The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano
Not to confuse anyone, but I have to start with p. 177 because that’s where you’ll find a reference to “that cool new show Sesame Street” (which debuted 1969), because first-time novelist Sonia Manzano has been playing Sesame Street‘s Maria for the last 30+ years! While the title says Evelyn Serrano, the book’s revolutionary events are directly inspired by Manzano’s own experiences, as well as real-life newspaper headlines. Manzano even borrowed her protagonist’s name from her own grandmother, Guadalupe Serrano Manzano, and her cousin Evelyn.
Just so we’re clear now: Sonia is not Maria, but she is Evelyn although not her cousin Evelyn. Got that?
Rosa María Evelyn del Carmen Serrano announces on her 14th birthday she’s dropping ‘Rosa’ for ‘Evelyn’ – “the least Puerto Rican-sounding name I could have” – because “El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, U.S.A., did not need another Rosa, María, or Carmen.” Summer 1969 is hot, and Evelyn has been released from working in her parents’ stifling bodega to get her first job at the Third Avenue five-and-dime.
She comes home one day to find she’s been displaced from her bedroom by a flamboyant grandmother she’s never met before, newly arrived from Puerto Rico. Abuela, Evelyn quickly realizes, is nothing like her subservient, long-suffering Mami. At first, the three generations of women hardly get along: Mami still resents Abuela for neglecting her most of her life, Abuela can’t understand why Mami doesn’t have a political bone in her body, and Evelyn just wants their bickering to stop.
Then the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, takes over the neighborhood streets with brooms, piling up the garbage that the city sanitation department seems to have forgotten and eventually setting it ablaze. They move from the streets to a local church, demanding to set up a free food program, offer clothing, and even health services for their struggling immigrant community. Abuela eagerly joins the protesters. Evelyn gets swept up in their change-making energy, gaining new pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. Even Mami gets distantly involved, at first only to ensure Evelyn’s safety … but stays long enough to realize she can make her own contributions.
The tumultuous Puerto Rican history – on both islands, in the Caribbean and on Manhattan – certainly makes for an exciting read; as a novel, however, that excitement glosses over occasional narrative gaps, especially the lack of any mention of the new school year, since the story unfolds between summer to the following winter. As for characters, stepfather Pops’ backstory seems necessary to balance knowing that Evelyn’s birthfather died while Mami was still pregnant, and smooth-talking Wilfredo’s sudden redemption feels rather forced.
What Revolution might lack in continuity and literary finesse most likely won’t keep readers turning the pages. While Evelyn’s name graces the cover, Abuela’s larger-than-life presence, her buried memories, her emotionally complicated struggles, are what spark and inspire the evolution that becomes Evelyn’s revolution.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult