Sofia comes from a family of storytellers. Here are her tales of growing up in the barrio, full of the magic and mystery of family traditions: making Easter cascarones, celebrating el Día de los Muertos, preparing for quinceañera, rejoicing in the Christmas nacimiento, and curing homesickness by eating the tequila worm. When Sofia is singled out to receive a scholarship to an elite boarding school, she longs to explore life beyond the barrio, even though it means leaving her family to navigate a strange world of rich, privileged kids. It’s a different mundo, but one where Sofia’s traditions take on new meaning and illuminate her path.
I needed this book. It was a pleasant break from the heaviness of the last two books we’ve featured, which isn’t to say that it’s insignificant or unimportant in any way. It’s certainly not a ‘fluff’ book. It’s incredibly moving and meaningful, yet there’s still an air of lightness to it. It’s infused with humor, even as you read some of the more serious sections. This is the kind of book that you find yourself smiling through, or maybe even laughing out loud.
I couldn’t have asked for more perfect timing. We’ve spent the last two months holding a variety of workshops on teaching about Día de los Muertos. In all of these workshops we talk about the importance of avoiding the “holidays and heroes” or multicultural tourism approach to teaching about cultures and cultural traditions. Canales’ book shows how this can be done. Through reading The Tequila Worm students learn about various celebrations and traditions, but there’s a depth to it – these things are conceptualized within what it means to be a family and a member of a community. As teachers, we often have students research cultural traditions as class projects, but it can be difficult to do this in a way that’s meaningful, or so that it doesn’t come across as if it were written for a travel brochure. Canales’ book offers a way to do this because the traditions and rituals are contextualized within family relationships. In one article, Canales discusses her experiences and offers thoughts on the cultural importance of The Tequila Worm: “At one Texas reading for The Tequila Worm, a group of women were saying the most striking things, such as ‘I know there are a lot of Mexicans in Austin, but I didn’t not really understand the richness of the culture—and now I am feeling culture envy.’ Culture envy. . .That is where I want to go with this. I want people to weep for the destruction of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and to weep for the music lost, the recipes, the warmth, and the magic lost, the creativity gone. I want them to feel the same appreciation for the Mexican-American culture” (p. 77).
I often talk about the books we feature as counter-narratives because I think this is such an important part of the need for diverse literature in the classroom. Too often I sat in the teachers’ lounge listening to colleagues talk about how the parents of our students of color just didn’t value education or family. This book shows just how wrong that misconception is. This is a story about a beautiful family whose love allows their children to become who they want to be, and in doing this prepares them to grapple with el otro mundo and still hold on to their own identity. It is a book that celebrates the unique and the eccentric that make us the individuals we are, but that also allow us to be a community that loves and supports one another.
When I read a book, I almost always have a favorite character, maybe one I identify with more, one who resonates with me, or one who just makes me laugh. I don’t with this novel. I loved every single one of Canales’ characters. Sofia’s relationship with her father is quite special, and it may be easier for students to see how important it is because it’s a little more overt. Yet her relationship with her mother, her little sister Lucy, and her best friend Berta are just as important to her ultimate success.
By the end of the book, Sofia understands the beauty, strength and importance of her family, their history, and their traditions, but this takes her some time to come to understand. It’s when she’s confronted with the cultural clash at Saint Luke’s boarding school that she comes to understand the value of her own community and what sets her apart from her peers. This is a necessary conversation that we need to be having in our classrooms, where too often the dominant culture is judged to be right or the best. Our students need to read stories that offer critiques of dominant culture, and show protagonists who critically and consciously evaluate this, and don’t necessarily go along with it.
While much of the story is based on Canales’ own childhood, the ending isn’t. The beautiful plaza that Sofia returns to doesn’t exist except in Canales’ imagination: “The placito is metaphorical. To change an outlook, you have to be shown something that is positive, that is beautiful. . .We all need a better world right now. America is stuck; it has lost its magic in life and people live life as work. I think we only start dreaming again with myth and spirituality in our lives. Only then can we conjure up a better society” (p. 79). For me, Canales’ book is definitely a step in that direction.
The Tequila Worm has earned a variety of awards and recognitions: Américas Award Honorable Mention (2005), Pura Belpré Award for Writing (2006), ALSC Notable Children Book (2006),and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award Honor Book, among others.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the review from Blog Critics. If you’re interested in learning more about the author, check out this article from Harvard Magazine which includes an interview. Lastly, there’s a video to accompany the novel: The Tequila Worm Slime Kids book trailer.
Our Educator’s Guide to the book is now available!