Meg Medina’s Burn, Baby, Burn is an example of great storytelling. This didn’t surprise me as I’d loved Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. I’d recommend Burn to any teen looking for a good read. I’d also recommend it to any writer looking for an example of a perfectly-constructed novel. It’s a particularly good choice right now because the world Medina recreates has many of the same issues we struggle with today.
Burn has great characters, plotting, and pacing. Medina achieves this trifecta by creating a sort of Venn diagram of three overlapping problem areas, each with stakes for the protagonist, Nora López. While most writers introduce these three problem areas—societal, close-to-home, and romantic—Medina maintains the stakes for the protagonist in all three areas throughout. Her ability to keep each one in the foreground throughout the novel assures that all the important characters are well developed. Plotting and pacing rely on this balancing act, so when done well, the story moves as it should.
Nora is a high school senior living in Queens (New York City) during the spring and summer of 1977. That’s a tough place to be at that time. The city appears to be on fire with frequent arson and blackout incidents, followed by looting. There is constant heat and racial tension. A serial killer is on the loose and targeting young girls. In addition, Nora is shouldering too much responsibility for her dysfunctional family. She hopes that turning eighteen and getting out on her own will be the answer to her problems. She and her best friend, Kathleen, budding feminists, want to be free to dance and fantasize about the deceased TV star Freddie Prinze. But Nora is adrift about future plans and has very little money, despite having a part-time job at the local deli. Her first experience in love was a disaster. But when Nora meets Pablo, a new coworker at the deli, she is smitten. However, Nora is unable to share her family troubles with either Kathleen or Pablo, as this feels like an act of betrayal. Her silence creates distance from those she needs most.
An infamous serial killer known as ‘Son of Sam’ was on the loose in New York City for the year in which the novel takes place. Nora and Kathleen, as well as Kathleen’s parents, are afraid every time the teens leave the house because Son of Sam kills young girls. The girls’ fears intersect with their dating lives: Son of Sam kills couples who are making out in cars. Nora continually has this in mind:
“I think sheepishly of Mima [Nora’s mom], who always tells me not to walk this way alone, especially not at night. A thousand times she’s warned me, and I always sneer at her dramatic lectures about this patch of weeds and broken glass, about the dark corners where a girl could be pushed, dragged off to the dead end, and then God Knows What. It has always seemed so stupid, so Mima. But now . . .”
Though plainclothes police women hang around the neighborhood, Nora doesn’t feel any safer. “Fake lures don’t fool the prize fish you’re trying to catch. It’s always the real worm, hopelessly writhing on the hook, that draws what you want from the dark.”
Nora’s close problems center on family life with Mima and Hector, Nora’s brother. Equally important is her father, Papi, who is utterly outside her family life.
Nora lives with her mother and her brother Hector in their small apartment in Queens. Nora shares a bedroom with Hector. Yet her father lives with his new wife and new son in a high rise with a doorman–in greater safety than his first family. He rarely speaks to his older kids and is often late in paying their rent. Meanwhile, the son he has with his new wife goes to “private kindergarten for geniuses.” Even though he ignores his older kids, everyone tiptoes around him. Nora’s mom never speaks to him but commandeers Nora’s mediation.
“My parents haven’t spoken directly since the day they signed their divorce papers. Guess who’s their messenger pigeon?”
Papi says over and over that rent checks are lost in the mail. Nora pretends to believe him. Papi has no idea how anything is going including Hector’s bad and even criminal behaviors at school and at home. Meanwhile, Nora’s relationship with her mother is complicated by the silence surrounding Hector’s problems and Mima’s endless judgment of Nora.
“Hector snaps like one of his lighters. His cheeks go blotchy, and he shoves past me into the entry hall, where Mima’s purse hangs in the coat closet. He grabs it and digs inside, tossing out her eyeglass case, her pens, her citizenship card, used tissues. ‘¡Pero hijo!’ Mima stands helplessly at the doorway as he empties her purse. Soapy water drips from her hands onto the floor. ‘¡No lo tengo!’ My stomach squeezes into a familiar knot as I try to figure out the puzzle, fast. I could give him the ten bucks to cool things off, or I could hide in our bedroom and let them combust.”
Explaining why Nora hides this from Kathleen and Pablo, she says, “How can you make people understand about brothers who hit and spit? How do you explain why you listen at your own front door before going in? How do you explain that it’s not only parents who beat kids, but sometimes the other way around, too?”
As Nora is beginning to date her coworker, Pablo, there’s real suspense in her efforts to keep him from learning about her family. In addition, any possible make out scene has the Son of Sam lurking in the background.
Of a recently murdered couple, Nora says, “They were eighteen and twenty years old, more or less like us. They went to the movies and found out that the city isn’t huge at all. In fact, it can shrink down to the size of a gun barrel, just like that.”
Pablo eventually learns more about Hector’s behavior. Nora tells him it’s none of his business. This appears to be a romance breaker.
Add Problems Together to Create Suspense
Writing teachers will warn that surprise or shock is not suspense, and that’s true. But sometimes writers have a suspenseful story in hand without understanding where the suspense comes from. In the case of Nora’s universe–1977 New York City–there is the suspense of a serial killer roaming the streets and killing young couples. But when Nora learns about arson, burglaries, and drug dealing in her neighborhood and apartment building, the problems of society at large hit home. A writer might think the suspense lies in the question of whether Nora’s brother, Hector, is involved in criminal activity. But really, Medina is showing her hand in placing hints early and often. The suspense for me, as the reader, was in something I really didn’t know: what will happen to the family when they learn what Hector has done? How can an absent father and a mother who refuses to see her son’s behavior for what it is (partly because she isn’t empowered to change it) have any influence over the future? They are unjustly placing the burden in Nora’s lap. What will happen to her? This sort of suspense is the best because Nora doesn’t deserve to be made responsible, doesn’t deserve to be harmed. What teen hasn’t felt the same impotence in facing their parents? Everyone who reads this novel will be in high tension about Nora’s future throughout. We want her to tell Papi what he needs to know because, in a sense, this would be speaking truth to power. We are wanting it, waiting for it, will revel in it. That’s high stakes suspense.
Finish with Important Questions–and Answers
A good YA novel comes to some resolution. In order to do so, mentors and friends have to be introduced early and show up repeatedly. Nora has adults who care about her, and more importantly, act to direct her into a better future. Ms. Friedmor, the school’s head guidance counselor, and Mr. Melvin, the woodshop teacher, are two of the most important. Kathleen’s parents are always welcoming and are ultimately instrumental in her plan to become independent.
Some of the larger societal questions create conflict: The fear, fires, and looting bring disagreement between Stiller (an African American feminist and activist) and Kathleen’s father (a firefighter) to the surface. Their argument over safety and privilege will strike a cord, mirroring today’s news. Equally familiar is the characters’ exhaustion with what feels like innumerable, endless issues:
“But here’s what’s really weird. We’re all too hot and tired to even care. In fact, no one acts surprised because, face it, what disaster hasn’t happened this year? We’re burning. We’re broke. We’re laid off. We’re ripping each other off or being murdered or pulling the trigger.”
“Every rule I know is gone, and we’re in chaos. There are no rules for how a family should work. No rules for how far loyalty should reach. No boundaries on stealing or looting. No limits on how people ruin one another’s lives or how we blame one another for our pain. . . . Now no rules for how we kill each other, either.”
I don’t want to give away all the many resolutions, but ultimately Nora finds her way–with help, but on her own terms.
“Maybe the things that scare us seem more powerful than they truly are when we keep them secret.”
Ms. Friedmor’s words are something of a theme for Burn, Baby, Burn. They can be a reminder for writers as well: “Remember to reach. You’ll surprise yourself.”
Medina includes an afterword about the setting and action of Burn, Baby, Burn. As writers are living through the same sorts of tension and social justice issues today, they may take to heart her purpose in writing the novel and get to work on a similar exploration of their own.
“In so many ways, this is a novel about people at their worst. It is a story of family pain and of juvenile domestic violence, a chronically underreported issue. It’s the story of community pain — and all the ways that people try to cope in the face of fear. But for me, this novel is a celebration of people who find their strength even in the worst circumstances. I wrote this story because young people everywhere sometimes find that they have to fuel their hope against a bleak backdrop and outpourings of rage.”
High School Housekeeping
Sometimes high school research paper assignments start with a work of fiction set in a historical period. Students read the fiction and then research the events around which the novel is set. If you’re in high school and receive such an assignment, Burn, Baby, Burn would be a great place to start. If you’re a teacher librarian helping students with such an assignment, Burn, Baby, Burn is a great recommendation because the number of things mentioned in all areas of life–social justice, pop culture, clothing, etc.–will smooth the path of the project. There’s so much to look into: the discussion of the crime rate in New York City in the mid to late 1970s; the serial murderer ‘Son of Sam;’ arson; drug addiction; the mention of a police shooting of a youth who was simply standing outside his apartment building; the National Organization for Women (NOW), Carmen Vivian Rivera and reproductive rights. In pop culture, there’s mention of the movies Carrie, Rocky, Annie Hall, and Star Wars; the TV shows Baretta and Chico and the Man. Musicians include the Ohio Players (funk), the Ramones (punk), Vicki Sue Robinson (disco), and David Bowie (glam rock and more). The girls long for clothing brands like Sasson and Calvin Klein.