The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya is a book I found via the new arrival shelf at the library. (Yay libraries!) I am so happy I found it too. It is an excellent book about family and community centered around the Cuban restaurant Arturo's family owns.
Arturo has high hopes for the summer. He will be working in his family's restaurant earning money. His mom's goddaughter, Carmen, is visiting and suddenly he is feeling all kinds of things in his gut he is unused to. When a greasy developer tries to convince the city council that what Arturo's Miami neighborhood needs is a high rise, the restaurant his family owns and runs (but is in a building they lease) is threatened. Arturo is determined to save the day, win the girl, and make his Abuela, who pours her heart into the restaurant, community and its people, proud.
The kids in this book, with Arturo in the lead, are wonderful. I loved the entire cast of characters. Arturo is definitely going to be a favorite of mine for a while. His inner voice is perfect. Confused, frustrated, impatient, cocky, snarky, insecure-it runs the gamut of middle school emotions perfectly. His two best friends are foils for him in different ways and help the reader get to know Arturo quickly and well. The interactions between the three are amusing and realistic. Carmen is also wonderful. She and her father are staying in Miami for the summer following the death of Carmen's mother. She is still grieving, but is also a vibrant girl full of plans. She is reading poetry by Cuban revolutionary José Marti, which sparks an interest in the same in Arturo. Through this Arturo finds a connection to his Abuelo, who he discovers was a fan of Marti and even tried his hand at poetry himself.
Unlike a lot of MG novels, the adults are incredibly important in this book. The kids aren't fighting on their own. They aren't left to figure everything out and grieve and move on by themselves. There are times when Arturo takes matters into his own hands, but it isn't because the adults aren't present. And when those matters blow up in his face, he faces consequences and is loved by those adults. His entire family is wonderful and incredibly close. Several scenes take place during the family's Sunday dinners.
The plot of the book follows Arturo as he discovers what the land developer is up to and then tries to stop him. There is laughter, tears, anger, fights, and reconciliation. It is a story about friendship, first crushes, and community. At its core, it is a story about a boy who finds a connection between his present and his past. The main part of that centers on the relationship between Arturo and his Abuela, which is a beautiful story. I'm impressed by how well Cartaya was able to juggle all of this so well. He did an amazing job of balancing all these, while writing a book that is both fun and layered.
The setting of the book is crucial. The restaurant Arturo's family owns is the heart of their community. People come there to talk to Abuela as much as they come for the excellent food. Cartaya's descriptions of the restaurant bring it to vibrant life. I have to give him extra credit for describing how a restaurant kitchen works so well in a MG book. No idealization here. Another plus of this book is the untranslated Spanish it contains. The conversations between Arturo and his Abuela occur with her speaking Spanish and him responding in English. Through context, non-Spanish speakers (like me) can figure out what is being said. The inclusion of the Spanish is essential to making the book realistic and given the population of America's schools, we need more books that do this.
This book covers so many areas that MG age readers are looking for regularly in books, it is a must have for those who deal regularly with those kids.