Each tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya, 336 pp, RL 4
Each Tiny Spark
Cover art by Camila Rosa
Review Copy from Kokila
I feel grateful to have read enough books in the past year, fiction and non-fiction, that I can add the labels, "social justice" and, "social activism" to my reviews. And, while Each Tiny Spark is definitely a book about social justice and social activism, I would say it's more about a child's awakening to and growing awareness of the need for and importance of social justice, wrapped in a story of personal challenges that come in the form of a father home on leave from the Marines and struggling with PTSD, a mother and abuela with differing views on child rearing and managing life with ADHD. Cartaya does a masterful job integrating serious subjects into the life of a twelve-year-old who, with authenticity, gradually comes to understand them and how she can be active in her personal live and the world she lives in.
Sparks are everywhere in Cartaya's story, from the sparks that fly as Emilia begins to connect with her dad, who is healing as he welds and giving her the nickname "Chispita," (little spark), to the spark of the social studies assignment that sets Emilia in motion and gets her classmates talking, if not arguing. Park View, the town on the other side of the train tracks from Merryville, is experiencing overcrowding in their schools and the school board is considering redistricting. Mr. Richt, Emilia's social studies teacher, starts a lesson in civics by talking to the class about this proposal, and prejudices (or prejudices passed down by parents) arise during the class discussion. This, and the assignment Mr. Richt gives the class to create a tourist guide of their town, leads Emilia to explore the places she loves, like Don Carlos's Latino Grocery Store, are in Park View, also leading to the realization that there are economic inequalities between Merryville and Park View, and that some of the (white) people in Merryville have discriminatory beliefs about the residents of Park View. A visit to the Merryville library continues Emilia's exploration and education. There she learns that Mexican immigrants were responsible for much of the construction needed for Atlanta to host the 1996 Olympics, yet immigration laws mean that they could face deportation at any time. Emilia also learns that her abuela chooses to focus on her European heritage because she doesn't want her granddaughter to suffer the discrimination that she did, both as a Cuban immigrant and as a woman, when she took over her husband's business after he died.
What I love most about Each Tiny Spark is the way that Emilia's community, from her nuclear family, to her friends, teachers, and even librarian give her the tools she needs to navigate and make sense of her world and to ultimately begin to make her world better. Starting with her mother, who tells her, "we vote - so we can have people in office who help create the tup of place we want to live in. Whenever you see injustices, mi amor, you have to speak up and fight back. It's everybody's responsibility as humans." Emilia's friend and aspiring filmmaker Gus adds to this growing wisdom, describing the layered movies of Guillermo del Toro as saying, "lo que es diferente isn't what we should fear, those who are unchanging are most terrifying." As the novel closes, Emilia is back at the library, finding peace in the musty smell of the books. There, Mrs. Liz tells her (making my heart swell with joy), "My job is to make sure you have the information you need to make smart decisions as you move through the world. I take my job seriously. You can count on me for that." This leads Emilia to the realization that sometimes, "your community looks out for you. Like Mrs. Jenkins and her "check ins" or Mrs. Liz showing me how to find information in the library. Sometimes people help in more subtle ways, like Mr. Richt and his social studies lessons. Sometimes it's more complicated, like Abuela and her rules." With Each Tiny Spark, Cartaya shines light on the complicated layers that make up life and illuminates, with a warm glow, the importance of connection and community.