Elem./MG – The Notebook Keeper: A Story of Kindness from the Border

Briseñ, Stephen. The Notebook Keeper: A Story of Kindness from the Border. Illustrated by Magdalena Mora. Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-30705-2. $17.99. 41 p. Grades 2-8.

One morning Mamá tells Noemí they are going on a long walk. Their home in Mexico is no longer safe. Noemí may only bring the things she can carry. When the two arrive at the border, they are told they must find the notebook keeper and get their names into the book before they can be selected to petition for asylum in the United States. Belinda, the notebook keeper, is a volunteer. She too is an asylum seeker. Belinda assures Noemí that everything will be alright, and gives Noemí and her mother the number 653. Noemí and her mother try to wait patiently as days turn into weeks, and their number is not called. Noemí notices that Belinda is always positive and kind to the many people she encounters waiting to cross the border. Belinda tells Noemí that when her own number is called she will pick a new notebook keeper who is kind and generous. Noemí makes a decision to try to be like Belinda, performing small acts of kindness for others waiting to cross at the San Ysidro Border Checkpoint in Tijuana. When Belinda’s number is called she passes the position of notebook keeper on to Noemí and Mamá who promise to encourage and care for all of the asylum seekers on the list. The author’s note explains that this book is based on true events that occurred at the San Ysidro Border Checkpoint for many years. The notebook keeper system ended when the border was closed in 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

THOUGHTS: Illustrated by Magdalena Mora, this is a well-written book depicting some of the challenges faced by young asylum seekers. Waiting is hard for small children and adults alike. It can be difficult to remain hopeful, kind, and generous in the face of fear and anger, but there are always good people who are willing to help others. A gentle introduction to the issues faced by asylum seekers at the southern US border. 

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

MG – Santiago’s Road Home

Diaz, Alexandra. Santiago’s Road Home. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-44623-6. $17.99. 325 p. Grades 5-8.

Once more author Alexandra Diaz raises our consciousness about the plight of Central American immigrants in our country at this critical time. As she did in The Only Road and Crossroads, Diaz gives a fact-based novel of Santiago Garcia Reyes’s escape from domestic abuse in Mexico through the desert to the detention centers of New Mexico. She does not pull any punches describing the sacrifices and suffering Santiago endures as he makes his way to America with newfound “family” Maria Dolores and her five-year-old daughter, Alegria. After being thrown out once again from a relative’s home where he worked as a free babysitter, Santiago refuses to return to his abusive, neglectful grandmother. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of the kind and generous Maria Dolores and her young daughter and convinces her to take him as they migrate to the United States where Maria Dolores’s sister owns a restaurant. For the first time since his Mami died when he was five-years-old, Santiago feels loved and cared for; and he reciprocates by being the protective big brother. By working in the cheap tavern at the crossroads, he discovers Dominquez, the best coyote to help them cross. Unfortunately, rival coyotes kill Dominquez, leaving the refugees abandoned just shy of the border. Diaz describes the arduous and dangerous journey through the desert, dodging border patrol officers and experiencing dehydration and hunger under a blistering sun. Their efforts end in hospitalization and detention. Again, Diaz intertwines facts and realistic representation about the conditions children suffer in the detention centers, yet maintains both the negative and positive aspects. Some of the detention center guards are kind; some are arrogant brutes. Minor characters like an interested teacher and volunteering lawyers give the story balance. The distress and maltreatment of Santiago as he lingers in detention as well as his brave struggle to belong to a loving family is heart wrenching and sure to instill empathy and compassion toward a timely situation. Includes a glossary of Spanish terms and extensive resources.

THOUGHTS: Diaz’s writing has a way of creating a fully developed character and a well-rounded setting that arouses true sympathy in readers. This book can provide a reference point to discussions of undocumented immigrants, refugees, migration to America as well as current events around asylum seekers and their reasons for immigration.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia