Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots Book Poster Image
Vibrant novel in verse shows anti-Latino racism in '40s L.A.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Provides a glimpse of life on the home front: inside a USO club where young servicemen on their way to the front lines jitterbug with locals girls to the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller. Outside the club, a confusing world where Mexican Americans are considered "white" under local laws but still encounter enormous prejudice -- being punished for speaking Spanish at work or in school, only allowed in public swimming pools on Friday nights before the pools are drained, cleaned. 

Positive Messages

Truth can triumph over prejudice.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Marisela and Lorena are determined and ambitious. At a time and place where opportunities are denied them simply because of their ethnicity, they let nothing stand in the way as they fight not only for their own right to a better life but also for the rights of their fellow workers.

Violence

While the violence before and during the Zoot Suit Riots is not graphically described, the emotional impact on the boys and men who are chased down, beaten, and arrested is vividly portrayed.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Numerous acts of violence are committed by men who are drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots is the latest novel from Margarita Engle, the national Young People's Poet Laureate. Set against a backdrop of the racial prejudices that inflamed Los Angeles during World War II and written in free verse, it's primarily told in the alternating voices of Mexican American siblings Marisela, Lorena, and Ray. Marisela and Lorena are "owls," girls who work all day and spend their nights dancing with sailors at a USO club. But while white servicemen might dance with Mexican American girls, their bigotry and racism still runs deep. One summer night in 1943, they go on a rampage (not graphically described) through L.A., beating up any Mexican American boy or man wearing a zoot suit -- a loose-fitting suit with wide legs and exaggerated shoulders. It's a story of the home front during World War II that's rarely told: one of families with fathers and sons serving overseas, who still find themselves "treated as invaders" by many in their community. For readers not familiar with zoot suits, ducktail haircuts, wartime USOs, or Rosie the Riveter, a quick Google image search might be a helpful first step before beginning the novel.

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What's the story?

As JAZZ OWLS opens in the summer of 1942, 16-year-old Marisela and her 14-year-old sister, Lorena, are working in a cannery by day and spending their nights jitterbugging with sailors at a USO. Respectable girls, they're accompanied each night by Ray, their younger zoot suit-wearing brother. With an older brother serving in the military, their Mexican American family feels as patriotic as any other family in Los Angeles, even though many in the community (including some police and newspaper reporters) see them as "invading foreigners." In the summer of 1943, tensions boil over, as servicemen begin beating up any Mexican American boy or man wearing a zoot suit in what the newspapers would call the Zoot Suit Riots. The riots are a turning point for Marisela, Lorena, and Ray, as each of them takes on challenges they might have previously thought impossible. Marisela becomes a union organizer at the cannery, Lorena goes to work as a "Rosie the Riveter" on a production line making bombers, and Ray returns to high school and begins working part-time in a bomb making factory. A brief epilogue lets readers know what happens to each of them after the close of the war.

Is it any good?

This story of family, racial strife, and the meaning of patriotism is told in vibrant free verse set to the beat of swing bands and Latino rhythms. The multiple points of view and fast-paced storyline of Jazz Owls may be a bit of a challenge for some readers, particularly if they're not already familiar with zoot suits, ducktail haircuts, USO dances, or Rosie the Riveter.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Jazz Owls explores the meaning of patriotism. What makes a family "patriotic"? Is it where they were born, having a family member in the military, or something that's harder to describe?

  • Why do you think white sailors in the novel view Mexican American girls so differently from their brothers?

  • Jazz Owls shows that people often judged Mexican American young men by how they dressed. If they wore zoot suits, they were troublemakers. Do students in your school ever dress in ways that make people prejudge them?

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