The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya. Read by the Author. Listening Library, 2017.
Arturo is not really looking forward to summer. Sure, he’s in Miami’s beautiful Canal District, but he’s always there. Meanwhile, he’ll be working at his family’s restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla, and though he loves the restaurant, he does not love washing dishes. Plus, both of his best friends will be out of town for the summer.
Naturally, though, the picture changes. The husband and daughter of his mother’s recently deceased best friend come to visit for the summer from Spain. Carmen, right around Arturo’s age, has blossomed since last he saw her from a skinny kid he was happy to splash in the ocean with into a young woman with cute jelly-bean colored braces (teenaged me with similar braces would have been thrilled to hear someone found them attractive!) and around whom he finds himself tongue-tied. A big land developer wants to buy the land where they want to expand their restaurant and build an exclusive, luxury name-branded tower on it, just like he’s built across America. Worst of all, his beloved Abuela’s health is failing.
All Arturo wants is to make Abuela proud, save La Cocina, and win Carmen’s heart. But that’s a really tall order for a lone thirteen-year-old, especially as the fight for the restaurant turns into a fight for the character of the neighborhood. There’s a lot of family – many of the members of the extended family are described here, including aunt, uncles, and cousins. Carmen is reading the poetry of José Martí, some of which is incorporated into the text. (I was happy to learn a little more about him, too – relistened to “Guantanamera” and was then tickled to see this new book about him described on the Nerdy Book Club, complete with printable poetry cards.) Even though Arturo is initially too smitten to talk, he and Carmen are able to have non-romantic fun and work together to spy on the evil land developer, so that she is a full character and friend and not just a Love Interest. The issues are big without being Tragic and, as with Stella Martinez, it’s blended with enough humor and affection to make the whole book irresistible.
I listened to this on audio. Pablo Cartaya reads himself, and does an admirable job, ably switching between the characters of the older generation who grew up speaking Spanish first and those of the younger, growing up in America speaking English and hearing Spanish. This book has won a laundry list of awards, including a Pura Belpré honor award as well as being a Cybils Middle Grade Fiction finalist. It’s a great choice for readers on the upper end of the middle grade reading spectrum.
And having read these three books together, I really appreciate the range that we see when we have different voices from within a community, from the Mexican-American to Cuban-American, including kids who speak Spanish at home and those who struggle to understand their parents speaking it, as well as a variety of attitudes towards religion. It feels like moving from a wimpy box of eight crayons to closer to that giant 96 crayon box.