In this middle-grade novel, Atkinson tells the story of a young Salvadoran refugee acclimating to life in the United States.
War has come to the streets of San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, but Mario Zamora and his little brother, Nico, just want to act like normal kids. When a soldier in the street takes their soccer ball and slices it open with a knife, Mario is confused: “Why do they have to bother us like that?” he asks his father, a writer, later that day. “We’re only kids. We have nothing to do with the war. Why does there even have to be a war?” When soldiers burst in and arrest Mario’s dad in the middle of the night, the boys and their mother are forced to flee the country. Their plan is to head north through Guatemala and Mexico and into the United States. They soon learn that their father has been murdered by soldiers, his body left in a pile with those of other executed dissidents. As the family attempts to build a new life for themselves in Texas, Mario is haunted by what has happened, filled with a mix of anger and fear. His father left him a notebook with a letter, offering his advice on how to move forward. Mario isn’t interested in writing, but he does have a passion for drawing. In her debut work, Atkinson writes in a smooth, conversational prose that perfectly enlivens Mario’s first-person narration, capturing both his anxieties and excitements. With its quick pace and unflinching willingness to portray the horrors of the Salvadoran political situation, the novella makes for a compelling, if occasionally heavy, read. Along the way, the author successfully tracks the complex evolution of Mario’s inner landscape, including his attempts to deal with the trauma of his father’s loss, his responsibility toward his mother and brother, and his instincts as both a witness and a budding artist: as Mario’s new American identity shapes itself, he uses pictures to try to tell his own story.
A well-crafted, emotionally resonant tale for younger readers.