Don't ask me where I'm from

Front cover of "Don't Ask Me Where I'm From" by Jennifer De Leon.

Often times, it can be hard to find a Young Adult novel set in Boston. Most YA books are set in small towns in the middle of nowhere, or massive, romanticized cities like New York or LA. When there are books set in Boston, they often have the same dramatized feel, and it can be hard to find one with the authentic Boston feel. ‘Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From’ by Jennifer de Leon effortlessly combines Boston into the realistic and the romanticized, to create one perfectly interesting read.

‘Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From’ follows Liliana Cruz, a teenager growing up in Boston who gets accepted to the METCO program, allowing her to go to the “better” schools in the suburbs of Boston. In addition to the adjustment of a new school, Liliana’s life get hit with another whirlwind – her father was missing. Between her family crumbling at the seams, her new school filled with racist White kids, and having to find the balance between her two ‘selves’ - Liliana in Boston and Lili in Westburg - Liliana has to find how to be true to herself and be the person she’s expected to be. 

De Leon is a writer based out of Boston, and grew up in the Boston area her entire life. Though she was not a participant in the METCO program, like her main character Liliana is, she knew many people growing up who were. 

I felt like this book captured what it’s like to live in or go to school in the suburbs extremely well, having grown up in a primarily white suburb and a primarily white district of Massachusetts. While we did not have a program similar to METCO, it was painfully obvious that we lacked diversity, with only a few students of color in each grade, and with that, several kids who had similar, albeit racist, beliefs to the white kids of Westburg. 

I found all of these characters to be extremely likeable, even if most of them were fairly one-dimensional. Liliana’s family felt realistic and natural, and the tenseness she and her family felt when their aunt and uncle came to visit had been familiar as well. Though the Cruz family’s stakes were much higher, I’m sure many families can relate to having that one relative they hate seeing, and seeing them causes them stress, and I enjoyed that. Both ‘worlds’ of friends – Liliana’s Boston friends and her Westburg ones – felt like realistic people, and they had hobbies outside of being the main character’s friend and furthering the plot, which doesn’t always happen with side characters like these. Liliana’s character arc had been pleasant to see, and watching her find the balance between her two worlds and be herself rather than the person she was expected to be had been satisfying. 

Liliana’s hobby of creating miniature sculptures of her world around her had also been fun to read about. The project began when her mother created a Barbie Dreamhouse for a young Liliana out of cardboard, since they couldn’t afford the real thing, but it soon evolved into Liliana creating replicas out of every part of her life – the local bakery, liquor store, and market, for example, as well as the salon her mother dreamed of opening. I felt like this hobby was quite unique, and it had been nice to see a hobby that wasn’t as traditional as dance, writing, or music in this character, though Liliana did love to write. 

However, I found a lot of the side drama, especially the romantic drama, to be a bit boring. While I think having Liliana rush into the first relationship she had been in because she had never dated was important to her character, the drama between her, Dustin, and Genesis felt a bit forced, and resolved quickly. It seemed to me to be over in less than twenty pages, and the conflict between Liliana and Genesis had been solved in less than ten. 

The ending also felt extremely cheesy, but many Young Adult novels have a cheesy feel anyway. After a less than ideal assembly, Liliana and her friends come up with a plan to put up banners asking all of the students of Westburg what it is that Westburg should know about each student, something the students never want to hear again, and what Westburg can do to help the students.  While some students answered with jokes, most of them responded with genuine answers. These answers were used in conversation with the administration, and then covered by a local newspaper before being put in a Plexiglas barrier. If that sort of thing were to be hung up at my high school, it would be torn down within a day, and filled with crude jokes. 

Overall, ‘Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From’ had been an entertaining novel, and a fairly quick read. If anyone is on the look for an honest, interesting book depicting the racism and education inequalities of Boston and Massachusetts, I would definitely recommend this book.

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