Naomi and her little brother Owen are content living with their great-grandmother in a trailer park — Naomi carves soap into animal shapes, hangs out with the (clearly flaming, even though the text doesn’t say so explicitly) librarian at school, and watches Wheel of Fortune every night with Gram and her best friend Fabiola. But then of course their mother Skyla shows up, and of course she sucks with all the flaky, dishonest, alcoholic suckage a problem novel can muster.
Fortunately, the book doesn’t stop there. Skyla and her creepy boyfriend want Naomi to come live with them, for reasons that may have to do with baby-sitting the boyfriend’s daughter and may have to do with child-support welfare checks. They don’t want Owen, because he has a physical disability which Skyla finds embarrassing. Gram is legitimately terrified that Skyla is going to get custody of Naomi, so what does she do?
She freakin’ picks up the trailer, hitches it to the truck that belongs to Fabiola and her husband Bernardo, and all six of them take off for Mexico in the middle of the night to try to find the children’s Mexican father. Obviously. And that’s when the story really gets going. Ryan’s descriptions of southern Mexico are gorgeous, and she follows my #1 rule of writing realism for children: Pick a Quirk, Any Quirk.
Without the soap carving, Naomi’s story would just be yet another children’s novel about overcoming an alcoholic, absent parent. Her art lends the story specificity. It turns out that Naomi comes from a long line of carvers who compete every year in a Oaxacan festival called Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes). Of course this is where she ultimately finds her father, and herself.
I normally find problem novels eye-roll-inducing, but I loved this one thanks to carving, Mexico, and radishes. (Check out some pictures of carved radishes. They’re stunning!)