What Can't Wait, by Ashley Hope Perez (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Books, 2011)

Marisa Moreno feels chained down by obligations, stretched thin in every direction by familial duties and expectations. Her parents barely speak English, her brother is more interested in tricking out his truck than helping out, and her sister is trapped in a disastrous marriage. All Marisa wants to do is study hard, make good grades, graduate, and go away to college where she can study engineering. All her family wants is for her to stay home, work hard to bring in more money, and take her of her niece, Anita. Will Marisa be forced to give up on her dreams, just to make her parents happy? Or is it time to cut herself free and find her own life?

What Can’t Wait is a powerful, authentic story, in turns heartbreaking and inspiring. Marisa’s an admirable, strong, sympathetic character, and it’s easy to feel for her as she struggles to find her own path in life while dealing with a multitude of distractions and obligations. She’s proof that even when you’re smart enough to understand the problem, wise enough to avoid temptation, and stubborn enough to pursue a dream, it’s not always easy to follow through. As she juggles family, work, school, friends, a relationship, and her future, we see her make some hard choices, and some harder mistakes. Luckily, she has people who care for her, and a chance at success.

Heavily peppered with Spanish phrases, steeped in a blend of Texan and Mexican culture, this is a powerful look and a valuable insight into the sort of problems and challenges teens from that background face. As a child of Mexican immigrants, Marisa’s determined to make a better life for herself than her parents or siblings have, and it’s a fight worth cheering for. Of course, there’s plenty of other memorable characters. Her best friend, Brenda, who seems to be more interested in boys and parties, yet who proves deeper than all that. Her would-be boyfriend, Alan, an aspiring artist and a genuinely good guy (especially compared to some of the less-than-admirable guys we see elsewhere in the book.) And of course there’s Ms. Ford, the helpful, inspirational, somewhat pushy AP Calculus teacher who motivates Marisa.

The author, Ashley Hope Perez, spent three years teaching high school in Houston, where this book is set, so it’s obvious she drew a great deal of inspiration and atmosphere from experience. It works quite well; this is an excellent book, and I’ll be interested in seeing what Perez does next.

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