In Next to Mexico, Lylice (rhymes with Phyllis) has skipped 5th grade, meaning she is starting 6th grade at the middle school in Tucson. She spent all summer excited about the possibilities and getting ready. When her new principal is far from kind and understanding, Lylice starts to worry. Anxious to make friends, she jumps at the chance to be an English buddy for a new student, Mexico. Mexixo, a student from Nogales who lives with her aunt, is a talented artist who is also living with diabetes. Her father is still in Mexico but sent her to live with her aunt because her diabetes can be better controlled in Arizona. The girls become close friends, play in the school band, and plan ways to protest Principal Harrington’s cancellation of the school’s Art Attack art program.
But then Mexico is hospitalized and Lylice learns it is because her aunt has quit her job and can’t afford Mexico’s insulin. Lylice and Mexico set out to plot a way for her aunt to get a job interview by forging a letter on stolen school stationery. Things start to go downhill when Lylice begins standing up to Principal Harrington and breaking rules, even though she knows they are rules that need to be broken. And when she risks her friendship with Mexico to satisfy the boy she likes, she risks losing everything.
I picked this book off my bookshelf on a whim and ended up really enjoying it. Lylice reminded me a lot of one of my favorite characters- Emma-Jean Lazarus . She’s smart, kind-hearted, self-aware, but also lacking something in the social arena. A bit eccentric, she just isn’t a “typical” 6th grader. Yet you can’t help but love her. She’s wise beyond her years in a sweet and innocent way. Most of the time she gets along with adults better than her peers, but all that changes when she meets Mexico Mendoza. Mexico is struggling to fit in at the middle school while also struggling to fit in in a new country. She desperately misses her father in Mexico and doesn’t want to be a burden to her aunt. While it seems like they have nothing in common, Lylice and Mexico quickly discover they share more than a few classes at school.
This is a great book for kids entering middle school. It’s a look at middle school from the outsider’s point of view, not the popular kids. It also brings up a lot of serious issues- immigration, health care, school funding, and alcoholism. But it’s not all serious- much of the book is laugh out loud funny! Lylice and Mexico manage to get into scrapes that most kids only wish they could cook up!
I would hand Next to Mexico to kids who are entering middle school, especially girls. Those interested in current events will also get a lot out of this book. Spanish is sprinkled throughout the text, which I also enjoyed.
Review copy from the publisher.