It was OK, I guess? I expected more fire, given the title. Burn Baby Burn is more of a slow simmer, though, without much payoff. I sped through it in an afternoon, and while it was not a bad book with which to pass the time sitting outside, it also wasn’t too remarkable.
There were a few places that Meg Medina made me angry—in a good way. It’s 1977. Nora Lopez is 17, and when she should be thinking about life after high school, she is instead forced to hold her family together. Her mother is on the brink of losing her job at a packaging tape factory; she also can’t control Nora’s younger brother, Hector. He’s getting involved with the criminal element, doing and even dealing drugs. Nora’s mother turns to Nora—the good daughter, the obedient daughter, the daughter who speaks English—both to “support” Hector and intercede on the family’s behalf with the various English-speaking authorities. Nora is tired, understandably, of all this weight on her shoulders; she really just wants to save up her money so she can find a place of her own, and maybe date the hot new guy her boss hired to stock shelves and clean.
Medina’s portrayal of Nora’s family, and in particular Nora’s relationship with her mother, angered me. I was just so uncomfortable with the way her mother inveigled her into doing things her mother should be doing. As someone who was lucky enough to grow up with supportive, progressive parents, I haven’t lived Nora’s experience—but Medina’s portrayal seems to capture, as far as I can tell from my perspective, how a teenage girl might react in this situation. Nora loves her family and wants to support them, but she also has her own dreams and goals. The tension between these states is almost viscerally painful here, particularly as we approach the climax and the questions of arson, looting, and rioting come to the forefront.
Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm also stems from having watched The Get Down, which just seems to show 1977 New York City to a much better degree. Medina tries to capture the spirit of the year (which, at only 27 years old, I never witnessed myself). But we never really see that much beyond the narrow slice of people Nora interacts with. And most of the characters beyond Nora herself seem very flat, undergoing little in the way of character development throughout the book.
The ending is also particularly unsatisfying. After a dramatic, almost violent confrontation that threatens to blow apart Nora’s family, Medina wraps everything up and puts a bow on it. While there are no promises, the resolution is unusually simple considering the complexity of Nora’s situation. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not looking for a sad ending here, because we need stories about teenagers in poverty and teenagers of colour who get happy endings. It’s just discordant, given what happens to Nora, that everything comes together so neatly for her.
The romance in Burn Baby Burn is … OK, I guess? It has some subtlety to it; I appreciate how Medina has Nora articulate her sexual desire but remain wary of fooling around with Pablo until she gets to know him better, thanks to her past experiences. I like that both of them make mistakes and assumptions. They act like two teenagers trying to figure one another out, or at least this is what I would think it’s like. Yet, as with other aspects of the story, nothing about the romance really stands out.
Burn Baby Burn tries to be a character-driven novel for a YA audience. It succeeds, in the sense that it meets this definition. But aside from my reaction to Nora’s relationship with her mother, I didn’t get riled up or passionate about this story. It didn’t stir my emotions or speak to me. While I can’t claim it will be like this for everyone—maybe you’ll love it—my experience was decidedly lukewarm. It’s well-written, but it’s just not very memorable.