Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa is a blossoming writer growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country where words are feared. Yet there is so much inspiration all around her — watching her brother search for a future, learning to dance and to love, and finding out what it means to be part of a community — that Ana Rosa must write it all down. As she struggles to find her own voice and a way to make it heard, Ana Rosa realizes the power of her words to transform the world around her — and to transcend the most unthinkable of tragedies.
Each month as I sit down to write the review for our featured book, I find myself stuck. I’ve run out of different ways to say “I love this book.” I’m certainly not complaining. As educators, I think we’re quite lucky to have access to so much amazing literature that also provides a way for us to teach about Latin America. This month’s book was no different—I loved it. Oddly enough, I’ve found that the more I love a book, the harder it is for me to convey my thoughts and feelings in a review. I usually feel like I just can’t do the experience of reading it justice. But, here’s my attempt. If my words fall short in convincing you, I hope you’ll still give Joseph’s book a chance. It deserves it.
As a mix of both poetry and prose, The Color of My Words was the perfect follow-up to last month’s Caminar. Each chapter opens with a poem written by the protagonist, Ana Rosa. While it reads as a novel, each chapter functions as a vignette or short story told from Ana Rosa’s point of view, allowing the reader to experience some of the more significant events of Ana Rosa’s life the year she was 12. With openness and vulnerability Ana Rosa walks us through the year that would forever change her. This aspect of the book is reason enough to use it in the classroom. Part of what Ana Rosa learns in this year is the power of words, particularly her words. Ana Rosa finds her voice in her writing. The power of writing is something that I wish all students would learn. While we may not all be writers like Ana Rosa, our writing is still powerful. It’s a way to express and process one’s experiences, thoughts, and emotions. It’s important for our students to see that there’s more to writing than essays, reports, and extended response questions on standardized tests. While these are important skills that we often need at some point in our lives, the ability to process our experiences and how they have impacted us is equally essential. This is a novel that would pair really well with Linda Christensen’s “Where I’m From” poetry in which students reflect on the people and events that have most influenced the person they’ve become.
It would also be a great novel to pair with an activity in memoir writing. While it’s fiction, it provides a creative and approachable way to do more autobiographical writing. I love the way each chapter’s poem is focused on an event or object that then becomes the central theme for the whole chapter, such as “Wash Day,” “The Gri Gri Tree,” or “One Sunday.” We often ask students to write autobiographies, but it could be a far more reflective and personal activity if we asked them to write about one object, experience, or day that was especially meaningful. Asking them to not only describe it, but to explain why it was so profound. There’s also something to be said for how Joseph portrays Ana Rosa’s family members. One of the struggles in doing autobiographical writing is how to portray the people who’ve played such important roles in our lives. No one is perfect, but how much of those imperfections do we want to share in our writing. Joseph lets us see Ana Rosa’s family as flawed, real people, but she also lets us see those moments where they shine. She depicts them as the complicated and complex people that they are. This is a valuable lesson to learn in doing this kind of writing.
As we focus on the many different ways we can teach and talk about love in February’s upcoming posts, I’ve been thinking about how we teach about emotions, and specifically love. Emotions are a seemingly basic part of our human experience, but how much time do we really spend discussing these things, helping our students understand their emotions, or deal with situations or experiences that bring about difficult emotional responses? If we look at our common core, standardized test based curriculum, there doesn’t seem to be much space for topics like this, yet they seem like such essential parts of an education that prepares our students to be successful both in and outside of the classroom. Literature is one way to begin to encourage these kinds of conversations with our students. The Color of My Words is one means to provide the space to begin these conversations, as we find love of family, community, and love and acceptance of one’s self as important themes. But love isn’t the only emotion that Ana Rosa learns about in this pivotal year, she, and so the reader, must also grapple with loss and death. As much as Ana Rosa loves and is loved by her family and her community, she must also realize that these things can’t protect her from the deep hurt of loss and grief. However, she will come to recognize that it is love that can help her move through and survive those painful experiences, so she can continue to do the work that gives her life meaning.
There’s so much I could continue to write about The Color of My Words, but I’ll wrap it up here with one last thought. Here at Vamos a Leer, social justice is an important piece of the work we do. It’s a topic that we feel needs to have a prominent place in the curriculum taught in classrooms. The Color of My Words aligns perfectly with that aspect of our approach to education. As I mentioned above, this is a story of a young girl finding her voice through her writing, but what I haven’t discussed is why this becomes so important to her. At the climax of the story, Ana Rosa’s village is told that the government is selling all of their land to foreign investors. The villagers are expected to move from the only homes their families have known for generations, with no compensation, and somehow start their lives over. The village comes together to fight back, and Ana Rosa’s writing becomes a pivotal part of their campaign as her brother travels throughout the Dominican Republic telling others of the corruption of the government. Despite the dangers in doing this, both Ana Rosa and her brother make the commitment to save their village. While Ana Rosa will experience a tragedy she never imagined, she’s also empowered to continue her battle for social justice. I’ll end with a quote from the opening of the book. It’s one that I hope student readers will get the chance to contemplate because I think the truth in it is quite empowering:
“Sometimes you have no control over what will happen next, as I discovered the year I was 12 years old—but sometimes you do. And when you do, that’s when it is time to take charge because you sure don’t know when the chance will come again.”
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:
If you’re interested in hearing what the author herself has to say about the book, check out the following online interview:
Lastly, here’s a video to accompany the novel: