Monday, February 25, 2019

2020 Contenders: The Moon Within, by Aida Salazar

Sometimes, it's hard to realize how far children's literature has come until we stop and take a look back. This is not to say that there aren't still VERY real problems in the children's lit world, or that fighting for progress isn't still necessary, because neither of those things are true. But I think it's also important to note that the efforts of many authors, publishers, teachers, and librarians to advocate for diversity, inclusion, and a general expansion of "acceptable" content haven't gone for naught.

When I first started working in public libraries, in 2007, the kerfuffle du jour involved whether or not it had been appropriate to award the Newbery to a book that used the word "scrotum" (that'd be The Higher Power of Lucky, for anyone who doesn't remember that moment in time). And as recently as 2014 or so, my requests at major library conferences for information about LGBTQ+ books for middle grade readers was met with the sum total of "Tim Federle and Jennifer Gennari."

Now, less than a decade and a half since I started my library journey, I find myself writing a review of Aida Salazar's The Moon Within, a book being put out by a major publisher (Scholastic, on its Arthur A. Levine imprint). If you had asked me even three or four years ago if I'd thought a middle grade book of this type was publishable, I would have responded with a sad shake of my head. This is a verse novel starring a main character of Mexican/Puerto Rican ancestry, and her genderfluid best friend, in which the plot not only centers on a recreated indigenous Mexica ritual celebrating a young woman's menarche, but also includes a poetic but frank discussion of women's genitals, including the purpose of the clitoris. If you thought Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret didn't pull any punches, The Moon Within has never even heard of the concept of pulling punches.

But that's not to say that The Moon Within is confrontational for the sake of being confrontational. On the contrary, it's a novel filled with sensitivity and compassion for its characters -- especially its narrator, Celi Rivera. She comes across as a living, breathing person, one who sometimes makes good decisions and sometimes makes bad ones, but who's 100% worth cheering for. I wanted positive things to happen for her, and the book's climax filled my heart with warmth. You could, I suppose, refer to this as a "problem novel," but it's better described as an authentic-feeling, character-driven book that doesn't shy away from the kinds of issues that real people in real communities run up against.

If it's not clear, I genuinely enjoyed The Moon Within, and I'm more than a little glad to see this book published. I have no clear sense of the Newbery race yet, but the mere fact that the publisher is promoting this novel heavily warms my heart. I think Aida Salazar is a fascinating talent, and this is one heckuva debut.

Published Feburary 26th by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic

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