Andi adores basketball, and is devastated to learn that her new London school has no girls’ basketball team. Meanwhile, in a small village in the Philippines, her older half-brother Bernardo’s neighbors believe he is the reincarnation of mythological town savior Bernardo Carpio. Like the legendary giant, Bernardo is tall — like, all his clothes made special, can’t buy shoes, dunks the basketball without jumping tall. And the town believes that, like the giant, Bernardo protects them from the earthquakes that regularly wreak havoc in the country.
Bernardo and Andi’s mother has been waiting 16 years for the British government to allow her to bring Bernardo to live with them. Now that day has finally come. Everyone is thrilled that the family will reunite, but how will Andi get along with the brother she doesn’t know? How will Nardo fit in with a new country, a new language, and a new family? And without their giant protector, will the earthquakes return to San Andres?
This was a bit of a slow start, but it grew on me. Told in alternating chapters by the two teens, Andi’s story is a fairly “typical teen” growth arc — proving herself as a basketball player, getting over her resentment of her new “dorky” brother. I found Nardo’s story more engaging from the beginning. Nardo’s conflict between his responsibility as village “savior” and his desire to be with his mom was compelling. I also liked the window into San Andres with its small-community quirkiness. The San Andres cast are much more memorable characters than Andi’s new basketball buddies. (They were fine, but they can’t compete with a witch named Mad Nena and a short Filipino kid who goes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)
I loved hearing the siblings’ stories their own ways for the first third of the book, and then seeing them through each other’s eyes. Bernardo thinks Andi is a boy at first, and Andi is unimpressed by Bernardo’s beloved suit (handmade by the local tailor, who puts Velcro on everything). Their cross-cultural relationship is complex and believable.
Phoebe North wrote a timely (as far as I was concerned) post recently about the appeal of magical realism to teens. As you might have gathered from the whole “giant” bit, there’s more than a little magical realism in this story. Did Bernardo grow into a giant because of a wish made on a wishing stone, or because he has a medical condition? Is he protecting San Andres from earthquakes, or has their absence during his life just been a coincidence? It’s never clear, which places this in the “magical realism” camp for me.
The middle grade readers at whom this book seems most targeted can be quite literal, so I’m not sure how they’ll take the ambiguity. And, as I said, the book is a bit slow. It doesn’t scream “instant kid appeal” to me, but it’s original and intriguing and I’m sure it will appeal very much to certain kids. Allegra of My Library Card Wore Out, my co-judge, is a young teen herself, and agreed with me about the pace:
This book was nominated for the CARNEGIE MEDAL. The Sunday Times voted it one of the 100 Best Summer Titles. The Times voted it the Most Recommended Children’s Book for Christmas. It is a YA book but the reviews are by adults. They read differently. I think that might be why they enjoyed it. Since I am YA, I like books that have something happening, like many teen readers. It was a little too slow for my taste and not enough happened to keep my interest. I have never read a book like it. I like reading faster paced books and if there is nothing interesting in a book I am instantly turned off. I guess this is something I have to work on.
I loved getting her perspective; she’s right that most reviewers and award-givers are adults, and one of my favorite things about the internet is how people of all ages can participate at equal levels.