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Book review: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Let’s get some things out of the way first.

1. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero is absolutely fantastic. You need to order it for your library/bookstore/kid/friend/self.

2. The novel is a year in the life of Gabi, a Mexican American girl who lives in Southern California. It’s funny, sad, honest, raw, bold, and hopeful. It’s about the many things that can go on in one’s life, great and small. Did I mention it’s fantastic?

3. What I’m going to write now is going to have spoilers. It just is. I want to talk about some of the very big and important things this book addresses and what this book does. I can’t do that by dancing around plot point. I don’t like to write reviews that reveal everything, because, for me, most of the joy in reading a book is discovering the story. But today, there are spoilers. So if you want to take my word that the book is amazing, and read it without knowing many of the details, just get it on your TBR list and come back to read this later.

You’re still here? You’re aware I’m going to reveal a lot of the plot? You’re sure? Okay, let’s go.

Gabi is about to start her senior year of high school. She uses her diary to talk about everything that is going on in her life, whether that means things with her friends and family, or whether that means working out the many big subjects she’s thinking about. Gabi’s mother got pregnant with her at 25, but because she was unwed, her grandmother reacted badly and beat her mother. As a result of her experience, her mother constantly tells Gabi, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas,” meaning “eyes open, legs closed.” Despite the steady diet of this message, Gabi doesn’t feel like sex is anything to be ashamed of thinking about or wanting. It certainly doesn’t make her some kind of bad girl, as her mother is always implying. While her mother might make her crazy, at least she has her best friends Cindy and Sebastian to turn to. It’s a good thing those three have each other for support, because some pretty major things are happening in their lives this year.

Cindy’s thing (remember, spoilers coming):
Cindy tells Gabi she thinks she is pregnant. Gabi is pissed at her—not that she had sex, but that she wasn’t safe, that she’s become yet another Hispanic teen mom statistic. She’s also not thrilled that Cindy slept with German, whom she considers a smarmy, entitled idiot. They pick up a pregnancy test after taking the SATs, and when it shows positive, they collapse onto Gabi’s Hello Kitty bedding and cry. I love everything about this scene. It feels so genuine and shows the many parts of being a teenager—preparing for college, dealing with unexpected and devastating news, and still being so young (the Hello Kitty bedding).

(Here comes a super-spoiler.)

Nearly three quarters of the way through the story, Cindy confesses to Gabi that German raped her. Gabi writes in her diary that she naively assumed that rape didn’t happen in her city. Sure, she’d heard about high profile rape cases on the news, but that kind of thing happened elsewhere. Cindy tells Gabi and Sebastian that she’d been a little drunk and making out with German in his car, but then changed her mind about where things were going and said to stop. “He said that she had already said yes, and she couldn’t say no, and that was that.” Cindy points out that he didn’t hit her or treat her badly (a sentence that broke my heart, because you don’t need to hit someone for it be rape, and he OF COURSE is treating her badly—he’s raping her), but that she cried the whole time and he pinned her down. Gabi and Sebastian react in very believable ways—stammering out their apologies and hugging her, encouraging her to call the police. Cindy declines this advice, again repeating that it’s not like he beat her, and, adding to the heartbreak of this scene, that no one would believe her (despite having just told two people who absolutely show that they believe her). This, of course, is the part of the story that dovetails with the SVYALit project. Anyone teaching this book would do well to supplement this discussion with various posts from the SVYALit project, especially those about being a first responder. (See below for links.)

Gabi can’t stop thinking about how much she detests German. She watches him being charming with some other girl and thinks, “For a second, I was almost like, ‘Could he really ever rape someone? I mean, look at those big eyes! He’s too hot to force someone to sleep with him’ Then I almost slapped myself across the face for being such an idiot.” She instigations a confrontation with German, calling him out for raping Cindy and physically attacking him. She ends up suspended from school and unable to walk at graduation because of this. Cindy is furious with Gabi for getting in the middle of it. Gabi is just doing what she thinks is the right thing. No one has prepared her for how to deal with this. Gabi researches some hotlines that Cindy could call for help. Cindy is reluctant to do that, but Gabi presses on, telling her some of them were anonymous and could offer useful help. What I really like is Quintero showing us over and over that Gabi is thinking about what happened, trying to help, wanting to support Cindy, but not entirely sure how to do that.

There is so much going on with this story line. Cindy’s complicated feelings about what happened, Gabi’s desire to help or seek out vengeance, but her uncertainty for what is best. The ways this part of the plot ties in with Gabi’s thoughts on gender roles, expectations, sex, and being a “good girl” or a “bad girl.” A secondary character also learns she’s pregnant, and Gabi unexpectedly winds up being her confident and support as she decides what to do with the baby. This is another very powerful story line, as well as one we don’t often see in YA.

Sebastian’s thing:
Sebastian came out to Gabi a while ago. Gabi recalls how he couldn’t even say the words to her, choosing instead to write “I’m gay” on a napkin and showing her that. “I looked at it and couldn’t help whispering, ‘I know.’” Sebastian now wants to come out to his family, but when he does, they kick him out. Sebastian stays at Gabi’s house until eventually moving in with his aunt. Sebastian’s father tells him he never wants to see him again, that he’s no son of his. His mother says she would rather be dead than have a gay son. While staying with her, Sebastian tells Gabi more about realizing he was gay. He says he tried to be straight, he tried to feel an attraction to girls, he even prayed to be able to like girls. Sebastian dates Pedro, a new boy from Bolivia. Staying at his aunt’s houses is okay. Gabi observes, “[S]he seems to be loving and accepting.” But she doesn’t want Sebastian hooking up with any boys at her house. “Why is every mom’s concern about sex?” Gabi wonders. When his aunt busts him pantsless with Pedro, she sends him to a psychologist to try to talk him out of being gay, and to a priest, who wants to pray the gay away. Eventually, Sebastian goes on to join the GSA at school, hopefully starting to find more of a community and more support during a time when he desperately needs it.

There is also a noteworthy scene where a classmate says a really stupid and hateful homophobic thing, and a teacher calls out his ignorance. It’s a great moment of someone in a position of authority not overlooking a disgusting comment and completely schooling a kid on his hate. “At that moment, Ms. Abernard became my new hero,” Gabi writes. Mine too.

Gabi’s THINGS:
Gabi starts to think more about consent after Cindy tells her about being raped, looking around her and wondering if everyone is having consensual sex. Gabi has A LOT of thoughts about sex, rape, consent, and boys’ attitudes toward girls’ bodies. She has so many thoughts about these topics that trying to cover all of them here, or even quote bits and pieces of many of them, would mean you’d be reading this paragraph for the next 30 minutes. In particular, Gabi writes some amazingly profound poetry about sex and women’s bodies. She is furious over the line “boys will be boys,” and the message this sends to both boys and girls. She ends her piece about rape with: “You should know better/It’s all your fault/Always/Boys will be boys.”

Throughout the course of the year chronicled here, Gabi dates a few boys. She has crushes, is awkward (at one point answering a question in a fake robot voice for no good reason except the moment feels uncomfortable), worries about kissing and sex, makes the first move, and wonders about dating other boys. The boy Gabi goes on to date for the longest part of the story is wonderfully thoughtful and their sexual relationship is a great example of enthusiastic consent. When making out, Gabi notes that it got a little awkward because he asked if it was okay if he touched her boob. She thinks about it and decides she’s glad he asked rather than assumed. Later, when they are about to have sex for the first time, Gabi writes, “He asked if I was sure it was okay, and I said yes and we went from there.” Her boyfriend’s dad tells him to be sure to respect Gabi, and he outright tells his son, “if [a girl] says no, it’s no.” We’re all clapping now, right? Because YESSSSS.

The other major issues Gabi deals with include her father’s addiction to meth and its effects on their family. She writes frankly about his addiction, including writing letters to her father that she never gives to him. She writes about what he looks like, how long he will disappear for, the times he has tried to quit, the ways his addiction hurts his family. The way this piece of the story plays out is not surprising; but guessing what might be coming doesn’t take away from the powerful way the story unfolds.

Gabi also writes a fair bit about body image and weight. She repeatedly calls herself fat, mostly in a factual way. She sometimes feels bad about herself, but other times feels great. Her mother calls attention to her weight or her eating habits a lot, but Gabi turns to her diary to talk about how that makes her feel. Her attitude toward her weight feels very realistic without feeling judgmental 100% of the time or feeling like she’s defined by her weight or made to be “bad” because she’s fat. She hides food in her room, so she can eat her favorite treats away from the judging eyes of her mother. She talks about food a lot, even telling the boy she likes that he can come over and try some great beef jerky she has. She doesn’t love trying on clothes, or wearing a swimsuit in front of others, but generally gets over her hesitations or negativity each time and feels okay with herself. She doesn’t obsess over losing weight, or lose weight and somehow become “better” or something. She’s mostly okay with how she is.

In addition to her mother having a lot to say about sex, bodies, and body issues, nearly everything she talks to Gabi about revolves around her expectations for Gabi as a girl. She constantly warns Gabi away from being a “bad” girl. Partially because of her mother’s attitude, and partially just from all of the daily messages society sends girls about their bodies and their sex lives, Gabi’s journal and her poetry are filled with ruminations on these topics. Gabi interrogates what it means to be a “good” girl. She realizes women’s bodies are public—that people will talk about them, objectify them, and do things to them. Gabi’s unwillingness to swallow messages and her refusal to be defined by the label “good/bad” is inspiring. The poetry that she produces as she works through her thoughts on these issues is nothing short of amazing.

The good girl/bad girl theme extends to Gabi’s college decisions, and the pressure her mother puts upon her to stay home. Her mother thinks going away to college is just an excuse to have sex and go wild—like American kids. Good Mexican girls stay home. Gabi desperately wants to leave her town, to attend her dream school, to experience new things. She knows that doesn’t make her bad, but her mother doesn’t let it drop.

In Gabi, we have a protagonist who challenges expectations, thinks for herself, and isn’t afraid of putting herself out there or making mistakes. I can’t rave enough about how wonderful this book is. Not only does Quintero unflinchingly address important issues, she’s created multifaceted characters who leap off the page. Gabi and her friends became so real to me that I often forgot this was fiction—it truly felt like reading a real teenager’s diary. I finished the book feeling honored to have watched Gabi grow as a poet and a young woman. I set the book down when I was done wishing I could read books of Gabi’s diaries from the high school years prior to this one, or to see a diary of what her life will hold now that she’s heading off to college. An all-around brilliant and outstanding look at one ordinary year in the life of an extraordinary teenage girl.

For more information on rape, consent, and supporting LGBTQ teens, check out:

Sexual Violence in Young Adult Lit (and Life) project site

The #SVYALit Project: First Responders, part 1 (by author Christa Desir)

The #SVYALit Project: First Responders, part 2

UC Irvine’s Sexual Assault: How to Support a Friend

Healthy Place’s Supporting Someone Who Has Been Raped or Sexually Assaulted

RAINN’s Help a Loved One

RAINN’s Self Care for Friends and Family Members

Huffington Post, “Stop Saying ‘Boys Will be Boys'” by Jennifer Hicks

The Good Men Project’s The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1 to 21

VITAMNW “What Consent Looks Like” with infographic

Slate, “How to Have the Consent Talk With Your Kids” by Amanda Hess

The Band Back Together, “Sexual Coercion Resources.”

Teen Librarian Toolbox, “GLBTQ YA Resources for Building a Collection and Supporting Teens.”

For further thoughts on Gabi check out:

Review by Kelly Jensen at Stacked

Review by E. Kristin Anderson

ISBN-13: 9781935955948
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Publication date: 10/14/2014


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