Crippling secrets burden the teenagers and drive the plots of Matt de la Peña’s young adult novels. In We Were Here, the central character, Miguel, indicates that he is stuck in a group home and is cut off from his family, because he did something terrible. Readers don’t learn what it is until the bittersweet end.
Reading a de la Peña novel is a bit like turning the pages of a mystery and putting together bits of information until you get the big picture. Suspense mounts as concern builds for the unexpectedly likable characters.
Miguel misses his mom and brother deeply, but is glad to be far from home where he doesn’t have to see the sadness in his mother’s eyes. He stays aloof from the other boys in his group home, spending all his free time reading.
Sticking his nose in a book is medicinal for Miguel; it soothes his troubled mind. He doesn’t want to remember what happened or participate in the present. Instead, he chooses to drift in the limbo of fictional characters' lives even if reading is “mad nerdy.”
He doesn’t want to connect with anyone around him at the group home, especially the mysterious Mong, who has a reputation for extreme violence. Miguel is scared one night when he wakes to find Mong staring down at him menacingly. But Miguel realizes that neither he nor Mong care about living.
’Cause I remember how I ain’t even a real person no more. Just a ghost. Same as Mong. Both of us just two beings floating around in the world but not really living no more. Empty snail shells who don’t mean nothin’ to nobody.
Nor does he want to hang out with the huge, illiterate Rondell who irritates him — Miguel can’t speak Spanish — by calling him “Mexico” and pretending to read a Bible.
Rondell, who is frighteningly powerful, confounds Miguel by acting like a puppy dog hungry for attention.
So it is a big surprise to everyone, and especially to Miguel when he, Mong and Rondell run away together. They head toward Mexico and individual freedom, but become “mad tight” brothers who cross the border from wariness to friendship. In the end, it is connectedness that makes Miguel shoulder his emotional burden instead of running away from his past.
De la Peña is developing a powerful body of work for teen readers. His novels help young people to understand themselves and others who are struggling to overcome serious problems and move away from bad choices. In short, his fiction is mad wonderful medicine.