Friday, August 10, 2012

WE WERE HERE by Matt de la Pena

de la Pena, Matt. We Were Here. Delacorte Press, 2009. 357 pages. Tr. $15.34, ISBN: 978-0-385-73667-1
Plot: Miguel Casteneda has done something so horrible that his mother won’t look at him. He’s headed for a group home, where he must spend a year with other troubled (and often violent) young men. To Miguel, it’s better than being at home, though. During his sentencing, the judge ordered him to journal in order to figure out his thoughts, and that’s how Miguel tells his story. At the home, he meets two boys, Rondell and Mong. His first encounter with Mong becomes a fight, and Mong is discovered to be a frightening fighter who is afraid of nothing. Rondell is mentally disabled and unpredictable. Forming an unlikely trio, the three escape the group home and travel the California coast. Miguel’s destination is Mexico, where he thinks he can forget about the past and start again. On the road, the boys deal with danger and adversity as they slowly bond and reveal what they did. The stories are heartbreaking. Miguel eventually is able to describe what he did. Miguel’s journey forces him to confront himself with the truth of what he’s done; it might lead him on the path to self-forgiveness.

Critical Evaluation: Although slow at times, de la Pena has created deep, rich, wounded characters. Their behavior, the horrific fights, the reluctant bonding, and the way they tell their stories, is completely believable. Some who have read the story find it hard to believe that Miguel’s mother wouldn’t forgive him for what happened, but even that seemed realistic to me. People react in very different ways to trauma and tragedy. Mong is unforgettable, with a painful past that makes his brutal actions almost excusable. Although the set up of the story being told as a journal seems to bog the writer down a bit, making him a bit too prone to falling into long descriptions. There are some problems with plotting and, at times, a lack of suspense, but de la Pena’s characters, the way they describe things, the way they banter, the way they expose their harsh truths, could be kids at my high school (who love this book). The question is, How can you heal after the unspeakable happens? The answer is, Slowly and painfully.

Reader’s Annotation: Miguel has been sent to a group home after a judge gives him a year sentence for a crime so horrible his mother can’t look at him. When he breaks out of the group home, he goes on a journey of discovery with two other troubled teens.

Author bio: A basketball player from a California beach town, Matt de la Pena seemed – to himself – like such an unlikely writer that his professors at University of the Pacific went behind his back to apply for his grad school admission. He ended up getting an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and writing some very popular YA noves.
            De la Pena’s first books -- including Ball Don’t Lie (’05) and Mexican WhiteBoy (’08) – revolved around sports and racial/economic conflict. His third, We Were Here, focuses on relationships and overcoming a dark past. His books have been chosen as ALA-YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, Junior Library Guild selections, and ALA-YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Genre: Realistic Fiction.

Curriculum Ties: English – characterization.

Booktalking Ideas: Ask questions: What kind of kids do you think you’d find in a group home for violent teenagers? What do you think their stories would be? What could a boy do that would be so bad that his mother won’t even look at him?

Reading Level: 5th grade.
Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues: Violence, profanity.
Challenge Response: While the book deals with gritty subject matter, it deals with it very responsibly. The main issue is healing and moving on after a painful childhood or horrible event. Emphasize that this could be very helpful to teens with hard lives or who are trying to cope with something difficult. The fact that it was a Junior Library Guild selection might help.

Why Included: A student at my school read it and begged me to read it, too.

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