I would give this one a 3.5 to 4 stars. I’m going back and forth.
The idea behind Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan piqued my interest and then when I started reading it, I was a bit like “yawn” and then by the end I liked it again. What happened? I think the main thing here of note is that I am an adult and this is a book meant for middle grades readers (approximately. It could also be read in elementary school). Sometimes, books really do work best in their intended age group, though I wondered more than a couple times if the plot here was one that kids would even be interested in. I’m not sure.
The typical length for the age group with typical writing style and language for the age group, Mañanaland is the story of Max. Max is a twelve-year-old kid from a small town of mountains, rivers, and bridges in what I assume is a fictional Latin American country. He wants to be a football (Americans, read: soccer) star, but first he has to start with making the city’s football team. This year he is old enough and a famous coach has signed on to head the team. With Max’s dad and grandpa former football stars, Max dreams of a summer in a clinic with his best friend before making the team. However… inexplicably, Max’s summer plans fall apart, and left on his own, building bridges with his father, and being babysat by his great-aunts and uncles, Max smells a number of mysteries on the breeze. But no one will tell him what’s going on! With the town legends and his grandpa’s guarded fairy tales to guide him, he’s going to get to the bottom of each mystery as they come along. Who is he? Where did he come from? And where is his mother?
There are some unique things here, including the family dynamics: mom is absent and dad and grandpa are raising Max in a house full of love, attention, and care, not to mention zest and kindness. (I’m not saying this situation is unique as much as I’m saying it’s unique in literature.) There is also a kind of magic to the book, in the story-telling, the imagining, the legends, and even in the feel of it. And yet, I would disagree with it being labeled as fantasy. In my opinion, it’s not magic enough to even be magic realism, let alone fantasy. It’s fiction, no doubt, with a whiff of the supernatural, but in the end it could be read as strict realism, since the overt magic is in the stories and dreams. Overall, it has that Latin American feel to it, like magic is just around the corner, almost in and out of dream states.
The pacing is really fast, which is also due to the age group. This is one of the places where it was geared much more toward kids than adults. The characters are likable and understood (due to the straight-forward and clear writing), but you don’t go too deep. Again, age appropriate. The setting is alluring, but it also does not get too fleshed out. So, I end where I began: this book is fine for elementary and middle grades and I liked the story and the characters, but it didn’t have enough meat for an adult or even YA reader. Despite the growing of the character and the serious, meaningful things he deals with, the book’s not especially moving. As for the reaction of a real, live pre-teen, I can’t give you one. My son has just started reading if for his book club. I’ve heard nothing good or bad about it from him, so far.
If you are looking for reading for a late-elementary or middle grades reader, this is one you could consider. Is it the sort of thing they would be interested in? Would it benefit them to see a little more of Latino characters or setting? Or positive father figures?