We have the great honor of being a judge for the Nerds Heart YA tournament of books! Launched in 2009 by the very fabulous Renay, Nerds Heart YA's goal is to highlight underrepresented books by diverse writers. Our job is to choose between Pull, by B.A. Binns, and Efrain's Secret, by Sofia Quintero. We'll post reviews of both books this week, and we'll announce our decision on June 27th.
272pp. Knopf Books. 9780375847066
Like Pull, which we reviewed on Tuesday, Efrain's Secret is the story of a young man facing tough choices. Efrain Rodriguez is a South Bronx high-school senior with big plans: he's set on heading to Harvard, although he knows the odds are stacked against him. His single mom can't even afford the SAT prep course that will boost his scores enough to meet Harvard's standards, let alone tuition. Efrain doesn't bother to ask his dad, who traded in his family for a younger, foxier wife and new baby. With few options and fewer resources, Efrain turns to his old friend, Nestor, who funds his own big dreams as a dealer. Soon, Efrain's making enough money dealing to brings his dreams closer to the world of the possible. But Efrain is having more and more trouble keeping his new job a secret from his family and his girlfriend, and Efrain is going to have to figure out how much his dreams are worth.
Efrain is so lovable, hilarious, and charming that his story pulls you in from the first paragraph. His girlfriend Candace is a fantastic character in her own right; she's tough, funny, and vulnerable underneath her scrappy exterior. The cast of supporting characters is equally well-developed: the popular and foxy GiGi is full of surprises by the book's end; Nestor is sympathetic and good-hearted even as he's navigating the complicated politics of the streets; Efrain's bestie Chingy is funny and feisty, and his building conflict with Efrain gives the book some serious tension. Efrain's slangy, wisecracking voice is so believable it's like he's sitting in the room with you, telling you his story. Sofia Quintero writes beautifully about the relationships men have with each other; Efrain and Nestor's friendship is especially well developed. Efrain hates lying to everyone around him; Nestor hates the fact that his childhood best friend--and coworker--won't acknowledge him in public for fear of being found out. Likewise, Efrain's relationship with Candace--a survivor of Hurricane Katrina who wants nothing more than to return home, even as Efrain is desperate to leave his own--is touching and complicated. Quintero doesn't moralize; it's up to the reader to decide whether Efrain's choices are good ones, and she makes it clear that some people don't have very many choices at all without coming across as preachy or heavy-handed. But it's Efrain's fresh, funny voice that makes this book truly stand out.