By Anya Shukla
I spent the bulk of this week using autocheck to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle rather than actually doing work. I now know that “bidets” is a term for “toilet,” so I am sure to impress at any dinner party.
All this crosswording may result in these reviews utilizing an updated, thesaurus-like vocabulary. Don’t worry if you see a sudden increase in words like “erudite” and “egregious”: I’ve probably just completed another Monday puzzle.
Review: At the start of Matt de la Peña’s “Mexican WhiteBoy,” sixteen-year-old baseball phenom Danny has just landed in National City, where he will stay with his Mexican American cousins over the summer. Danny dreams of making enough money to visit his father in Mexico, and when Uno, a local teen, offers to help him use his baseball skills to make some cash, Danny takes him up on the offer. What follows is a cute—if not always realistic—story about friendship, family, and navigating identity as a mixed-race teenager. Rating: 3/5.
What I Loved: Danny is the sweetest person in the entire world. He writes little (fictional) letters to his father about his new life in National City; he struggles to talk to girls because he’s incredibly shy… even though he’s a phenomenal baseball player, he’s a far cry from the cocky, confident alpha-jock stereotype. My notes from this book basically just consist of “AWW I LOVE DANNY SO MUCH” and “I WANT TO GIVE THIS KID A BIG HUG.” An adorable dude.
De la Peña also offers a solid message about family, friendship, and growing up mixed-race. Danny feels out-of-place with both white and Mexican communities: “Danny’s brown. Half-Mexican brown. A shade darker than all the white kids at his private high school, Leucadia Prep… Only other people on Leucadia’s campus who share his shade are the lunch-line ladies, the gardners, the custodians. But whenever Danny comes down here… where all his aunts and uncles and cousins still live—he feels pale… Less than” (pg. 20). Yet throughout the course of the story, he grows closer to his Mexican side of the family. At the story’s end, Danny realizes that he doesn’t have to change himself to fit in: “I’m like me… I’m just myself. That’s it” (pg. 542). He shifts from comparing himself with others to just appreciating himself as he is.
Uno, Danny’s friend and an Afro-Latino, navigates a slightly different path. His dark skin means that his neighborhood considers him Black, “even though his moms Mexican, too” (pg. 35). And because his parents are separated, their relationship feels like “a tug-of-war between black and Mexican, and he’s the rope” (pg. 104). Craving a new beginning, Uno eventually decides to choose one of his parents over the other. I enjoyed having two mixed-race main characters in this novel, as both of them offer different perspectives on mixed identity and finding oneself.
I also appreciated the spotlight on the Latinx/Chicanx dialect throughout this novel, since I haven’t seen it receive much—if any—representation in other YA books. For kids who grew up speaking a Latinx/Chicanx dialect, as well as anyone who is mixed race, this book will most likely resonate with and reflect your lived experiences.
What I Didn’t Love: Parts of “Mexican WhiteBoy” didn’t feel super realistic. I found it a little hard to believe that a sixteen-year-old would write exaggerated letters to send to his father in Mexico; I’d make the main character a year or two younger. Maybe that’s just me not remembering how immature I was at sixteen, though.
At the end of the novel, we also learn that Danny’s father has sent a man to watch over Danny; this man watches Danny’s baseball games, breaks up his fights, and essentially follows him around. I wonder: How would Danny’s dad’s friend know that Danny’s spending the summer in National City? Moreover, how does he know where Danny is at pretty much all times? This slightly illogical sequence of events, though a small part of “Mexican WhiteBoy,” sour the tone of the novel.
Additionally, Danny deals with self-harm—and while I do appreciate the addition of mental health challenges into a YA novel, this topic never receives closure. After his cousin learns about Danny physically hurting himself, she comforts him, telling him that he was not the cause of his father’s departure. The next morning, “neither says a word about what happened” (pg. 506). Magically, Danny stops hurting himself: “He touches the part of his sleeve that covers the cut he made on his arm. He can’t imagine what was going through his head when he did it. Feels miles and miles away from now” (pg. 552-553). Addressing a mental health challenge isn’t always that easy. I wish de la Peña had spent more time with the topic rather than having his character just move on.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “It’s the last night of the summer. And here they are sitting together, waiting for tomorrow” (pg. 553).
Up next: “American Indian Stories” by Zitkala-Sa.