friends' party for her birthday -- which ends disasterously. Worse, as Estrella tries to get around everyone with strings of half-truths and deceptions, it all explodes -- her parents blow up at her, at each other, and the party falls to ruins. Her brothers slink around the house unhappily, and Estrella feels all the blame shift to her shoulders. The be-true-to-yourself theme is laid on pretty thickly as Estrella works within her community to restore a cultural celebration to its former glory. With a bit of sweet, though predictable conniving, the story wraps up neatly and all is well, as the party goes on, and everyone is reunited in love.

This super-sweet book will work well for the 12-14 year old set, and the glossary will be educational for anyone who hasn't a single clue about Latin American culture.

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