Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Becoming Naomi León

As I may have mentioned before, when I was younger, I was an excessively picky reader.  Picky to the point of prejudice.  I didn't understand the concept or the importance of reading about characters who were very different from me.  I also created elaborate and mostly untrue stories about books based on their covers, which meant that I missed out on a lot of great books.  My BFF as a tween recommended Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples to me, and gracious, did I love that book.  I vividly remember buying it at our local bookstore, The Neverending Story (now, sadly, closed) where my former fourth-grade teacher also worked.  Right next to it on the shelf was a book called Esperanza Rising.  I asked my friend about this one as well, and she said, "Eh, it was okay."  I never read it.  Looking at the cover, I created an elaborate story about how it was about a girl who floated and was maybe an angel and I totally did not want to read angel books.

This bizarre combination of influences and wrong first impressions meant that it took me at least another decade and a half before I ever read anything by Pam Muñoz Ryan.  I recently finished Becoming Naomi León, and based on the strength of that amazing book, I am going to the library shelf tomorrow and checking out Esperanza Rising posthaste.

Becoming Naomi León is a quintessential coming-of-age story, but it is utterly unique and thoughtful without being didactic.  Ryan's prose sings, especially when describing the vibrant culture of Oaxaca City.

Naomi and her brother Owen live with their great-grandmother Mary (who's really not very old--she's 69) in a trailer named Baby Beluga in California.  Naomi likes to make lists--they give her life a semblance of order and control.  She keeps a notebook full of them.  Her latest crisis is her name: Naomi Soledad León Outlaw.  Kids at school make fun of her last name, Outlaw, which is actually her Oklahoma grandma's last name.  See, Naomi and Owen live with Grandma because their mom abandoned them as babies and told their father never to try and see them.  Ever.  He's living in the state of Oaxaca as a fisherman ... they think.

Owen, it seems, was born with a birth defect causing his body to be a little lopsided.  However, he is an irrepressible optimist and a whiz at strategy and memory games.  When their mother, who's renamed herself Skyla (I know, right?) breezes back into their lives, she makes it very clear that she wants Naomi, but not Owen.  To Skyla, who is an alcoholic and probably also suffering from a mental illness, Owen is "damaged goods."  As Naomi slowly makes friends at school, where she is very shy, she's suddenly threatened by her mother.  Skyla wants to take Naomi to Las Vegas to live with her boyfriend and his child, and wants Naomi to raise this child, whom her boyfriend has rechristened Sapphire (he's the guy who came up with Skyla, by the way).  When Naomi stands up for herself and her brother, Skyla becomes violent and threatens to take them away.

Grandma and their neighbors make a last-ditch effort to find Santiago León, the children's father, by driving to Oaxaca.  It sounds a little extreme when I put it like that, but in the book, it totally works.  As it turns out, Naomi carves creatures out of soap.  It's both her talent and a way to relax.  In Oaxaca, she discovers that carving is a big part of the culture, and that her family is renowned for their sculptures.  Her growth and odyssey in Oaxaca City is believable, touching, and it made me very hungry!

This book has many layers to it, and many deep themes for readers to explore.  The concept of names and meanings is very big here.  Naomi wonders why her name has to be so long and strange.  Soledad comes from a venerated saint in her father's home state of Oaxaca.  León is his last name.  She receives another name, Outlaw, from her grandmother.  Slowly, Naomi grows from being ashamed of her names to embodying them and embracing them.

Naomi's family relationships were messy and complicated--just like real life!  She is fascinated by her mother and her mom's ever-changing hair color and the lipstick that covers the sharp "M" of her upper lip.  She relishes the feel of her mother's hands sliding through her hair to braid it.  At the same time, she is horrified that her mother does not love Owen.  That her mother wants her to virtually work as a slave.  That her mother is so selfish.  But she's still Naomi's mom.  It's a complicated, twisty thing, which is life.

This is definitely one of my new go-tos when kids come into the library looking for realistic fiction.

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