The cool thing about YA (young adult) fiction is being able to get through a story in a couple of hours; it’s a sense of accomplishment that I don’t often get with my own books, some of which are left hanging for years!
Layla and I read Scholastic’s “Esperanza Rising” during the June holiday break. We didn’t discuss it much. I’m a big believer in reading for pleasure and not everyone fancies a bookclub-style conversation, well at least not my daughter at this point in her life. I do feel the book is pitched above her level of understanding (as many YA books would be), not in terms of vocabulary but context—it’s a riches-to-rags story about a Mexican family forced into forging a new way of life in the US during the Great Depression. Homelessness, poverty, and discrimination are some of the major themes of the book, and I trust Layla will build up her awareness about such issues as she grows up. I’m still reading and learning about these every day.
The YA books from Scholastic often feature a back section with trivia and related information. There’s usually a glossary, but for this book there was a Q&A with the author, a recipe, instructions for a yarn doll craft, and a section on cultural proverbs. I found the Q&A particularly enlightening; it even highlighted something that I’d missed, that the chapters were all named after fruit and veggies! From the author, Pam Munoz Ryan:
That wasn’t something that came about early in the planning of the book. It came about later. I started to feel that Esperanza’s life was taking on the rhythm of the harvest, so I called my editor and said, “What if I named the chapters after the harvest that she’s experiencing in each chapter?” She said I should give it a try, and it worked. Then I went back and reworked the chapters a little to pull that thread a little tighter and to make those chapter headings more symbolic.
Reading about this made me want to reread the book and hunt for those symbolic connections, which I’d missed in my first reading. But if we’re talking about harvest themes, here are some quick thoughts on the novel.
Life: This is the theme of the prologue, where Esperanza’s father helps her understand that nature is alive. “This whole valley lives and breathes,” he says, before asking her to lie on the ground and “feel the earth’s heartbeat.” It’s a significant memory in the book.
Death: Tragedy strikes early in the novel: A loved one is lost, life-threatening situations ensue, and Esperanza is forced to leave her home (a ranch in Mexico) and her entire existence behind. This chain of events is inspired by the author’s own family history, and you can read more about it here.
Rebirth: In a new environment (California), Esperanza struggles to find her identity and, stripped of her wealth, discovers that her true value is her strength and ability to be a team player.
Growth: Much of the book centres on Esperanza’s character development, culminating in an episode where she risks her own safety to help a farm striker Marta, barely older than her, escape arrest and deportation. Her memories of Marta taunting her while they were living in the same labour camp (for Mexican farm workers) are fresh, but her desire to help Marta reunite with her mother overrides the hurt and resentment. It’s a sign of how much Esperanza has matured; at the beginning of the story, she refuses to let a little girl touch her doll because she is “poor and dirty.”
Life comes full circle: One of the takeaways from this story is that nothing lasts forever: Happiness is fragile, and tragedy is temporary. There is a happy ending, and it’s one of reunions and renewed hope. The final words of the story are suitably uplifting, with Esperanza imparting words of well-earned wisdom to a younger girl: “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”
If you’d like to find out more about Esperanza Rising, Scholastic has a wonderful resource site.