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Surprising Cecilia

Growing up in an adobe house in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1930s, Cecilia is thrilled to attend high school and to get books from the library. Her mother, however, believes a decent girl belongs at home to help care for her younger brothers and sisters. Even as Cecilia chafes at Mama's disapproval and dreams of working in a city office, she knows that the family needs her and that Mama is strong and loving. Based on the life of the writers' mother, this fictionalized biography (which began with Cecilia's Year, 2004), gives a rich sense of a strong Latino family during the Depression, including lots of detail about farm chores through the seasons and traditional celebrations and foods. Black-and-white family photos and lots of Spanish terms are woven smoothly into the story. Though rooted in the small New Mexican farming community of the time, the conflict about leaving home is universal.
Kirkus Reviews
In this sequel to Cecilia's Year (2004), the authors continue their fictionalized biography of their mother, growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico in the 1930s. Chapters begin with Mexican proverbs and period photographs, as they relate Cecilia's move from a one-room schoolhouse to riding the bus to high school in town, waiting all year for a letter from her first love, housing and befriending Dust Bowl-stricken Oklahomans and feeling the effects of a whooping-cough epidemic. Cecilia's main struggle, however, is with her mother, who insists on following older Mexican traditions. An author's note about the real Cecilia and her life after high school, as well as a list of Mexican proverbs and English translations, follows the text. Sure to find readers especially in libraries serving larger Latino populations.
School Library Journal
This sequel to Cecilia's Year tells of the teen's first year in the local high school in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1930s. Devastated when she learns that her crush is attending school in El Paso, Cecilia longs to live in a modern city. She continues to pine for Johnny throughout the novel, and readers will be relieved when the two are finally reunited in the last chapters when Cecilia accompanies her aunt on a brief visit to El Paso. An excellent student, she works hard at home to help her family, but receives no encouragement to continue her education from her old-fashioned mother. The book relies on the memories of the authors about their mother, Cecilia Gonzales Abraham, and the retelling of family stories. Captioned black-and-white photographs are included at the beginning of each chapter. A brief endnote brings readers up-to-date on the life of the real Cecilia.
Children's Literature
The sequel to Cecilia's Year tells the true-life story of Cecilia Gonzales during her freshman year of high school, growing up in 1930s rural New Mexico. Cecilia is excited about attending school and learning what life is like outside her adobe home. Conflict arises because her mother, a conservative, antiquated Catholic, does not approve of her daughter's desire to read books, become educated, and live in the city. Furthermore, Cecilia's love interest, Johnny, has moved far away and she has not heard from him in months. In some regards the characters feel flat and not real or true-to-life. "I'd better go . . . start my chores so I'll have more time to do my homework." And in some ways Cecilia acts in a feminist manner by fighting her mother to attend high school, yet on other occasions she acts like a victim of her circumstances, as if she is unable to make the best of her situation. The authors explore themes that are important life lessons, and emphasize family values. This story was inspired by the authors' mother and they illustrate her life with thoughtful insights about how she achieved her American dream. Spanish is intermingled throughout the text, and the conclusion holds a translation of proverbs used in the story.
School Librarian’s Workshop
Having won her mother’s reluctant consent to attend high school in Cecilia’s Year, Cecilia loves her new school despite a rough start. Delighted with having a library, she manages to keep her A average even with her many chores. Her parents give a family of Okies heading for CA a place to stay until they have earned some money. Mamá’s pregnancy adds to Cecilia’s workload and she stops school for a while when everyone except she and her father get whooping cough. Her aunt’s marriage gives Cecilia a chance to leave her small town but she realizes, for now, her place is with her family.
El Paso Scene
After the popularity of “Cecilia’s Year,” sisters Susan and Denise continue to chronicle the life of their mother Cecilia Gonzales Abraham with the second book in their “Cecilia” trilogy. Set in the 1930’s southern New Mexico, this book tells of Cecilia’s struggles to adjust to high school life where everyone comes from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds than herself. Written in easily flowing, conversational “Spanglish,” the Abrahams weave family photos and bilingual proverbs gracefully through the book. Like the first book, “Surprising Cecilia” ends with a promising gesture from a young man in Cecilia’s life leaving the reader awaiting the next chapter.
This second chapter book depicting Cecilia, a young Latina girl from a small farm in Derry, New Mexico (Cecilia’s Year, 2004), continues the semibiographical tale about the life of Cecilia Gonzalez Abraham, a successful woman who came from a small farm.

Despite all the pressures placed on her by her family, the peer pressure at school, and the upcoming temptations of her sense of right and wrong. Surrounded by a changing world, Cecilia is the constant who can be relied on by her family and friends. She is unwavering in her dedication to her education.

The list of dichos (proverbs) in the back of the book are invaluable in the understanding of a culture as rich in knowledge and insight as it is inn the spice of life. “Hay que bailar al son que le toca”—you must dance to the song that is playing; in other words, you deal with what life deals you in the best way you can. This is one of the most important lessons one can learn in life, love, and happiness.

Girls today have the benefits of both their traditional roles and their modern-day opportunities. However, sometimes these two worlds conflict and they are left with difficult decisions. What is not a tough choice at all is whether or not to read Surprising Cecilia—an entertaining, thoughtful, and insightful read.
Alan Review
Cecilia Gonzales has big dreams of leaving her family's farm, going to the big city after graduating from high school, and getting an office job. The sequel to the award-winning Cecilia's Year, this tale continues Cecilia's adventures as she embarks on her freshman year at the modern (for the 1930s) high school. Her mother still disapproves of Cecilia's dreams, so the 15-year-old goes out of her way to help out at home. The year holds many surprises, including a new baby at home and a love interest. The book chronicles the journey of discovery as Cecilia makes important decisions about family and responsibility. Hispanic phrases and proverbs are sprinkled throughout, lending authenticity. Cecilia is likeable, and her struggle toward independence is heartfelt. This quiet story will find an audience with readers who have outgrown the Little House books.
New Mexico Magazine
Surprising Cecilia is a delightful young adult novel—well-written, informative, entertaining and above all—believable. If Little House on the Prairie were set on a New Mexico farm near Hatch during the Depression, it would be this book. It is the sequel to Cecilia’s Year, which was Best Book for Young Adults from the Texas Institute of Letters in 2004.

Cecilia has just entered high school as a freshman—no small endeavor, which requires a long bus ride, a new dress unfortunately paired with work boots, and a general sense of worry about fitting in. A first-rate student, bookish Cecilia is often at odds with her mother’s vision of her as a proper, old-fashioned farm girl who should stay home until marriage. Cecilia has big dreams, but she is also dedicated to her sprawling family despite the endless hard work.

The picture of a Hispanic family in the Río Grande Valley in the 1930s is a vivid one. Although certainly not wealthy, the family has enough to eat during hard times—a fact brought home to Cecilia by the arrival of a family driven off the land by the Dust Bowl. Clothes, food, music and family stories are described in loving detail. The reader learns about daily life, from farming to butchering, and meals are vividly drawn. In addition, the text is enlivened by dichos—pithy and pointed sayings that give good advice. They tend to be attributed to Cecilia’s thoughtful and beloved aunt, but they are also a chorus that provides some commonsense wisdom.

In an intriguing twist, the authors of the book are the grown daughters of the real Cecilia. They have managed to turn a rich family history—and stories that were no doubt told and told again—into a highly readable novel. At the core of the book is a conflict familiar to readers throughout the ages—between a conservative if well-meaning mother who wants the best for her daughter, but on the mother’s terms, and a daughter, Cecilia, who wants a wider world. Cecilia’s quest for education is inspirational for contemporary readers, who might simply take school for granted. The author’s afterward tells of Cecilia’s triumphs in her professional life—including meeting two presidents and four first ladies. And her daughters’ books are tribute enough to her inspiration as a mother.
- February 13, 2007 

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