The Insiders

The Insiders
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Release Date
September 21, 2021
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Three kids who don’t belong. A room that shouldn’t exist. A year that will change everything.
Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Meg Medina, this debut middle grade novel from award-winning author Mark Oshiro is a hopeful and heartfelt coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in.
San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.

Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of friendship, adventure, and just a little bit of magic.

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Héctor Muñoz and his family move from San Francisco to Orangevale, California so his mother can take a high powered teaching job and the family can be closer to Abuela Sonia. He misses his good friends, and has a rocky start to the school year, where the teachers are more concerned about "proper" behavior than in making sure students are kind to each other. Ms. Heath goes as far as telling Héctor that he is NOT being bullied by Mike, because Mike is a good student. Mike, as well as his minions, are absolutely bullying Héctor in the worst kind of ways-- calling him "gay" as an insult even though he has made it clear that he IS gay, causing physical harm, and hunting him down every single day on his way into the building. Desperate for relief, Héctor ducks into a janitors closet for a moment of peace. To his surprise, the closet seems to have magical properties, and serves as a portal to other students who are struggling in other parts of the country. Juliana is in Charleston, South Carolina, and her Dad is Chinese and her mother is black. She's struggling because her school is demolishing the library. Sal, whose dad is Filipino and whose mom is white, struggles to get fellow students in their school in Phoenix understand that they are nonbinary. The janitor's closet has different appearances at their school, but serves as a Harry Potter-esque room of requirement, complete with beds and bean bag chairs, food, and other supplies. Best of all, when the kids go into the room, no time passes in the real world, so they aren't late for classes after catching a nap, getting a snack, and generally taking a break from the problems that they face. Eventually, they are able to travel into each other's worlds to help with problems, and having friends, even if they are far away, helps them all deal with middle school.
Good Points
This was a nice twist on some classic fantasy features, like portals to other worlds or magical rooms. Héctor's family is very supportive of him, and this is not a coming out story, although Héctor's life is certainly impacted by his identity. It's good that he finds a group of friends at his real school, even if they aren't exactly the friends he wants, and it's very realistic that the school wouldn't have a theater program. The fantasy world is well developed, although the room is so cool that I wouldn't have minded a lot more details.

There were some aspects of how schools work that seemed unlikely-- all of the closets at my school are locked, and I am not sure that putting a library into an abandoned classroom would work, but younger readers won't mind. In fact, younger readers probably enjoy how the school has places that are a bit more secret, and certainly using them for travel is quite fun!

This is one of the growing number of books I've seen with LGBTQIA+ characters involved in a fantasy story line, like Perry's Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms. I'm sure we'll be seeing more.
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