Book Review – The Red Umbrella

Author: Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Publisher: Knopf Book for Young Readers (May 11, 2010)

Reading Level: Upper Middle Grade/YA

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Star (A definite must read)

Description from GoodReads:

The Red Umbrella is the moving tale of a 14-year-old girl’s journey from Cuba to America as part of Operation Pedro Pan—an organized exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, whose parents sent them away to escape Fidel Castro’s revolution.

In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.

As the revolution’s impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía’s parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.

Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home.

In late November 2009, I signed up for  The Story Siren’s 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  The challenge – to read at least 12 novels by debut authors in 2010.  With this review, I will be logging in on #12.  WooHoo!  I still plan on continuing with the Challenge for at least another 12 books.  Now on to the review….

History does not have to be dry and boring and Christina Diaz Gonzalez proves that to us in her debut novel The Red Umbrella.  In this powerful and personal story of a young teenage girl named Lucia, readers learn about the events that took place in Cuba and the United Stated in the early 1960’s. Gonzalez used the stories of her parents and mother-in-law as the original seed for telling the world about Operation Pedro Pan, when families in Cuba sent their children to the U.S. to avoid Castro’s revolution.

According to Gonzalez, there were nearly 14,000 children who arrived in Miami during the years of 1960 to 1962.  Some were met by family and friends while others were placed in a camp until a foster home could be located for them.  Her research uncovered that of these 14,000 children nearly 90% were reunited with their families over a period of time.

With this as her background, Gonzalez paints a vivid portray of what life would have been like for a teenager in Cuba in 1961.  What might she have worn, or what music she listened to, or even what movie she might have seen.  This attention to detail and desire for accuracy rather than slow down the story allows the reader to image what life would have been like.  Lucia, along with her younger brother Frankie live a comfortable life with their parents.  Initially, their parents seek to protect them from the realities of Castro’s revolution.  However, there comes a point when their parents are no longer able to keep out the atrocities that are occurring.  In a final attempt to protect them, Lucia and Frankie are sent to the United States in hopes that they will eventually be reunited as a family.

The book is divided into two parts – the first half of the story provides you with the background and what is happening in Cuba.  The second half explores the reality of what it is like for Lucia and Frankie to live in a foster home while they wait and hope for reunification.

As I read The Red Umbrella, I was emotionally moved by the story of the Alvarez family.  Their story is one of loss, love, grief, and hope.  I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but keep a box of tissues near you as you read this book, and you do need to read this story.

For me, the story of the Alvarez family was made even more real when I had an opportunity to see Gonzalez at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.  The audience was filled with predominately Cuban Americans.  Many of these individuals had either been Pedro Pans or had left Cuba in some manner during the 1960’s.  The Red Umbrella was not just a story, but it was their story.  Some had hardly shared this story with their families.  Others were using this book to share a piece of their personal history with their children or grandchildren.

This is a powerful story, and an amazing debut novel by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.  I look forward to her next book whenever it is released and I hope that this book will receive the attention, accolades and awards that it is due.  If you don’t have this on your “to-be-read” pile, then get it on there.

You can find out more about Christina Diaz Gonzalez on her website here: http://www.christinagonzalez.com/home.html

You can find her on Twitter @christinadg or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/christinadiazgonzalez?ref=ts

You can purchase of signed copy of The Red Umbrella (while copies last) at Borders Glendale.

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Book Review: Restoring Harmony

Author: Joelle Anthony

Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (May 8, 2010)

Reading Level: YA (6th grade up)

Source: ARC for review

Rating: 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

The year is 2041, and sixteen-year-old Molly McClure has lived a relatively quiet life on an isolated farming island in Canada, but when her family fears the worst may have happened to her grandparents in the US, Molly must brave the dangerous, chaotic world left after global economic collapse—one of massive oil shortages, rampant crime, and abandoned cities.

Molly is relieved to find her grandparents alive in their Portland suburb, but they’re financially ruined and practically starving. What should’ve been a quick trip turns into a full-fledged rescue mission. And when Molly witnesses something the local crime bosses wishes she hadn’t, Molly’s only way home may be to beat them at their own game. Luckily, there’s a handsome stranger who’s willing to help.

Restoring Harmony is a riveting, fast-paced dystopian tale complete with adventure and romance that readers will devour.

When I received the Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of Restoring Harmony, I was bogged down with books to read for book club or prior books for review.  In addition, work/life was just really busy.  Some books I have a gut sense that I am going to enjoy and I don’t want to rush through them. I had that feeling about Restoring Harmony and I found myself carrying it around but not reading it because the time wasn’t right.  Finally, I had just the right time and I devoured the book in one sitting.

Let me just start with what I liked about the book…

I have discovered that I love books with short chapters.  This may be a silly thing but it makes the book feel like a super fast read even if it takes me exactly the same time to read as any other book with the same number of pages. Additionally, it means that the book will go on my list to recommend to reluctant readers.

Another reason that this will go on my list for reluctant readers is that Anthony grabs you from the beginning and keeps you hooked in until the end.  I really don’t feel that as the reader I should wade through 75 or 100 pages before the book “gets good”.  My reluctant readers won’t even hang in there for that many pages before giving up on the book.

My third reason for loving this book – I loved the characters.  Molly is a wonderful protagonist.  She is bright, tenacious, resourceful, and just plain likable.  She is sent out on a journey to contact her grandparents and convince them to return to Canada with her.  Molly embraces her mission and despite obstacles and set-backs plunges forward without giving up and without annoying the reader.  Molly isn’t the only character I loved.  There is Spill.  You really need to read the book – you will fall in love with Spill too.  He is swoon-worthy in a very good way.  I am adding him to my list of fictional crushes.

My fourth reason for loving this book – I truly appreciate books that have a sense of community in them and adults who are not all jerks.  I realize YA is written from the perspective of teens, but not all teens hate all adults.

Just a few more things…I can share Restoring Harmony with readers from sixth grade on up.  I appreciated the timeless feel to the book, and the dialogue did not annoy me.  Have you ever read a book where the voice of the characters just irritated you?  I have and it really is a turn off – not so with this book.

Finally, the writing of the book was wonderful.  Anthony does an incredible job in describing her world, the struggles of the society, the challenges facing the characters, the emotions behind the words.  There is intensity and darkness balanced with hope.

Joelle Anthony’s debut novel, Restoring Harmony, is a wonderful offering and one that I hope really gets the attention that it deserves.  I look forward to future books by this author.

Check out Joelle’s blog for more information about Restoring Harmony and to listen to some related music or check out the wonderfully done book trailer.