Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: ALEBRIJES by Donna Barbra Higuera
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Casey Grenier:
Donna Barba Higuera’s ALEBRIJES is a story that will stick with readers; it is a thought-provoking journey through a dystopian future, filled with all the beauty, evil, and desperation that humanity has to offer, incorporating the rich details of Mexican folklore, and set in a world facing the consequences of environmental destruction and resource scarcity. Higuera finds a way to create a foreboding sense of fear and anxiety while wrapping readers in a velvety blanket of love, loyalty, and family.
ALEBRIJES begins in the city of Pocatel, where we find young pickpocket Leandro and his little sister, Gabi, trying to get to sleep despite the chilling screams of wyrms just outside of their encampment. The murderous nocturnal wyrms surrounding the city confine Leandro and Gabi, as well as the rest of the impoverished Cascabel people and the Pocatelan citizens, to their homes at night. The shrieks of the wyrms also serve to remind the citizens of what awaits them should they be exiled from the city; a fate that comes easily to the Cascabeles for crimes as innocuous as a failure to harvest enough potatoes or possessing money and that the Pocatelans may receive for questioning the city’s ruling Imperator or Directors.
The Cascabeles survived the end of the old world as foragers, hunting and gathering in the wilderness. When faced with famine while searching for La Cuna, a fabled land of plenty, they took shelter in the city of Pocatel. The Pocatelan elite took the Cascabel in, but at the cost of their freedom and human dignity. Confined to the pox encampments on the edge of the city, forced to work long, backbreaking hours in the potato fields for rotten scraps of food, and stripped of their own culture, the Cascabel existence in Pocatel is one of endless fear and despair. Leandro dreams of one day escaping the city so that he and Gabi can forage as their people did in the past.
But tomorrow, once again, Franco will call me names and steal my papas. And he will be right. Once again, I will be too small to fight back. Soon, what I pick won’t be enough to save Gabi or Jo or myself.
Gabi’s hand slips into mine. What are you thinking?
Just another great joke I will tell you later, I say, lying.
I won’t let you have the smallest pile, Gabi. I’ll find a way to get us out of this valley sooner than we planned, even if it means leaving our own people. Soon, we will be free. (p 27)
When Gabi is caught stealing a strawberry in the city market, Leandro takes the blame to spare his sister from exile. Since he is a minor, his punishment is to be banished from the city, not physically, but mentally. His consciousness is confined to an ancient technology hummingbird drone and sent out of the city to serve his 1,095-day sentence in solitude. While fighting to survive in the Outlands, Leandro discovers that not all is as it seems in Pocatel and that there is more to fear, and to hope for, than he’d ever believed.
The characters, settings, and plot of Alebrijes draw us into a world that is simultaneously completely incomprehensible and familiar. The strengths and weaknesses of human nature, bonds of family and culture, and the evil that can result from unchecked power are woven in a way that allows this dystopian future to feel like a cautionary possibility. Leandro is a model of selflessness, bravery, and loyalty. The echoes of our own history and present-day social justice movements can be found throughout the tale as Leandro and his allies fight beyond the known world to create something better for all of humanity.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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