Kidlit Review: Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada

Dancing HomeDancing Home by Alma Flor Ada & Gabriel M. Zubizarreta

From GoodReads: Mexico may be her parents’ home, but it’s certainly not Margie’s. She has finally convinced the other kids at school she is one-hundred percent American- just like them. But when her Mexican cousin Lupe visits, the image she’s created for herself crumbles.

Things aren’t easy for Lupe, either. Mexico hadn’t felt like home since her father went North to find work. Lupe’s hope of seeing him in the United States comforts her some, but learning a new language in a new school is tough. Lupe, as much as Margie, is in need of a friend.

Little by little, the girls’ individual steps find the rhythm of one shared dance, and they learn what “home” really means.

Dancing Home was such a sweet, gentle story about family, identity, and embracing your culture. Margie is struggling because the kids at school pick on her for being Mexican. Except she’s as American as they are having been born in Texas. She’s finally gotten to a point where she has some friends, has her hair right, and goes by Margie instead of Margarita, when her cousin shows up from Mexico. This seems to remind the kids that Margie is still different and they start picking on her again.

Despite this theme I wouldn’t call the book a bullying book. The kids poke fun at her, but the real focus is on Margie learning to accept her cousin (who has a difficult backstory of her own) and accept her heritage. Lupe’s presence in her home brings a lot of their culture back that Margie has asked her parents to give up. Her mother begins cooking more Mexican food again, they speak in Spanish, and they put out a nativity scene instead of a Christmas tree. Margie begins to realize she wishes she was more a part of this culture. She also realizes she likes a lot of it despite wanting so desperately to feel “normal”.

Margie also is lucky to have a new girl arrive in class who sits next to her and strikes up a friendship. Camille is one of those totally confident kids who is also a little bit nerdy and she manages to bring Margie along showing her that it’s okay to be different. Margie is surprised to discover that Camille, despite being pale and blonde, is actually part Cuban and Panamanian and she totally embraces it. This adds another chink in the armor Margie has built around herself.

One aspect I really appreciated about the story was the piece about Lupe’s father. He illegally came to the US years before and stopped sending money or letters home. Lupe’s mother finally moved on, got a job, remarried, and had twins. Life wasn’t easy. They were sad and then her mother had to work long hours to support them and letting go hasn’t been as easy for Lupe who never wanted accept that she would never see her father again. While she didn’t have a plan for how to contact her father she hopes that he may track her down. He does eventually turn up with a broken leg much to the surprise of everyone. He confirms the rumor that he has a new family and is living in Texas. A lot of kidlit books make these plot lines happy and syrupy sweet: Lupe would have been joyously reunited with her father who just wasn’t able to return home but still loves the family dearly. While the book skips anything lurid, it isn’t the happy, fantasy ending you might expect and is probably a lot closer to the reality of what might happen in that situation. And Lupe and Margie handle the situation well.

My only complaint was that the book could feel a little didactic. The girls were more introspective than fifth graders usually are and sometimes sounded more like they were thirty year olds visiting their therapists in how they talked through their issues and came to conclusions about their feelings. Because of this I think it might make a better book for classes to read together. There are plenty of themes about teasing, culture, being new, and straddling cultures, but I would also give it to kids who like gentle stories. When I added it to my TBR pile I thought it was middle grade (meaning for middle school) and while a middle schooler, especially a sixth grader, might enjoy this, its length and language make it better suited to upper elementary.