Fourteen year-old Lupita is a talented writer and actress with dreams of college. Born in Mexico and transplanted to Texas at a young age, Lupita is equally at home on both sides of the border. Lupita has friends, supportive teachers and a large loving family. But everything changes when Mami gets sick. Lupita has to deal with her fear and pain while adjusting to a new reality: her role as a surrogate mother to her seven siblings, the family’s dwindling bank account, growing uncertainty about who she is and where she will end up. Lupita’s only joy comes from her writing, the precious moments of scribbling beneath the shade of a mesquite tree.
McCall’s book is semi-autobiographical, and it’s no wonder Lupita’s a great writer, because McCall’s writing steals the show. This eloquent novel in verse turns the most ordinary of activities—eating ice cream, pruning rose bushes, riding a bus—into the unforgettable. Consider this childhood memory of how Lupita learned to write:
Papi’s hand guided mine
as I clutched the pencil,
holding it sideways against my fingertips.
“The S is a serpiente, sitting up
on its tail,” he told me.
Then we make the letter C,
curled up like a tiny bug, a cochinilla.
“You have a talent for letters,”
Papi said, speaking softly in my ear.
His hands were rough and scratchy
against my skin, and the bits of sawdust
clinging to his work clothes
were tiny mosquitos biting into my arms.
But his voice was sweet and gentle.
My pencil whispered the letters
onto the paper like magic.
Verse novels are tricky, because it’s easy to use the style as a gimmick. But when they’re done well, the results are stunning. I’d put Under the Mesquite right up there with Out of the Dust (Newbery winner) and Inside Out and Back Again (National Book Award winner). The use of poetry reflects Lupita’s unraveling life and the things left unsaid, not to mention her dreams of becoming an author. In fact, the style is so much a part of the story that I can’t imagine the book in any other form.
I have to put in a word for Lupita: what an amazing, amazing character. I admired her strength and determination, how she channeled loss into art. But more than that, I love how comfortable she is with her Mexican-American heritage. When some of her Latino friends accuse her of acting too “white,” Lupita reacts with fury, not shame, because she’s proud of her Mexican roots. Yet she also resents her quinceañera, which she feels has clipped her wings. It’s rare to find minority YA protagonists who comfortably enhabit two cultures without being caught between them. No doubt this is partly why the Belpré committee awarded McCall the 2012 Pura Belpré author award. Under the Mesquite is a great addition to diversity in YA fiction. And the universal themes of family, hope and letting go means it won’t get pigeonholed as “minority” or “other” fiction. A brilliant debut—I predict it’ll be read and re-read for decades to come.