Genre(s): Realistic Fiction, Social Issues (Immigration)
Reading Level: 14+ (Publisher)
Plot: Lilliana Cruz is a 15 year old, Latinx girl from Boston. She is lucky enough to be accepted into METCO, a program that helps students of color from inner city schools attend better (and whiter) schools. However, Lilliana does not want to go to this new school and leave her community and friends, but ultimately decides to go because of her parents. Her mom has to work multiple jobs to keep the family going and her dad is gone. Lilliana and the reader do not know if he left his family or if there is something more dire going on. Liliana has to learn to adjust to a new school where she is one of very full students of color and what that means. Questions like “Where are you from, no really where are you from?” Become the norm and Lilliana has to learn to find her voice.
Critical Evaluation: This is the perfect book for teens to pick up who do not know much about illegal immigration or for white teens who do not know what it is like to be the only person of color in the room. If nothing else, hopefully, these white teens will stop assuming that people of color are from somewhere else because they do not look white.
As someone who has read many books with this theme and studied immigration in the context of political science, this book had nothing new for me. But, this book is not for me, a white woman who has learned about immigration via classes and from her grandparents legal experience. Just because I personally have seen the themes in this novel before, do not mean other people should not read it. This book is for Latinx teens who do not get to see themselves represented in literature and who need to go on this journey with Lilliana to see that they are not alone. Even though I may not have learned any new life lessons from this book, I still enjoyed it. I liked the Cruz family and their antics. She has twin younger brothers who are a bit crazy, but super cute too. I enjoyed seeing Lilliana learn what a good friend is and seeing her befriend the METCO students at her school. She truly grows up in this novel and it is nice to see.
De Leon used the metaphor of a wall throughout the novel. Lilliana is hitting a metaphorical wall in terms of her studies and with communicating with her mom. This is a timely contrast to the wall that has been promised/threatened by our current president. De Leon is critical of this action, but does not name names, giving her book a more timeless feel. But for those who have lived through this period, will all know what she is referring too. At the end of the novel students put up banners at the end that look like a wall, but this time it is not seen as a negative, but rather as a way for students to share. There is also a wall on the cover. In the end, De Leon is saying that walls between people are not okay, but the foundation of a wall can be a, “It can be a foundation for something better” (Dodson, 2019).
There are not many professional reviews, but Kirkus called this novel, “A thought-provoking tale about navigating race and immigration issues” (Kirkus, 2020). I think teens can learn from this novel or if they know the story too well from personal experiences, can relate to Lilliana. This is an important story that humanizes immigration.
Author Background: Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is Jennifer De Leon’s debut novel. In addition to be an author, she is an editor, speaker and creative writing professor. She is the second recipient of the We Need Diverse Books grant (“About,” n.d.). She is highly educated with a degree from Connecticut College in International Relations, a “Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of San Francisco’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice while in the Teach For America program, and later a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from UMASS-Boston” (“About,” n.d.). She has written many short stories and essays for a variety of anthologies and literary magazines. She used to teach at a Boston Public School, but now she is now an Assistant Professor of English at Framingham State University (“About,” n.d.).
Programming Ideas: In the novel there is an assembly at the school and the students talk about race. It starts off well, but ends in chaos. However, a teacher asks the students three questions that could be incorporated into many discussions on race and diversity for teens. He asks, “What is it that you want us to know about you?”, “What is it that you never want to hear again?” and “What can we do here at Westburg (the school) to help?” (De Leon, 2020). A librarian could ask their teen these questions to help students talk about race, especially if there is a diverse group.
Five Sentence Sound Bite: A Latinx girl who has never known anything, but her neighborhood suddenly get the opportunity to study at a better school. However, she does not want to leave her friends in favor of a school that is mostly white. She has to navigate racial microaggressions and learn to make friends all while her home life starts to unravel. Will she find her place at this new school and help work to make it better? Or will she spend the rest of her time in high school in the shadows?
Potential Challenges/Defense: This novel discusses illegal immigration. Lilliana’s dad has to reenter the country illegally to reunite with his family. Some people might be uncomfortable with this narrative. Already one review on Goodreads does not condone the message that this novel says on the topic. Personally, I think it is important to read books that have differing viewpoints. Plus, this is a reality for many teens and their stories need to be told so people can learn from them and the teens themselves feel represented. Please refer to this page for OCPL’s material selection policy.
Why This Title is Included: I realized that my collection did not have any Latinx voices and that was unacceptable. Much like Dear Martin, this book looks at a student of color in a predominately white high school. The cover is also gorgeous!
About. (n.d.). https://jenniferdeleonauthor.com/about/
De Leon, J. (2020). Don’t ask me where I’m from. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Dodson, P. C. (2019, November 12). Jennifer De Leon’s YA Debut “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From” Tackles Racism, Code-Switching, and More. Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/jennifer-de-leon-dont-ask-me-where-im-from-exclusive-excerpt
Don’t ask me where I’m from. (n.d.). https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Dont-Ask-Me-Where-Im-From/Jennifer-De-Leon/9781534438248
Kirkus. (2020, March 11). Don’t ask me where I’m from. Kirkus Reviews. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jennifer-de-leon/dont-ask-me-where-im-from/