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We Were Here by Matt de la Peña (42)
labandbooks
proseandkahn
This story is told in journal format by Miguel, who has been sentenced to a group home and required to keep the court-ordered journal. His sentencing is almost a relief to him, as his mother hasn't spoken much to him since he was arrested. We don't get too many details about what he did, but can slowly infer through details revealed throughout the five months the journal covers. 

The group home is run by Jaden, who tries very hard to be cool with his charges, but it takes Miguel less than a day to get into a fight. When he is introduced to his housemates, Mong, the Chinese kid with the shaved head and weird scars on his face, spits on him.  Miguel charges again even after receiving the advice to back off from one of the housemates.  At the same time, he recognizes something in this kid. Mong doesn't have anything to lose and really doesn't care about consequences. A few days later, Miguel awakens to find Mong standing over him staring and smiling while Miguel slept. After feeling a brief moment of panic, Miguel decides that he himself has nothing left to lose and doesn't care what Mong does to him. When he tells Mong that, the crazy smile slowly drops off Mong's face, he leaves Miguel's room and leaves him alone.

Miguel remains aloof from his housemates, rarely interacts with them or with Jaden and retreats into reading by deciding he will read the house "library," starting with The Color Purple. His solitude is disrupted when he finds that he has a room-mate. Miguel is shocked to discover that it will be, Rondell (with 2 l's), his cellmate from "juvie." Rondell's huge but mentally slow. He's quick to forgive and forget though as Miguel discovered back in juvie after he disrespected Rondell. Miguel found himself on the floor, having difficulty breathing because Rondell's foot was  pushing down on his windpipe. Minutes later, Rondell had apparently completely forgotten the incident.

I had to smile each time Rondell appeared. He insists on calling Miguel "Mexico," even though Miguel is half-white, born in the U.S. and doesn't even speak Spanish. He can fall asleep at the drop of a hat and usually responds to everything Miguel says with some variation of "What," like, "Wha'chu think, Mexico?' or "Huh?"

Mong has plans to escape the group  home and asks Miguel to come with him. Miguel's not so sure he wants to escape so Mong gives him three days to think on it. Rondell asks Miguel to take him with them if he decides to leave. Mong has a ride to Mexico and a line on a job there. Rondell is tired of the system and wants out. Miguel decides disappearing might be better for everyone, including himself. While life on the run doesn't go as planned, the boys slowly learn to trust each other.

The characters are so well-developed and real that the reader (or this one anyway) just yearns to take them in and give them a good meal and a hug. It is mercilessly sad and yet hopeful despite the tragedy in each boy's life. I cringed, winced and cried with each calamity large and small. I usually read a book a day, but I took my time with this one. While I wanted to find out what happened to the three runaways, I didn't want to leave them. The story made me think long and hard about redemption. It constantly surprised. It also didn't let go of me too readily. I had a hard time picking up a new book to start. 


We Were Here won't be out until October, but I was lucky enough to receive an arc of it at ALA last month.  Matt de la Peña's two previous books have been on my tbr pile since each was published to great reviews. I will be wading through that burgeoning pile to  move them to the top as soon as my required reading is done. This young man can write.