Blog Tour: The Other Half of Happy Review + Author Interview
The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel is a contemporary Middle Grade novel coming out on August 20th from Chronicle. It follows twelve-year-old bi-cultural Quijana as she begins seventh grade while at the same time grappling with her Anglo and Guatemalan identities, new friendships, and an upcoming family trip to Guatemala. It is a heartwarming and important read that will appeal to readers of all ages but will speak particularly to those who grew up or are growing up between worlds and who have at one point felt that they were not enough.
I am super excited and thankful to have worked with Rebecca Balcárcel and Sazón Book Tours to bring you this post! Most of all, I am excited that YOU will get a chance to pick up this book and enjoy Qui’s story yourself soon!
Title: The Other Half of Happy
Author: Rebecca Balcárcel
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Fiction
Topics: Bi-culturalism, family
Content warning: Family cancer diagnosis
Publishing Year: 2019
Format Read: E-book (Galley)
My Rating: 5/5
When I first saw the cover of The Other Side of Happy (let’s be real, the cover is so cute!) and read the blurb I was hooked and knew that this was a story I would enjoy. What I wasn’t prepared for was getting completely swept up in Quijana’s story and having it pull at my heartstrings many times, nor the delight I felt in recognizing so many of the quirks and aspects of growing up bi-culturally on the page. Balcárcel has created a book that beautifully depicts what it’s like to grow up bi-culturally, especially during middle school, a time you are already grappling with new social complexities and trying to figure out who you are. It is a book that younger and older audiences alike will both enjoy, but above all, is a present to the kids who grew up or are growing up between worlds who at one point have felt that they are not enough.
Summary: Twelve-year-old, bi-cultural Quijana likes her Anglo life just fine. Nevermind that her Spanish is shaky and she can’t talk with her abuela. When her Latino relatives show up and prompt her parents to plan a trip to Guatemala, Quijana plans an escape. She’s sure that being half makes her happy.
Chronicle brings us poet Rebecca Balcárcel's middle grade novel about a biracial girl who's navigating between the Anglo and Guatemalan sides of her family, a burgeoning crush and a cool new friend, and trying to figure out what's going on with her little brother, who is becoming remote and hard to reach, all while trying to determine just who she is.
The Other Half of Happy starts off as Quijana is preparing to start the seventh grade in Texas, where she lives with her mother who is Anglo, her father, an immigrant from Guatemala, and her younger brother Memito. There is a lot going on from the very beginning: Her burgeoning friendship and romantic feelings for a fellow classmate, her Guatemalan cousins moving to Texas, and her father’s announcement of an upcoming family trip to Guatemala which Quijana is dreading as she doesn’t speak Spanish and feels like she wouldn’t fit in.
The arrival of her Guatemalan cousins and her father’s renewed interest in Guatemala throws Quijana’s life into flux. Not only is she already attempting to navigate the new social waters in middle school (and perhaps a new crush), now she also trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in, particularly under her father’s constant enthusiasm for her to learn Spanish and embrace her Guatemalan heritage; an image of the Latina daughter that she feels like she cannot live up to. Balcárcel has a keen eye for the deep nostalgia that marks the immigrant experience and how this is passed on and observed by their children. She depicts this through so many precise details and moments sprinkled into Quijana’s story that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up bi-culturally. Moments like having to translate your parent’s heavily accented English, not wanting to be embarrassed by “standing out” in the classroom, having a hard to pronounce name, or wishing you could bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school like the other kids. These and countless other moments in the story speak to Balcárcel’s sharp eye and compassionate writing. She negotiates the many identities that Quijana juggles with a deft hand that will have the reader right next to Qui on her emotional rollercoaster ride throughout the book.
In addition to Quijana’s plotting to avoid her family’s vacation to Guatemala and her conflicts about not feeling ‘Latina enough’ there are many subplots and narrative threads that Balcárcel weaves throughout the story. All of these threads work in tandem to bring the emotional complexities of growing up to vividly onto the page. I won’t spoil them here (some of them made me tear up while I was reading on the train!) but did want to point out one specific thread which absolutely filled my heart and is worth highlighting for how well it is written throughout the book. Quijana’s relationship with her little brother Memito is absolutely heart-warming to read. Memito processes stimuli and communicates differently from other children his age. His behavior changes throughout the book much the consternation of his family who is unable to pinpoint what is “wrong” with him. Through all this Quijana loves, takes care of, and supports her brother. Balcárcel herself is a mother to a child with autism which I believe lends to this being one of the best and most compassionate depictions of autism I have ever read in fiction and for this reason alone I am so happy to have picked up this book.
I admit I am a little biased when it comes to loving this book. There are so many little details that I personally connected with and was delighted to find on the page. Qui and I both have guitar-playing, Don Quijote-loving dads. We both went to school in Texas and I loved the Texanism sprinkled in the dialogue and I loved the accurate and loving depiction of autism in the book. But beyond these personal attachments, it is a truly beautiful and affirming book that nonetheless does not shy away from fully depicting the heartbreaking and sometimes messy realities of a mixed family and identity. It is a book that will speak to older readers and younger readers alike, but especially to those who, like Qui, sometimes need to be reminded that they are enough, just the way they are.
Read if you like
Middle school stories that will give you the warm and fuzzies but might also require a tissue or two
Fantastic autism rep
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Disclaimer: I was given a free e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of this review. All opinions are my own.
Latinas Leyendo: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat on Latinas Leyendo! Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to write Quijana’s story?
Rebecca Balcárcel: My own bi-cultural upbringing left me asking the questions Quijana asks: Am I a real Latina if I don’t speak Spanish? Am I too American for my Guatemalan dad? Can a hyphenated kid ever feel whole? I wrote the book to explore these questions. I’ll add that my first writing attempts had nothing to do with my mixedness. I wrote for years without bringing in this aspect of myself. I was imitating writers I admired, and none of them were bi-cultural. Finally I grasped the power of telling my own truth.
Latinas Leyendo: Qui is starting seventh grade, grappling with her Guatemalan identity, and dealing with new relationships. How would you describe Qui’s character arc throughout the book?
Rebecca Balcárcel: Quijana grows a lot! I see her as moving from discounting her heritage to embracing it. I also see her learning that love is messier than it seems, whether it’s learning to love her neurodiverse brother as he is, or learning to treasure a friend. She also discovers that she, herself, is lovable, despite her mistakes.
Latinas Leyendo: I found so many details in the book that I could relate to now as an adult but what are you hoping a young reader will find in your story?
Rebecca Balcárcel: I hope “mixed” kids stumble on mirror moments in the book, such as when Quijana is mistaken for a Spanish speaker or, conversely, when she passes for white and doesn’t fess up right away. I hope ALL kids find their struggle to become their best, whole selves reflected in Quijana’s experience. It’s not easy to build a self!
Latinas Leyendo: When you’re not writing, do you enjoy reading as well? If so, could you share with us a few books you’ve recently read and loved?
Rebecca Balcárcel: I LOVE reading! I re-read poets Martín Espada and Mary Oliver. I go back to classic middle grade books like Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web. And recently, I’ve loved newer novelists like Dan Gemeinhart (The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise), Mariama Lockington (For Black Girls Like Me) Jennifer Torres (Stef Soto, Taco Queen), and Meg Medina (Merci Suárez Changes Gears). For brand new Latinx reads, I go to http://LasMusasBooks.com.
Latinas Leyendo: Last but not least, what are you working on next?
Rebecca Balcárcel: I’ve just plotted out a new idea! Though books and their characters morph as the creative process goes along, my plan is to tell the story of a Texas girl whose Guatemalan half-sister comes to live with her. I have a real-life Guatemalan half-sister — an amazing woman — so I’d like to explore this.