Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome AND Sarai in the Spotlight by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, 105 pages, Reading Level 2

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome & Sarai in the Spotlight by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown
illustrated by Christine Almeda
Purchased (4 copies of each) at Barnes & Noble
Story: Sarai Gonzalez, who tells readers that most people pronounce her name SAR-EYE but her grandparents pronounce it the Spanish way - SAH-RAH-EE, is the oldest of three sisters. When she wakes up every morning, the first thing she sees is  a sign she painted that says, "YOU ARE AWESOME." She made it to remind herself that, "no matter what else is going on, I'll be ok. Because I, Sarai Gonzalez, am awesome. Or at least I try to be." Living in New Jersey, Sarai wants to be a singer, a dancer, an actor, a baker, a talk show host, and a chef. In fact, she already has her own cupcake business. She is always trying to earn money because, "it seems like someone in the family always needs it, and I want to be able to help. For a long time, we needed help with our bills and we moved from place to place. We are doing great now, but I remember how much our family helped us when we needed it." 

When she learns that the house that her grandparents, aunt, uncle and three cousins rent (Sarai tells readers, "I think almost everyone in our family has lived with Tata and Mama Rosi at one point or another.") is being sold, she tries to raise the money needed to buy it. She enlists her little sisters, Josie, who is hearing impaired and attends a special school where she is learning sign language, and Lucía to help make and sell cupcakes. She gets her cousins to help her sell limonada and chicha morada, a Peruvian drink. Sarai's mother immigrated from Peru when she was a girl and worked with her parents picking tobacco; her father immigrated from Coast Rica at roughly the same age. Sarai and her cousin Juju even form a dance team, the Playful Primas (cousins) and, at Tata's suggestion, the perform a dance to Celia Cruz's, "La vida es un carnaval," and send their audition video to the Garden State Kids Dance-Off contest. When her grandparents can't afford to buy their house, Sarai's mother consoles her, saying, "we aren't giving up. You need to learn that sometimes we don't get exactly what we want. We need to be adaptable. . . It means we need to be okay with new plans when others fall through."

In Sarai in the Spotlight, fourth grader Sarai, who doesn't have as many friends as her gregarious little sister in first grade, Lucía, is shaken when her best friend Isa moves away unexpectedly and suddenly. Sarai shares her sadness and worry about making new friends with her teacher and the librarian. But she doesn't tell them about Valéria and her friends who always hide Sarai's backpack at lunch. When a new girl, Christina, arrives from San Diego, Sarai shows her around the school but is surprised that she would rather sit and write a story at recess rather than play. She is further amazed when, after inviting her to join her family at the park on Sunday after church, Christina says she doesn't like going to the park! But, when Christina offers to write a story for Sarai to perform in the school talent show, she realizes that giving up running around at recess to help write a story can be fun, too. Even better, Sarai and Christina win second place in the talent show, just ahead of Valéria. When Sarai's backpack goes missing again, Christina convinces her to tell a teacher. It's not tattling, she tells Sarai, she will be a whistleblower, like a, "referee blowing a whistle when someone fouls."
Illustrations: Christine Almeda's illustrations are phenomenal! They are full of energy, just like Sarai, and the characters jump off the page. I especially love the large eyes of the characters, giving them a bit of a graphic novel-style feel that kids will gravitate to. And, for readers who have seen the real Sarai Gonzalez in the video (scroll down to enjoy), "Soy Yo," by the Colombian band Bomba Estéreo, Almeda has included Easter eggs referring back to the video in her illustrations that readers will love looking for.
Why Read? Why Buy?: Apologies for sounding like a broken record on this subject, but since I started working as a librarian at an elementary school with a student population that is more than 80% Latinx, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, I have spent countless hours looking for kid's books with diverse characters with very little success. What makes the Sarai series of books a resounding success is the authenticity of the voice of the characters and their story, which is rooted in the experiences of the real-life Sarai Gonzalez. In the introduction to Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome, she talks about living in a multi-family household and working hard to pay the bills. She talks about her nuclear family, the Gonzalez 5, sticking together, but also being apart because of work or her sister's special needs. Sarai's extended family is also a large part of her story. She talks about food and what a special part of her life it is, whether it's Peruvian food made by her mother's mother, food she makes herself, the Mexican food her best friend Isa and her mother make and sell, or the food of their community and country, influenced by cultures from all over the world. All of these elements are familiar to my students.

In fall of 2016, Sarai Gonzalez became a Latinx icon, the video for "Soy Yo" getting 6.5 million views in a matter of months. While the confident, quirky girl in the video was created to convey the message of the song, which has the chorus (in Spanish), "Don't worry if they don't accept you. If they criticize you just say, 'That's me,'" it's not hard to believe that Sarai Gonzalez is every bit as unique and confident as the girl in the video. In fact, Sarai hand painted a sign that reads, "I Am Awesome!," just like her character in the books.

An article in by Annie Correal in The New York Times from October, 2016 touches on the phenomenon the video for "Soy Yo" and Sarai created, coming, as Correal notes, "at precisely the right moment - a defiant, and adorable, rebuke to the anti-Latino rhetoric of the Trump campaign, and haters in general." Correal goes on to say that, "rarely in American life, especially in an era of ugly debates over immigrants, had popular culture created a young, brown, working-class character so heroic, free of victimhood, full of straight-up dignity." I love Correal's phrase, "straight-up dignity." It's unmistakable when you watch the video and Monica Brown does a superb job capturing this "straight-up dignity" and getting it onto the page in a way that resonates with young readers. 

I especially love the plot thread in Sarai in the Spotlight where Sarai tries to maintain her dignity by confronting the mean girls, but refusing to get help from an adult and be called a tattletale. New friend Christina shows her how to stand up for herself and get help from an adult. And, in another example of the authenticity of voice and story in this series comes when Sarai's best friend moves away without warning. While the move in the book is due to a job transfer, this sudden move is something my students, most of whom live in poverty and experience high rates of transiency because of this, are familiar with. 

Coming in 2019!

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