Book Review: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Updated: Jan 12
“You do not let your words stunt unknown possibilities.”
― Elizabeth Acevedo, Clap When You Land
When I finished reading Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, I was speechless. Not because it was based on a true story, not because the events in the book were surprising or shocking, and not because it was an extremely good book (though, all of these things are true). I was speechless because the book was raw. In the five hours and thirty-three minutes that it took me to listen to the book, I felt an array of emotions, but one was more prominent than others: pensiveness.
I know, I know, pensiveness may be a weird emotion to list, but to be pensive is to be engaged or to reflect deep and/or serious thought. And that's exactly what this book did to me. How? Well, that's what this review is for.
What's the novel about?
Clap When You Land is about two sisters, Camino Rios (who lives in the Dominican Republic) and Yahaira Rios (who lives in New York) who learn about each other after their father perishes in a plane crash. As the story unfolds, family secrets are revealed and the two girls have to learn how to navigate their grief--together. Told in verse, Elizabeth Acevedo uses her words to weave a tale that leaves readers wondering if love and family will conquer all.
What themes are present in the book?
Several themes can be found in Clap When You Land, but I think the most notable ones are: Grief is a process; identity is composed of many things; and--the oldest in the book--the grass is not always greener on the other side.
These themes can be found in all sorts of books, but Acevedo found a way to intertwine these three ideas using verse. I think that it's worth exploring the three ideas separately as opposed to just grouping them together. So, since most of the novel is predicated on the idea of grief, we'll discuss that one first.
Grief is a process. By itself, grief is a hard concept to grasp. We feel it in the deepest parts of our souls and it affects everything that we do from the time that we wake up to the time that we go to sleep and, if we're not careful, it can consume us. We like to think that adults process grief well, but children are truly amazing in that they bounce right back.
When the book opens up with the Camino getting ready to pick up her dad at the airport, when you realize how much preparation has gone into her father's return, it's a punch to the gut to find out that his plane crashed and she will never see her Papi again. The same is true when the news is delivered to Yahaira during the middle of the school day. But the news isn't just a gut punch to the characters, it's a gut punch to the audience as well.
Add in Papi's deceit and it's no wonder that the girls have a difficult time coming to terms with the idea that their father was not who they thought he was. Watching Camino and Yahaira work through their issues alone and then, at the end, together, shows that we all handle loss differently.
Acevedo also shows us how the loss affects Tia Solano and Yahaira's mother. Tia Solano spends the book praying to the Saints and consoling Camino, while Yahaira's mother just sort of checks out for a while. It is only when they are all in the same place that they are truly able to figure out what it means to be without the man who brought them together. This brings us to our next theme.
Identity is composed of many things. Camino and Yahaira live in two completely different worlds, nevertheless, they both find themselves struggling with who they are and who they want to be.
Camino lives in the Dominican Republican where it's implied that most girls don't finish high school and many become part of the sex trade. But Camino wants to be a doctor and, though her father tells her that she can be a doctor in DR, she would rather move to the states. There's also the issue of Papi's payments to El Cero. Camino is very aware that, without her father's money--without his protection--it's possible for her to become one of those girls. Without spoiling the novel, I'll just say that Camino's question of identity isn't necessarily about who she is, but about what she's willing to do to get there, and that in and of itself is powerful when you think about who we are as people. Elizabeth Acevedo discusses this and so much more in her interview with the Audible editor Edwin De La Cruz.
On the other hand, you have Yahaira. Yahaira lives in New York, but her problems are different. In the book, she says:
If you asked me what I was,
& you meant in terms of culture,
I’d say Dominican.
no question about it.
Can you be from a place
you have never been?
You can find the island stamped all over me,
but what would the island find if I was there?
Can you claim a home that does not know you,
much less claim you as its own?
This passage is powerful because it shows us that Yahaira is still trying to figure out what it means to be a first-generation American in a home with her very Dominican parents. This passage also sets the scene for when she meets Camino and struggles to speak fluent Spanish because, at that moment, she feels embarrassed about her pronunciation. That said, the last theme that I want to discuss is an age-old adage.
The grass is not always greener on the other side. When Camino finally reaches out to Yahaira, she assumes that Yahaira is rich because she has nice clothes and lives in the state. But Yahaira is only "American-adjacent" because Papi had to split his money between the two homes. On the flip side of that, Yahaira thinks that the Dominican Republic will be this amazing place, and it is, but she neglects to think about some of the bad things that can happen there (like the sex trade mentioned above). Both sisters judge the lifestyles of the other, but it isn't until they see how the other lives that they are able to draw the conclusion that there are pros and cons to living in both places.
What did you like?
There was a lot to like about this book, from the character development to the way the author handles the difficult topics and themes presented in the novel. But the thing that I liked most about this book was that it wasn't predictable. I read a lot of books and, most times, I can figure out the "surprise twist", but not with this novel. Right when you think that you've figured these characters out, they do or say something that is completely unexpected.
I also loved how relatable the characters were. Even though I am not LatinX, and I'm definitely not a teen anymore, I could relate to Camino's and Yahaira's loss of a parent, specifically the loss of a dad. My dad passed away when I was about seven years old. The questions of who they were, the secrets and lives that they left behind in the world, and how your life could have been different if they were still around are things that never go away. Listening to Camino and Yahaira work through the seven stages of grief reminded me of how it felt to work through mine (once I understood what it meant that I was never going to see my dad again).
Obviously, there are a million other things that I could rave about in terms of this book, but I think that this covers the basics.
What, if anything, did you dislike or wish that the author would've done differently?
The only thing that I disliked about this book was that there wasn't more of it. Okay, okay, in all seriousness, I think that--overall--the book was well written. However, I wanted there to be more scenes with Papi and Yahaira's mom, as well as Papi and Camino's mom.
While we get an idea of who Papi is without the extra scenes, I think that adding them would have given a bit more context to Camino and Yahaira's family dynamics--especially because identity is one of the major themes within the novels.
Of course, authors have the difficult task of cutting out things that are unnecessary in their books. And, as Acevedo said in her interview with The Horn Book Inc., "a verse novel is about sparseness. It’s about the white space doing as much work as the words. It’s about shaping voice and meaning through line breaks and caesuras." So adding these scenes would have, most likely, resulted in the pacing being off. But, hey, a girl can dream, right?
So why did it leave you pensive?
Like I said earlier, to be pensive is to be engaged or to reflect deep and/or serious thought. Reading Acevedo's Clap When You Land left me pensive because I had to take a few days to reflect upon what the story was about. Love, loss, forgiveness, grief, class, poverty, all of these large life lessons were cramped into one story and that is what made me think--and is what'll make you think too.
Listening to the novel also made me think about my personal financial situation and where I would be if my parents had made certain choices, or if they didn't. It made me think about my father's passing, and it made me question my own feelings about "poor" countries and my perceptions of them (I come from an anthropology background, but so many misconceptions are drilled into our heads at a young age that it's easy to forget to be unbiased when it comes to other countries). I use "poor" because the Dominican Republic is rich in ways that have nothing to do with money.
Anyways, all of this is a long-winded way to say that when the novel ended, I had a lot of thoughts about big, abstract concepts.
How many stars would give you this book and why?
Using the Goodreads star method where one star equates to Did Not Like and five stars equates to It Was Amazing, I give this book five stars.
The book was amazing for all of the reasons listed above and then some. I'm hard-pressed to say that I like every single book I read; and, yeah, it's weird to give a five-star rating to the first book that I review on my blog, but Clap When You Land deserves this rating for being a relatable book that handles difficult topics.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo came out on May 5, 2020. If you enjoyed this book (or if you think that you will), check out Elizabeth Acevedo's other books, including With the Fire on High and The Poet X. For more news about Elizabeth Acevedo, check out her website.