Sunday, September 18, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Allie, First At Last

by Angela Cervantes. Scholastic, 2016. 208 pages. ISBN 978-0545812238. Click here to purchase.

I live in a town of high achievers.  The schools are top rated and kids participate in dozens of activities to boost their chances of going to the best schools.  But, more and more, I realize that many “kids today” deal with a certain kind of pressure to achieve and succeed. We as adults might not always key into it, but it is there.  That pressure runs through Angela Cervantes’s second novel Allie, First At Last like a heartbeat.   

Have you ever wanted to be the best at something or win something?  I have!  And so has Allie. And she really wants to be the best at something because everyone else in her family is famous and successful and heroic. Her older sister is going to Harvard, her older brother is a soccer star, and her little sister stars in commercials and models.  Allie is so … normal compared to them.  But if she can win the Kansas Trailblazer Contest she can FINALLY stand out. She even has the perfect person to write about: her beloved bisabuelo, the last surviving WWII Congressional Medal of Honor winner in Kansas. The only problem is her ex-best friend Sarah is her biggest competition.  Is Allie destined to be friendless and in last place forever or will she be able to win the Trailblazer contest and finally show everyone she’s outstanding?  And is it possible that being first might not be the most important thing?

This is the booktalk I’ve used this year for Allie, First At Last (and you are free to use/modify it for your class visits and outreach) because I love sharing this book with my community of high-achieving kids who feel pressure to always be first and best.

Cervantes’s has cleverly made Allie the third of four children, the one who always feels like she’s a little bit left out, the heroine of this story about finding out what a real “trailblazer” is. This makes it easy for kids to connect to Allie because all kids can relate to the feeling she has that she’s just not “different” enough. But Allie also has grand plans to succeed and a determination so Cervantes neatly sidesteps clichés and worn plots about so-called average kids.

This is an amazing look at a multi-generational Mexican-American family with deep roots in our country’s history and present.  The way Cervantes makes this the matter of fact truth of the story is effortless and natural.  A lot of this is rooted in Allie’s bisabuelo, a fantastic character who loves and dotes on Allie and his other great-grandchildren.  He helps Allie think about what being “first” really means. Another highlight of this book is that it not only looks honestly at how competition can drive kids but gives readers ideas for how they can move past their negative competitive urges.

Another superb element of this book is how Cervantes explores the multiplicity of the Latinx experience.  Allie, who is obsessed with trailblazers and people who are the “first” to accomplish great things, befriends Victor, a new kid. Victor is a child of immigrants and he plans to be the first kid in his family to graduate from high school and go to college – the kind of first Allie, a third generation kid from a high-achieving family hasn’t given  a second thought to. They both grow and learn through their friendship, which is just another strong element in this book.  Through Allie and Victor, Cervantes does a wonderful, non-didactic job of showing that there isn’t a “single story” of Latinx life in America in 2016.

I highly recommend Allie, First At Last – it’s been very popular in my booktalking and it’s a fast, engaging read for fans of contemporary school stories. Allie, First At Last has fabulous sibling dynamics, awesome older adults, and friendship drama, everything readers are drawn to! It has short chapters, humor, and characters like Allie who are easy to relate to, even when they are being stubborn or selfish. I also recommend Angela Cervantes’s first book, Gaby, Lost and Found (2013) another fantastic title, this one dealing with a girl whose mother has been deported to Honduras. I can’t wait to see what Cervantes writes next! 

reviewed by Angie Manfredi


Unknown said...

I really loved this book too-- but do want to mention one passage in the book, which is central to the book's themes regarding what it means to be first. When the teacher is explaining the Trailblazer contest to Allie's class, she says: "'It doesn't have to be a famous person necessarily. Trailblazers can be anyone. The original trailblazers were American settlers who traveled west for a better life. It just has to be someone who tried something different in order to make life better for others."

This is one of those situations where the book as a whole is wonderful, and I really wish an editor had flagged that passage. It's the only part of the book that pulled me up short. And, at the same time, I do think that passage speaks to a deeper issue with how the idea of "first" is so often imagined in relation to the history of this country.

Eric Carpenter said...

I need some help with this.
Would we rather the teacher not make this comment stating that American settlers were trailblazers? Absolutely. But is this a comment we would be unsurprised to hear coming from the vast majority of teachers? Again Absolutely.
Should books provide only glimpses into idealized versions of reality? Or do our windows and mirrors need to allow students to see the world as it actual exists? One could argue that omitting this passage would be covering up reality and retaining the passage but having the narrative overtly comment on the problematic nature of what the teacher is saying could be pull the reader out of the story (which didacticism can often do). So what should be done? Are we asking realistic fiction writers to be untruthful? Just as overly enlightened characters in historical fiction can seem anachronistic, overly enlightened characters in contemporary fiction can also pull one out of the narrative if it becomes didactic.

From a position of privilege, it is easy to simply trust the reader to make the same observation about the way this passage relates to the central theme of the novel that Sarah makes in her comment, but that ignores the potential for this passage to reinforce problematic stereotypes.

I don't have any answers to these questions but would love to hear what others think regarding how much ugly truth these works can reflect.

Sam Bloom said...

Eric, you're right that a teacher somewhere may say this kind of thing. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't raise that concern. As Allie said in a post from way back in February (

"Accuracy is not the issue. When we see something problematic, we need to say, “that’s a problem.” Unless books name problematic content as such, they condone and perpetuate the problems."

Unknown said...

Eric, in the context of the story the teacher's comment frames the core themes of the book. (About being first/generosity in helping others.) The quote doesn't only represent the teacher's views-- and if it did, I agree with the need for contextualization.

Unknown said...

I want to say something about it being "realistic." Lots of things are realistic. Including teen characters who are bisexual, for example, is realistic, but VOYA felt the need to warn its readers that a book was only suitable for older readers due to that.

The it's "realistic" defense only gets trotted out sometimes.