My Brigadista Year

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
My Brigadista Year Book Poster Image
Compelling tale of teen literacy volunteer in 1961 Cuba.

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age 11+
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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Cuban history: dictator Batista and his involvement with the Mafia, 26th of July Movement, the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuban Literacy Campaign. Timeline of Cuban history in back begins with pre-history and arrival of Arawak and Taíno people. Intro to poet and patriot José Martí. Some simple Spanish words in context: brigadista, campesino, bandito, buenos días, quinceañera, abuela, empanada, maestra.

Positive Messages

It's good to help others and bring them along. Volunteerism is good. While you're helping others, you can learn from them. Reading and education are good. Young girls can work for the better, be brave, and be effective agents of change.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lora's smart, she loves to read and learn, and though her family's poor, she strategizes to go to a good school and get an education. She's selfless and self-sacrificing, volunteering to leave Havana for a year to help the campesinos learn to read. She's brave, not backing down from challenges or difficulties. She connects with people different from her, pitches in to help with the difficult farm work, and respects and learns from her students. She aspires to be a doctor, and an epilogue reveals she's going to volunteer in West Africa to fight Ebola.

Violence

Anti-revolutionary banditos threaten to kill the literacy teachers. They show up at Lora's host house and bang on the door with rifles. Mention of one teacher who was killed. The militia hunts down the banditos and it's implied that they kill them.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that My Brigadista Year is by beloved author Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia), who's garnered a string of accolades. She's won two Newbery Awards and National Book Awards, has served as our National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and has been named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and this historical novel does not disappoint. Set in 1961 in Cuba shortly after the Revolution, it follows a 13-year-old girl from Havana who volunteers to be a literacy teacher, or brigadista, in the countryside, where the program raised Cuba's literacy rate from 60 percent to an astounding 96 percent in just one year. There's the threat of violence from anti-revolutionary banditos holed up in the hills, mention of one young teacher who was killed, and implication that the banditos are themselves killed. This compelling story about a young girl seamlessly weaves in Cuban history and celebrates the value of using one's skills and abilities to bring others along and work for the greater good.

User Reviews

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Kid, 12 years old March 29, 2018
I loved this book because it was about a girl teaching people how to read and write and that is really cool. It also has history and stuff. The bandidos trying... Continue reading

What's the story?

The protagonist in MY BRIGADISTA YEAR, 13-year-old Lora, lives in Havana but decides to heed her country's call to reside for a year in the remote countryside, teaching the illiterate campesinos to read. Since her family's not well off, she's had to connive to get a good education, and now has to persuade her parents to let her go. After a training period, she arrives to stay with her host family, where she helps with the farm work while teaching them and a neighbor family to read. Anti-revolutionary holdouts threaten to kill the literacy brigadistas, and show up at her new home, banging on the door with rifles. Can Lora manage setbacks and challenges to successfully teach her students to read, and return home safely?

Is it any good?

This novel set in Cuba two years after the Revolution is both a page-turner and history lesson, skillfully written by a master of children's literature. The depth of research in My Brigadista Year is clear, but the book never reads like a weighty lecture. Award-winning author Katherine Paterson deftly opens a window onto this period and culture, involving us with Lora, who's bookish and shy with doubts and fears, but also determined and brave. And Paterson keeps the stakes high. When a gang of anti-revolutionary fighters threatens to kill the brigadistas, Lora's given the opportunity to return home, but weighs her options and chooses to stay, proving to be a strong female role model.

The values of the story are humanitarian. Lora's family struggled under Batista and is sympathetic to the socialist goals of the Cuban Revolution, and her uncle fought and died in an earlier uprising. In an epilogue, Lora acknowledges that Cuba is "not perfect, but we do have an educated, literate population. We do have doctors." She also says she hopes that "someone reading my story will better understand both me and the country I love." At a time when U.S.-Cuba relations are again in play, this book builds a bridge, inviting readers to view this impressive accomplishment of the Cuban Revolution -- helping a huge swath of citizens who were signing their names by thumbprint learn to read and write -- through the eyes of a brave, selfless, and very relatable young participant.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the history in My Brigadista Year. What did you know about Cuban history? What did you learn? Did any history in the story surprise you?

  • Do you think our perception of history is influenced by nationality or circumstance? How did the United States view the Cuban Revolution? How did the Cubans view it? Which Cubans were for or against it?

  • What did you think of Lora's decision to leave her family for a year at age 13? Can you think of ways you could contribute to your own community or country?

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