Description (from Goodreads):
For as long as Estrella Alvarez can remember, her mother has been planning to throw her an elaborate quinceañera for her fifteenth birthday — complete with a mariachi band, cheesy decorations, and a hideous dress. Just thinking about her quince makes Estrella cringe. But her mother insists that it’s tradition.
Estrella has other things on her mind, anyway — like dating Speedy. Does it matter that her new friends — and her parents — would never approve of a guy from el barrio? Estrella’s almost fifteen and wants to start making her own decisions. But is she ready to find out who she is — and who she really wants to be?
Estrella’s Quinceañera was recommended to me last year by a local middle school principal who had heard about the book and its positive reviews on NPR. It sounded like a perfect book for our Vamos a Leer book group, so we put it on our reading list for this year. The book was a quick and enjoyable read, and while I was processing my own thoughts about it, I decided to check out what other readers had said about the novel. While many of the reviews and comments were quite positive, I was shocked at the intensity of some of the more critical or negative ones. Many of these accused the book of being overly simplistic with flat characters, or wrote that the ending was just too good to be true. There was something about these comments that troubled me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I found myself going back to comments from teachers who said their students couldn’t get enough, and that in fact, many girls read the book over and over. Many young adults had nothing but praise for the book. Where does this leave us as educators when we have such disagreement in the responses and reviews to the book?
I was reminded of a quote I’d recently read in Anna Quindlen’s What I Learned from Reading— “. . .in circles devoted to literary criticism, among the professors of literature, the editors and authors of fiction, there was sometimes a kind of horrible exclusivity surrounding discussions of reading. There was good reading, and there was bad reading. There was the worthy, and the trivial. This was always couched in terms of taste, but it tasted, smelled, and felt unmistakably like snobbery” (p. 11). I have to wonder if this snobbery is at work here. While Estrella’s Quinceañera didn’t move me the way some of the other books we’ve read this year have, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. Teenagers love this book. It resonates with them, and I can see why. Among all of the discussions today about how hard it is to get young adults to read, why wouldn’t we promote a book that has been so well received by the very teenagers we’re trying to encourage to read? I feel like the things that Estrella struggles with are authentic. Having won a scholarship to a prestigious private high school, Estrella finds herself in a place quite different from the neighborhood she grew up in. She struggles to decide who she really is, who she wants to be, and what her identity as a Mexican-American teenager means to her. It’s a book that is relevant to teenagers today–Estrella argues with her parents, loses friends, has guy troubles, and has to figure out the kind of person she wants to be through the decisions she makes on how to live her life.
As the NPR article points out, it is the quintessential coming of age story, but what sets it apart is that it’s written from the point of view of a Mexican-American protagonist, which sets it apart from the majority of other similarly themed novels. I loved how each chapter began with a Spanish/Spanglish word in defined in Estrella’s own words. Not only does it provide vocabulary or cultural references that will be familiar to many Spanish speaking youth, it will also expose those unfamiliar with the language or culture to new knowledge. It also provides a context that encourages students to predict what might happen in the chapter.
For those who criticize the book for its too good to be true ending, arguing that life never works out that perfectly I’ll defer to a quote from Edward Albee that I read in Quindlen’s book: “Read the greatest stuff but read the stuff that isn’t so great, too. Great stuff is very discouraging. If you read only Beckett and Chekhov, you’ll go away and only deliver telegrams at Western Union” (How Reading Changed My Life, pg. 51). I couldn’t agree more. Estrella’s Quinceañera is a feel good ending–and sometimes that’s exactly what we want and our students need.
Besides–who wouldn’t love an author who wears a bright orange quinceañera dress to meet students and talk about her book?!
Papertigers writes: “Alegría’s book deals with the age-old theme of real friends accepting you for who you are: but adds a modern Latin twist to the story. Girls will love the pop culture references; all the drama via cell phone rings true. In the end, the birthday party Estrella puts together on her own has a little something for everyone… just like Estrella’s Quinceañera.”