Gabi, a girl in pieces

The 2013 children’s book awards were particularly devoid of diversity and I was one of many children’s book aficionados who despaired. I wondered if we’d ever have the broad literary representation I wanted to see. I longed for the unique perspectives of genuine characters who came from a multitude of backgrounds. Last week the American Library Association met and various committees announced the 2014 awards. So many of these granted my wish that this year boasts a wealth of just the kind of books I want read and hope that children will discover.

One of my favorites, Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a girl in pieces won the William C. Morris award for best young adult debut novel (book from Cinco Puntos Press; audio from Listening Library, approximately 8 hours; ages 14 and up).

Gabi, a 17-year-old Mexican-American high school senior, fills her diary with vivid entries that constantly change in tone. The author creates a strong sense of character and realistically portrays Gabi’s challenging settings. The way Quintero portrays the heroine’s moment-to-moment moods feels completely authentic. In one diary entry we see Gabi joyous about a burgeoning love. In another, she’s concerned about a pregnant peer who she has previously mocked. Gabi hopes for an acceptance from Berkeley, composes powerful poems, and pours out her horror at finding her father curled up dead in their garage, meth pipe still in his hand.

Quintero’s writing is beautifully complimented by the excellent narration of Kyla Garcia. Garcia moves easily between the English and Spanish languages that twine lyrically. These give the narrative a musical tone and, at the same, describe accurately how Gabi struggles to balance both cultures. With equal aplomb, Garcia captures the many pieces of Gabi.

At moments, she voices the self-deprecating, snarky humor of a girl who sees herself in a dress that “makes her look like an overstuffed carne asada…an overstuffed piñata with all the candy whacked out if it.” Gabi maintains a strong sense of self despite the shame her mother dishes out. Garcia sounds tearful when Gabi writes a letter to a father who’s “too high to read it” and quickly shifts as the protagonist does, expressing disgust, fear-and helplessness all at the same time.

The sum of Gabi is far greater than her many pieces. She is the fat girl who doesn’t lose weight by book’s end. She’s the young woman who’s not afraid to physically fight a cocky boy who has wronged her friend. Gabi is eloquent and messy, smart in school, but not wise enough to restrain her emotions as she comes to terms with her cultural heritage, changes in friendships and sexual blossoming. The book and narration are a rich mix of courageous starts and frustrating falls, pure and sexually-confusing love, and a girl who is actively interpreting and defining herself.

This is a book filled with problems, but is by no means a problem novel. Like Gabi, it’s hard to define. That’s what gives this story freshness and complexity.

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