Lupe Wong Won’t Dance is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who doesn’t want to do something. Pretty universal.
But Lupe’s journey isn’t just about one girl trying to weasel out of square dancing in P.E. with comedic results. It’s a book about how it feels to be twelve-years-old, and told you have to do something, because that’s the way it is, and not understanding why. I think that might be why I keep hearing from adults as well as kids who read the book and completely relate to Lupe.
Most of us have felt forced into participating in something we didn’t want any part of. We either didn’t have a choice, or felt powerless to refuse. Many of the rules/restrictions are aimed specifically at girls:
- You can’t play baseball. But you can play softball.
- You can’t wear those shorts; they might distract others. But those lovely skorts pass the fingertip test.
- You can’t sneak into the old pioneer cemetery, or you might fall into an oilfield sinkhole abyss and die. (Well…this one was gender neutral, and might’ve been reasonable.)
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance was born when my own twelve-year-old daughter came home from school distraught after discovering she’d have to square dance in P.E. To make matters worse, not only could she not dance with her best friend Gracie, she had to dance with a boy, which meant holding a boy’s hand for the first time! She was wrestling with the same things I had at that age. How does square dancing represent me and my culture? What about other kids who might be from other races or cultures? Why in the heck are we still square dancing in P.E.?
After that dinner conversation, I decided to sit down and seek catharsis through writing by delving into my daughter’s and my middle-school-self frustrations. But I discovered quickly, this wasn’t just about square dancing. Writing those first words was more difficult than I thought. Turns out, dredging up middle school emotions is not for the faint of heart.
But help was on the way!
Enter stage right, Lupe Wong: activist for all things big or small that don’t make a ton of sense.
This character, Lupe, sprang forth onto the page and had stuff to say.
Lupe would be the character to give my daughter a voice! (Don’t worry. That daughter is sixteen, and plenty loud now.)
Challenging institutions or restrictions that don’t quite pass the smell test isn’t a simple task. Like myself and my daughter, Lupe’s complicated cultural background factors into her battles for justice. It’s easy enough to tell someone else to find their voice, or to speak up, but that’s not always so easy, especially for kids. It certainly wasn’t for me as a child, or even as an adult sometimes. While Lupe does speak up, in that outspokenness, she often makes mistakes. She learns. She grows. In the end, Lupe discovers (spoiler) square dancing wasn’t the problem. It’s actually not so bad after all. Thankfully, Lupe’s friends and family allow her the grace and opportunity to evolve as a person and become a better human and friend, and in turn, a stronger advocate for others besides herself for once. Lupe learns some battles are indeed more trivial than others. And while fighting her own battles may be important, she truly becomes powerful when she fights something fundamentally wrong for others as well.
Hopefully this book will help kids think about the inequities and injustices (however big or small) they see in the world. And maybe, if it’s just a bit too scary to “find their voices” they can jot down their feelings privately in a journal, or write an email to a parent or teacher. Or, perhaps, create a horribly executed PowerPoint like Lupe.
(Or wait thirty-five years and write a book about it. Better late than never.)
I am so grateful for this award and the light it will help shed on those inequities we’ve all felt at such a challenging age.
Mostly I hope readers, young and old, who feel helpless against rules, restrictions or any forms of injustice they know just aren’t fair, will think of Lupe. They’ll remember to trust their gut when it tells them, “because that’s just the way it is,” is not the right answer, because it never is.
By the way, Lupe Wong WILL be the first female pitcher in the majors. Just try telling her “no.”