For Brooklyn-born teens Marisol and Magdalena, being Latina isn't something they think about much. Although both their families are from Panama and they live in a Latino neighborhood, neither one of them speaks much Spanish. What's important to them is their inviolable friendship and their plans for a fabulous summer and a triumphant final year of junior high school in the fall. Then Marisol's mother decides to send Marisol to Panama to spend a year with her grandmother while she finishes nursing school full-time. Suddenly, both girls have to think about Panama as they never have before. Marisol feels apprehensive; Magdalena, abandoned. As Magdalena begins to pull away from her, Marisol takes consolation in the thought that in Panama she might finally get to know her absentee father.
For Marisol, living in Panama turns out to be an unexpectedly happy experience. Her shyness fades as she gets to know her grandmother, makes friends with her neighbor, Ana, fits in at her new school, and even finds her first boyfriend, Ruben, who tutors her in Spanish. And as she comes to terms with the fact that her father may never surface in her life, she learns to value the family and friends she has — and to find sufficient meaning in loving people who want to love her back.
Chambers has a wonderful ease with her characters' language, infusing Marisol's first-person narrative with the vibrancy of her bilingual cultural background. Spanish words and phrases are an essential part of Marisol's way of talking, but are presented in context, so that non-Spanish-speaking readers won't feel lost or left out. Readers will learn about Marisol's cultural identity along with her, and identify with her thoughts on friendship, her initial worries about her journey, and the triumph she feels as she discovers that she can make even far-off Panama feel like home.