One morning before school, some girl tells Piddy Sanchez that Yaqui Delgado hates her and wants to kick her ass. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, never mind what she’s done to piss her off. Word is that Yaqui thinks Piddy is stuck-up, shakes her stuff when she walks, and isn’t Latin enough with her white skin, good grades, and no accent. And Yaqui isn’t kidding around, so Piddy better watch her back. At first Piddy is more concerned with trying to find out more about the father she’s never met and how to balance honors courses with her weekend job at the neighborhood hair salon. But as the harassment escalates, avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy’s life. Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off or running away? In an all-too-realistic novel, Meg Medina portrays a sympathetic heroine who is forced to decide who she really is.
As a reader, I’m usually drawn to fantasy. Many of my favorite books fall into the genre of magical realism. But, as I began to think about writing a review of Meg Medina’s most recent book, I realized that many of the most moving and memorable young adult books I’ve read over the past few years have been realistic fiction, not fantasy. At first, I was surprised, but as I thought about this change more, it made sense. It’s not easy to write genuine realistic fiction—a story where the characters are authentic, and where everything doesn’t end up working out perfectly, all tied up just a little too neatly. It’s quite a feat to write a story that actually represents the reality of our students, to write protagonists and antagonists that the students recognize. When a writer manages to do this, the resulting book isn’t one that can be easily forgotten. Meg Medina has done just this with Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. It’s a book that should be in every high school library.
I couldn’t put the book down. It’s intense. The mounting tension and anxiety over what will actually happen between Piddy and Yaqui propels the reader forward. This is not a book that will struggle to keep a class’ attention. Students will identify with Piddy, with her struggles and her vulnerability. It’s painful to watch as she self-destructs from the psychological and physical consequences of being bullied, but given the increasing prevalence of bullying in our schools and communities, it’s something students need to read. When asked about the violence of the fight Medina said the following—“Regarding the brutality: I was visiting my mother in law who still lived in Queens at the time. An old friend had come over for an afternoon coffee, and he proceeded to describe a fight he’d witnessed on the Number 7 train where a group of kids jumped a girl and left her topless on the train platform. It was an image that I couldn’t shake, mostly because it seemed to me that the goal was total humiliation and domination. Unfortunately, in my research, I also spent time watching YouTube videos of school fights, etc. (Yes, these sites exist.) It was, for me, a heartbreaking experience to see young people work out their despair on each other in this way. I put the scene in the novel because it reflects what is happening and because young people deserve books that tell the truth about what they live every day.” Piddy’s story gives voice to the alienation and isolation that many of our students experience but are never given the space to communicate, process or deal with.
Yet I’m afraid that many educators and librarians will resist using this book in schools. Some may find it to be too ‘real,’ or maybe the conflict resolution at the end isn’t the happy ending we want in our young adult literature. Or, perhaps, we’re not ready to deal with the fact that we can’t always guarantee the safety of our students and children. In the end, even once Piddy finally tells someone at the school what’s going on, no one can really promise her safety or protection. They do what they can, but Piddy still loses in this situation and she’ll continue to have to deal with consequences of her experiences for a long time to come. As adults, especially educators or school administrators, we may resist the book because in many ways it shows how easy it is for us to drop the ball in dealing with situations of bullying. Yet, in showing how the school staff fails Piddy, Medina highlights how Piddy’s peers stepped in to help her when adults didn’t. Piddy’s friends are an important part of the resolution that she finds in the end of the book. Without them, I’m not sure Piddy would have made it. While they play very different roles in the story, Piddy’s friends, Rob and Joey are two of my favorite characters.
While it’s clear that the system failed Piddy, I also couldn’t help feeling like it failed Yaqui as well. Yaqui is clearly the antagonist. There’s no excuse for what she did to Piddy. But, as an educator, I’m left wondering what we could have done to help Yaqui, to provide her the opportunity for a different life. In part, Piddy survives because of the relationships she has in her community. I loved the older women in in Piddy’s life–Ma, Lila and Gloria. It is obvious Yaqui didn’t have that kind of community. What responsibility do we have to create this community for our students? Or perhaps, given the powerful role Piddy’s friends play in her survival, the better question is what can we learn from our students about how to support them so they are empowered when they are confronted with situations like this?
For a more in-depth discussion on bullying and how to address it in schools, check out Lyn Mikel Brown’s Rethinking Schools’ Article “10 Ways to Move Beyond Bully-Prevention.”
I’m not alone in thinking it’s a book that should be on our classroom and library shelves. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass has been given a number of awards and recognitions: 2014 Pura Belpré Award (2014), International Latino Book Award, Best Young Adult Fiction/English (2014), Américas Award Commended Title (2014), Junior Library Guild 2013 Selection, YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2013), Kirkus Best Books for Teens (2013), School Library Journal Best Books (2013).
Click here to be taken to our Educator’s Guide for the book.