‘Efrén Divided’ by Ernesto Cisneros is a middle grade story of family, friendship, and finding one’s voice

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On one hand, “Efrén Divided” by Ernesto Cisneros is the story of a middle school boy whose undocumented mother is deported and the effect of that terrible event on his life. But as important as that part of the story is — and it is central to what happens — “Efrén Divided” is also about family and friends, because when Efrén’s mother is deported, he and his family must find out whom they can trust and who really cares for them. And finally, Efrén also discovers that to truly help others, he needs a voice to speak for them and a platform from which to do so.

Cisneros displays abundant heart in his novel. He knows that many immigrants to our country — both documented and undocumented — live in crowded apartments. Teachers in schools that serve bilingual and dual language populations know that sometimes closets serve as bedrooms for our students — if they are lucky. Other times, the whole family all share a room, or, as in the case of Efrén’s family, a studio apartment.

But Efrén’s family of five is happy. Their mother cooks them delicious food, their father works long, hard hours, and Efrén and his twin kindergarten siblings, Max and Mía, are a family that truly loves their life in America. But there’s always a dark cloud lurking in the background, and recently it’s there more and more often. The fear is that ICE raids could sweep up Efrén’s parents and deport them. He has heard stories and seen others with the same fears. But in the meantime, the whole family enjoys his mother’s sopes, a traditional food made from masa and beans, and because it’s so delicious, Efrén has the nickname Soperwoman for his mother.

At school, Efrén works hard and enjoys learning. His best friend, David, is running for president of the student council, and Efrén is helping with his campaign against Jennifer, the other candidate for president. David is an interesting character. He’s a white boy who lives in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood. And while Efrén thinks that David has it made, we come to realize that what David doesn’t have, and what he envies Efrén for, is his loving and cohesive family. Will their friendship withstand the problems that they face in this story?

This debut novel demonstrates that Cisneros is capable of juggling several important writing techniques. He includes many characters who either are not what they appear to be at the start or who change over the course of the story. He also creates dialogue and action that grip the reader so that the page-turning becomes automatic as we keep reading to find out what happens next. And finally, Cisneros’s story will keep readers thinking long after they’ve turned the last page. No matter your political persuasion, it’s impossible that Efrén’s plight and that of his family won’t wrench at your heart — if you have one.

This would be a powerful read-aloud because it would permit time to discuss current events and the lives of people whose existence is cloudy and threatened because of our immigration policies. I think it would also lead to some important discussions about how our country has turned from one cited in the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, part of which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, into one more like the poem that is its antithesis, “Unguarded Gates” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich.  An excellent activity for 5th graders and middle school students would be to read “Efrén Divided” and then read both poems, compare and contrast them, and write about how each of them relates to the novel.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s edition provided by Harper Collins Children’s Books, the publisher, for review purposes.

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