Review: Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa

Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa. Delacorte Press, 2003. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Face Value: The bold colors, dress, and tiara allude to the quinceañero theme of the book. However, there isn’t much here that interested me. Based on cover alone, I would not have pulled this book off the shelf. It seems a little dated, and it doesn’t look like a YA cover to me – it looks more middle grade. (Actually, the content of the book itself could easily translate to middle grade for strong readers. There’s nothing even remotely racy about it.) This bland cover doesn’t offend, but it doesn’t really excite either.

Does it break the slate? Uh, a book about a quinceañero* party featuring Mary Wollstonecraft and “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou? It absolutely breaks the slate. Violet Paz is very self-aware and her initial reaction to the suggestion of a quinceañero is revulsion. Violet hasn’t worn a dress in years, and now her Abuela is asking her to put on a princess dress and a crown and dance around in front of everyone they know? No way. But after she reluctantly begins to explore the idea, she realizes that she can adapt the quince celebration to suit her tastes. Violet and her friends decide to “throw tradition in the toilet” and put together a one-of-a-kind feminist quince.

This book breaks the slate in two other ways that take a back seat during the story, but should not escape notice. First, the relationship among the three friends (Leda, Violet, and Janelle) deserves recognition because it feels so realistic. And much of the conversation among the girls is not about boys (as it would be in many other YA novels) but rather about their social, political, and personal interests. This book definitely passes the Bechdel test. The second subtly slatebreaking part of the book is when Violet’s mom goes back to school. The whole family works to support her choice, which she made mostly on her own, and adapts their schedule to accommodates mom’s coursework so that she can achieve her career goal. That is very, very cool.

*In the book, the characters refer to the party as the quinceañero and the girl having the celebration as the quinceañera. I tried to look up the correct usage of the terms online and had little success. So, my apologies if I have used them improperly.

Who would we give it to? I would give this book to anyone who participates in forensics/speech competitions, because the descriptions of those events in this book are so much fun. It would also make an awesome gift book for any 15-year-old planning her quince.

Review: Violet Paz is used to her colorful, loud, and sometimes crazy Cuban family. It’s all part of the landscape of her life – until she turns 15 and her Abuela announces that they must have a quinceañero to celebrate. This is a big surprise for Violet, since her family has never before taken an interest in sharing their Cuban culture with her. In fact, any talk of Cuba has been hush-hush among the adults, with the young people excluded from the conversation. With her quinceañero on the horizon, Violet realizes that she knows very little about where her family comes from.
As if the quince business isn’t enough already, Violet finds herself roped into the school’s speech team. “You’re funny,” declares head coach Mr. Axelrod, and suddenly Violet has to write a original comedy piece to perform throughout speech season. This becomes a major challenge for Violet. She cannot  find anything to write about- until she turns to her family’s ridiculous antics for inspiration. The material works and she has a piece that she can really connect to.

I loved the detailed descriptions of the speech tournaments. Osa perfectly captured the anxiety and adrenaline of performing in these moments. The speech competitions, however, were peripheral to the true meat of the book: Violet’s family relationships. I thought that the details of Violet’s family relationships were full of truth. They were so complex, so beautiful rendered, and at the forefront of the action. This was not a school story, nor should it be. It is the story of an adolescent girl finding out her place in a family and realizing how that role might change as she moves into womanhood.

Notice how I haven’t mentioned any romantic entanglements yet. That’s because the snippet of romance that is in the story is not the central element. And I like it that way! It is a sweet and subtle crush that doesn’t overwhelm the story. This was perfect, because I didn’t want Violet’s interest in a boy to take away from all of the great scenes with her family. And, for once, I appreciated a girl experiencing drama and distress that wasn’t caused by a boy. It was a refreshing – and slatebreaking! – change of pace from other YA novels.

Although this book was thoroughly clever and enjoyable, I didn’t find it gripping. The stakes were low throughout the whole plot. I never once doubted that Violet Paz would have a beautiful and unique quinceañero. Even with the minor dama drama and a fight with her dad, the conflicts were resolved so quickly that I barely had the time to get worried. And I would have liked to become a little worried – the story was almost too level for me. I need a bit more plot maneuvering to keep my interest.

I was reluctant to do this, but…I have to make the inevitable comparison to Estrella’s Quinceanera. I read both books this summer, so it’s very present in my mind. In Estrella’s Quinceanera, the protagonist has a much more difficult struggle with cultural identity. Those elements are there in Cuba 15, but it’s Violet’s dad who struggles with cultural identity more than she does. Violet is eager to find out about her Cuban heritage but getting stories out of her family members is like pulling teeth. However – compared to Estrella’s Quinceanera, Cuba 15 is more cleverly written. And Estrella has major romance drama going on in her story – which gets kind of annoying because, predictably, Estrella’s dad does not approve.  None of that funny business is going on in Cuba 15.

What I love about Violet Paz is that she’s just so darn sensible. She has no delusions of grandeur. When her comedy piece falls flat with an audience, she knows it’s her fault – so she goes and practices some more. I love a character with a strong work ethic. She is a great friend, a good student, and a responsible daughter. And she is definitely a feminist and future activist. And really, what more can I ask for in a teen girl character? I would have wanted to hang out with Violet if she went to my high school. And I really, really would have wanted to be invited to her quinceañero.

Reviewed from library copy.

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