fiction favorites…Becoming Naomi Leon

Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan 

She wore jeans, red boots, a black leather jacket, and a hefty splash of sweet gardenia perfume.  Her hair looked like that crayon called maroon, the one that’s not purple and not red but something in between, and for some reason I couldn’t take my eyes off her lipstick.  It was the exact same color as her hair and went up and down in a perfect rounded M on her top lip…
                The lady said, “My, you two have gotten big.”
                A strange, queasy feeling crawled around my stomach.
                “Naomi?  Owen?” she said.  “Get yourselves on over here and give me a hug!”
Slowly Gram shook her head back and forth, still looking dazed.  “You can’t just waltz in here after all these years and expect these children to recognize you.”
                “Don’t be silly,” said the lady.  “Children always know their mother.  Don’t you, darlings?” 

Naomi Soledad Leon Outlaw lives with her little brother Owen — a brilliant little kid, though troubled with a crooked and awkward body – and their spunky, loving great-grandmother in a cramped trailer at Avocado Acres Trailer Rancho.  Only in her haziest memories can she remember any other life.  Gram has patiently cared for them, comforted them, seen Owen through his numerous surgeries, and coaxed Naomi into speaking, though ghosts of past pain still silence her more often than not.  Naomi’s world in Lemon Tree, California, holds a number of other wonderful people as well – teachers, librarians, elderly neighbors – who quietly, steadily care for these children.  But one day, Naomi’s world turns cattywampus when her mother marches into her life, says her days of rehab and halfway houses are over, and asserts her right to raise her own daughter. 

 Naomi, along with her family and friends, is thrust into a stormy tug-of-war, earnestly desiring to keep her family together in this riveting, tender story.   It is a story colored with the culture of Oaxaca, Mexico, sparkling with a love for scintillating words, gripped with powerful emotions.  I fell in love with many of the characters, from list-making, soap-carving, soft-spoken Naomi, to Mr. Marble, a school librarian with the heart of a mother hen, to 69-year-old Gram, who not only has the fierce courage of a mama bear, but can make an entire wardrobe out of polyester scraps.  This is a book rooted in the sad reality of dysfunctional mothers who behave in stunning, selfish, wounding ways, yet bursting through and through with the warmth and hope and comfort of family and of ordinary people looking out for the wounded fledglings in our world.  I would recommend it for 5th grade and up, due to the emotional content of the story.  Exceptionally good.