Review: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance

How I wish that I had had a friend like Guadalupe Wong when I was twelve-years-old.  This strong, smart, unapologetic jock would have made my life a lot more fun, and a lot less lonely growing up.  She likes Doctor Who, plays baseball (not softball), gets straight-As and has a quirky sense of humor that sometimes gets her into (and sometimes out of) trouble.  I like this kid.  I like her a lot.

“Lupe,” a biracial tween who fought hard (and lost) to get a Mexiinese ethnicity-bubble to fill in on school tests, is fighting her school hard to get Square Dancing eliminated from the Physical Education curriculum.  She is fighting hard and pulling no punches. Along the way, she also fights her best friend, adjusts to changing dynamics in friendships that form around her, and continues dealing with the death of her father–who she misses, dearly.

So, I confess.  I was a naughty reviewer.  I stumbled upon a few reviews online before I wrote this one (no, I’m not going to call them out by name) and I noticed a some things I didn’t like: some reviews, focus very strongly on the “square dancing angle,” (ergo, she fights to get rid of square dancing); some concentrate on the “Baseball angle” (she needs straight As to meet her Baseball hero) employing more metaphors than I care to count; and some write the book off as a coming-of-age Middle Grade story.  This book is so much more than any of those individual things.

This book is no more exclusively about Lupe’s attempt to get Square Dancing off of the curriculum than Field of Dreams is about Baseball.  Read that again.  Are you back?  [I’ve had this argument before.  If you think Field of Dreams is about Baseball, I can’t help you.  Go back and read it again.  I’ll wait for you here.]  In crafting this intricate story, Higuera manages to do something that few writers can actually do, she takes a deceptively simple, funny narrative and weaves together a tale that makes you think.  

I’m not talking about “oh look, how cute,” thinking.  I’m talking about “wow, I’m an enlightened guy.  How could I have let my own internal biases picture that character that way in my mind before I found out this piece of information?”  That kind of thinking.  She’s a tricky one, Higuera is–in the most delightful, engaging, brutal way.  There are so many things going on in this book, on so many different levels, that I would require its reading in school.  Indeed, teachers looking for a book to dissect as part of a literature assignment would do well to assign this one.

Character development, for example, is strong– and Higuera manages to find just the right balance between two internally competing cultures within our heroine not only by using humor, but also through a strong balance of both ethos and pathos.  Writing a character that reflects “I represent X” is hard enough.  Writing a multi-faceted character that says, strongly, I am the amalgamation of two cultures, is harder still.  Higuera seems to toss Lupe’s cultural identity off without effort, belying the true work that it must have been.  The writing is effortless; the work is outstanding.  Moreover, Lupe is not the only character in the book that is culturally alive.  The book is a  smorgasbord of People of Color each lovingly written and representing.

At this point, I feel like the Used Car Salesman that has to yell–”but wait, there’s more.”  The group of friends that Lupe hangs out with (and the supporting players at school) are drawn with such nuance and defining characteristics that you would swear each one has a fully-developed back story.  

Yeah, I’m excited about this book.  And, you know why?  The Middle Grade years are the time when most of us fight our greatest battles–trying to fit-in, trying to go unseen, simply trying to try.  It’s the beginning of the transition from child, to young adulthood to adulting (do we ever stop adulting?).  And it can be really rough.  As an adult, I look back on those years and think, “well, that wasn’t any fun.”  As an adult, I look at my students and think (and sometimes tell them), “trust me, it gets better.”

Towards the end of the book, as I was tearing-up after a glimpse at what the United States could be at its best, I realized that we’ve all fought our Square Dancing battles–and have tried to eliminate those obstacles we hate.  As a child, I needed a friend like Lupe to help me understand that eliminating something and overcoming it are two different things.  Now, all our kids can have that friend.

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance
Donna Barba Higuera
Levine Querido – Chronicle Books

Author Interview

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance (Support an Independent Bookstore)
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance (Hardcover at Amazon)*

More books for this Age Group can be found here.

Teachers’ Guide

My thanks to Levine-Querido for a Review Copy of this book. The views expressed herein are my own.

Please, leave comments! I love a HEALTHY exchange of ideas. After all, critical thinking is essential to life.

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