Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina is a book full of threats and conflict. It's a book about bullying. But it's also about community and isolation, the complexity of female relationships, and about finding one's strengthinner and outer.
As someone who has worked in public schools for my entire adult life, I know bullying. It's real and it happens at every school, regardless of the age level, geographic location or the school's demographic and socio-economic profile. Despite the proactive stance taken by schools, bullying continues to be a tough problem and one not easily solved. I've read of various solutions and resolutions but I also understand the very real limits of schools.
Author Meg Medina does too. This story, the story of Piedad "Piddy" Sanchez, feels authentically raw. Medina's portrayal of Piddy's neighborhood, on the "better side of Northern Boulevard," in Queens, New York, is layered and complex. We are not simply outsiders looking in. We are taken inside these ugly walls marked by graffiti. We see who lives there and we get to know the individuals struggling to make their way in a tough world.
At first glance, Piddy, a fifteen year-old high school sophomore, is not perhaps a typical victim. She has a mother who loves her and is willing to sacrifice her own needs to get what she thinks is best for her only daughter. Piddy also has Lila, her mother's best friend, as a loving mentor. Lila is the one who teaches Piddy to dance - a motif for Piddy's budding sexuality and inner strength that runs throughout the novel.
However, Piddy has moved to a new high school where she misses her old friends, especially Mitzi, who has moved out of the neighborhood altogether. Piddy does have a new group of friends even if do they sit at "the worst real estate in the cafeteria" during lunch time.
Piddy is smart and attractive, even if she doesn't believe that yet. But she's not looking to cause trouble. She's not interested in taking anyone's boyfriend. She simply wants to make it through the day to earn good grades and work towards the better future her mother expects her to claim. She certainly isn't looking to fight some girl she doesn't even know.
And, to me, that's the scariest thing of all. If Piddy could be a victim, anyone could.
At first Piddy is in denial. Despite the rumors that Yaqui has accused Piddy of being "stuck up" and of "shaking her ass," Piddy can't believe she has an enemy. She's sure Yaqui will realize her mistake. She'll see that Piddy isn't dating any boy; and she's definitely not interested in Yaqui's crude-talking boyfriend, Alfredo.
Piddy hopes to lie low and ignore the problem. But once Yaqui and her friends send chocolate milk-bombs across the cafeteria, dousing Piddy and her friends, and two girls steal Piddy's necklace as she's walking down the hallway, she has to face the fact: Yaqui Delgado wants to kick her ass.
As tensions increase and Yaqui's threats intensify, Piddy retreats. She tries to avoid Yaqui, to hide. She pretends to be sick so she can stay home. She skips school. She lies to her mother and to Lila. She can't tell her best friend Mitzi because she knows Mitzi wouldn't understand the situation any more than Piddy herself does. She finds some solace in the arms of troubled Joey Halper, a boy she's known all her life - but who's a victim too. His father is the bully in his life. Even with Joey, Piddy can't bring herself to tell the truth of what's happening to her. She feels and is deeply alone in her battle. That's what bullies do. They make their victims feel isolated. They cut them off from friends and family who might be able to help.
I found Medina's portrayal of complicated female relationships especially intriguing. At one point, despite the fear she feels - or maybe because of it - Piddy admits she wants to be like Yaqui. She says, "Yaqui and me, we should be two hermanas, a sisterhood of Latinas. We eat the same food. We talk the same way. We come from countries that are like rooms in one big house, but, instead, we're worlds apart."
Piddy knows her mother's hard work and sacrifices are to ensure that she doesn't end up like Yaqui. Her mother shows love by being tough and having high expectations; to the point Piddy feels her victimization would be a grave disappointment. Her new friend Darlene is willing to help her skip school, but at a cost - she expects Piddy to do her homework. Piddy's most consistent support comes from Lila who helps Piddy figure out how to be both strong and feminine. The beauty shop, Salón Carazón, where Lila works is a haven for the older women, a place to gather and share secrets. The women's friendships serve as a reminder of what Piddy needs.
I think this model of women as friends is important for young readers too (I recommend this book for readers 14 and up). Although it's never completely clear as to why Yaqui has set her sights on Piddy, the implication is it's a primal female competition. She sees Piddy as a threat, which in Yaqui's world means war. As Lila explains to Piddy, "Yaqui lives in a world of beat or get beaten."
Medina doesn't shy away from the ugly truth of girl-on-girl violence. Even though the gritty warnings were there from the start, I was still shocked and disturbed by one particularly intense scene of aggression.
The conclusion of this rough, yet heartfelt story feels brutally real. There is no easy answer. Piddy has gone to war and bears the scars to prove it. But, she also knows more about herself. And she knows that life - like dancing - requires strength, grace and risks. She's ready to step out and to set her own rhythm, in time with the beat of her heart.
This review was originally published in April 2013, and has been updated for the August 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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