Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, recently released her new YA novel. Burn Baby Burn is set in New York during the summer of 1977, notorious for sky-high temperatures, arson, and serial killer the Son of Sam. 17-year-old Nora Lopez is in her final year of high school and working part time at Sal's deli to cover the costs of living at home with her mom and brother Hector.
Nora's brother Hector has started to go off the rails, although her mother blames it on hormones and puberty. She tells Nora, "Boys go through these things...Then they become good men, believe it or not. He'll meet a good woman one day who will straighten him out." These comments contradict Nora's feminism, highlighted by a Woman's Day march, a focus on the National Organization of Women, and the name bestowed on Nora's best friend's hamster (Gloria, named after their favourite feminist, Gloria Steinem). Hector becomes more and more abusive at home, his behaviour escalating as New York is plunged deeper into uncertainty.
Nora is Cuban-American, and Spanish dialogue punctuates many of the exchanges between Nora and her mother. Nora is a vibrant character, no-nonsence, and practical. When she describes her past boyfriend, Angel, she is straightforward and pragmatic,
I blame it on the fact that he has the same puppy eyes as Freddie Prinze, may he rest in peace. But Angel is nothing like the character I fell in love with on Chico and the Man, all kindhearted and sexy. Nope. One minute we were kissing in Angel's room, and a little while later he was driving me home, my shirt buttoned wrong and a wad of toilet paper in my underwear to catch the blood. I cried to Kathleen that whole night, worried about babies and all the scabby diseases Miss Sousa covered with great gore during Heath and Hygiene. But mostly, I already knew in my gut that Angel had used me, and sure enough, he spread the word to anybody who would listen. I was easy.Yet, she is also ambivalent about her future, anxious to graduate high school and move out on her own. She expresses interest in shop and woodworking, and demonstrates her carpentry abilities several times throughout the novel. Her neighbor, Stiller, encourages her to take on this non-traditional type of work for women, and Nora also has supportive teachers who reinforce her interests.
Nora goes to the movies often in Burn Baby Burn, sometimes with her best friend Kathleen, and other times with her new boyfriend Pablo, and 1977 becomes as famous for its run of films as it does for the other social events that form the novel's background. Nora sees or references The Omen, Rocky, Carrie, and Star Wars over the course of the novel, as the movie theatre becomes the place for socializing, especially during the heat wave. The movie references fall in line with an article by Cheryl Eddy for io9.com titled "Why Why 1976 Such an Amazing Year for Horror Movies?" Although Nora is viewing these fi;ms at the end of the winter/early spring of 1977, it's apt to view the horror of arson, unrest, and abhorrent murders against the horror of popular films.
Burn Baby Burn is another exciting and surprising book by Medina, presenting a strong teenage voice and a compelling historical context.