The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

Sonia Manzano’s initial claim to fame was her starring role on “Sesame Street” as Maria. Two picture books later, Manzano has written her first novel inspired by events in her own lifeLoosely following what transpired in 1969 when a Puerto Rican activist group called the Young Lords attempted to take over a church in order to provide free-breakfast and educational programs for the East Harlem community, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is also a powerful coming-of-age story about a young girl who learns to take pride in her Puerto Rican heritage.

Full disclosure: Years ago, I did a bit of publicity for Manzano’s first picture book No Dogs Allowed!. At the time, I was unabashedly excited to meet the woman who starred in the role of Maria on “Sesame Street” and, needless to say, she completely lived up to my expectations. She couldn’t have been a more gracious and intelligent conversationalist with a fantastic sense of humor. So it is not surprising that when I saw she was publishing her first novel, I had to give it a read and promised myself that I’d be objective. The great news is that The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (Ages 12+) is wonderful. Inspired by true events that took place in Harlem in the late 1960s (and based very loosely on parts of Manzano’s teenage years and beyond), the novel is a moving portrait of a community fighting for their rights and their place in a society being torn apart by inequality and prejudice, corruption, and greed.

Rosa Maria Evelyn del Carmen Serrano (a.k.a. Evelyn) and her mother and stepfather live in a small apartment in Spanish Harlem, where there’s trash on the street and gangs fighting for territory down the block. Evelyn’s summer job at the five-and-dime keeps her busy while Mami’s at home doing the laundry, cooking dinner, and making sure her daughter stays out of trouble. When Evelyn’s abuela (grandmother) shows up from Puerto Rico and moves into Evelyn’s room with her bright orange hair and penciled-in eyebrows, tensions rise as Mami’s bottled-up resentment threatens to bubble over at any second. Manzano fills her descriptions of a typical (her words) Puerto Rican household with plenty of luscious details (tasty huevos frying up on the stove, plastic covering all the furniture, fake roses everywhere), and the Spanish and Spanglish words she sprinkles throughout the text add flavor to the story. But where Manzano really excels is in developing Evelyn’s coming of age and tying it in to a crucial moment in Latino history in New York and in America. As Evelyn starts asking her grandmother questions about her heritage and follows Abuela’s lead in getting involved with a Puerto Rican activist group called the Young Lords despite her mother’s intense disapproval (at least, at first), Evelyn not only learns what it takes to stand up for what is right but also what it means to be a confident and proud Latina woman.

Manzano mentions in the Afterword that she condensed the timeline of the Young Lords’ takeover of the church in East Harlem and a number of other pro-Puerto Rico events involving the activists in 1969 in order to fit the trajectory of Evelyn’s story. If Manzano wanted to write 100 more pages about the takeover, thereby stretching out the story, I would’ve read them. As it stands now, the book is an excellent launching point for further research and classroom discussion.

To read the original post, please visit Letter Blocks: The B&N Parents and Educators Blog.

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