Book Review: When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez

Posted September 26, 2021 by Richetta in #ownvoices, Arc Review, Book Reviews, poetry, Young Adult / 0 Comments

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I received this book for free from DialBooks and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

Book Review: When We Make It by Elisabet VelasquezWhen We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez
Narrator: Elisabet Velasquez
Length: 4 hours
Published by Penguin on September 24, 2021
Genres: Young Adult Fiction / Coming of Age, Young Adult Fiction / Novels in Verse, Young Adult Fiction / People & Places / United States / Hispanic & Latino
Pages: 384
Format: ARC, Audiobook
Source: DialBooks and NetGalley
Buy on AmazonBuy on Bookshop

Sarai is a first-generation Puerto Rican eighth grader who can see with clarity the truth, pain, and beauty of the world both inside and outside her Bushwick apartment. Together with her older sister Estrella, she navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Sarai questions the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives with determination and an open heart, learning to celebrate herself in a way that she has been denied.

When We Make It is a love letter to anyone who was taught to believe that they would not make it. To those who feel their emotions before they can name them. To those who still may not have all the language but they have their story. Velasquez' debut novel is sure to leave an indelible mark on all who read it.

A Captivating Novel-in-Verse

Let me just say that I finished this book in two days and that was only the first of several re-reads that I plan for it. When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez is a phenomenal novel-in-verse that is both heart touching and heart wrenching.

Some Background

This novel-in-verse is based on Elisabet Velasquez’s life growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She is a first generation U.S. born Puerto Rican. The issues in the novel are the same issues that Velasquez’s family dealt with when she was growing up. This includes mental illness, houselessness, food insecurity and poverty.

Listen to the Audiobook Too!

Since I received the gifted arc When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez (Thank you Dial Books!) on release day, I decided to read the book and listen to it on audiobook at the same time. I’m not a native Spanish speaker, so it helped me learn the pronunciation of some of the Spanish words I was unfamiliar with. (By the way if you ever read a book with a language that you are not a native speaker of, don’t shy away from it. Dictionaries and Google Translate are there to help you the same way as if you came across a word in your native language you didn’t know.) I highly recommend the audiobook. It is narrated by the author and listening to her read her poetry is captivating. It helped add context and emotion to parts that had scenes I was unfamiliar with, which led to a better understanding of the narrative for myself.

Visibility, Being Heard, Resisting Erasure

The poems about going missing in Bushwick resonated with me. I began thinking about visibility. Which is something I have thought about a lot lately, but especially when I am reading #ownvoices stories. It’s the beauty of being seen even though you were there the whole time. It’s the sadness of being erased even though you are still there. There is a series of poems that talk about going missing and describe it as almost a guarantee in the Bushwick neighborhood. The first one is “Tone Goes Missing” on page 271.

"It's been 3 days since Tone last came home. 
In Bushwick, everyone is bound to go missing.
It's almost a birthright to disappear one day
like your life has earned the trouble
of being searched for. The truth is we all dream
of disappearing somewhere someday."

There is just so much that you have to pause and sit with on that. There is so much to unpack. The inevitability of disappearing. The desire to disappear. The need to know that you are being searched for. Whew! I had to pause for a little bit after that. But this is just one of many examples of the many layers Velasquez has woven into her poetry. The conversations I could have on that poem alone in a high school English class should be enough to make you pick up this book and teach it.

Fave poems

  • Today in Bible Study – Trinity
  • Pronunciation
  • Things We Don’t Talk About – Color
  • Bushwick Library
  • Books We Read
  • Tone Goes Missing
  • How to Go Missing

A Tapestry Called Life

Reading this book is like viewing a beautiful, complicated tapestry of life. It includes elements that make up life, as complicated as it is, which for main character Sarai, include heritage, religion, family, poverty, mother-daughter relationship, assault and just being a teenager. I also love the pride in this book! Bushwick pride! Nuyorican and Puerto Rican pride! I’m looking forward to more books from Ms. Velasquez! I can’t wait to get this one into the hands of students!

Trigger Warning

An incident of sexual assault/abuse occurs late in the book.

Latinx Heritage Month Book Recs

When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez was one of my TBR picks for Latinx Heritage Month. Check out some of my other recommendations in my post Celebrate Latinx Heritage Month With Some Great Books.


I came for…Nuyorican poetry

I stayed for…Sarai’s beautiful story

Hot Cocoa Moments: Honestly, it was the poem titles for me. In one moment there is a Christian allusion and in the next the tune to a Biggie Smalls hit is generating in my head. I LOVED the titles for each poem/chapter.

Would I Read it Again? Yes, my second read will be a dive into the poetry conversations featured throughout the book.

Educator Recommendations: The discussion possibilities for this book are so many I lost count. While I was reading I saw opportunities for creative writing, issues discussions, geographic storytelling and much more! Velasquez does what she calls poetry conversations. She is responding to a poem written by another poet. Think of the possibilities for analysis and creative writing and thinking that could come from an exercise like that with students. This book is a great novel study if you teach a Latinx population and if you teach a non-Latinx population. Don’t limit yourself! The cross-curriculum opportunities are there too with Social Studies, Spanish Language and English Literature courses.

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