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Told entirely in heartbreaking but hopeful prose, When We Make It by Elizabet Velasquez is the story of Puerto Rican-American teen Sarai navigating her life in a world that wants her invisible. The novel is inspired by Velasquez’s own experiences. She is unflinching in her depictions of systemic oppression and its effects on the Puerto Rican-American community. From the financial burdens of living below the poverty line to police brutality to sexual assault, she holds nothing back. Her poetry welcomes the reader into Sarai’s world as both a guest and witness to this violence.
Sarai’s world is explored on two stages--the world within her home and the world outside of it. These locations serve to explore the ways in which systemic oppression weaves into every aspect of her life. The violence inflicted upon Sarai and her peers bleeds into their lives at home. Abuse of power exists within institutions and the home alike. Sarai questions these unfair dynamics as she explores them. She finds that, while her identity has stripped her of privilege, life is still full of joy. There is joy in the laughter she shares with her sister, in the visits to her disabled brother, in the moments she escapes into the world of her more privileged friend. Joy peeks through like a flower in concrete, a show of resilience that is one of many themes in When We Make It.
Velasquez explores many themes in regards to systemic oppression, but hones in on that of the story. What makes a good story? What makes a story worthy of being told? Why are some stories deemed more valuable than others, and by whose metric? Why are some stories shared while others are buried? It’s no secret that disenfranchised peoples face significantly more hurdles in having their voices heard. Absence of representation is yet another form of systemic violence that Puerto Rican-Americans face. Without diverse portrayals of themselves to look up to and reflect upon, they are forced to perceive their environment as the norm. Stereotypes and bigotry only worsen the situation by cornering them into characters of a never-ending tragedy. But Sarai’s story is about more than just pain. It’s about the ways in which she, as a disenfranchised American, finds her own definition of worth. Her story is told with each laugh she shares, each person she interacts with, each moment where the rarity of hope finds her. Making it isn’t just about defying the world--it’s about the triumphs experienced in everyday life.
Though most of its contents are heavy, When We Make It is ultimately a story of perseverance. Velasquez’s publication is irrefutable proof that stories like Sarai’s are beginning to shine on a mainstream stage. But it is only a beginning. More work needs to be done in order for people like Sarai to thrive in spite of, and eventually without, the violence of systemic oppression. I have no doubt that Sarai’s story will educate others as well as inspire them to hope.
For fans of: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon
Content Warnings: ableism, abuse, addiction, body shaming, death, drugs, police brutality, poverty, racism, sexism, sexual assault/rape, sexual content
— Tahera Siddiqi
September/October 2021 Kids Indie Next List
“Elisabet Velasquez conjures her community into existence in a living, breathing narrative debut in verse that moved my soul. Her fiery, literary voice is echoing in my mind still.”
— Brein Lopez, Children's Book World (CA), Los Angeles, CA
"The energy. The clarity. The beauty. Elisabet Velasquez brings it all. . . . Her voice is FIRE!"—NYT bestselling and award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson
An unforgettable, torrential, and hopeful debut young adult novel-in-verse that redefines what it means to "make it,” for readers of Nicholasa Mohr and Elizabeth Acevedo.
Sarai is a first-generation Puerto Rican question asker who can see with clarity the truth, pain, and beauty of the world both inside and outside her Bushwick apartment. Together with her older sister, Estrella, she navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Sarai questions the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives with determination and an open heart, learning to celebrate herself in a way that she has long been denied.
When We Make It is a love letter to anyone who was taught to believe that they would not make it. To those who feel their emotions before they can name them. To those who still may not have all the language but they have their story. Velasquez’ debut novel is sure to leave an indelible mark on all who read it.
About the Author
Elisabet Velasquez is a Boricua writer born in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her work is featured in Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Centro Voces, Latina Magazine, Longreads, We Are Mitú, Tidal, and Martín Espada’s anthology What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. When We Make It is her debut novel. Elisabet lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.
YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Indies Introduce and Next List selection Kirkus Reviews Best Books School Library Journal Best Books Chicago Public Library Best Teen Fiction Américas Award Commended Title ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project selection In the Margins Book Award Top Ten selection NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books The News & Observer Best Books for Kids Gotham Book Prize finalist
*“A gem for pleasure reading as well as classroom use. . . . Raw, breathtaking, and brilliant.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
*“Exquisite poetry portrays not only anger and fear, but also hope . . . Gripping and soulful, this dynamic debut novel-in-verse is a must for every collection.”—School Library Journal,starred review
*“The candid, clear-eyed poetry contains powerful inquiries about [Sarai’s] diasporic Nuyorican identity and canny observations about the endemic social and racial inequities that surround her. . . . Together, these vignettes capture Sarai’s multilayered, heartbreaking, and hopeful coming of age.”—Horn Book,starred review
“A beautiful story whose deep messages will have lasting effects.”—Booklist
"With verses that are unapologetically fierce and honest, Elisabet Velasquez captures the Brooklyn city streets with a Nuyorican vibe that can’t be duplicated. When We Make it is the perfect coming-of-age tale with rhythmic poetry that is certain to cement Velazquez as an exciting new young adult voice to celebrate."—Lilliam Rivera, Pura Belpré Honor-Winning Author of Never Look Back
"The energy. The clarity. The beauty. Elisabet Velasquez brings it all. And takes me home — to Bushwick in the most resonate and evocative of ways. The writing is clear-eyed, moving and funny. Her voice is FIRE!"—New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson
“This is the kind of book that makes you feel seen, the kind you read around the kitchen table to your sisters and friends. It will make you laugh and cry and remind you that you aren’t alone. Elisabet’s book will touch so many people’s lives. It has already touched mine.”—Angie Cruz, author of Dominicana
“Velasquez renders the heart in conflict with itself, the swag and bilingual sonic charge of Bushwick, an uncompromising love, and the reality of being a young Puerto Rican woman, using poetry to make sense of conflict and chaos in her relentless search for truth. When We Make It is an unforgettable debut.”—Willie Perdomo, author of The Crazy Bunch