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Burn Baby Burn

Review

Burn Baby Burn

If you’ve read any of Meg Medina’s books, you’re a fan of Meg Medina; if you are not a fan of Meg Medina that just means you haven’t read any of her books yet. Her young adult novel YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS won the Pura Belpre Author Award in 2014. And her recent picturebook, MANGO, ABUELA AND ME, won a 2016 Pura Belpre Author Honor Award.

BURN BABY BURN is Medina’s newest book. It is a historical fiction novel intended for young adults, although I think that adults will love it as well, especially if they grew up in the ‘70s or in New York City. Seventeen-year-old Nora Lopez and her best friend Kathleen are seniors and on the verge of the summer of 1977 in New York City. They have the usual concerns of girls that age including love and what to do after high school, but they have an additional worry this summer—the Son of Sam. The Son of Sam is a serial killer who is tormenting New York City with his seemingly random victims and his cryptic communications. Although random, all of his victims fit the profile of being young, most often female, and out after dark, usually on a date or with a boyfriend. And many of the victims have had long dark hair, which also happens to be one of Nora’s physical traits. Nora, Kathleen and many of the city’s young people change their routines and stay at home in the hopes of not becoming Son of Sam’s next victim.

"Through her examination of feminism in 1977 Medina also holds up a mirror to issues of women’s rights in 2016 that allows us to see how far we have come and how far we have yet to go."

Unfortunately, the potential violence of Son of Sam is not the only worry in Nora’s life as her younger brother Hector has become increasingly violent, both verbally and physically, towards Nora and her single mother. Nora’s mother, Mima, is constantly making excuses for Hector’s behavior and pushing Nora to take more responsibility for her younger brother and his actions and decisions. However, Hector has recently gotten further involved with a bad group from the neighborhood and his school attendance has dropped dramatically while his behavior becomes increasingly more erratic, dangerous and destructive. His actions ultimately result in a dramatic change to the neighborhood and to his own future.
 
Besides graduating from high school all Nora wants to do is save enough money to move out of the apartment she shares with her Mima and brother. Although the high school counselor and the shop teacher are pushing her to attend college in the fall it is not on Nora’s radar, even though she is a particularly talented carpenter and woodworker. Ever since her dad left and started a new family, money has been extremely tight for Nora’s family and is a constant source of tension and stress in the family, which is another reason that college seems like a dream to Nora.
 
Nora has been working at the neighborhood delicatessen as a cashier since she was 14. But this year things change at the deli when a new stock boy is hired. Paulie, or Pablo, is gorgeous, a college student and has his own car. In addition, he immediately develops a thing for Nora and while her attraction to Paulie cannot be denied, she hesitates to get involved with him for two reasons. First of all, there is Son of Sam to worry about --- as he targets couples Nora doesn’t want to put herself or Paulie at a heightened risk by being together. Second, Nora is embarrassed by her family life, particularly their low socioeconomic status and Hector’s violence, and she is afraid that if she becomes involved with Paulie he will find out about her home life.
 
All of these issues and events that Nora is dealing with, plus the record breaking heat and a series of arsons contribute to one hot summer for Nora in BURN BABY BURN.
 
Medina’s writing style is crisp and realistic, yet descriptive. The plot is compelling and moves the story along quickly; however, none of the plot points feel contrived or forced. The characterization of Nora makes her feel both like a "girl next door" type as well as a strong and unique young lady who is coming into her own. Although the Son of Sam murders are a thread that runs throughout the novel, Medina doesn’t sensationalize on the deaths and treats the victims in a respectful way.
 
Great historical fiction serves to illuminate the lives of a few individuals from a time period while at the same time shedding light on the bigger issues of the time. The best historical fiction manages to do both of these as well as to reflect our current society, with all its issues, back at us. In this sense BURN BABY BURN is the best historical fiction as it accomplishes all three. For example, feminism is a theme and topic throughout the novel. Medina provides descriptions of the state of women’s rights and feminism in 1977. Medina also shows how feminism intersects with Nora’s life and her growing awareness of feminism and what it means to be a feminist. Through her examination of feminism in 1977 Medina also holds up a mirror to issues of women’s rights in 2016 that allows us to see how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

Reviewed by Aimee Rogers on March 31, 2016

Burn Baby Burn
by Meg Medina