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Carolina De Robertis’ conversational fifth novel is as much about storytelling as it is about José “Pepe” Mujica. The former Uruguayan leader is known as the “world’s poorest president,” as he donated nearly 90% of his presidential salary to charity. Without ever naming him outright, The President and the Frog takes Mujica’s stranger-than-fiction life story and imbues it with a quirky, mystical grace.

De Robertis’ Mujica is an old man at the tail end of his political career. After surviving well over a decade as a political prisoner and then serving as president, he now lives as a humble flower farmer “in a near-forgotten country.” On a November afternoon, he entertains the questions of a prying Norwegian journalist. He endeavors to hide the reality of his past from her, but his mind cannot help but drift back to the years he spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and the reader is transported back in time with him. We discover that he survived those difficult years through the help of a talking frog.

This premise calls to mind Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as the president uses (deep, hilarious, tangential) conversation to survive the literal and figurative darkness of incarceration. De Robertis also breaks up this darkness by describing the president’s present-day surroundings, a lush landscape that is reflective of his passion for making things grow. He is a charming man who pours endless cups of yerba mate to share with anyone who cares to take a sip, and the novel that surrounds him is similarly inviting.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: In The President and the Frog, Carolina De Robertis explores the socio-political transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country: “You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics.”


La novela del dictador—“the dictator novel”—is a staple of Latin American literature that explores the political and psychological implications of authoritarian governments. Think Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) or Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000). As the novel’s gaze turns toward contemporary North America, however, De Robertis goes a step further by remixing the genre. In North America rather than Latin America, a celebrity “dictator” has risen to power. This political leader is never named outright as Donald Trump, just as De Robertis’ protagonist is never dubbed Pepe Mujica—yet there is no room for doubt. Despite this grand statement, De Robertis is ultimately less concerned with critiquing political systems than with unveiling how survival might be achieved within them.

While De Robertis’ choice not to name the people and places of her novel may be viewed as stylistic bandwagoning, it allows her to remain engaged with the “once upon a time” dreaminess with which her novel kicks off. Yet it is perhaps because the novel is inspired by a real man’s life that it ultimately succeeds. The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

Like Burgos herself as a child, the narrator must share a bedroom—and her big sister snores!—so she’s jealous of her family’s overnight guests and the attention they receive. “It would be so much fun to have the whole living room to myself!” she declares, not fully grasping that for children like Lisa, whose grandmother cleans offices, or Edgardo, whose mother plays music gigs that last until the wee hours of the morning, it’s not that simple.

Being separated from their families and sleeping on the unfamiliar cot affects each overnight guest differently. Raquel asks to keep the light on, while Edgardo discovers that the narrator’s mother doesn’t know his favorite lullaby. The narrator nonetheless maintains that the situation is unfair until one night when the cot isn’t occupied and she sleeps on it herself. Suddenly, she realizes how scary it is to try to fall asleep in a strange, dark room, and her newfound empathy helps her to come up with a creative way to comfort Raquel the next time she comes to stay.

Gaby D’Alessandro’s warm illustrations depict the family’s home as a safe and welcoming place. City buildings appear through the windows and on blocks of the colorful quilt that’s depicted on the book’s bright, decorative endpapers. Both Burgos and D’Alessandro are Dominican American, and D’Alessandro incorporates subtle cultural details, such as floral paintings and a Carnival mask displayed on the family’s living room walls.

Burgos, author of the middle grade novel Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle (2018), writes in spare, evocative prose that makes the narrator’s journey of personal growth feel natural and genuine. Text and art work in harmony to create a portrait of a close-knit community where neighbors help one another through small but meaningful acts and where hard work is a way of life. The Cot in the Living Room beautifully captures the gifts we receive when we open our hearts to others.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

Through her popular historical novels, bestselling author Chanel Cleeton offers a fresh glimpse into Cuba’s tumultuous past. Her latest, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, is set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, as the island country is ravaged by conflict between Cuban revolutionaries and the Spanish military.

The story unfolds through the eyes of three women: Evangelina Cisneros, a beautiful socialite who finds herself in the infamous Recogidas prison after rebuffing the advances of a Spanish military official; Marina Perez, who along with her husband is aiding the revolutionaries while living in deplorable conditions at a reconcentration camp; and Grace Harrington, a cub reporter trying to make her mark at William Randolph Hearst’s New York newspaper.

The women all come from wealthy families yet have chosen their own paths as they seek more than the comfort provided by their privilege. This is a recurring theme in Cleeton’s work: women turning their lives upside down to fight for what they believe in. For Evangelina and Marina, they’re fighting for the dream of a liberated Cuba. For Grace, it’s a career as a serious journalist in an era when few women (aside from Nellie Bly and Ida B. Wells) could imagine working for a newspaper. Their fates intersect when Hearst places Grace on the Cuba beat, reporting from the front lines.

The heart of The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is ostensibly Evangelina, who is the title character and based on a real person. And indeed, her story is fascinating. She was briefly the most famous woman in New York after a daring rescue landed her stateside to advocate for Cuban independence. But Cleeton’s examination of the state of journalism at the turn of the century is an equally compelling part of this engrossing book. The battle of Hearst versus Joseph Pulitzer for the biggest circulation is fascinating. Both of their newspapers used the discord in Cuba to bolster their sales and arguably influenced the conflict more than was appropriate for a supposedly neutral press.

Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.

Chanel Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.

For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

Xander Amaro, the restaurant’s new hire, has never really felt at home anywhere. Originally from Mexico, he’s spent the last 10 years living with his grandfather in the U.S. without legal documentation, always looking over his shoulder, always feeling he doesn’t quite belong. If only he could track down his biological father, Xander thinks, he might finally feel comfortable in his own life. 

When a dangerous loan shark threatens the community, Pen and Xander must work together with their families—the ones they were born into and the ones they’ve made—to save the restaurant. Along the way, they discover exactly where they’re meant to be.

Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut YA novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, is fueled by vivid imagery and evocative descriptions, from the chaos of the kitchen on a busy night to the smells of the restaurant that linger in Pen’s hair after each shift. Chapters alternate between Pen’s and Xander’s first-person perspectives as Kemp explores their nuanced personalities and never shies away from their dark places, including Pen’s depression and Xander’s anxiety about his immigration status. Kemp develops these aspects of her protagonists with respect, making them parts of their whole, complex selves. 

Pen explains to Xander that Nacho’s Tacos employees are a family, and this perfectly describes the cast of characters Kemp has assembled. Though the book’s villain, El Martillo, feels a bit underdeveloped, the other supporting characters are as complex and well-crafted as the protagonists. This is a powerful, heartwarming story of family, first love and resilience.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Laekan Zea Kemp reflects on the role that hunger has played in her own life as well as in her first book.

For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language. The celebrated playwright calls her language broken, but in this extraordinary memoir she actually remakes language so that it speaks to her world—a world that takes as its point of origin a barrio in West Philadelphia where Hudes grew up surrounded by Perez women, whom she refers to as her own Mount Rushmore, her pantheon of goddesses. The women in her family laugh, cry, eat, dance and mourn, and they do it in a glorious blend of English and Spanish, in language made of flesh and motion. Hudes watches them from the stairs, eager to join in but uncertain exactly where she fits.

Like the best translators, Hudes occupies the in-between—in this case, in between the crowded and uproarious barrio, where life feels like an unfolding tragicomedy, and the staid suburbs, where her white father has settled into a routine life that offers plenty of picket fences but little space for complexity. Hudes’ narrative follows her life story, from living with both parents to traveling between them; from her growing bond with her extended Perez family to her trips back to her mother’s native country of Puerto Rico. Her delight in the musicians and artists of the Western canon leads her to Yale, where she realizes the infuriating limitations of that canon, and ultimately to Brown, where she dedicates herself to telling the story of her people, their bodies, their spirituality and their language. This is a book of bringing together dissonant stories, one that Hudes alone could write. 

Hudes’ first name is an invented endearment, a form of the verb querer, which means “to love.” Her mother had seen the name spelled Kiara or Ciara or Chiarras, but for her daughter she wanted that same sound with a deeper meaning, one that indicated that her daughter was beloved (Quiara) as well as a source of happiness (Alegría). There may be no better compliment to the author of this marvelous, one-of-a-kind memoir than to say she truly lives up to her name. With My Broken Language, she has invented a language of love and to-the-bone happiness to tell stories only a Perez woman could share.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language.

Expanding on her short story with the same title, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds begs the question: What makes a sacrifice selfless?

In three parts that unfold over the course of a year in the aptly named New Mexico town of Las Penas, The Five Wounds is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window. Quade’s characters are experts at pushing love away, especially when intimate connection is most necessary.

The novel begins with a crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla is a ne’er-do-well who is hand-selected by the devout men of Las Penas to play Jesus in the annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion. To carry the cross is a great honor, and Amadeo treats this invitation as an opportunity to redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He also sees it as a way to opt out of parenting his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, who has recently arrived on his doorstep.

While the terrain of Las Penas seems inhospitable at first glance, life pushes up through the fractured earth. As each member of the Padilla family battles their personal demons, hope shimmers like a mirage over everyday life, a sweet what-if that Quade expertly suspends above the text. What if parents put their daughters first? What if compassion were a two-way street? What if love were enough?

After Quade’s 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, it is a treat to see the author’s exceptional command of pacing on display in a novel. Proof that what you say is just as important as how you say it, her precise lines are wanting in neither substance nor style, and her darkly hilarious, tender, gorgeous use of language is one of the crowning pleasures of the novel.

In The Five Wounds, Quade expands a familiar biblical tale—a 33-year-old guy shoulders the pain of the world and gets crucified—into an irreverent 21st-century meditation on the restorative powers of empathy.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window.

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