Review: Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Genres: Middle-Grade Fiction, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
View on Goodreads

Esperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico–she’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances–Mama’s life, and her own, depend on it.

Goodness, I forgot how much I adored middle-grade historical fiction when I was a kid. There is something about this genre that I really connect with, and I think it gives kids the opportunity to explore heavy and difficult themes of the past without feeling confronted and uncomfortable about bad things now. If that makes sense.

Esperanza has such amazing character growth. She is just a regular girl, in many ways, and she makes decisions early in the book that I think other girls could relate to, but also understand why they are unkind. Her reluctance to let a poor little girl look at her favorite doll, for example. Kids will understand where she is coming from and not condemn her, yet maybe also learn from her mistakes. And that is really powerful. But as the book goes on, Esperanza has to learn how to take care of herself and her family. Things that our kids may take for granted Esperanza has to learn, if she even has it.

For me, when I was a kid, the real magic of historical fiction was always learning about a new place, only to discover that place was REAL. La Rancha de la Rosa was so exotic and wonderful, like something out of a movie, it’s hard to believe that it was a real place. And Muñoz Ryan does romanticize it a little bit. But it is based on a real place, and I love learning about the different cultures of that past. As a ten year-old I would have loved this book.

And Esperanza Rising doesn’t talk down to kids. It puts Esperanza’s families difficulties in a way kids can understand, but without diminishing or trivializing it. How else will kids learn about worker’s rights other than through great literature like this?

My absolute favorite thing about this book was Muñoz Ryans’s critical look at the American dream. Esperanza’s family flees to America in hopes for a better life, but when they arrive they find that life is just as hard (if not harder) here. Esperanza wonders, why did we even leave? Why not just stay in Mexico? I think that’s a powerful statement, but it was even more powerful that Muñoz Ryan was able to answer that question. I may be a skeptic, but Esperanza brought me hope.

I love this book, and I will absolutely be pulling it off my classroom’s library shelf tomorrow and recommending it to my students. Wowza.

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