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A powerful call for empathy in the debate about immigration and kids

“Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions” is a heartfelt plea to change the dialogue on Latin American children fleeing violence in their homelands to seek refuge in America.

A Mexican-born novelist, Valeria Luiselli began the inquiry that informs her book-length essay as a Mexican-born writer, living in America, awaiting her green card. Her sense of mission intensified when she began working as a translator for those seeking pro bono legal assistance in their attempts to avoid deportation. She found that their stories could not match neatly with the 40 questions on the immigration questionnaire. Some of the children lacked fluency in Spanish as well as English, and some of their memories were vague or evasive. Yet the dangers they had encountered were real, as was the threat of returning to their countries of origin.

Luiselli effectively humanizes the plights of those who have been demonized or who have been reduced to faceless numbers, the ones caught in the web of gang violence fueled by drug wars and the American arms trade. She writes with matter-of-fact horror in response to question No. 7, “did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?,” that “eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.” Yet the victims are often criminalized in the American debates over immigration: “In the media and much of the official political discourse, the word ‘illegal’ prevails over ‘undocumented’ and the term ‘immigrant’ over ‘refugee.’ ”

The author also explains how the immigrant crisis predated the triumph of Trump and how policies of the Obama and Bush administrations were heartless in treating such refugees as some other country’s problem. Though Luiselli may not convince those adamantly opposed to loosening regulations, she hopes that those who have been willfully blind to the injustices will recognize how they “haunt and shame us … being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable.”

A powerful call to action and to empathy.

Getting earnest

From an activist who sent a protest letter to President Ronald Reagan when she was 5, “It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going” is a tally of urgent worldwide concerns and issues, with pointed calls to get the lead out.

Chelsea Clinton traces her lifelong involvement in social and environmental causes to family and to the classic “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth” (1989). She intersperses carefully researched factual surveys and admiring profiles of other (mostly) young activists with her own experiences and opinions. Though these personal notes are fairly engaging, overall the nine topical chapters make dry reading: “Poverty and stunting are deeply intertwined. Parents living in extreme poverty are more likely to have children who suffer from stunting. Children who are stunted generally grow up less physically and mentally strong…” etc.

She also sidesteps complexity by, for instance, not mentioning complaints about Heifer International’s deceptive donation model or ever, despite discussion of human trafficking, using the words “rape” or (except in the section on HIV/AIDS) “sex.” Nor does she make it easy for young people patient enough to stay the course to strike out on their own. Though the many contact URLs that are buried in the narrative are at least repeated at the ends of their respective chapters, they come in bulleted lists of suggestions that tend toward either repetitive boilerplate (“Talk to your family and at least three friends…”) or generalities like “Stay away from secondhand smoke.” Still, everything here is, or had better be, of compelling concern to young people, and her concluding “It’s better to get caught trying” is inarguable if not exactly electric.

Another voice in the chorus of calls to action — earnest and on target but more likely to be bought than read. (map, charts, infographics, index) (Nonfiction; ages 10-13.)

(Chelsea Clinton will sign copies of her book at 6:30 p.m. April 22 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Tickets are required for the signing line for this event and are available only through the purchase of the book at BookPeople. Details:

Bold new writer

In “Cake Time,” Siel Ju’s debut novel in stories, a young woman explores the dangerous, voyeuristic and violent undertones of her sexual encounters.

The blistering opening salvo, “How Not to Have an Abortion,” traces the narrator’s teenage journey to Planned Parenthood and handles reproductive rights with humor, grace and an unflinching eye for detail. We follow her to college, a “no-name liberal arts school in rural Pennsylvania,” then out to Los Angeles, where she encounters a self-absorbed copy editor and a nudist, among other lackluster beaus.

As she ages, she grows ever more distant and apathetic about her decisions, most of which revolve around men. At times, the narrator is distressingly disconnected from the other people in her life, from her mother and sister, who share a “dank, cramped walk-up apartment in Koreatown,” to her single friend, a sour young woman named Erin. This distance is a product of the ease with which the narrator disassociates, and it’s no wonder why. The men that dominate her life tip easily from tenderness to violence, especially in “Easy Target,” a complicated, menacing story about rape set at a swingers party in Eagle Rock.

Throughout these stories of ugliness and disconnection, Ju has a gift for plucking the exact right phrase out of the air: a date is described as “a decent-looking guy with a conservative haircut, the kind you might see in a Men’s Warehouse ad,” while a roommate has “a scrim of mousy hair and soft chub.” At times uneven, the collection would benefit from more breadth and the sustained energy of its early stories. Like the narrator’s frustrated boyfriend in “The Regulars,” readers might eventually wonder “Why draw attention to something ugly?” But for Ju, who has a strong, nimble voice, attention — and ugliness — is the point.

A promising start for a brave and unapologetically bold new writer.

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