Illegal - Review

Comment on this and any of the Illegal Blog Tour posts and you will be automatically entered to win a signed copy of the book.

Publication date: March 8th by Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen Books
ISBN 10: 0061953423 / ISBN 13: 9780061953422

Category: Young Adult Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Keywords: Realistic Fiction, Illegal Immigration, Gangs

A promise.

A promise that we would be together on my fifteenth birthday...

Instead, Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—waiting for her father's return and a better day. 

When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas. After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place. Now, Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her precious quinceañera.

Bettina Restrepo's gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl's unique yet universal immigrant experience.

How I found out about this book: The author, Bettina Restrepo, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to review the e-ARC and participate in the blog tour. I said ¡Sí!

My Review: I actually doubted that I would like this book: the topic of illegal immigration is one of the many reasons I avoid watching the news--I hate listening to politicians and lobbyists make strange arguments and come up with crazy scenarios for closing borders, deporting undocumented workers, and so forth. The core of my discomfort is that I can't ever process the macro-economic consequences of illegal immigration; as a legal immigrant and naturalized citizen, my only experience is with the personal aspect of the issue. And ultimately, though it's a tough subject to read about, that's what really helped me connect with the characters and the story.

Nora's story is very different from mine. My parents started applying for American visas even before I was born, and had to keep updating their applications over 14 years (adding me and then my siblings). Apart from some turbulence and storms over the Pacific, our entry into the United States was far from dangerous. We had tons of family members who had been living here for years and who welcomed us into their homes. Nora and her mother have none of that. Their departure from Mexico is brought about by desperation and fear.

Nora and her mother nearly suffocate to death in the back of a fruit truck, despite the blessings she supposedly brings as her mama's lucky girl. Restrepo's story is achingly realistic: at every moment they face adversity, hunger, and hopelessness. So much so that Nora questions her faith in God and can only cling to the hope that they will be able to find her father before their money runs out, or the la migra--Immigration-- catches up to them. But Houston is a big place, and it seems to be filled will all sorts of opportunistic strangers. Luckily for them, there are also people who treat them with kindness and respect.

At first I had a really hard time getting through the book. When Nora's safety is threatened, Restrepo doesn't hold back--she makes it feel so real that you don't just think about Nora experiencing such horrible conditions, you also think about all the people, thousands upon thousands of real girls and women--boys and men, too--who have been victimized in this situation, and who are not as lucky (or fictional) like Nora. I had to put it down at some point and read something more entertaining.

Something about the writing style irked me at first--like it was written for a much younger reader, maybe elementary school age, even though the topics and situations are not appropriate for that age group (there are references to sexual solicitation, drugs, and gang activity). Eventually I came to understand and accept that though Nora is a smart girl, she has not had the access to education that the average American teen has, and so her voice is a little more simplistic, though no less complex and emotionally charged. It is Nora's strength and passion that will keep the reader invested in the outcome of her journey into America.

Who should read this book: Anyone. Everyone! (Ok, with an age/maturity caveat, there are some difficult themes explored in this book. Let's say high school unless the young person has already endured the same tribulations.) It's a painful, personal, and politically explosive topic. I think the author is very brave to tackle the subject, since it potentially makes her a target for people who are opposed to illegal immigration. I don't think that many adults will read this book and change their minds one way or another on whether it is right or wrong, but I hope that younger people will gain a greater sense of humanity and understanding from Nora's story.

Illegal is Bettina Restrepo's debut YA novel. The author has provided discussion questions on her website at Follow @BettinaRestrepo on Twitter.

"Like" Bettina's Facebook fan page. That's where she will announce the 5 winners of the Illegal Blog Tour contest. Comment on this and any of the Illegal Blog Tour posts and you will be automatically entered to win a signed copy of the book.

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Comments? Would you/have you read this book? No spoilers, please.


  • Are you an immigrant?
  • What would worry you the most if you tried to illegally enter another country (doesn't have to be the US) in search of a better life? 
  • Do you have any questions for the author?

e-galley acquired from author in PDF form.