Review: Let Them Know You Are Here

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We Were Here by Matt de la Peña is a book in which we watch an adolescent white-latino realize and accept himself. The book focuses on the period directly following his incarceration in a group home. The reason for his placement in such a place is hinted at, but is only explicitly stated near the end of the book. Following an eventful escape from the group home with two other ex-members, he travels with them along the coast of California with the goal of reaching Mexico. The three characters all have different backgrounds, but share a common theme of hardship. Mong, the Chinese escapee, has experienced a lot of physical abuse and has become mentally unstable, while Rondell, the hulking African-American behemoth, is intellectually disabled and prone to violent outbursts. Both of these characters feel somewhat alienating to the reader – while they each have appealing and intriguing characteristics, their actions are volatile and unpredictable, isolating them from others and making them hard to relate to. This is the mindset we see in Miguel, the main protagonist. While he travels with these two companions, he feels alone – while he can’t have an intellectual conversation with Rondell, he similarly can’t have an emotional connection with Mong. The book is from within Miguel’s head, and so these frustrations are clearly stated throughout the book. Miguel is the most relatable character, somewhat due to his intrinsic value as the main protagonist, but also due to his more middle-of-the-road attitude. He is neither the depressed, closed-off Mong, nor the foolish, impulsive Rondell. The book, however, continually alludes to his reason for incarceration. This makes him harder to interpret as the reader – his character incomplete; his flashbacks confusing.

This is, however, a book about the self-realization of Miguel. The reader is kept in the dark regarding Miguel’s past as an effort to help the reader be in the same mindset as Miguel – his past is dark and hard to grasp, even for him. The book does a beautiful job of creating a parallel experience between the reader and Miguel as he learns what is valuable to him and what he can forgive.

One of the main points of this book is represented in the title of the book – “We Were Here”. Matt De La Peña said in an interview that one of his main goals in writing is to help foster a spirit of determination, or simply give help or insight, through his books. The mantra “Let them know you’re here!” goes along with his signature, and this book seems to be the culmination of thas message for adolescents with difficult backgrounds – in particular, those with biracial backgrounds. Mr. Peña wants everyone to be able to state that they matter, and his books work to help kindle that spirit in others. When the characters aren’t completely relatable, Mr. Peña gives the following advice: “Read for empathy.” The characters are highly expressive, and give insight into the situation of many teenagers throughout the world. This book was a very quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone.

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Review: Let Them Know You Are Here