I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

Olga Reyes, a young twenty-something-year-old woman, is hit by a semi-truck while crossing a busy street in Chicago with her head buried in her phone. And so begins the story of the Julia Reyes, her fifteen-year-old baby sister and black sheep of the family. Julia is the daughter who has dreams bigger than her family’s roach-infested, cramped urban apartment. She’s at constant odds with her traditional Mexican mother—who breaks her back cleaning houses for wealthy Chicagoans—and her near-silent, factory-working father. Both crossed the border illegally years ago, though that is not the heart of the story. It only adds to its timeliness. At fifteen, though, Julia is equal parts infuriating, endearing, funny, and dislikeable—like most teens are. And all of those feelings about Julia mirror all of the feelings that we may or may not have had toward Erika L. Sanchez’s debut novel and National Book Award Finalist, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

Jennifer: Lara wrote that stellar intro. Kudos on the detail! I feel STRONGLY that it behooves us to address this book in two ways. And I’ll totally give you the opportunity to say whatever, but you gotta give me the opportunity to spew my own crazy ruminations. We need to address Y.A. as a category, and we need to specifically address this book as an example of Y.A.

I’ll begin with simplifying my big thoughts.

Before you say it, I’ll say it. I will—ironically—be teaching a Y.A. college course this upcoming semester. I love some of the books that are on the course reading list (that I didn’t design): The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie), and Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi). What I really look forward to reading this year—like a big English dork—is critical theory surrounding Y.A. I mean, what is it? Why should we be teaching it? Those are my first two questions for you.

My overall impression is that the book is simplistically didactic on hot-button issues that could be dealt with in more profound ways! I wouldn’t underestimate teen intelligence or the teen psyche, and I think she does. That’s my third question for you: What did you think of the book?

So: What is Y.A.?

Lara: Wow, that was pretty English Teacher-sounding (simplistically didactic? I don’t even know what that means). So, what is Y.A.? Honestly, I think it’s a label by publishers to create a new revenue stream and attract a new group of readers. And, while that’s a bit cynical, I think there’s value in getting any segment of the population interested in reading. Check out this excerpt from Jen Doll’s April 2012 column in The Atlantic titled, “What does Young Adult Mean?

“Jim McCarthy, Vice President at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, is an agent whose authors include Richelle Mead of the Vampire Academy series and Jessica Spotswood, writer of Born Wicked. He told The Atlantic Wire, “I don’t know that there’s a real technical definition of what Y.A. is. Essentially, it’s just literature for and about teens, there to bridge the gap between children’s and adult’s books. It can be subdivided into the same genres as adult books—romance, paranormal, mystery, horror, literary fiction.” Rita Meade, a children’s librarian in Brooklyn, explained, “I was ‘officially’ taught in grad school that Y.A. Lit is literature written with readers from ages 12 – 18 in mind. I’m sure there’s a marketing angle involved somewhere, but from my perspective as a children’s librarian, it is helpful to make a distinction between children’s lit, Y.A. lit, and adult lit. That’s not to say that there can’t be crossover, or that one age group can’t read books geared towards another age group, but it’s useful when doing reader’s reference to have a general guide. (Of course, there are many other factors that come into play when I suggest books, but age level is usually the easiest place to start.)”

One thing Y.A. is not is a genre; it’s a category, as with adult literature, containing all sorts of types of writing, from fiction to nonfiction. As Tracy van Straaten, VP at Scholastic, reminded us, “Something people tend to forget is that Y.A. is a category not a genre, and within it is every possible genre: fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary, non-fiction. There’s so much richness within the category.”

How’s that for answering your question?

Jennifer: Impressive! A-work! I’m sorry that I am being pretty academic, and I seriously appreciate the offering of that description. I’m really trying to work this out for myself. And I’ll go with the idea that we might call Y.A. a category, rather than a genre. I’m not entirely sure that I think it’s great to get an un-reading population to actually read—no matter what they’re reading. I’ve heard similar arguments about kids posting on social media (“Look, at least their writing!) and kids binging on Harry Potter (“It gets them reading!”) I’m good with Harry, incidentally (let them go for it). But I seriously think the value in writing and reading is mostly in what one writes or what one reads, not in the act itself. I’m being professorial. I’ll move on.

I have to admit to having some kind of primal-like resistance to Y.A. I resent—I think—money and marketing imposing its presence in how our kids read. And is it so vast that it includes anything that appeals to teenagers? Books about teenagers? Books that dumb-down important topics? Books that incorporate sex and drugs into a tale about high school and homework and one’s bitch of a mom and one’s useless dad? I don’t know . . .

I have another article to refer to, and it’s my favorite one: “Against Y.A.” by Ruth Graham. She says everything I would want to say. There are so many gems in this essay that I can only urge people to read it. She goes after the saccharine endings, the eye-rolling declarations of love, and what this might mean for adult literary fiction. I’ll leave off with this one:

“There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the Y.A. mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up. But the Y.A. and ‘new adult’ boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books. When I think about what I learned about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life—from the extracurricular reading I did in high school, I think of John Updike and Alice Munro and other authors whose work has only become richer to me as I have grown older, and which never makes me roll my eyes.”

So, all that said, why should we be teaching it, or should we not?

Lara: Before I answer your question, I need to respond to your anti-Y.A. sentiment and the Ruth Graham column. Look, anyone is free to not like a category or genre, but I think it’s short- sighted to not realize that a lot of people consume art, literature, and pop-culture for entertainment value and happy endings. And, I am going to be a little judgey here, but Graham seems to be speaking from a pretty privileged position as a white woman living in New Hampshire citing John Updike and Alice Munro as sources for her education on life, love, relationships, trauma, etc. There’s nothing WASPY about Sanchez’s book, and why I think it’s important is that it highlights a person rarely featured in literature, namely a young Mexican girl.

Back to your question on if we should teach Y.A.? Why not? It’s a pretty big force in publishing. It is getting people to read, and there could be more adults reading Y.A. than young adults reading Y.A. So, it’s a bit of a phenomenon, no?

Jennifer: I’m not opposed to teaching it. But, parents and educators, mix it up a bit. Here’s a recommended reading list from Professor Dork (I’d add in a bit of Austen too):

Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
James Baldwin: Go Tell it On the Mountain
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
Anne Frank: The Diary of Anne Frank
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird
Lois Lowry: The Giver
Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev
J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
Betty Smith: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Sue Townsend: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn
Markus Zusak: The Book Thief
And the Y.A. graphic novel can be great.

But this book. I didn’t hate it; I just wanted something with more depth, maybe. I felt a little like this was all over the place. Was it a book on the immigrant experience, on sexual awakening, on the artistic compulsion, on the secrets we hold, on high school education, on race, or on suicide? There are “Mental Health Resources” in the back of the book. I guess I didn’t see it as a book about that, despite the—it felt this way—token suicide experience (!) . . .

Lara: Well, I am a fan of literary Y.A. It probably goes without saying I liked it a lot more than you did and it’s all over the place because fifteen-year-olds are all over the place! They are dealing with hormones, fitting in, school, their future, peer pressure, and in Julia’s case, poverty and a love-interest from an upper middle class environment. I think Sanchez nailed Julia’s snark and precociousness while also adeptly capturing her fear and uncertainty (like when her two best friends only want to smoke weed and drink). Julia’s voice was wholly authentic. And, while there could be some missteps, Sanchez has a solid story here that felt very real to me.

Jennifer: Okay. It didn’t feel so real to me. I think it was definitely engaging the whole time and I liked some of the thematic threads (the Art-stuff). My favorite part was Julia’s love of language. I could sense that the author was a poet. This is nice:

“I’ve loved words since I learned how to read, but I’ve never thought of my favorite ones. How can you choose just one? I don’t know why such a simple task makes me so nervous. It takes a few minutes to come up with anything, then I can’t stop.


By the time Mr. Ingman gets to me, I finally decided on wisteria.”

What part left the biggest impression on you?

Lara: OMG. I think we final agree! I loved Julia’s love of words and books. It’s that love that transcends her place in the world and actually allows her to dream beyond the Chicago apartments. I totally connected with this passage:

“We have a half day, so I take the train to the used bookstore in Wicker Park after school. I’ve saved a total of seventeen dollars from my lunch in the last few weeks and should be able to buy two books. My stomach felt like it was eating itself those times I had nothing but a scoop of lumpy mashed potatoes, but it was worth it.”

And this one:

“I love the smell of old bookstores—paper, knowledge, and probably mildew. I hate the cliché that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, because covers say so much about what’s inside. Take ‘The Great Gatsby’ for instance—the woman’s melancholic face against the city lights in the distance is the perfect representation of the quiet misery of that era. Covers matter. Those who don’t think so are full of crap. I mean, I wear band T-shirts for a reason. Lorena wears leopard-print spandex for a reason.”

Jennifer: Yay, we have that! Though I’m going to ruin it. The passage you quoted above is good. Sometimes, I felt like she was doing a tad too much name-dropping. But so be it. Let me drop a name. Here’s a graphic memoir in the Y.A. category that deals with Chicago and Art: My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris. Interestingly, the protagonist’s last name is also Reyes.

Well, yeah. I’m at a loss for more. I think it’s decent, not stellar. I want teeny-boppers to read, for sure. I think I have high expectations.

Lara: You do have high expectations and are a total name-dropper. So maybe your issue with this book is what you are projecting on it! Hahaha! We will leave that analysis for another day. If you like your Y.A. free of vampires and dystopian worlds, pick it up. It’s worth a read.

Next Up!

Join us in August for our ambitious Memoir Mashup! We will talk about some of the best of this super-popular, somewhat controversial book form. See you then, Snotties!


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com 

Want to see what Lara is up to? Go to www.onelitchick.com