cover image Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box

Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box

Juan Felipe Herrera, . . HarperCollins/ Cotler, $15.99 (164pp) ISBN 978-0-06-057984-5

Both fiercely imagistic and stylistically uneven, Herrera's (Laughing Out Loud, I Fly ) intriguing book opens not long after 9/11 in a hospital where 13-year-old Yolanda's uncle is gravely ill. "All of a sudden, bam! Like the crushed/ tower, my throat gets fiery, then empty/ in the hospital room—uncle DJ!" Some readers may find the text tough going. Puerto Rican phrases heavily spice the narrative (a four-page glossary is included), and the book's complicated structure and gradually revealed plot can be difficult to decipher. Yolanda's first-person narrative unspools through letters exchanged between the girl and her uncle (saved in a cereal box), and through her own piercing verse. This framework allows Herrara to capitalize on Yolanda's raw emotions, but at times makes the narrative awkward (e.g., as when she describes a brutal beating she receives from a peer). Yolanda carries many burdens, including mourning a friend's needless death, feelings of abandonment by another friend, fears for her uncle and wonders how she can fulfill her promise to him to "save the dustvoices" of those who perished in the towers. The calamities seem never-ending as Yolanda leaves the safety of her family and hallucinates on drugs. In a poignant scene, however, she finds her way back through her mother's perspicacious intervention. The book is so unrelentingly bleak that a surprise upbeat twist may strain readers' credibility. Still, the strong imagery and the underlying bond between Yolanda and her uncle make this an impressive effort. Ages 14-up. (Aug.)