Review by Tze Liew
Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Inc., March 2019
240 pages, hardcover, $17.99 USD, 978-1-33828-337-2
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7
Middle-Grade, Poetry/Verse, Contemporary Realism, LGBTQ+
Flor is the name Mima
has called my down-there girl parts
since I was very little
when she taught me to wash myself.
She held a mirror between my legs
let me inspect between the petals
and ask questions:
Why does it look like that?
Why is this button here
and opening there?
Lately the tingle happens
when I think of Iván.
Butterflies flutter first in my panza
and then they make their way down
The moon, la Luna, means so many things to eleven-year-old Celi Rivera. A dancer in the night. A goddess pulling on the tides of her heart. Her first menstruation cycle, which will wax and wane with the month.
The Moon Within is a poetic novel in verse about Celi’s coming-of-age, as she experiences her first crush on a boy (Iván), her first tingles of arousal and anticipates her first period–with dread. As if puberty isn’t overwhelming enough already, her mother (Mima) insists on celebrating her menstruation cycle with a public moon ceremony in the ancestral Mexica tradition. Celi wishes she could just linger longer in girlhood, but she’s pushing against the tide of time and her body’s blossoming.
In contrast to Celi’s budding womanhood, her best friend Magda is exploring what it means to be genderfluid in a Mesoamerican context, having always felt “more boy than girl.” Tensions arise when Iván makes fun of Magda’s nonconforming gender identity–Celi is torn between her growing attraction towards Iván and her friendship with Magda, in a time when Magda needs her most.
This novel is a beautiful guide to adolescence that I wish I had read growing up. Set in Oakland, it offers timeless wisdom and support to girls and gender-expansive youth in the Latinx community, celebrating their bodies and identities through the lens of poetry, culture, and spirituality. The breasts are tulips, the vagina a flor (flower). Having both male and female energies in one body is a reflection of the divine. Menstruation is not dirty blood as we are often taught to perceive, but a blessing from the Moon, connecting women and their life-giving role to the larger universe.
Salazar’s choice to write in verse gave the story a unique, effective form. Written as a series of intimate first-person vignettes, Celi’s growth arc is reflected by phases of the moon – dividing the book into four sections that act as chapters in her life. The vignettes of verse are like melodious diary entries: poetic but never obscure, and cut straight to the heart of the matter. The rhythm and musicality of the verses echo Celi’s love for dance and drums; the abundance of white space invites readers to reflect and find calm.
What makes this book extra charming is the way it takes time to breathe, without the need for a jam-packed, fast-paced plot. It pulls you in to appreciate the little things that Celi finds inspiring, reconciling what she loves about her Puerto Rican/Mexican/Caribbean immigrant background. Bomba dancing. Papa’s conga beats. Mima’s herb garden. The orange Oakland sunsets.
Remembering how embarrassed my mom made me feel about my first period, I think every preteen (and parent) today is lucky to have The Moon Within as a guiding star. It is a simple but delightful read, tackling familiar topics such as friendship, family, puberty and romance in a modern context (I smile at how Mima keeps taking away Celi’s tablet). But beyond that it paints a larger picture of womanhood, gender, multiculturalism, our human connection to nature, and the value of tapping into one’s own cultural wisdom–relevant to readers of any age, in any part of the world.
Tze Liew is a Malaysian Chinese dodo who is graduating with a BFA in Creative Writing. She grew up on fantasy YA and Studio Ghibli, loves music, squawking, and dancing like a sea slug. Currently growing her wings to become a singer, composer and writer.