Isabel Quintero’s debut YA novel, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, is witty, exciting, and heart-felt. Through a diary entry narrative, the novel follows Gabi Hernandez through her senior year in high school. Gabi is a self-identified light skinned fat Mexican with an insatiable appetite for hot wings, tacos, sopes, and poetry. The novel opens with a fantastic obsession for hot wings and with Sebastian, Gabi’s best friend, coming out to her. In a small piece of paper Sebastian writes “I’m gay” which does not surprise Gabi but is instead more concerned about how his parents will react. Cindy, Gabi’s other best friend, also confesses to Gabi that she had sex with German and might be pregnant. Gabi, who is still a virgin, is taken aback but comforts Cindy in her time of need and together they discover that Cindy is in fact pregnant. By the end of the novel Gabi has had her first kiss, broken up with her first boyfriend, and has sex with her second boyfriend. To top it all off, the Hernandez family must also contend with the father’s meth addiction which ultimately kills him. Poetry and letter writing give Gabi an opportunity to process all of the difficulties that she and her friends endured throughout the year.
Gabi: A Girl in Pieces covers an array of themes, like sexuality, body image, addiction, coming out, writing, healing, and teen pregnancy, among others, that attempt to speak to the experiences of Latino youth in the United States. The opening lines of the novel reveal that Gabi’s mom had her out of wedlock and has since been shunned by the grandmother. The dichotomy of the “good girl/bad girl” is a burden that follows Gabi throughout the novel. Her naiveté about sex and relationships makes her susceptible to her mother’s and Tia Bertha’s religious banter about womanhood—“ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Gabi, however, is quick to question her mother’s indoctrination, to point out the contradictions in their own behavior, and in what they expect from her brother. Gabi’s mother’s constant insistence to be a “good girl” is also tied to a rejection of American identity. In other words, Gabi’s mother suggests that having sex or going away to college, things “bad girls” do, are part of American culture and Gabi’s desire to participate in such behavior further distances her from their Mexican identity. The juxtaposition of how Latina women should behave in accordance to their culture and religion to how American women behave has been signaled as the key reason for why Latina teens are at a higher risk of attempting and committing suicide in the United States (see Luis Zayas). Research, national reports, and media coverage on the topic argue that there exists a generational tension between mothers and daughters of Latino descent in the US. This tension is said to lead to higher risk of depression, low self-esteem, and potential self-harm. While Gabi’s character does not follow that pattern, it is clear that the tension with her mother impact the ways she sees herself.
There are many qualities that make Gabi stand out within the genre of Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. What I find specifically unique about this novel is the thorough engagement with drug addiction. Gabi’s entries capture the barrage of feelings of living with someone that’s dependent on a drug. She explains that there would be days, weeks, and even months when they might not hear from her father because he’s on a high binge. They might also see him at the park getting high with the other drug addicts. As children, their dad would take them along to pick up his meth. At the end, Gabi finds him overdosed and dead with a pipe in hand in the garage. The novel attempts to highlight how an entire family can be harmed by addiction. While the father’s backstory is never fully developed (because, obviously, he is not the focus of the story), the story suggests that drug addiction is a disease affecting many Latino communities and deserves further attention. That Quintero brings it up in her book provides an opportunity to discuss how children are impacted by a parents’ drug addiction.
Overall, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces is an extraordinary read with the potential to create various dialogues in and outside the classroom. Gabi struggles with body image because of her body type and light skin color, Cindy eventually reveals that she was raped by German, and Sebastian gets kicked out of his house for coming out. Gabi’s body image issues allow us to examine representations of Latino bodies in popular culture, cultural expectations on the body, and the centering of light skin bodies over darker skin ones in Latino culture. By the end of the novel it is suggested that Cindy might seek counseling for what happened to her but there is definite tension about whether her rape is an individual problem or one that should be addressed by a community. Without having anywhere else to go Sebastian is forced to stay with his aunt who believes religion will cure him of his queerness. And while Sebastian eventually joins the LGBTQ club at school there seems to be little support coming from his Latino community. Gabi is clever and sarcastic and extremely funny. It’s a book that details the inner thoughts and struggles of a young Latina on a journey to self-empowerment or a book about a young Latina’s long journey to Pepe’s House of Wings.
The use of a diary style of Gabi presents a great opportunity to ask students to keep their own diary or journal while they read the novel. One way to approach this type of assignment would be to ask the student to responds to each of Gabi’s entries. However, because so much of Gabi’s experience is concerned with sex education and sex it’ll be important to establish conversation guidelines with the class. The opening diary entry reveals how sex ed. and sex is gendered. Gabi’s grandmother beats her daughter for getting pregnant and as a result Gabi’s mom tries to impose those conservative and traditional views on Gabi. Students can respond to the opening entry by writing about the values that their families, communities, or the media have tried to impart on them regarding sex. When teaching Gabi it is also important to be aware that many experiences with sex are closely tied to some sort of violence or trauma as is the case with Cindy. When discussing and writing about Cindy’s rape it’ll be extremely significant to steer away from conversations that blame the victim. A more productive approach would be to talk about ways to make communities accountable to issues of sexual assault and street harassment. A diary entry assignment will help students closely engage with the themes of the novel by allowing them to practice character analysis and by giving them a space to connect their personal experiences to what they read.
Another way to approach teaching a novel like Gabi is to talk about diary keeping as a genre. The use of the diary to tell a story has a very long literary tradition so it will be important to talk with students about why this might be the case. In other words, consider why diaries have existed this long, what their purposes may have been (or if the purpose has changed), and why Quintero chose to write Gabi in this form. Discussing Facebook, twitter, and other relevant social media might also create a fruitful discussion on diary keeping in the 21stcentury. An interesting digital media project might be to ask students what Gabi might be tweeting, posting, liking, etc. given what they know from her diary. A more literary approach would be to discuss other Latina/o children’s and young adult texts in this genre like Amada Irma Perez’s My Diary from Here to There. While My Diary is a children’s illustrated text it nonetheless makes use of the diary form to capture a story of pain, struggle, and love.
Gabi also opens up a dialogue about addiction that can lead to many powerful discussions about substance abuse in communities of color. A few other Latina/o young adult texts that deal with issues of addiction include Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster, E.E. Charlon-Trujillo’s Fat Angie, and Gloria Velazquez’s Tyrone’s Betrayal. The young protagonists of these novels have some sort of relationship to addiction which influences their own understanding of drugs and alcohol and how they deal with pain and trauma. Conversations about addiction can be very difficult to have so it will be important to discuss triggers and trigger warnings when breaching the subject. If students are not comfortable discussing the topic then returning to the use of the diary form can provide a safe space for student to still engage the conversation. Students do not always have to provide a personal response but can instead think about Gabi’s actions and reactions to her father’s addiction. Gabi often expresses frustration at her mother for enabling or putting up with her husband’s addiction. Gabi’s younger brother feels unloved and eventually rebels because of the situation at home. Asking students what the families different experiences reveal about addiction complicates popular understandings of what addiction looks like and how it can be cured.
Also published with Latin@s in Kids Lit: http://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/10/20/libros-latins-gabi-a-girl-in-pieces/