Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows (Charlie Hernández #1) by Ryan Calejo.
Aladdin, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York, 2018.
Middle grade fantasy, 330 pages including glossary.
Lexile: 780L .
AR Level: 5.4 (worth 10.0 points) .
Charlie Hernández has already experienced the worst day of his life – when his home burned to the ground and his parents disappeared. So when shortly after that he grows horns, then feathers, it’s just baseline awful. The county is having trouble finding him a temporary guardian, and softball star Alice Coulter tortures him for fun.
Although the summary sounds rather bleak, this isn’t an overly dark or negative book. Charlie is pragmatic and determined, although not unaffected by his situation. He is grieving his parents, grappling with his own identity, and facing the normal struggles of any middle school student. Like another speculative fiction book I often recommend, this story also includes realistic microaggressions.
To finish the header quote:
“she learned that I was born in Puebla, Mexico. (My dad’s family is Mexican and Portuguese, and my mom’s is Cuban.) I’d tried to explain to her that my parents had moved here when I was only one, so America was the only country I’d ever called home, but she didn’t seem to get that. It sucked that some people would never accept me just based on my parents’ nationalities and the color of my skin.” page 21
As I read more Latin@ literature, one thing I’m learning is that identity is important. While it may not be the first thing mentioned, most characters identify their family background within the first few chapters. This background also comes into play at a few points later in the book, where Charlie’s grounding in his family is both central to his sense of self, and also not quite what he thinks.
At first I was a bit irked at the inclusion of Violet as a main character. Do we really need a perfect overachieving white girl as the main romantic interest and secondary lead? But as the book went on I began to see what Calejo was doing and ended up loving it. See, Violet’s the sidekick. We never leave Charlie’s viewpoint, she never has any unexpected powers, and there is some backstory hinted at that implies she’s got problems of her own. Plus, she provides an easy accessible viewpoint and reason for Charlie to explain Latin@ mythology to the readers who might not be familiar with every creature or story. Calejo is turning the minor minority character on its head by making his white, and I love it.
Calejo also has a perfect way of amping up the stakes over and over again. Just when the reader thinks everything is resolved, along comes something even more dangerous. Even when Charlie turns out to be not as special as he was hoping, his life is still in danger!
Although there’s a lot of drama and magic in this book, it’s also got funny moments. When Charlie stops ripping feathers out of his arms to compare it to tweezing his eyebrows, I had to laugh. There were little comments like this throughout that helped humanize Charlie even as he was uncontrollably growing non-human things like feathers and claws.
In fact, this book reminded me more of the Percy Jackson books than anything I’ve read since Roshani Chokshi. The drama with comedic effect, stakes slowly rising from “figure out who I am” up to “save the world,” and lore hidden in the modern world all combine to make this a book I’d love to pass on to Riordan fans if I were still teaching.
There is some deathly peril, and I wouldn’t recommend these to very sensitive readers, but it’s on par with the Pandava novels or the Jumbies series – appropriate for middle grade readers and up. Even the romance is very mild – he would like there to be some, but it’s more like a friendship that his friends tease him about.
We’ll definitely be picking up the next book in this series. In fact, I was nearly done with my diverse middle grade fiction booklist when I read this one for the first time and decided to delay publication of that list so this series could be included as well. Recommended.