Multi-award winning author and poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz's gorgeous teen novel, set on the American border with Mexico, about family and friendship, life and death, and one teen struggling to understand what his adoption does and doesn't mean about who he is.
A “mesmerizing, poetic exploration of family, friendship, love and loss” from the acclaimed author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. (New York Times Book Review)
Sal used to know his place with his adoptive gay father, their loving Mexican American family, and his best friend, Samantha. But it’s senior year, and suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and realizing he no longer knows himself. If Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?
This humor-infused, warmly humane look at universal questions of belonging is a triumph.
I have a memory that is almost like a dream: the yellow leaves from Mima’s mulberry tree are floating down from the sky like giant snowflakes. The November sun is shining, the breeze is cool, and the afternoon shadows are dancing with a life that is far beyond my boyhood understanding. Mima is singing something in Spanish. There are more songs living inside her than there are leaves on her tree.
She is raking the fallen leaves and gathering them. When she is done with her work, she bends down and buttons my coat. She looks at her pyramid of leaves and looks into my eyes and says, “Jump!” I run and jump onto the leaves, which smell of the damp earth.
All afternoon, I bathe in the waters of those leaves.
When I get tired, Mima takes my hand. As we walk back into the house, I stop, pick up a few leaves, and hand them to her with my five-year-old hands. She takes the fragile leaves and kisses them.
She is happy.
And me? I have never been this happy.
I keep that memory somewhere inside me—?where it’s safe. I take it out and look at it when I need to. As if it were a photograph.
Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and there was a hint of rain in the morning air. I felt the cool breeze on my face as I walked out the front door. The summer had been long and lazy, crowded with hot and rainless days.
Those summer days were over now.
The first day of school. Senior year. I’d always wondered what it would be like to be a senior. And now I was about to find out. Life was beginning. That was the story according to Sam, my best friend. She knew everything. When you have a best friend who knows everything, it saves you a lot of work. If you have a question about anything, all you have to do is turn to her and ask and she’ll just give you all the information you need. Not that life is about information.
Sam, she was smart as hell. And she knew stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. She also felt stuff. Oh, man, could Sam feel. Sometimes I thought she was doing all the thinking, all the feeling, and all the living for both of us.
Sam knew who Sam was.
Me? I guess I wasn’t always so sure. So what if sometimes Sam was an emotional exhibitionist, going up and down all the time? She could be a storm. But she could be a soft candle lighting up a dark room. So what if she made me a little crazy? All of it—?all her emotional stuff, her ever-changing moods and tones of voice—?it made her seem so incredibly alive.
I was a different story. I liked keeping it calm. I guess I had this control thing over myself. But sometimes I felt as if I weren’t doing any living at all. Maybe I needed Sam because being around her made me feel more alive. Maybe that wasn't logical, but maybe the thing we call logic is overrated.
So on the first day of school, the supposed beginning of our lives, I was talking to myself as I headed toward Sam’s house. We walked to school together every day. No cars for us. Shit. Dad liked to remind me that I didn’t need a car. “You have legs, don’t you?” I loved my dad, but I didn’t always appreciate his sense of humor.
I texted Sam as I reached her front door: I’m here! She didn’t answer.
I stood there waiting. And, you know, I got this weird feeling that things weren’t going to be the same. Sam called feelings like that premonitions. She said we shouldn’t trust them. She consulted a palm reader when we were in the ninth grade, and she became an instant cynic. Still, that feeling rattled me because I wanted things to stay the same—?I liked my life just fine. If things could always be the way they were now. If only. And, you know, I didn’t like having this little conversation with myself—?and I wouldn’t have been having it if Sam had just had a sense of time. I knew what she was up to. Shoes. Sam could never decide on the shoes. And since it was the first day of school, it really mattered. Sam. Sam and her shoes.
Finally she came out of the house as I was texting Fito. His dramas were different from Sam’s. I’d never had to live in the kind of chaos Fito endured every day of his life, but I thought he was doing pretty well for himself.
“Hi,” Sam said as she walked over, oblivious to the fact that I’d been standing there waiting. She was wearing a blue dress. Her backpack matched her dress, and her earrings dangled in the soft breeze. And her shoes? Sandals. Sandals? I waited all this time for a pair of sandals she bought at Target?
“Great day,” she said, all smiles and enthusiasm.
“Sandals?” I said. “That’s what I was waiting for?”
She wasn’t going to let me throw her off her game. “They’re perfect.” She gave me another smile and kissed me on the cheek.
“What was that for?”
“For luck. Senior year.”
“Senior year. And then what?”
“Don’t bring that word up again. That’s all we’ve talked about all summer.”
“Wrong. That’s all I’ve talked about. You were a little absent during those discussions.”
“Discussions. Is that what they were? I thought they were monologues.”
“Get over it. College! Life, baby!” She made a fist and held it high in the air.
“Yeah. Life,” I said.
She gave me one of her Sam looks. “First day. Let’s kick ass.”
We grinned at each other. And then we were on our way. To begin living.
The first day of school was completely forgettable. Usually I liked the first day—?everybody wearing new clothes and smiles of optimism, all the good thoughts in our heads, all the good attitudes floating around like gas balloons in a parade, and the pep rally slogans—?Let’s make this the greatest year ever! Our teachers were all about telling us how we had it in us to climb the ladder of success in hopes that we might actually get motivated to learn something. Maybe they were just trying to get us to modify our behavior. Let’s face it, a lot of our behavior needed to be modified. Sam said that ninety percent of El Paso High School students needed behavior modification therapy.
This year I just was not into this whole first-day experience. Nope. And then of course Ali Gomez sat in front of me in my AP English class for the third year in a row. Yeah, Ali, a leftover from past years who liked to flirt with me in hopes that I’d help her with her homework.
“[A] mesmerizing, poetic exploration of family, friendship, love and loss. In Sal, Sáenz gives his readers a young man equal parts strong, vulnerable, wise and loving.” - New York Times Book Review
"Sáenz’s optimistic view of young people — and adults in general — shines through and lifts the reader up." - Hypable.com
"This new novel has all the same qualities that made you fall in love before: deeply human protagonists, a gentle, warm manner of addressing difficult issues, and finding a sense of identity." - Bustle
"Saenz is a treasure whose works should not be missed..." —VOYA
"Sáenz’s distinctive prose style is lyrical and philosophical..." —Horn Book
? "The themes of love, social responsibility, death, and redemption are expertly intertwined with well-developed characters and acompellingstory line. This complex, sensitive, and profoundly moving book is beautifully written and will stay with readers. VERDICT A must-purchase title, recommended for all school and public libraries." —School Library Journal, starred review
? "The well-constructed pacing of the novel, with its beautifully expansive prose punctuated by text messages between Sal and Sam, demonstrates the author's talent for capturing the richness of relationships among family and friends. The author of Printz Honor-winning Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) offers another stellar, gentle look into the emotional lives of teens on the cusp of adulthood." —Kirkus, starred review
? "Written in short chapters that eloquently describe Sal’s deepest fears and most intense moments of affection, the story celebrates compassion and the love of family." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"As Sal tries to understand the way his fists seem to be acting on their own, as he sorts through memories and feelings about mothers in general and his mother in particular, Sal wraps readers in a 464-page hug, sharing longing and insight that ultimately affirms the goodness of strong families with the generosity to draw in and rescue those in need of steady, solid, unconditional love." —Bulletin
"What the world needs now is a book like this one. Profoundly important and moving. Read it."—Bill Konigsberg, Stonewall Award-winning author of Openly Straight and The Porcupine of Truth
“Thought-provoking and uplifting, this compelling coming-of-age novel treats the complexities of being human with compassion, and—above all—love.”—Francisco Jiménez, Pura Belpré Honor-winning author of Breaking Through and Reaching Out
“A needed, lovely, and powerful book”—Connie Griffin, Bookworks, Albuquerque
"Sáenz presents readers with several beautifully drawn relationships... Sal is one of those characters you wonder about after the book is closed. Maybe Sáenz will tell us more."
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