Summer adventures in Florida
Arturo lives in a very close knit community-- his family owns an apartment building, and his family, his grandmother, and most of his aunts and uncles live there. This summer, even a friend of his mother's is staying at the complex with his daughter, Carmen, to regroup after the death of Carmen's mother. Arturo is oddly drawn to her, but reminds himself that she is practically his cousin! There's a lot going on in his abuela's restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla, where his mother is the head chef. Not onlky does Arturo have a job as a junior dishwasher, but the family is trying to expand the place in order to do more business. The only problem? The slick Wilfrido Pipo comes to Canal Grove and wants to put up Pipo Place. This new apartment building will have it all, and Wilfrido is trying to get community buy in by having lots of parties and promising to increase business to the area. The problem? His plan involves tearing down abuela's restaurant! The family goes all out to save it, but will it be enough to appeal to Canal Grove's sense of family? And will Arturo be able to talk to Carmen without too many "epic fails"?
Weaving in some Spanish vocabulary, this warm tale of family, food and friends is a delightful change from the standard tales of gloom and doom coming out for middle grade readers. I loved that the Zamoras were able to work together without too much family drama, and that their community valued their contributions. While there were some sad things (the death of Carmen's mother before the book opens, and another death during it), they were handled with resilience and pragmatism. No one becomes inconsolable and unable to function, which I thought was much more realistic. There is even a scene where Arturo's mother asks him to help with the funeral dinner-- she cries over her loss but is able to go on, even using the cooking to bond with Arturo and help him through the situation, instead of being unable to care for him. We need to see more of these coping skills in middle grade literature!
There is an interesting sub plot involving Arturo's growing interest in poetry which ties into his discovery of Carmen as a girl instead of a "cousin" that will intrigue readers, and perhaps get them to investigate the work of Jose Marti. This was another instance of bringing a more hopeful tone to the story-- Arturo's grandfather was fond of Marti's work, and Arturo gets to know more about his deceased grandfather through reading journals he had kept when he moved to the US.
While the family's Cuban heritage is vividly portrayed, it is integral to the story instead of being the main focus. Family, and the family business, figures largely, and Arturo's teenage concerns are paramount. Will he be taken seriously as a dishwasher? Can he care for his abuela? What will happen to his family if the restaurant goes under? Does Carment like him? Readers will identify with these concerns while having a window into what it would be like to live in a close knit Florida community.
Fans of Johnson's The Great Green Heist, Grabenstein's Wonderland Motel series, and Paul Acampora's books about the adventures of middle grade boys will gobble up The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora... and probably get hungry for churros while reading this humorous and insightful tale.