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
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
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
reviewed by Angie Manfredi