by Aida Salazar
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2019
Hardcover, 240 pages
Reviewed by Casey O’Leary
The first thing I noticed when I picked up the middle grade title The Moon Within by Aida Salazar was a review quote on the back cover: “a worthy successor to Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret set in present-day Oakland.” Since I’m a children’s librarian, I am perpetually searching for the next great read for my elementary and middle school patrons, but I am also a massive Judy Blume fan. Growing up in Connecticut, Blume’s books held a resonance that echoed as I inhaled each chapter. I understand you, her books said to me. You’re not weird; you’re growing and learning. I see you. This was especially true with Are You There, God? which reassured me that the questions and concerns cascading through my head were normal for a girl my age.
With tremendous excitement, I picked up The Moon Within and began reading, but I didn’t get the connection between the two books. Yes, both protagonists were girls on the cusp of young womanhood, with questions about their bodies and first menstrual cycles, but is that all either book is really about?
The Moon Within is written in verse and narrated by eleven-year-old Celi, who lives with her family in Oakland, California. Celi is a dancer, both of ballet and bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican dance set to drums; she is also an American teen finding her own way amid her mother’s Mexica traditions and beliefs. The tense push and pull of the hormonal teenage years is reflected in Celi’s desires: attraction to a boy who may not feel the same way; desired privacy while her body changes and shifts; and the gift of a trustworthy best friend to hold her secrets.
That tension erupts when Celi’s best friend announces a new gender identity, referenced in the book as a xochihuah, one “who danced between or to other energies than what they were assigned at birth.” That event coupled with harsh truths about her relationships with others and with her own body turn Celi’s world upside down. It will be her culture, her traditions, and her family that bring Celi back into alignment with her true self and her personal power.
I was mid-discussion with a friend, still pondering the comparison between this book and Judy Blume’s work, when it struck me like a thunderbolt; there is a connection between the two stories: a spiritual quest.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was so memorable to me because, throughout the book, Margaret was on a spiritual quest. Raised by a Jewish father and Christian mother, neither of whom practice the faith of his or her childhood, Margaret decides to seek a religious practice as part of a yearlong class project. The process is fraught from the start, especially when grandparents on both sides of the family decide to (often forcefully) add their two cents. Margaret’s emotional journey ends with no easy answers, either; she simply realizes how much is still left to learn.
As does Celi, a young girl also on a quest to clearly define her beliefs and practices. Is she a Puerto Rican dancer, carefree and tribal, or a Mexica healer, with generational skills and expectations? Is she willing to celebrate her womanhood with those she loves, or is her privacy more important than her mother’s vision of body acceptance? Will Celi stand by her first love and his misconceptions without question, or is she a best friend willing to sacrifice all she’s ever believed about gender to defend a lifelong companion?
Both girls are on a quest, and both stories resonate with my personal journey. I was a child without a religion, born to parents who chose not to participate in a religious practice and chose the same for their children. My friends were primarily Jewish, and like Margaret I occasionally found myself in synagogue or a Roman Catholic church but never felt like I belonged there. In my adult life, I’ve come to appreciate the cycles of the moon, like Celi (the book is divided into four sections, each dedicated to a phase of the moon). I’ve also learned the value of ritual and female centered spiritual practices, and just like Celi I feel those practices touch a place deep in my soul, even when the rituals are new and there is still much to learn.
Aida Salazar has created a work of art that touches the soul in writing the story of Celi, as Judy Blume did so many years ago with Margaret. The two stories connect in the shared growth and personal development of both girls during a time of life known for its challenges, as each character becomes more wholly herself. That connection might bring a reader like me to the pages of Salazar’s book, but I stay for her beautiful words and exquisite imagery, illuminating a young girl’s journey to find herself in her art, in her spirituality, and in her community.