Drawn from a psalm in the Bible, the ancient adage “out of the mouth of babes” and its derivatives are tossed around with relative frequency to this day. The prevalence of the phrase, however, rarely seems to translate to actual respect for children’s voices. Baby talk well exceeds the age range that categorizes a baby, so when one hears a child being spoken to like a person, it is often a noticeable and refreshing reminder that they are one.
This month’s California Book Club pick is the short story collection Gordo, by Jaime Cortez. Narrated by a young boy, Gordo, after whom the collection is titled, the book captures the nuances of youthful voices and perspectives, giving us unique access to a more profound understanding of the world.
As Cortez reveals in his collection, when children need to translate for a parent, or even bridge a gap of cultural understanding, they may need to assume some adult responsibilities in their families’ new country at a young age. The protagonists of Gordo do this with endless wit and good humor.
After you finish Gordo, here are four other polyphonic books with compelling child protagonists, written by authors who treat their young characters with respect.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, December 15, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Cortez will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Sandra Cisneros to discuss Gordo. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.
In her brilliant debut collection, Fragoza dives headfirst into the feminine, the corporeal, and the mystical. Tale after tale unfolds with phenomenal characters and deeply compelling images. Two of her stories in particular give due attention to young characters, and one is narrated by a kid with two siblings. In “Lumberjack Mom,” the child describes the emotional turmoil of their mother, whose only outlet becomes the extremely physical acts of gardening and then tearing apart old wooden objects. From gnarled roots of ugly plants to decaying bookshelves, the Lumberjack Mom destroys wood in all its forms. Although they don’t fully know why she has begun this effort, the children demonstrate an intuitive understanding of what she needs. They get her an axe and a pile of logs, and when she starts to lose interest in the demolition that had previously moved her, they pile wood around the house. There’s a beautiful innocence to their luring her out with these little piles of wood, even though they also worry about what it is, exactly, that they’re feeding.
Even the title of Orange’s dazzling book echoes the classic phrase of reassurance used to comfort a child. The California Book Club pick of November 2021 weaves together the stories of 12 characters to portray Native life in Oakland. As the novel progresses, telling stories of substance use, violence, love, sacrifice, loss, and belonging, the hidden dynamics of characters’ relationships are revealed. Orange oscillates between first person, third person, and even a chapter narrated in second person. Characters of all ages come to life on the page as the story barrels forward to a tragic climax that affects them all. Throughout the novel, children and young adults uncover the inequality in the world they live in, often providing “random cash…left on the kitchen table in envelopes” for their mothers and siblings and underscoring the suffering of not feeling Indian enough.
Arimah’s striking collection features stories that strike at the complexities and desires of living and all that is said and remains unsaid in different social relationships. The witty and clever young narrator at the center of “War Stories” decides one day to oust the girl-club leader at her school by proving that the leader doesn’t wear a bra. When the narrator is punished at school and forced to face her parents, she cuts to the core of her family dynamic with a gorgeous line about her father: “I wasn’t sure if he was contemplating his next move or if this was the genesis of one of the thick skins of silence my mother would spend days peeling off.”
The stories in Quade’s collection propel the reader forward with a gleeful sense of anticipation. The book opens with “Nemecia,” a stunning story about the titular character, who slowly abuses Maria, the cousin she lives with. Told from the perspective of Maria, the story allows us to bear witness to her tragedy and her yearning. When we find out that Nemecia has lied about the reason she lives with Maria, Maria’s evolving assessment of her cousin feels even more piercing. Quade reveals profound insight into the cruelties of the world.