After my last fiction review, of a book of a much more, um, mature type than I usually read (Bleeding Violet, a book I liked, but which sure wasn't middle grade), it is with a sense of peaceful composure that I sit down to write about Tortilla Sun, by Jennifer Cervantes (Chronicle Books, 2010, middle grade, 218 pages)
12-year-old Izzy has been sent off unexpectedly to spend the summer with her grandmother in New Mexico, where she has never been before, while her mother heads off to Costa Rica to do her own research. She takes with her the baseball she had found just before her mother broke the news-- an old baseball, tucked away in box, with faded words written on it--"Because....magic." Izzy is pretty sure the ball belonged to her father, who died before she was born, but her mom won't talk about him at all.
That summer in New Mexico, Izzy not only finds a place for herself in the love of her grandmother's home, but she finds as well the story of her father and mother, and the tragic end of their love for each other. And helping her find this story is her father himself, calling to her on the wind....
This is a book that makes pictures in the mind--of patches of shade in a hot sunny place, of cool walls with high windows to let in the starlight, places lived in by people who care for each other. And I'm a sucker for books that give me beautiful bedrooms:
"A tall four-poster bed stood at the center of the room. Creamy gauze curtain hung loosely around the edges. At the foot of the bed lay a light blue blanket threaded with lemon yellow that matched the blue swirls layering the walls. Two French doors opened to a walled courtyard with a brightly painted yellow and purple fountain.
"It's so ... so colorful," I said with a hint of surprise.
Nana laughed and leaned against one of the bedposts. "But of course it's colorful. Life is color, isn't it?" (page 31)
Nana's small village is filled with life--with the entwined stories of those who live in this close knit community, and Cervantes' writing is similarly rich with loving descriptions of all the foods, and fabrics, and beliefs and customs that make up their daily lives. It is a book full of things that pulled at my heart, and things that made me laugh. Perhaps it is a bit unbelievably Utopian--it's a place where people aren't pigeon-holed because they are Hispanic (like Izzy's mom) or not (like her dad); where even though people don't have much money, they don't suffer in consequence-- but heck, that makes it an awfully nice place to spend one's reading time.
And it's not at all cloying--Izzy is vividly alive with the twitchy energy of growing up and pushing back a bit at life and figuring out her place in the scheme of things. I liked her lots, and not just because she wants to be a writer--one of the sources of her frustration is her struggle to make her words into stories (which is one of the many metaphors (yay for metaphors) that can be found here!).
Finally, it is awfully nice when a cover matches a book so beautifully. If you like this cover, you will like this book. It was also nice having it's lovely cheerfulness out and about during our most recent spat of grey February weather.
There are things in this story that are magic; things far beyond the quotidian that infuse Izzy's experiences with mystery. I'm a bit torn--on the one hand, I want very much to put the label "fantasy" on this post, so that I can include Izzy's story in my list of multicultural fantasy, and because I think that readers who like the subtle type of fantasy where magical-ness overlaps with the everyday world as part of the natural order of things, will be the readers that like this book best. But on the other hand, the magic so overlaps with the real in this case that "fantasy" isn't the right word--"magical realism" is a better fit, and I don't have a label for that, and I don't want to have to decide which books are what. Sigh. Labels are vexing.
ps. I've decided that putting "fantasy" in the label section is the best way to share with others that I like this book; it will get lost in the morass of my blog otherwise. So I did.
pps. and then I went back and labeled it magical realism too.
Here are some other thoughts, at Readergirlz, The Mother Daughter Book Club, Elizabeth Varadan's Fourth Wish, and The HappyNappyBookseller.