LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE (Levine Querido, 2020)
By Donna Barba Higuera
Home run! Author Donna Barba Higuera has knocked the (literary) ball out of the park with her MG debut novel Lupe Wong Won’t Dance! Starring Mexinese (or Chinacan) seventh-grader Guadalupe Wong, the young protagonist will do everything she can to engage everyone in what she believes is right, such as putting an end to square dancing in her P.E. (physical education) curriculum. This is a contemporary fiction book that supplies tough conversations along with much-needed and memorable humor.
Right off the bat *unintended pun*, readers learn that Lupe must ace all her classes so she may be introduced to her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who happens to be half Mexican and half Chinese like herself. Lupe is everything—from an activist to competitive athlete—except a dancer. As Coach Solden stomps her feet and claps her hands to the country song, “Cotton Eyed-Joe”, Lupe narrates, “it’s eerily similar to the time [her] mom insisted on teaching all [her] friends the Macarena at [her] birthday party.” To put the cherry on top of a very humorous introduction, the novel gives a vivid description of students’ reactions to Coach Solden’s dancing. Lupe says, “my mouth and the mouths of everyone in the room drop wide open as Coach’s words echo out ‘welcome to this quarter’s curriculum, class!’.” Lupe has “never associated the inside of a gym with such horror” (9).
Lupe embraces the challenge that is square dancing by, clearly, finding ways to get rid of it. Told in first-person narrative, Higuera transports readers to many possible middle-grade shenanigans. Of course, a stellar debut is not possible without brilliant supporting characters, Gordon Schnelly; Andalusia (Andy) Washington; Niles Foster; Paolo Wong; Grandma Wong; Abuela Salgado; Papa Wong; Lupe’s mother; and Coach Solden.
While Lupe is discovering the dark origins of “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, she must also handle the uproarious “mortal dangers of the [busy school] halls” that her older brother, Paolo, warned her about, even though he constantly threatens to return her the zoo where their parents found her. Adding to Lupe’s dismay is when Paolo states that Issaquah Middle School only permits the boy-ask-girl norm in square dancing, which only strengthens Lupe’s goal to put an end to it. This is one of those rare books that presents children’s (possible) outlooks at dancing so authentically. Not only does Higuera present a young middle-schooler who does not want nor has any rhythm, she also bestows an older brother who amusingly doesn’t like the idea of asking a girl to dance. Lupe is a very outspoken and courageous young character, who is willing to speak out against anything she deems unfair, serving as a vigorous role model.
Among noteworthy moments is when Lupe asks her mother: Who implemented square dancing in P.E.? Her mother responds, “I had to do it when I was your age too. I don’t know, Lupe. It’s just always been around” (29). Lupe no se queda con los brazos cruzados (doesn’t stay idly), and investigates further. This is a jewel moment that reflects how society has been conditioned to follow various traditions without questioning for some time—and Higuera marvelously delivers a different angle of square dancing—which will absolutely resonate with everyone who’s ever questioned a societal norm.
Gordon Schnelly is a wonderful—and much needed—catalyst in Lupe’s life. He is presented, from Lupe’s point-of-view, as a somewhat geeky young boy with a lisp, humorously thinks his grandma having a boyfriend is a disaster, and actually looks forward to square dancing. The events that unfold during her class’s square dancing routine changes Lupe’s character and relationships with everyone. From Andy and Niles, her two closest friends who never questioned Lupe before, to her grandparents whom expect different things from her. Moreover, Coach Solden has a revelation that will surprise all readers and, perhaps, teach them that not all is what is seems.
Lupe embraces her biculturalism in different ways, as there are enjoyable Mexican and Chinese cultural references; chicharrones (taste great with salsa Valentina and lime), a Día de Los Muertos mention, conchas, and more. Lupe discusses how her bathroom looks like an Aztec restaurant, while her mother keeps a Mayan calendar to help conserve her Mexican culture. As Lupe misses her father, who passed away years ago, she explains to readers that there is a Chinese version of Día de los Muertos, Qingming. Her paternal grandmother, Grandma Wong, takes her family to the cemetery to burn things that represent what she thinks Lupe’s dad will need in the afterlife. This ties in to Lupe’s aspiration to meet Fu Li Hernandez, because he reminds her of her dad’s excitement for baseball.
Both Abuela Salgado and Grandma Wong expect a lot from Lupe, with ultimately well-intentioned goals to help keep Lupe’s Mexican and Chinese heritage alive. Readers will get entertaining family dinner shenanigans between them. Abuela Salgado states, “Pozole is magic. It will cure any illness or trouble you have” (148). I concur that it is among the best Mexican soups. On the other hand, Grandma Wong tries to convince Lupe to stay away from baseball, among other things. Baseball fans will get some sport action as Lupe continues to polish her pitching abilities.
Niles Foster and his endearing family also come with their own batch of laughs. As Lupe visits Niles’ home while she continues to oppose square dancing, she wonders if Mrs. Foster has an oil called “Don’t Panic”. Higuera provides long-lasting quotes that will benefit young readers’ viewpoint through Niles, such as “nature doesn’t make mistakes” (164), and of course, hilarious remarks between classmates who don’t always see eye-to-eye, typical of childhood. Lastly, but not least, Papa Wong provides Lupe with valuable lessons about overcoming things you don’t expect.
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance delivers a voice that speaks on behalf of anyone who feels things are unjust in their childhood (or ever felt that way before). It’s a must-read and necessary addition for all schools and libraries. This middle-grade novel will keep you reading voraciously, only to want more once you’ve turned to the last page. It has well-deservedly been given the 2021 Pura Belpré Honor Book Award as well. Lupe Wong Won’t Dance will have its highly-anticipated Spanish edition available this autumn, 2021. ¡Que padre!
Song selection for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance (Playlist):
Achy Breaky Heart – Billy Ray Cyrus
No Rompas Mi Corazón – Caballo Dorado
Yo No Fui – Pedro Fernandez
Payaso de Rodeo – Caballo Dorado
Cotton-Eyed Joe – Circus DJ’s
El Baile del Sapito – Cómplices Al Rescate
Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE
By Donna Barba Higuera
272 pp. Levine Querido. $17.99.
(Ages 8 to 12)
Donna Barba Higuera grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration.
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