I received this book for free from the publisher 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.Saints of the Household by Ari Tison
Published by Macmillan Children's Publishing Group Farrar Straus and Giroux (BYR) on March 28, 2023
Genres: Young Adult Fiction / People & Places / United States / Hispanic & Latino, Young Adult Fiction / Social Themes / Physical & Emotional Abuse, Young Adult Fiction / Social Themes / Violence
Source: the publisher and Netgalley
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Saints of the Household is a haunting contemporary YA about an act of violence in a small-town--beautifully told by a debut Indigenous Costa Rican-American writer--that will take your breath away.
Max and Jay have always depended on one another for their survival. Growing up with a physically abusive father, the two Bribri American brothers have learned that the only way to protect themselves and their mother is to stick to a schedule and keep their heads down.
But when they hear a classmate in trouble in the woods, instinct takes over and they intervene, breaking up a fight and beating their high school's star soccer player to a pulp. This act of violence threatens the brothers' dreams for the future and their beliefs about who they are. As the true details of that fateful afternoon unfold over the course of the novel, Max and Jay grapple with the weight of their actions, their shifting relationship as brothers, and the realization that they may be more like their father than they thought. They'll have to reach back to their Bribri roots to find their way forward.
Told in alternating points of view using vignettes and poems, debut author Ari Tison crafts an emotional, slow-burning drama about brotherhood, abuse, recovery, and doing the right thing.
As an educator in a district with many students who have moved from and/or have family central America, I am always looking for novels that give them representation. When I came across the debut novel, Saints of the Household by Ari Tison, I immediately requested it on NetGalley. At the NCTE annual convention, I was also blessed with a copy of the advanced bound manuscript from the publisher Macmillan, so thank you very much! This was my first five star read of 2023!
Saints of the Household begins with a violent incident. Two brothers get in trouble for protecting their cousin Nicole when they come across Nicole and her boyfriend in the woods and sense that he is about to hurt her. They severely beat the boyfriend up. This event is a trigger for the boys who live with an abusive father and are sensitive to the signs of male aggression and rage.
Tison gives each brother a distinct style of communicating their point of view. Jay’s story is told in prose. It represents his need for structure both in life and in his interests. He is a unique combination of mathematician and writer. He is also the oldest son, so he feels trapped in a traditional role as responsible, caretaker and protector. Prose makes sense for telling his story.
Jay is the youngest. His story is told in verse. He is an artist and the verse compliments his freedom both in life and in his artwork. With an older brother willing to bear the heavy burdens of the family, he manages to ease away and immerse himself in his art. Jay and Max, who are very close in in age, are also an interesting exploration into the roles assigned to birth position in a family. Who has to be responsible? Who gets the freedom to stop worrying?
An important note on the chapters: they are short and titled. I always appreciate this for readers who get distracted easily or who like to feel they are making constant progress as encouragement for reading. I love chapter titles because it makes for an easier reference when I am discussing a book and gives some additional analysis to think about when thinking about the connection between title and content. The point of views are also woven together like a fine tapestry. So I never had trouble going between the two brothers’ perspectives
Family & Culture
One of my favorite characters is Grandpa. He has such a warmth that he exudes that feels like safety and home wrapped together. He is a reminder of safer times and he is a rock for Jay. The intellectualism this man exudes is so important to Jay. He looks up to his grandfather as a family and academic role model. Grandpa feels like the keeper of the boys’ BriBri culture and identity. He reminds them of the importance of their heritage especially as they begin healing. They still use the BriBri language with each other as well.
The Chapter That Broke Me
Since I read an early manuscript of Saints of the Household, I am really holding myself back from quoting the line I want to reference. But the chapter that had me sobbing was “First Task.” Jay is helping is grandpa open his home from being boarded up for the winter. There were two major sentences that I felt Tison perfectly, beautifully and poetically captured about Jay’s struggle and healing in the aftermath of his father’s abuse. I will add them once I receive my finished copy.
Educators Pay Attention:
I might start making this a regular component of my YA reviews. I often find myself switching from regular reader to a perspective as an educator when I read certain books. Certain actions that the teacher characters take sometimes make me reflect on my own practice.
In Saints of the Household, I want to point out something about these boys – they are extremely intelligent. Jay has mastered his high school subjects and is ready to be the creator and not just study what has been created. In the chapter “Math Teacher Visits Counselor’s Office” his teacher seems exasperated that he won’t just answer the math questions directly. He is instead starting to explore the why behind the answers and is frustrated with the teacher’s reaction. It’s a reminder that if you see a student pushing to go further, get out of the way and encourage them, even if you don’t understand. If it’s obvious they understand and can do the work then don’t hold them to a bar they have already surpassed. Let them lead the way so they can soar above it.
HAVE A SIP OF COCOA ☕…
I came for… Indigenous Central American representation
I stayed for… the emotional and heartbreaking journey that each brother endures
Hot Cocoa Moments: Jay’s journey throughout the book just gut checked me. Tison does such a good job of illustrating the journey from survival mode to self-care and recovery. There is also a chapter titled “Chocolate” that I am fond of that talks about the tradition of BriBri women and hot chocolate.
Would I Read it Again: YES! I’m waiting for my finished copy so that I can re-read and annotate it again.
Educator Recommendations: So I recommend this Saints of the Household to educators for two reasons:
- This is a great opportunity to explore family relationships, point of view & story structure, the BriBri culture and recovery after surviving domestic violence. This will definitely generate interesting and dynamic discussions between students. It also lends it to cross-curriculum connections between Social Studies, Math, Psychology and English.
- There are several interactions between teachers and Jay in the book, that should be a cause for self-reflection for any educator. Jay is an extremely intelligent young man, but he often comes into conflict with educators who reject his genius in exchange for a demand for the comfortable ordinary. They prefer his perfect score on tests and are okay with him stopping at the measured mastery, when he is expressing and showing his desire to go beyond what he has already mastered. Inspired by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, how do you support the genius in your students. Check out her book Cultivating Genius.
About the Author
Check out Ari Tison’s website: https://www.aritison.com/