For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros.
I decided to read this book after seeing positive reviews of it by Sierra Dertinger on her blog, Books. Iced Lattes. Blessed, and by Shaye Miller on her blog, The Miller Memo. I am so glad I took their advice! Efrén Divided tells the story of middle-schooler Efrén Nava. Most of us (including myself) would probably pity Efrén from the very start of the story; his family is pretty poor, so he, his twin young siblings Max and Mía, and his Amá and Apá all live in a one-room apartment. But where we see a shabby apartment, Efrén sees the home of his loving family. Where we see a tiny kitchen, Efrén sees the place where his Amá bakes fresh sopes, flipping them with her bare hands (the root of his nickname for her, Soperwoman). Between his amazing parents, his best friend David, and his love of reading, Efrén knows he has what truly matters in life. So, of course, everything goes wrong.
Both of Efrén's parents are undocumented, and, early in the story, his Amá gets deported to Mexico. As his Apá starts working even longer hours to make up for the income she is not earning, Efrén is suddenly juggling taking care of the rambunctious Max and Mía with the stress of missing a parent and the regular stresses of his life: his friend David is attempting to run for class president, but Efrén suspects that his opponent, Jennifer Huerta, is more qualified for the job. Even when life demands more of him, even when he is forced to cross the border alone to see his Amá, Efrén musters up the courage to keep going, to fight back against an entire society's prejudices being taken out on him and his family.
I don't think I have ever cried reading a book, but this book brought me closer to tears than any book ever has before. In just 248 pages (with large font), this book taught me things I was ashamed not to know before, reminded me of how evil our world can be, and helped me remember (just as White Bird by R.J. Palacio recently did) how brave children can be in times of extreme crisis. First of all, this book is a powerful reminder of how much parents do for, and mean to, their children. Author Ernesto Cisneros masterfully illustrates the immense sacrifices Efrén's Amá and Apá make for their children: they work long hours, don't get enough sleep, make fresh meals in spite of their lack of time and money. I am ashamed to say this, but it had never occurred to me that one member of a family could get deported and leave the rest of the family struggling. Watching Efrén have to take on many of the roles his Amá performed, such as making meals and taking his siblings to school, is both a powerful reminder of how much his Amá did and a stark depiction of how Amá's deportation affects her family. There are so many other minute details of life without a mother that Cisneros captures for this book, but I'll let you read the book to find them out.
As a person woefully uninformed on this particular topic, one other detail of Efrén Divided that I really appreciated was the journey Efrén had to make alone into Mexico. I don't want to spoil all the details (the trip is mentioned on the flap description, but not much else is), but I do want to say that seeing the trip definitely made me understand why Efrén's family left Mexico in the first place. Depictions of child labor, of men chasing people down on the street, and of houses that could literally blow away during a storm definitely put things in perspective: if Efrén had his Amá with him, he would actually be a lucky kid, considering. The trip also showed some of the beautiful details of Mexico and its culture, just as the entire book does excellently, both with specific details and just with the frequent speaking of Spanish in the book (there is a super-helpful glossary in the back of the book). And finally, the trip to Mexico showed some of the moments that happen right at the U.S.-Mexico border that further illustrate the pain endured by separated families.
I do want to mention a few other things about this book. First of all, it's hard to overstate how compelling Efrén is as a character. His perseverance and bravery are incredible (even though it's disgusting that they are ever required), and he manages to be insightful and thoughtful about his own life and circumstances without ever seeming unrealistically introspective (the third person narration makes sure of that—I honestly expected first person, but third person worked really well). Also, I really appreciated Efrén's friendship with David. The depiction of a white kid with rich but non-loving parents and a Hispanic kid with poor but loving parents becoming friends shows that pretty much all differences can be overcome in the name of friendship. Efrén and David are both compassionate and understanding toward each other, making for a compelling friendship. The subplot of David running for class president against Jennifer was somewhat compelling—it could have been better, but it hardly detracted from the greatness of everything else in the book. Finally, Efrén is a big reader in the book, which reminded me how rare it is for book characters to actually read books, even though that's the easiest way for characters to earn brownie points with readers! ;) Efrén reads The House on Mango Street in the book, and author Sandra Cisneros (no relation to Ernesto Cisneros, as far as I can tell) actually blurbed the book, saying, amongst other things, "I am honored to be mentioned in his pages." Isn't that all the praise you need?
In the same blurb I just mentioned, Sandra Cisneros gives perhaps the best reason to read this book when she says, "[T]his book broke my heart open. We need books to break open our hearts, so that we might feel more deeply, so that we might be more human in these unkind times." I couldn't agree more with this statement; although Efrén Divided is extremely painful at times, it is essential in understanding just what kind, deserving people go through in this country at the hands of the officials we choose to vote for. I completely understand if you are not emotionally able to read this book during the emotionally trying events happening right now, but I have had a tendency to avoid books like this since long before this pandemic, and I am glad that I have finally pushed myself. Although ignorance may be bliss, knowledge is power, specifically the power to make sure that no one has to go through what Efrén and his family went through ever again. This book is essential, timely, and absolutely beautiful—you must read it as soon as you can, and if it doesn't win at least a Newbery Honor, I will be shocked.