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Twelve-year-old Santiago’s mother died when he was young, and since then the boy has been “passed from one ungrateful relative to another.” His abusive abuela—grandmother—terrorized him and left scars on his body to prove it. After Santiago spends time with his cousins and aunt, she tires of him and gives him bus fare to return to Abuela's home, but he resolves never to return.

Owning only his meager funds and a pocket knife, Santiago doesn’t know what to do next. When he meets 19-year-old Maria Dolores and her young daughter, Alegria, they make him feel more loved and welcome than any of his relatives ever had. He learns of their plans to flee Mexico and go to the United States and decides to travel with them even though he doubts whether they can be trusted.

The threesome face terrifying obstacles as they journey north—malevolent men, the forces of nature, and lack of resources—and arrive in the land of their dreams, only to encounter the nightmare of separation in various detention centers.

In the temporary immigration holding facility, Santiago feels “sentenced to jail.” He is cast adrift in the horde of male teens from numerous countries south of the border and learns that most of them traveled alone to the United States to escape terrorizing drug gangs, political conflicts, severe poverty, and domestic abuse. Afraid to trust anyone, Santiago yet experiences kindness from other detainees and some staff, especially his compassionate and inspiring teacher, Senor Dante, who teaches him to read and recognizes in Santiago a bright and willing learner.

As he remains in “jail,” Santiago has one burning desire. He wants to be reunited with Maria Dolores and Alegria and make a home with them, even though he believes they have discarded him like so many others had done. Author Alexandra Diaz offers a realistic, hopeful conclusion to this emotionally disturbing and gripping novel, which contains a few instances of profanity. 

In author notes, Diaz shares details about the tragic reality of countless people who have entered the United States at its southern border and the conditions in holding facilities. She says, “Even though Santiago’s story is a work of fiction, as is the facility where he was detained, most of his experiences are true to past and current immigration hardships.” Though recommended for ages 8-12, the book is better suited for children 12 and older. (Simon & Schuster)

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