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My Brigadista Year
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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.
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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