The Plot: It’s not a secret that high school senior Efrain Rodriguez takes his future seriously. He has a plan: Harvard. Maybe Yale. Ivy League, not New York City. The problem is he’s at a Bronx high school where Ivy League is considered an unrealistic dream. Efrain may be on track for valedictorian and may have the highest SAT score in the history of the school, but neither is good enough to get into a school like Harvard. Efrain cannot afford the SAT classes that will help his score. His parents cannot help. His father is with his new girlfriend and new baby. His mother works long hours just to pay the bills. Neither graduated college; neither really understands what he is going through. His mother supports his college dreams, but she has no idea how to help him get where he needs to go. And even if he does get in, what about the tuition?
Efrain’s a good kid. He has a plan for getting the money to pay for his SAT courses, college application fees, tuition, and even have some left over to help his mother and younger sister. If you’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, is it still wrong? If you’re selling drugs to people who already want them, who would be buying them from someone else if it wasn’t you on the street corner, is it still a crime?
The Good: I started this book a bit reluctant because I was afraid. Afraid of liking Efrain, afraid of getting angry as he took the wrong path, afraid of what would happen because these things never end well. I was right to be afraid; I liked Efrain, rooted for him, understand (but disagreed) with his choices, and was so caught up in his family and friendships that as Efrain’s Secret worked its way to the end, I was hesitant to read the final pages. One of the teen readers I know likes books that make her cry. I’ve found the perfect book to hand to her.
Each chapter begins with a SAT word. It emphasizes Efrain’s continuing efforts to increase his SAT scores, it connects to what happens in the chapter, and it brings the reader into Efrain’s world. The frequent inclusion of Spanish and slang also create Efrain’s Bronx for the reader. Quintero does not explain what “Nuyorican” or “slinging” means; translations aren’t provided for the Spanish sentences. While those more familiar with Efrain’s world will understand references more than I do, my lack of a deeper knowledge of slang, language, and pop culture did not negatively impact my reading experience. For example, I didn’t realize that the nickname (Chingy) of one of Efrain’s friend’s came from a real person, but I understood that it was from a famous person.
Efrain’s parents don’t know what to do to help Efrain achieve his goals. His mother explains, “your father and I were both raised to either save money for the things we wanted or just accept that we couldn’t afford them and learn to live without them. But we were wrong, Efrain.” Moms picks up a stack of blank forms and sifts through them. “Learn from our mistakes, honey, and set the right example for your sister. . . . Your education and your home are investments in your future. They’re the only things you’ll ever own and are worth going into a reasonable amount of debt to have.” This was so familiar. The refrain I heard growing up was “your education is the only thing they cannot take away from you.” Later, Efrain learns that his college advisor/guidance counselor isn’t good for much beyond the basic needs of the typical student. His desires and goals are way beyond her skill set and knowledge. I found Efrain’s struggles both sympathetic and sadly realistic.
Quintero does not make the drug dealers the bad guys. Yes, there are some drug dealers who are bad guys. She doesn’t glamorize it but she also doesn’t demonize it. Nestor, Efrain’s friend, dropped out of school to deal drugs to take care of his mother and siblings. The friendship between Efrain and Nestor is both touching and fun. I laughed out loud at some of their exchanges. Many of the other young men dealing drugs are equally likable.Nestor is not a bad guy. Efrain approaches Nestor. Nestor does not make Efrain do anything. Nestor is dealing at the start of the book, and one of the great things about Efrain’s Secrets is that Nestor, Efrain, and Chingy, used to be best friends. Chingy is driven to do good and go to college, much like Efrain, except Chingy wants to go to a HBCU (Historically Black College). Chingy explains why he refuses to have anything to do with is former best friend. “But when Nes quit school and started slinging, Chingy wasn’t having it and cut him off. Me, I don’t like what Nes is doing either, but we all grew up together. I just couldn’t drop him like that.” I liked Nestor, but in this equation, I am more a Chingy than an Efrain. Efrain accuses Chingy of being righteous and judgmental, and I cheered as Chingy shot back: “You’re right, E. I am righteous. I am judgmental. I’m lots of things, some of which ain’t cool.” Quintero uses three teenager to show the three attitudes towards drug dealing: Nestor, charming and fully into the life; Chingy, who keeps himself removed from any temptation; and Efrain, tempted both by the money and the friendships. Yes, no, maybe.
Efrain’s girlfriend, Candace, is from New Orleans and survived Hurricane Katrina. Instead of the Katrina’s references overloading the story, Candace offers balance. Efrain seeks to escape his family to succeed, Candace wants to return to her roots. Efrain thinks he has to break the law to get by, and Candace is quick to point out the looting for food after the Hurricane was true survival. Going to an Ivy League school is hardly the same as starving people desperate for food. This is Efrain’s story, told by him, and the main focus is on Efrain, Nestor, and Chingy. The female supporting characters are just as fully drawn, to the point where I want books just about Gigi (a girl from Efrain’s school) and Efrain’s mother.
It cannot end well for Efrain. What I like about Efrain’s Secret, what I am thankful for, is just how Quintero resolves Efrain’s dilemma without being melodramatic. It rings true, it is satisfying, and it breaks your heart. I was right to be afraid — but I was wrong to let that stop me from reading this book.