This review is long as this book brought out a lot of feelings. Feelings of remembering books I read as a kid and didn’t get “the point” of. Feelings of current events. Feelings of not liking characters. And a lot more. This is a book you experience and YMMV.
Becoming Beatriz is the companion novel to Like Vanessa. It starts on the day Beatriz turns 15 and the night her brother is murdered by a rival gang. Like this incident was a sidebar in the first book, there is little mentioned of Like Vanessa other than quick times. Like the other novel, you get a glimpse into a world that many people do not know. But while you see how these differences might separate us, you also see how everyone has some major similarities: they want to be safe, loved and have family.
Tami Charles focuses on events of 1984-1985 in Newark, NJ. As with Like Vanessa some of Charles own experiences come into play, but it’s also a work of fiction. Beatriz is a dancer, daughter, sister, friend, student and a gang member. She took time away from the gang after the death of her brother, the leader of the gang. When we first see her, she is starting to go back to school but only “if she feels like it” and to organize the pot sales to her fellow classmates. There is the progression of the who killed and why her brother was killed, the taking over of the gang by another member, the police and their interactions with the neighborhood, her family (especially her mothers depression and her grandmothers transformation with her biases against “dark skinned” while she herself is dark), the why Beatriz’s family left Puerto Rico without her father and a new friendship with a boy named Nasser. Yet, some of it just “is” and I never felt it was fully explored. And a personal bias I had was there is much dialog in Spanish, with no translation. Sometimes it is not obvious what is being said from the context. I am not looking for the book to be all in English (as I love the fact the two languages are there) but would have liked to have seen a smoother “translation” between them.
I never liked Beatriz in Like Vanessa. She was written to be the beautiful, light-skinned, “decked out in the latest fashions” due to her brother’s dealings girl and bully to Vanessa’s shy, sweet, chubby, dark-skinned poor girl. In Becoming Beatriz, she becomes more real, but my feelings continued as I still saw her as a bit of a cliche. Her story is told from her point of view. When you get to the beating of TJ (her brothers’ boyfriend by his/her gang) she justifies her actions because of her past. However, you still see a selfish child who was not getting her way. She was not being “protected” or being “paid back” by her brother. Beatriz blames her brother for destroying her “perfect life” in Puerto Rico (she was her father’s princess, whereas her brother was an “embarrassment” who was severely bullied and abused by their father.) I thought, “No wonder they call you Princess in the gang. You are a totally selfish, self-center Princess who never really takes responsibility for her actions.” Even though I wanted to root for her to get out of the gang and follow her dream, I also never cared about her. I knew that she would be okay and able to follow her dream but felt that was unfair to those she hurt. Should Beatriz be allowed to be redeemed? Yes. I do not begrudge her that. I just wish I felt that she really was regretful and learned from the mistakes of her past.
The only part of this book that I like was knowing that Beatriz and Vanessa’s worlds go on simultaneously. In Becoming Beatriz there is a flashback to the events that lead to and TJ’s beating. While you are seeing this, you know what Vanessa was doing: Visiting her mother in prison. Neither Vanessa nor Beatriz understand the personal problems the other faces, but their worlds still are intertwined none-the-less. I am hoping for a third book. I would enjoy learning about Nasser who is Beatriz’s love interest. This is because I would like to see how he sees things in Beatriz’s story and what happens to him afterwards. He also has an interesting background as he is from Haiti and might have a connection to the gang that killed Beatriz’s brother.
Both of Charles’s books are aimed at the 10 to 14-year-old for reading, but there is much that is not for the sensitive reader; especially in this one as Charles details a few events more explicitly such as Beatriz is also beaten the night of her brother’s death and the results are not sugar coated; she carries a razor in her mouth, the drug selling, sexual comments and gang life as a whole.