The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez. (Grades 6-8.) Knopf Books for Young Readers, May 2010. Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.
It's 1961 and the Revolution hasn't affected Lucia in her small town of Puerto Mijares, Cuba, but things start to change when soldiers show up. Fourteen-year-old Lucia Alvarez is happy to get a break from school when Castro closes the private schools. And many of Lucia's friends are joining the Jovenes Rebeldes, the youth movement of the revolution. Lucia and her younger brother Frankie have learned in school (before it closed) that the revolution is the best thing for Cuba - Castro is changing things to make them better for all.
But soon Lucia begins to see the dark side of the Revolution. Castro and his men will stop at nothing to eliminate resistance to their ideas. And eventually the danger is so great that Lucia's parents decide to send them to the United States to keep them out of harm's way. Without their parents, in a strange country where they don't speak the language, Lucia and Frankie wonder if they'll ever see Cuba - or their parents - again.
The first thing that drew me into the story was the lush depiction of Lucia's life in Cuba. I don't know what picture I had of Cuban life before, but descriptions of the food they were eating or Lucia's fashionable outfits practically jumped off the page. I could practically smell the cafe con leche and see the bright nail polish Lucia painted on her fingernails.
I have a spot in my heart for any historical novel that deals with an event that I didn't know a lot about. Operation Pedro Pan definitely qualifies as one of those events. In the early '60s, as Castro's revolution spread, thousands of children were sent out of Cuba in the largest exodus of unaccompanied children ever in the Western Hemisphere. Parents were afraid that their children would be sent to camps and indoctrinated. Some families had relatives in the US that could take their children, but some families didn't. Those kids lives in dormitories and were taken in by foster families. The Red Umbrella has an author's note that made my little heart skip a beat (I love them so).
A beautiful setting, well-researched, and an overarching theme that the most important thing is to protect the ones you love, even if it means letting them go.
I'd recommend The Red Umbrella to not only kids interested in the 1960s, but also to girls who enjoy those coming-of-age stories like Shug by Jenny Han. Pair it with Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa for a contrast of a Cuban-American teen in present-day Chicago.
Read more reviews at Steph Su Reads, Reading Rants, and Chick Lit Teens.
The Red Umbrella is due on shelves May 11. Do check it out! This is a most impressive debut.