Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (Simon & Schuster)
Release Date: August 18, 2020
Available Through The Book Depository: Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From
Cover Design: Elena Garnu
Summary: Liliana Cruz is a hitting a wall—or rather, walls.
There’s the wall her mom has put up ever since Liliana’s dad left—again.
There’s the wall that delineates Liliana’s diverse inner-city Boston neighborhood from Westburg, the wealthy—and white—suburban high school she’s just been accepted into.
And there’s the wall Liliana creates within herself, because to survive at Westburg, she can’t just lighten up, she has to whiten up.
So what if she changes her name? So what if she changes the way she talks? So what if she’s seeing her neighborhood in a different way? But then light is shed on some hard truths: It isn’t that her father doesn’t want to come home—he can’t…and her whole family is in jeopardy. And when racial tensions at school reach a fever pitch, the walls that divide feel insurmountable.
But a wall isn’t always a barrier. It can be a foundation for something better. And Liliana must choose: Use this foundation as a platform to speak her truth, or risk crumbling under its weight.
*Received a review copy from the publisher*
My Rating: ★★★★☆
My Thoughts: Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is an introspective debut that discusses many topics such as racism and immigration. Liliana is navigating family, friendships, and a new high school after getting accepted into the METCO program! She’s also learning more about her Latina identity. This is a YA Contemporary that you need on your TBR!
De Leon’s debut is about a first-generation Latina who transfers to a new (majority white) high school and is left to adjust on her own, witnessing microaggressions, racism, and more, all while her father has been deported.
Firstly, I can’t put into words what it meant to be reading about a Guatemalan teen just living her life, going to school, and figuring things out! I was literally sobbing, it’s a book that left me with a feeling of familiarity, comfort, and I’m so happy this debut is now out in the world for readers to see pieces of themselves in Liliana and her family. This is the kind of book I would have loved reading as a teen growing up, SO please pre-order or check out this debut, which is out today!
This novel at its core is about the struggle many marginalized people face, where they feel drifted between two different worlds. However, its an unflinching look at disparity in the education system, racism, and learning to use your voice.
Liliana is an aspiring writer, loves making miniature sets, and her voice just leaps off the page! Its as though she’s speaking to us the reader. She’s funny, filled with so much energy, and was just a fantastic main character!
When Liliana is accepted into the METCO program, she quickly realizes it was her parents (especially father’s) wishes to thrive! So this means she’s leaving her Boston school (where she was in the majority), heading to Westburg to join other METCO students despite the nerves and anxiety she feels.
Liliana’s not only navigating this new environment, but also trying to make friends, stay connected with her best friend Jade, and is experiencing a bit of romance with a fellow student named Dustin. She’s also confronting microaggressions, holding onto all these feelings inside of her, and witnessing racism towards fellow METCO students. But she’s just left feeling adrift. Liliana is struggling to show her true self and is lost, unsure what to do.
However, she luckily connects with the METCO group, like Rayshawn, her senior buddy named Genesis, and host family friend named Holly. But also learns to look deep within herself about what it means to use her voice.
De Leon weaves in so many relatable and thought-provoking lines that many marginalized or non-white, and especially Latine readers will understand. It’s also the kind of novel that introduces so many topics and gives enough page-time to discuss each, while even weaving many together.
Liliana herself is half-Guatemalan and Salvadorian. However, throughout the novel she mainly learns more about her Guatemalan culture. As an #OwnVoices reader (a Guatemalan-American), there’s just so many little details that I related too 100% and it felt surreal to see my family’s culture woven into the pages. From pepian to relative visits, and just seeing her connect more to the family’s roots was wonderful to see.
While I’ve had the chance to learn a lot about my Guatemalan culture from a bit of an earlier age (and even now), it was interesting seeing Liliana whose a teen navigate that with her own set of questions and gain her own understanding about her father’s Guatemalan roots.
That leads me into a major theme and highlight of this novel that presents itself in different ways, that’s the concept of LEARNING. Liliana realizes she doesn’t have much knowledge of her Guatemalan side, so she reads up, asks questions, and does her own research. Not just about her culture, but also when it comes to better understanding Latinx culture (like one scene that stuck out was when she learns about “Spanish” vs. “Latinx”), and navigating racism in general. De Leon masterfully presents the importance of asking questions when you don’t have all the answers and I just love how she explored that throughout the book! As mentioned in our interview, De Leon said something that I feel resonated about why this theme is important and stated she hopes her debut “inspires readers, especially young people, to learn more about their family and their background(s), because we are all from somewhere.”
The plot itself is very slice-of-life as Liliana goes to school, her home life with twin brothers and her mother (whose struggling to work while trying to do everything she can to help her husband get home), being with friends, and just her daily life at Westburg!
Both her mother and Liliana herself rightfully so, deal with moments of depression and anxiety, fearful of what’s happening to Liliana’s dad! She reminisces a lot throughout the novel about her childhood with him and how he helped shape her passions as a writer (one of my favorite scenes was a memory about a book fair he took her to when she was little).
Themes are the foundation of this novel from family, coming of age, friendship, even discussing racism, immigration, and privilege. As a whole, the book does a fantastic job at delving into all of these contemporary topics through the lens of a Latina living in Boston.
Some moments that stuck out to me that brilliantly showed the way De Leon wanted to navigate these themes was through the school! For example, the clear contrast between her former high school vs. Westburg (even how she feels out of place being in that neighborhood), hearing the conversations in her history class from students about Latin-American immigration, Dustin’s racist friend Steve, and the METCO presentation they do near the end.
Another moment that really stayed with me was how Liliana felt in her Westburg creative writing class vs. the (obviously) more diverse writing center course she learned about from her local library. Those scenes symbolized how she’s always felt caught between two worlds, but she finds solace in the place that makes her feel welcome.
The use of a 1st person POV, brilliantly allows you to see who Lil is and understand her fully as a character. She’s someone who feels the need to hide and not fully be herself, she’s also witty, observant, and if your looking for an introspective narrative, this book is perfect.
Overall, the plotting, how real the story feels, the cast of characters, and the wonderful writing voice make this a great YA Contemporary / debut you should not miss!
Although I absolutely loved this book and is one of my new favorites, my only minor critique is that I did find the writing reads very much like a “stream of consciousness,” where the story moves very quickly at points and scenes transition as your reading Liliana’s internal thoughts. But it does make her voice feel so real and come to life.
I will say that this book reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, maybe because of how it delved into themes in such a realistic way, the poignant narrative voice, and main heroine that stands out…either way if you loved Acevedo’s debut, I think De Leon’s would be perfect too!
Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is a fantastic debut you don’t want to miss! Liliana is confronting microaggressions, racism, and learns to find her voice in order to take a stand! Character-driven, thought-provoking, and wonderfully written, its a great debut perfect for fans of Elizabeth Acevedo! Jennifer De Leon’s YA Contemporary debut is a must read for 2020!