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The Smell of Old Lady Perfume

De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children
The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is highly recommended.
By the time I actually started sixth grade, I felt like a burro—a donkey, which was what they called the kids who weren’t too smart. We had missed a little more than a week of school. Nothing was like it was supposed to be. I wasn’t sure how to explain it, except that I felt very small.

As Chela Gonzalez eagerly prepares to enter sixth grade, her strong father—the center of her universe—has had a stroke and her maternal grandmother comes to stay to help take care of the family. She brings with her, among other things, “the smell of old lady perfume.” As Chela’s father has to make major life adjustments in order to recuperate, her mother has to secure employment to support the family. Her having married young and never having had a job before presents a great challenge for the entire family. Because of her father’s illness, Chela is unable to begin school with the rest of her classmates, and her vision of a perfect new school year is quickly thwarted when she finds herself isolated and shunned by the popular girls. Chela does not have any friends, her teacher completely forgets about her, and she cannot even tell her father about it for fear that the stress might make him ill again. Although Chela’s father’s health seems to improve and he is able to build the family a home of their own, soon after they move he has another stroke, this one fatal. And the smell of old lady perfume once again returns to the Gonzalez home.

Martínez’s debut young adult novel captures the turmoil of a family’s losing its center, and at the same time emphasizes the importance of staying in school. Chela’s parents are immigrants and her father makes clear that his options are limited because he had been unable to go to school, so he wants his children to take advantage of every opportunity. Chela, of course, is an exceptional student and is even in the gifted and talented students program. Education has become central in the Gonzalez family’s life, and being recognized as the smartest girl in school becomes Chela’s main goal.

The relationship between migration/immigration and education is a significant theme within Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. Stories like Gloria Velasquez’s Juanita Fights the School Board (Arte Público Press, 1994), Luis Rodriguez’s América is Her Name (Curbstone Books, 1998, http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2013/04/america-is-her-name.html), and Jorge Argueta’s Moony Luna / Luna, Lunita, Lunera (Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2005, 2013) capture various struggles that Latina/o children face in school and the role that their parents play in helping students overcome these challenges. Here, Martínez also highlights the parents’ desire to see their children succeed and how education can be a means for many immigrant families to secure that success.

The Smell of Old Lady Perfume also presents an opportunity for a classroom discussion of how traditional gender roles within Latina/o families impact children and may reveal ways to reconcile or challenge them. Chela’s father’s death shakes her family’s structure because her mom now must secure employment in order for the family to survive, leaving older children with the responsibility of caring for the younger siblings. The reality, which Chela explains, is that they have to take care of themselves. With the father now gone, the boys in the family are told that they must now act as the heads of the family and are forced to hide their emotions.

In The Smell of Old Lady Perfume, Martínez has created an honest and endearing character through Chela Gonzalez. By the end of the story, the school has recognized Chela’s hard work and her family is there to support her. This young Latina has reaped the benefits of education; and despite having lost her father, she shows great strength and determination to succeed—something her father had encouraged and of which he would have been proud.

Towards the end of the story, Chela visits with her father in the cemetery because she wants to share some news:

I know you would’ve been there if you could’ve. I still wanted you to know, so I came to the cemetery and put down my thirsty roots…. Don’t tease me and make me laugh. I just want to lay here and listen for your heartbeat….We were so happy. Now I’m sad when I’m sad, and sometimes I’m sad when I’m happy. I close my eyes, and you are exactly as you were. I can hear your voice. “Cuando me muera no quiero que me lloren.”

Chela and her father had had a strong relationship, and her great personal loss and the obstacles in dealing with a death in the family will resonate with young adult readers. The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is highly recommended.
- Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD, August 14, 2017  Visit Website
Booklist
As she starts sixth grade, 11-year-old Chela is straddling two borders, the figurative one between childhood and adolescence and the real one that divides Ciudad Juarez from El Paso. Chela is devastated when her new classmates in Texas laugh at her accented English and jeeringly call her a “Juaranota.” Then her best friend, Nora, abandons her to join a clique of popular girls. These problems pale, however, after her beloved father suffers a stroke and can no longer work. Her grandmother comes to help (it is her perfume that pervades the household), but fear and worry surround the family.

Martinez’ highly episodic first novel is a quiet story that is filled with such coming-of-age staples as mean girls, popularity contests, first romances, sibling rivalries, and more. However, readers will also find the book’s loving portrayal of Chela’s family, its nicely realized setting, and its artful exploration of the problems of assimilation to be both engaging and heartfelt.
- September 1, 2008 
School Library Journal
Chela Gonzalez and her friend Nora are looking forward to sixth grade in their El Paso school. They have finally been placed in the A-class, the “smart class,” which is for students who only speak English. Then Chela’s father has a stroke on the first day of school, her grandmother comes to help out, and “the air became thick with the smell of old lady perfume, of dying flowers and alcohol…. It was the smell of bad things.” Nora becomes a member of the popular group of girls who’ve decided to make her an outcast. Chela is asked to enroll in the Gifted and Talented group that meets after school, which helps to ease her loneliness.

Her father suffers another stroke, fatal this time, and again the smell of old-lady perfume fills the little house. The book ends with the family trying to regroup after their loss. Chela is rewarded with the highest honor at the school’s end-of-year awards ceremony–the All School Girl award. Through her pride, her sadness is also evident since her father was the one who always pushed her to do her best. This is a sweet coming-of-age story, telling of the cruelties of children toward one another and dealing with the loss of a parent. The story should appeal to readers dealing with their own tween years.
- September 1, 2008 
Kirkus Reviews
An autobiographical examination of sixth grade, death and life on the border. The year starts with great promise, and Chela confides her dream to her beloved Apa: winning the All-School Girl Trophy. But Apa has a stroke on the first day of school, and when he recovers, Chela finds that during her absence popular Camila has stolen her best friend. The balance of life on the border of Mexico and Texas is lightly sketched but sure-handed; occasional Spanish phrases and the sense of family and community come through. (Fiction. Ages 9-12)
Southwest Books of the Year 2008
Setting her story in El Paso, Claudia Guadalupe Martinez gives us the gift of a real world, filled with authentic kids and family dynamics…Martinez’s prose, always animated and descriptive, is frequently quite beautiful. She is an author to watch.
- Cathy Jacobus, 
Foreword Magazine
The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is a touching story that will teach lessons on loss, family, loneliness, and the importance of being oneself. Not only does Chela deal with the pains of growing up — wearing a bra for the first time and discovering what the “napkins” under the sink are for — but she has to do it without friends to confide in. … The novel’s easy language reads like genuine narration from a sixth grader and complements the story’s complex themes.
“Apá was a strong still oak. We hid under his branches like shadows. Even when he laughed a thunderous laugh, those branches shook only ever so slightly,” Martinez writes.

Chela Gonzales is about to start sixth grade, the last year of elementary school, when her beloved father suffers a stroke. Her grandmother comes to stay, and Chela realizes that old lady perfume smells like bad news. She and her brothers and sister miss a week of school while her father is in the hospital. When he comes home and Chela returns to school, her best friend Nora has “mutated into a popular girl” and isn’t speaking to her.

Because she has no friends at school, Chela spends her free time with Apá, helping him build their new house and practicing for the school soccer tournament. Eventually, after proving that she is smart and good at soccer, Chela is recruited to join Nora, Camila, and the other popular girls.

During Easter break, her dad has another stroke, and doesn’t recover. Back at school, the popular girls show off their new outfits and brag about their vacations, while Chela hides the fact that she spent her break in mourning and attending her father’s funeral. Only Nora and their friend Roy know the truth.

The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is a touching story that will teach lessons on loss, family, loneliness, and the importance of being oneself. Not only does Chela deal with the pains of growing up—wearing a bra for the first time and discovering what the “napkins” under the sink are for—but she has to do it without friends to confide in.

Chela’s school year ends on a happy note; she is rewarded for her academic achievements and she and Nora break away from the popular crowd, who weren’t very good friends anyway. But young readers will see that nobody’s life is perfect and that with happiness often comes pain.

The author’s own father died when she was eleven. This is her first book. The novel’s easy language reads like genuine narration from a sixth grader and complements the story’s complex themes. Young readers will also learn Spanish words and phrases including abuelita (grandma), Si se puede (yes, you can), and even sapo verde (green toad). They may be tempted to try dishes like stuffed peppers with tortillas and the chocolate drink champurrado.

After the All-School Awards ceremony, Chela accepts that her father isn’t coming back, but she is comforted by the memories of their time together and the love he always showed her. “Seventh grade, eighth grade, the first day of high school, college, and many more days would come. It was okay,” she says. (July)
Kirkus Reviews Special Issues: BEA / ALA
In The Smell of Old Lady Perfume, Chela Gonzalez wakes up in eager anticipation of starting sixth grade like her older twin siblings before her. Instead something goes terribly wrong for her father, and soon Abuelita arrives, accompanied by a cloud of old lady perfume. “Thanks to the infinite wisdom of John Wayne and my father, I learned to read before I ever set foot in a school,” says Claudia Guadalupe Martinez. “My father taught me that letters form words, by making me read the subtitles of old westerns out loud. By the time I was six, I knew how to write too, and I was going to write a book…I was 11 when he passed. The loss was so great that I didn’t think I could share it with anyone. But I never forgot the smells, the sounds and the vast darkness.”
Children's Literature
This sensitively-written novel provides unique insights into a bicultural family.
- Phyllis Kennemer, Ph.D., 
ALAN's Picks
While Spanish words are interspersed with English, there are not so many that the book is difficult to read for a non-Spanish speaking person but just enough to actualize the Hispanic culture in Chela's home life and the circumstances of a bilingual student in an English-speaking school environment.
On Chela Gonzalez's first day of sixth grade-her first year not to be in the bilingual class, her first year to be without the class "mean girl," her first year to have a chance at being a popular girl in the class- her dad has a stroke, and everything changes. Her father, the parent who has always made life interesting for Chela and her siblings, is now unable to work outside the home. Her mother must take a job to support the family. Chela begins school a week late only to find that her best friend since kindergarten has been taken into the class mean girls' circle (no, she didn't leave for private school as was rumored). She is no longer allowed to be Chela's friend. While there is progress in her dad's health and school does become bearable for several reasons, the book does not end without sorrow.

While Spanish words are interspersed with English, there are not so many that the book is difficult to read for a non-Spanish speaking person but just enough to actualize the Hispanic culture in Chela's home life and the circumstances of a bilingual student in an English-speaking school environment.
- July 1, 2008 
Latinidad’s Best of 2008
The original title gives a glimpse of the poetic lines peppered throughout this poignant debut.
- Marcela Landres, 
San Antonio Express-News
The book flows easily; this is a story that seems to be told by a person still experiencing these things.
"Dying flowers and alcohol" is how Chela Gonzalez describes the smell of her grandmother's perfume. It is a smell that permeates the household when Chela's father has a stroke, and her grandmother comes to look after Chela and her siblings.

Their father had the stroke on the morning of the first day of school, which Chela is excited about. She is finally a sixth-grader and they get "the best of everything."

But her mother says that the children won't start school until their father is home from the hospital, and the kids stay at home wishing time would speed up.

After about a week and one sad, slow Sunday, their father comes home, and the kids try to go back to their normal lifestyle.

When she finally gets to school, Chela finds that she has lost all her friends, and so she loses herself in her studies. Sometime through the school year, the popular girls start to like her, but just as she finds friendship, her father has another stroke, and Chela starts to think about relationships differently.

Debut novelist Claudia Guadalupe Martinez wrote this autobiographical story because she wanted to pay tribute to her father. She grew up in El Paso, where the book is set, and wanted to be a writer from an early age.

The book reads like it was actually written by a sixth-grader, but a very articulate one. I liked that it was uncluttered, with straightforward sentences. The book flows easily; this is a story that seems to be told by a person still experiencing these things.

I wasn't sure that I would enjoy this book as much as I did. I discovered I could relate to Chela's isolation at school, as well as her worries about her family.

She has a difficult time growing up, with nobody to confide in, but she does learn and mature — she understands what is going on around her.

The thing that surprised me was the grandmother, who did not appear in the book as much as I assumed she would, and was not particularly liked by the children. However, when the grandmother did show up, she symbolized the sad, stuffy air of a household without its beloved father, a smell that was "sad like Sundays."

"The Smell of Old Lady Perfume" is a story about growing up, about seeing things in a different light.

But there is hope. By the end of the school year, Chela is looking to the future, disregarding whatever happened in sixth grade because, as she comes to realize, "The world was bigger."

Wallis J. Monday (reviewer) is a 14-year-old freshman at Keystone School.
- Wallis J. Monday, September 7, 2008 
El Paso Times
First-time novelist Claudia Guadalupe Martínez makes her remarkable debut with “The Smell of Old Lady Perfume” … Martínez has crafted a beautiful and heartfelt journey of a girl who “wasn't supposed to see” so much, but who “saw all kinds of things.” Young readers, especially those navigating difficult issues such as poverty, illness, isolation, depression and death, will find a friend in Chela Gonzalez.
Young-adult story 'Old Lady Perfume' deals with issues of many age groups

First-time novelist Claudia Guadalupe Martínez makes her remarkable debut with "The Smell of Old Lady Perfume", a touching study of the heartaches that befall an 11-year-old girl living in El Paso's historic Segundo Barrio.

It's the first day of sixth grade, and Chela Gonzalez is ready to start the year at the peak of the elementary school hierarchy. With best friend Nora at her side (they're inseparable "like melted cheese on tortilla chips") and loving parents who value education, Chela's path to success is secure.

But then everything collapses when "something (goes) wrong inside Apá." Distraught over her father's illness, Chela stays home for a week. By the time she does begin the sixth grade, it's a hostile welcome: Nora has joined mean girl Camila and her "clones," who subject her to ridicule whenever her Spanish "popped through like slices of color on a yellow wall that'd been painted white."

To make matters worse, Chela's body has begun to change in noticeable places, which makes her feel like "some sort of ugly caterpillar turning into an even uglier moth." Friendless and image-conscious, she must bear her burdens alone, sitting in "the ugly leftover chair."

So she looks to her father for hope. Apá's recovery is slow, even though he "doubled up on garlic and started drinking Chinese herbal tea." But a new goal sparks his motivation to keep living: He's determined to build the family their own house before he succumbs to his sickness and its "smell of old lady perfume, of dying flowers and alcohol."

Suddenly the tide turns: Chela's academic skills and athletic prowess are recognized, even by Camila, who invites her to be part of the in crowd, and Apá seems to be getting better. But Chela, at her early age, learns the hard way that appearances deceive, and that nothing as precious as family, friendship, health and happiness should be taken for granted.

Martínez has crafted a beautiful and heartfelt journey of a girl who "wasn't supposed to see" so much, but who "saw all kinds of things." Young readers, especially those navigating difficult issues such as poverty, illness, isolation, depression and death, will find a friend in Chela Gonzalez, a typical sixth-grader who learns to find strength from within in order to transcend the many troubles outside her control.

Adult readers will also catch a glimpse of the important struggles within the immigrant and border communities such as monitoring diet, trusting modern medicine, and encountering insensitivity to those "born on the other side," that is, Juárez.

"The Smell of Old Lady Perfume" is a necessary book for anyone who needs to know that the universe isn't "so large and empty."
Chicago Young Adult Fiction Examiner
The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is an independent reader/YA book about a young hispanic girl and her coming of age. It's the first book by author Claudia Martinez, and one can hope that there are more to come.

Most of all, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is the story of a young girl trying to find her way as life around her changes and she is powerless to control the changes. Love triumphs all and Chela learns that the love of family is something that never changes.
The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is an independent reader/YA book about a young hispanic girl and her coming of age. It's the first book by author Claudia Martinez, and one can hope that there are more to come.

Chela, the main character, is beginning sixth grade when her emotions are dealt several blows. She loses her best friend, Nora; her father suffers a stroke and her mother must begin working; and she feels less intelligent than some of her peers because her first language is Spanish.

Most of all, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is the story of a young girl trying to find her way as life around her changes and she is powerless to control the changes. Love triumphs all and Chela learns that the love of family is something that never changes.

Awards:
Best of the Best, 2008, Chicago Public Library
Américas Award Commended Title, 2009
Texas Institute of Letters’ Best Young Adult Book Award
Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, 2009
Southwest Books of the Year Award, 2009, Pima County Public Library
ALAN’s Picks, July 2008
Hispanic Magazine Summer Must Read 2008
Latinidad’s Best Middle Grade Book of 2008
Recommended futher reading in the Spring 2009 One Book, One Chicago program
YA Top Forty, Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA)

- Pamela Kramer, May 30, 2010  Visit Website
REFORMA Newsletter
Sixth grader Chela Gonzalez is about to be challenged in ways she never imagined or desired. She is finally able to enter the all-English ‘smart class,’ leaving her ESL classmates behind; however, on her first day of school, she awakens to discover that her father has had a stroke. Grandmother, complete with her old lady perfume, comes to help. Chela’s life very quickly becomes one of sadness, anxiety, and lonely lunches. In her poignant first novel, Martinez encompasses the pains of school, the loss of friends, and most importantly the library collection masterfully discusses the power of smell and how it can evoke strong emotions and memories. Tweens will easily relate to Chela’s struggles and triumphs, particularly immigrant tweens.

Highly Recommended.
- July 23, 2009 
El Paso Scene
[Smell of Old Lady Perfume] is a melodic and melancholy tale of a girl’s sixth-grade year.
This El Paso native’s debut novel is a melodic and melancholy tale of a girl’s sixth-grade year. The book begins with the high expectations of most incoming sixth graders looking forward to being the top of the food chain at an El Paso elementary school. Chela Gonzalez soon finds her friends leaving her behind in shallow pursuit of popularity. After her loving “Apá” (father) is rushed to the hospital, her mother’s mother moves in to help and the air becomes thick with “the smell of old lady perfume, dying flowers and alcohol.”
I normally shy away from anything that includes “bittersweet” in the promotional description, particularly when it concerns the fate of a “daddy’s girl” and her father, but I found the middle school struggles (and personal triumph) faced by Chela endearing, particularly as a fellow nerd who was continuously put off by the “tween girl hierarchy.” Although she now resides in Chicago, Martinez hasn’t lost her connection and passion for her border roots, which I hope to see continued in her future works.
- Lisa Kay Tate, June 28, 2011 

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