Review of the Day: Undercover Latina by Aya de León
My first introduction into the notion of “passing” came in a Harlem Renaissance literature course in college. We were assigned Nella Larsen’s Passing and to say it was an eye-opener wouldn’t be doing it justice. A white girl from the Midwest, I’d never encountered the concept before. I wouldn’t encounter it again either until years and years had passed and I was well ensconced in the world of children’s literature. It was 2010 and I was reading Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon. The novel focuses on a young Zora Neale Hurston as she and her friends get into a wide range of mischief and trouble. And there, in the book, was a Black character passing for white, roundly despised for the action. Fast forward a year and it’s now 2011 and I’m reading Jefferson’s Sons by future Newbery Honoree Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. That story focused on the Black children of Thomas Jefferson and how they were encouraged to pass as white after their father had died. Two books, two different takes on the same thing. I didn’t encounter the idea in a novel for kids again until this year. It’s 2022 and Undercover Latina by Aya de León comes out. It’s a book about passing . . . with a twist. What if passing wasn’t done to fake your way through society but to spy? What if it was a form of deep cover, and the whole plot involved wild skateboarding, nerdy card games, and the infiltration of a terrorist’s network? Ms. de León takes a learning opportunity for kids and couches it in enough chase sequences and fistfights to almost make you forget how much information is crammed into this little package. Prepare for exciting nuance!!
Andréa Hernández-Baldoquín has a pretty normal family . . . on the surface. Years ago, she confronted her mom and dad about what their real jobs were and discovered that she is part of a family of spies. Working for an international organization called The Factory that seeks to protect people of color the world over, Andréa and her little brother have followed their parents to many a mission. When Andréa’s first solo job turns out to be more dangerous than planned, she’s afraid Mami will put a halt on any future spy activity. Then they get the ultimate call. A white supremacist is planning a terrorist attack, and the FBI’s not taking him seriously. Fortunately The Factory is. To find this man, Andréa is charged to befriend the man’s son and find out anything she can. The catch? She and her mother, who are both light-skinned, are going to pass as “the Burkes”. Which is to say, Andréa becomes Andrea and must hide her Latino roots. Can something that feels so wrong work? Can she stay true to herself? Will she be able to get the goods? Or is there more to this situation than meets the eye?
One way to tell if an author is really up to snuff is to examine closely how well they portray their fictional worlds. And what, I ask you, could be more of a test than to create a wholly realistic competitor to Magic the Gathering (but with an anti-colonialism take) than the presence of the game Triángulo in the book. This was where Ms. de León completely and utterly fooled me. She doesn’t just invent a game. She invents strategies that allow you to play the game. She invents backstories to the characters you play in the game, and an entire world involving the comics as well. Then she takes it all a step further. Because the game as such a focus on BIPOC characters, she’s able to talk freely about the backlash against the game and everything it represents. It is such an engrossing bit of world-building that I was determined to go out and get myself a deck of cards right then and there. So, for any business-minded folks that are out there, if you feel like making a quick bit of cash, find Ms. de León, and pay her a great big gob of money so that you can make Triángulo a reality. Don’t mind me. I’ll just wait right here for it.
With its premise of hiding who you are to get a job done, the book is in a brilliant position to wrap some good old-fashioned equity lessons in the guise of spytalk. We’re seeing a distinct uptick in books for kids these days with an eye to equity. Middle grade novels like this one are no exception. The difference, of course, is that not every author writing for kids is good at couching their lessons in interesting plots and characters. I’ve read more didactic, monotonous, well-intentioned but ultimately dull books for kids to last a lifetime. You know the ones. Where the exposition is just an excuse for the author to postulate on a subject, to the detriment of the story. Not so here. When Andréa gets into the weeds of why one situation or another is racist and intolerable, it serves the plot. Here, it guides the storyline forward, instead of being awkwardly shoehorned in at opportune moments. Best of all, it has a central metaphor that works beautifully.
Part of what I like so much about this title is how it gets off to a rip-roaring start right at the beginning. The main character is stealing a briefcase, skateboarding away, and then everything goes wrong. So right there the author is promising kids that this title is going to be interesting on some level. But look a little closer at what Ms. de León is doing in terms of giving you, not just action, but information about our main character. To escape the baddies she runs into a restaurant, speaks in Spanish to the woman working there, and then a couple pages later you hear about The Factory. You’re getting some serious content in with your thrills. But let’s talk basics. The first sentence AND the last sentence of this first chapter are scientifically distilled so as to catch your attention. Listen to this opening: “A grown man is no match for a teenage girl on a skateboard.” And now, the last sentence, “Within six months, she and Papi brought Carlos in on it, and we were a family of spies.” BANG! So good!
I’m probably the only person to read Undercover Latina and instantly think about Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night but stick with me here. In Vonnegut’s book a man is such an effective spy that he has essentially done the enemies’ work for them. He’s too good at his job. Now look at Andréa as a spy in Undercover Latina. I noticed that the only time any character gets really and truly mad at Andréa is when her Latina roots are discovered and she is accused of passing. And Andréa really does struggle with this. She has to stay in character but there’s a toll. The difference between her and other people is that in her case there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. For some, that light never comes and they pass until they . . . well . . . pass. This is a lot to think about, and it’s a good spy book for kids that gives you this much to mull. Aya de León has fashioned just the right combination of excitement and ethics, of complicated concepts and the occasional detonator. A blueprint for getting these elements sorted out perfectly, a whole range of kids will be enjoying this one. Long before they figure out that it’s taught them something as well.
On shelves October 4th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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