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Burn Baby Burn
Can I rave for a minute? What a title! And what a cover, too. Medina manages to blend a lot of elements beautifully and smoothly. With four stars and a place on the NBA longlist, this read has a lot going for it. And a lot of people rooting for it — there’s a lot of love from all of us here; it was mentioned as an early frontrunner in the comments. But the sparkles of a disco ball can be very forgiving; in the harsh light of the Printz criteria, how well does it stand up to all the love?
OK, maybe first I should be honest and admit that I will always and forever love a book that gets New York City right. The different neighborhoods, the many small complications of getting around the city that people take for granted, the specific sense of place that develops in each specific neighborhood — Medina includes all of this beautifully. And it’s set in Queens <3 <3! The way Nora’s connected and interconnected neighbors watch each other, talk about and with each other, care about each other, and worry for each other is great. Sal and Mr Farina’s friendship, the MacInerneys’ concern for Nora, Stiller’s careful and respectful support for the Lópezes — all spot on.
Another strength is characterization. Nora is fantastic — funny, confused, smart, and sometimes daunted, always brave. The first person narration is full of funny asides. Her best friendship with Kathleen is genuine and sweet, her romance with Pablo is charming, and her wary, combustible relationship with Hector is all too believable. She is mature and thoughtful, sometimes resentful of the ways she’s had to grow up too fast to help Mima out. Nora’s not too perfect, though; she has her brash, unthoughtful teenage moments. When she and Kathleen steal Mr MacInerney’s car, it’s both terrifying and hilarious — so outrageously ridiculous. Stiller is another stand out character — outspoken, brave, careful and circumspect when Nora needs her to be.
I also loved Medina’s choice to write historical fiction. The time period is as much a part of the setting as the NYC cityscapes surrounding the characters. The pivotal summer depicted allows for a slow build in the plot — the first mention of arson is on the second page of the book, and first mention of the murders is on page three. Medina does not allow these dramatic events to drive the story. The historical setting gives readers the opportunity to make connections and parallels to the headlines and current events we see today. Nora and Kathleen go to the Women’s Day march. Stiller has conflicted feelings about the lack of intersectionality in mainstream feminism. The conversations, feelings, and conflicts that Nora runs into are still with us. Medina allows Nora’s personal story to slowly collide with the escalating events of 1977, while still keeping the focus on Nora’s own situation.
Are there things that will not work for RealCommittee? Well, not all of the characterization is as strong as Nora. Hector is pretty one-note, though he’s also off-page for a lot of the book — he’s more of a menacing presence in the López apartment. Mima comes off as a little too simplistic. I think a lot of this is because of the decision to write in first person. Nora’s narration can be too on-the-nose, it is not always subtle. The relationships between the López family members are complicated and believable, but sometimes the way that Nora describes her situation comes off as telling rather than showing. And Medina has Nora ask many rhetorical questions. Some are haunting (“how do you explain why you listen at your own front door before going in?”), but others are unsubtle (“Does the shooter have a mother, too? Does she know he’s a monster?”).
The ending feels a little too simplistic and too easily handled. After the explosive events, betrayals, and a difficult fight for freedom, it seems too easy that a $1000 check just shows up. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted things to work out for Nora, but the simplicity and ease felt anticlimactic.
I really hate to end being such a downer. Like I said, this title got a lot of love…and I loved it, too. I’d like to think that these are minor problems, easily dismissed. But I think that these flaws will be enough to take it out of the running once talk gets real at the table. However! I’m willing to be convinced…in the comments. And in case you need a little music to play while you type, please enjoy:
Filed under: Fiction
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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