Monday, February 24, 2020

Herself, Divided: The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcarcel

The good thing about this house is that we can sing!

A move from an apartment with thin walls is a good thing for Quijana's family, who likes to sing, sometimes loudly with Dad's guitar. And there's a swing in the back yard.

The bad thing is that she has to start seventh grade at a new school.
"Don't you speak Spanish?" a girl with glasses says.

A light-haired girl looks over. "Oh, you're one of those. You don't speak Spanish, right? A coconut!"

They speed off, leaving me in the dust. I pull out my phone and type quickly. "Coconut": slang term for a Latino who acts white."

This isn't me. My mom is white. How do I act half Latina?

Quijana feels as if she has two halves, and only one can be happy at a time. She loves her kind Guatemalan father, his jokes and songs and even his annoying quotes from Don Quixote. She loves her mom's mother, her Grandmother Miller, who texts her everyday and loves manatees and sea turtles and takes her canoeing, but she dreads the monthly awkward phone calls from her father's mother, who speaks as little English as Quijana speaks Spanish. And then her aunt and uncle move from Chicago to live near them in Dallas, and her two cousins speak Spanish like natives. She's lost at their house with everyone rattling on around her.

Luckily, she finds two friends, a boy named Jayden and a girl named Zuri,who sit down beside her in the cafeteria and share phone numbers. But despite her Latina half, Quijana is terrible in Spanish class. Still, she has English class with Jayden and Zuri, and she loves choir, so school is mostly all right. But at home her toddler brother is behaving oddly, and Quijana's Google searches leading to autism turn out to be a likely diagnosis. She quarrels with her dad and half intentionally kicks his guitar and ruins it. Nothing is easy anymore.

But then Grandmother Miller texts her that she may have cancer. Their Thanksgiving visit to her in Florida is cancelled, and Quijana discovers that her family has been planning to spend Christmas in Guatemala with her abuela.

Quijana feels pulled in two directions, half American, half Latina, half of her happy, half sad. Secretly she plans a trip alone to Grandmother Miller's at Christmas. She manages to come up with money to buy herself a bus ticket to get there, planning to leave on the late night bus on the day before her family plans to fly to Guatemala. But then Grandmother Miller dies suddenly.

And in a couple of days Quijana gets a postcard from her grandmother. She says,
"Think of me in quiet moments and you will feel my love. Do everything for joy. I love you.

And love warms Quijana, melting her selves together, in Rebecca Balcarcel's moving coming-of-age novel, The Other Half of Happy: (Middle Grade Novel for Ages 9-12, Bilingual Tween Book) (Chronicle Books, 2019). There are many ways middle graders feel divided, half looking back at childhood, half looking forward with anxiety and hope, and Quijana deals with that dichotomy, heightened by divided families but also bound by deep love. Says School Library Journal's starred review, "Balcárcel's well-rounded characters, complex friendships, and nuanced family dynamics will resonate with many readers. This is a title that will remain relevant long past its publication date. A must-have for all library collections."

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