Book Review

When We Make It

When We Make It

  • Author: Elisabet Velasquez
  • Genre: YA Contemporary/Poetry
  • Publication Date: August 30, 2022
  • Publisher: Dial Books

Thank you to YABC and Dial Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. My review of this book was originally posted on the YA Books Central website here.

CONTENT WARNING: mention of domestic violence, mental illness, gun violence, miscarriage, addiction, mention of off-page sexual assault, teen pregnancy

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This unforgettable, torrential, and hopeful novel-in-verse redefines what it means to “make it.”

Sarai is a first-generation Puerto Rican question asker who can see with clarity the truth, pain, and beauty of the world both inside and outside her Bushwick apartment. Together with her older sister, Estrella, she navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Sarai questions the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives with determination and an open heart, learning to celebrate herself in a way that she has long been denied.

When We Make It is a love letter to anyone who was taught to believe that they would not make it. To those who feel their emotions before they can name them. To those who still may not have all the language but they have their story. Velasquez’ debut novel is sure to leave an indelible mark on all who read it.

Wow, this book is so incredible that I’m struggling to put how much I loved it into words. The fact that it’s written as a novel-in-verse brings to mind Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land. It brings to vivid life the struggle of Sarai, who is not only navigating life in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bushwick, but also facing poverty and defining what it means to be a first-generation Puerto Rican.

Throughout this book, she faces dangers so often that they’re just everyday events, things that people might see on the news but don’t incorporate into their daily reality the way that Sarai does. Background events for her include gun violence, fear of the police even when you’re doing nothing wrong, food insecurity, housing insecurity, racism, drugs, mental illness, and domestic violence. Expressing feelings are a luxury that she doesn’t have, and her writing is her only escape.

“In Bushwick it’s hard to be soft/when everything is so hard.”

And while Sarai knows that she’s Puerto Rican, she is only starting to learn what that really means for her as an individual. She doesn’t know the history, doesn’t really know much of the language, and questions whether she’s Puerto Rican enough, and what it really means to be Puerto Rican. This made Sarai feel so relatable, because while my story is completely different from Sarai’s, I’ve also questioned my own identity and wondered if I’m enough to identify the way I do. I think it’s something that a lot of us do, no matter what our ethnicity, religion, or identity is. 

There’s such a genuine vibe to this story, and it transported me directly back to Bushwick. I’ve spent a lot of time in the areas mentioned in the story, and it’s depicted so perfectly. And while it’s definitely gentrified a lot more since the 90s, when this story took place, there’s some parts that haven’t changed much at all, and you can still hear salsa or bachata or reggaeton bumping from a Honda Civic, and get tropical fantasy from a bodega, and hear people speaking mostly Spanish. It’s an incredible place to visit, but for the people who live there, it has a way of keeping them trapped through systemic factors like poverty and racism. The people who live there dream big, but it’s hard to succeed when there are so many factors working against you. Sarai illustrates this so beautifully when she talks about how they can’t celebrate birthdays because there’s no money, but she clings to her dreams because it’s all she really has.

“I got dreams because I have to have them./I got dreams ‘cause I wanna wake up one day/to a Happy Birthday.”

This book is a beautiful and powerful story, and I was right there with Sarai. I wanted to see her succeed despite all the factors working against her. And it was heartbreaking to watch her go through everything she did, even as I was amazed at her strength and resilience, although no one should have to go through what she did. And the fact is that this isn’t just a story; this is a reality for so many people. It really hit home, and it brings Velasquez right into the forefront of debut authors to watch. 

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