Publisher: Running Press Kids
Release: March 11, 2014
As a straight-A student with a budding romance and loyal best friend, M.T.’s life seems as apple-pie American as her blondish hair and pale skin. But M.T. hides two facts to the contrary: her full name of Monserrat Thalia and her status as an undocumented immigrant.A movement called Quiet YA has recently gained popularity in the YA community. It started out as a Twitter hashtag that readers used to promote YA books that deserved more buzz than they got—and it became an instant hit. Then, with the collaboration of several authors and bloggers, Quiet YA evolved into a larger project, featuring a week of blog posts and giveaways celebrating lesser-known teen books.
But it’s harder to hide now that M.T.’s a senior. Her school’s National Honor Society wants her to plan their trip abroad, her best friend won’t stop bugging her to get her driver’s license, and all everyone talks about is where they want to go to college. M.T. is pretty sure she can’t go to college, and with high school ending and her family life unraveling, she’s staring down a future that just seems empty. In the end, M.T. will need to trust herself and others to stake a claim in the life that she wants.
Author Maria E. Andreu draws from her personal experience as a (formerly) undocumented immigrant to explore an issue that affects over one million children in the U.S. But while the subject matter is timely, it is M.T.’s sharp, darkly funny voice and longing for a future that makes this story universally poignant.
I absolutely love the Quiet YA efforts. It's disheartening to see a book I enjoyed fall to the sidelines for some reason or another, and while every book cannot attain John Green-esque popularity, I love working to gain more recognition for quieter novels. As a blogger, I enjoy reviewing big-name books that everyone has read, but I find it more fulfilling to review smaller books that more people should read.
The Secret Side of Empty is one of these lesser-known but lovely books. I haven't heard too much talk about it, but I am so glad I decided to pick it up.
I read Maria E. Andreu's debut at the perfect time—during college application season—and each chapter was tinted with my own college-related stress and excitement. This timing allowed me to absolutely ache for M.T. and her presumed inability to seek higher education. As much as every college-bound teenager hates the application process, I cannot imagine not having the option of college, not having reasonable funds to pay tuition, not having the ability to apply for federal aid. However, Andreu's writing so vividly and emotionally describes M.T.'s experience that readers do begin to understand a sliver of the character's struggle. In fact, the author evocatively portrays many aspects of the illegal immigrant experience: the pervasive fear of being deported, the reluctance to tell friends, and so much more. As a result, this book has the power to be both relatable and eye-opening—I would love to hand The Secret Side of Empty to young immigrants and to people who picket with anti-immigration signs, as both parties could glean something meaningful from M.T.'s tale.
Equally emotional is the protagonist's toxic relationship with her father. On top of her other worries, M.T. deals with his verbal and physical abuse, creating even more opportunities for saddening scenes. As with every book that deals with parental abuse, I loved feeling enraged on M.T.'s behalf, and I cheered relentlessly as I watched her learn to stand up to him. But M.T.'s story stands out next to similar tales thanks to her family's immigration status; she cannot call the police for fear of being deported, and her father's depressing disappointment with his life in the United States helps explain his actions.
On a lighter note, M.T.'s budding romance is impeccably written. Her love interest has all the makings of a perfect YA crush—he's clever, kind, and funny—but he is not the focus of the story. The romance exists primarily to shape M.T. and her personal journey, not as an obligatory toss-in meant to give readers a couple to "ship." Best of all, while the two character's relationship is adorable and enjoyable to read about, it is not portrayed as the end-all, be-all of each character's love life. It is simply portrayed as a fun high school relationship, the same kind of relationship most real teenagers have. In a world of YA characters who find their soul mates in high school—or while leading a revolution against a dystopian government, or in the middle of a battlefield—I appreciated the realism of this romance.
This book's romance combines with the story's more somber side to create a book that really should be more popular. The Secret Side of Empty is not only a well-written book, but an important book, showing that "immigration laws" are not just political buzzwords, but real obstacles for countless people. It's a story both personal and universal, and it left me hoping for another book by Andreu in the near future.