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Clap When You Land meets On the Come Up in this heart-gripping story about navigating first love and overcoming grief through the power of music.
Aarón Medrano has been haunted by the onstage persona of his favorite DJ ever since his mother passed away. He seems to know all of Aarón’s deepest fears, like how his brain doesn’t work the way it should and that’s why his brother and father seem to be pushing him away. He thinks his ticket out is a scholarship to the prestigious Acadia School of Music. That is, if he can avoid blowing his audition.
Mia Villanueva has a haunting of her own and it’s the only family heirloom her parents left her: doubt. It’s the reason she can’t overcome her stage fright or believe that her music is worth making. Even though her trumpet teacher tells her she has a gift, she’s not sure if she’ll ever figure out how to use it or if she’s even deserving of it in the first place.
When Aarón and Mia cross paths, Aarón sees a chance to get close to the girl he’s had a crush on for years and to finally feel connected to someone since losing his mother. Mia sees a chance to hold herself accountable by making them both face their fears, and hopefully make their dreams come true. But soon they’ll realize there’s something much scarier than getting up on stage—falling in love with a broken heart.
MAKING MUSIC IS LIKE SUMMONING A GHOST. PLAY the right melody, strike the right chords, and people remember the past with their whole bodies. What it felt like to fall in love for the first time. What it felt like to have that heart you never knew could be so big, broken.
The right song sinks its teeth in us and makes us feel in places we thought were numb. The right song hangs us high above the clouds and makes us dream.
My mother’s favorite song was “The Book of Love” by Peter Gabriel, and when life gets quiet, when life gets loud, I close my eyes and sometimes I can hear the strings washed in synthesizer. I can feel the rise and fall of the notes in my chest. I can feel her unfurling my clenched fists and wrapping her arms around me.
I feel things that I can’t unlock otherwise.
It’s been eight months since she died and the only thing that makes life bearable is being the one to turn the key, to find the song that finally reaches the person who’s been hiding in the corner of the dance hall all night, to watch it slide over their body and wrench them onto their feet.
Sometimes it’s just a toe tap, a jiggle of the knee. Sometimes a tear falls. Sometimes it’s a smile so small you can barely see it. And it’s those moments that keep me coming back to these grimy dance halls and smelly gymnasiums, DJing every family reunion and quinceañera that comes my way.
Because it’s better than being home on the weekends with my dad and my brother who have stuffed their grief so down deep that it’s like we live on two separate planets—one where Mom is a bittersweet memory and the other where she never existed at all. Because when I’m the one controlling what’s coming through those speakers, I can change my whole mood with one swipe of the play button. I can remember her when I want. I can forget it all too.
The seven-foot robot standing next to me shrugs. “Or maybe you’re the only DJ, and I use that term loosely, ending up in smelly gymnasiums and dimly lit refectories because you’re also the only one without a flashy pseudonym and an oversized headpiece with an ironic costume to match.” The robot frowns. “You need some style, kid.”
At first glance he looks like one of the party decorations or maybe even tonight’s second act. What kid doesn’t want a giant walking, talking robot leading everyone into La Macarena?
But he’s not and the only one glancing in his direction is me because I’m the only one that can actually see him.
I wish I knew what he is. All I know is he’s been following me around since the funeral. A ghost as invisible as I am when I’m roaming the halls of Monte Vista High School. All my sadness wrapped up in shiny tinfoil and shaped like an oversized child’s toy. He keeps playing games with me like one, his latest some deranged version of cat and mouse with my sanity being the mouse.
But just because he’s (probably) not real doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Maybe I wouldn’t still be here, half an hour after the party was supposed to have ended, if I had a flashier setup or a larger-than-life persona. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so invisible. But being invisible has its perks. For one, none of the drunk partygoers have attempted to make small talk with me. I’d definitely call that a win.
“I’ll admit,” the robot says, “that is pretty impressive considering some of these people have been drinking for three hours straight. Well, at least all the white people who showed up at four because that’s what the invitation said.”
Some of them were already buzzed by the time the family finally arrived. But is it even una fiesta real if the birthday boy doesn’t arrive late to his own party? He showed up bouncing in a souped-up muscle car with hissing hydraulics. The kid should have been wearing a helmet, but that would have messed up his perfectly gelled hair.
The robot scoffs. “If these people wanted to cumbia the night away, they shouldn’t have booked the church during peak funeral season.”
“I didn’t know funerals had a season.”
“Everything has a season.”
It’s not just about the wake, I think. I’ve got shit to do too.
“Mm-hm, sure you do.”
Two little girls with bare feet and cake-stained faces elbow each other on the way to my setup.
The taller one asks, “Can you play ‘Yo Perreo Sola’?”
The robot lifts a hand to his mouth. “Not sure that’s an age-appropriate request…”
The smaller one stamps her feet. “No, Nayeli, you said it was my turn!”
Neither of them can see me rolling my eyes behind my sunglasses—my only attempt at creating a mysterious persona.
“Not to mention the fact that you’ve played that song twice already.” The robot groans. “Seriously, kid, one more and I’m popping every single balloon in this goddamned place.”
The girls walk right through him, still shoving each other.
“I want Bad Bunny.”
“I want the baby shark song!”
There’s hair pulling now. The little one screams.
I override them both and load “La Carcacha” into my queue. The girls perk up at the sound of el güiro and drag each other back onto the concrete area that’s been marked off as the dance floor, before hiking up their skirts and spinning in circles under the strobe lights.
I scan the other dancers for birthday boy’s parents. The priest stands in the doorway, probably looking for them too. They’re supposed to be setting up food in here for the wake that’s just wrapping up down the hall. Some of the family is already here, all dressed in black and clutching rosaries.
My cell phone buzzes on the table. I check the screen.
ACADIA AUDITION 8PM
Shit. I’m not gonna make it.
The robot shrugs. “Maybe showing up and vomiting your guts out onstage is worse than not showing up at all.”
“You don’t get it,” I growl.
I remember finding the flyer about the auditions on the floor outside stats class, the little stars someone had doodled around the words SCHOLARSHIPS AVAILABLE.
And my first thought was I need to show Mom.
A gut-wrenching reflex. The worst kind of muscle memory.
But then the truth caught up to me, grabbing that big veiny muscle and squeezing hard. Until my next thought was I can’t. Because she’s gone.
The alarm on my phone goes off again and there’s something otherworldly about it. Like she’s calling me from another dimension.
You can do this, Aarón. You can do it for me.
I glance toward the exit. I have exactly ten minutes to run six city blocks, catch the 37 bus, then change out my dirty DJ shirt for a clean button-down, all while engaging in a battle of psychological warfare with myself.
The robot raises a hand. “And don’t forget about me.”
I glare at him. How could I?
But people are still dancing. If I leave, they’ll notice.
“So a distraction, perhaps?” The robot beams.
“Don’t you dare,” I snap.
Suddenly, there’s a pop, the music dying out in a static hiss.
“What did you just—?”
The robot raises his hands. “It wasn’t me!”
A woman in a black dress is clutching the power cord next to the generator. She’s breathing hard, eyes narrowed like she’s ready to take that cord and string it around all our necks. But then it slips from her grasp like she’s just woken up from a dream. Or maybe she thinks she’s in one right now.
My mom’s funeral felt like that. Like we were all wading through fog, thinking we’d been swallowed into some kind of parallel universe.
“Party’s over,” the priest interjects. “Thank you all for coming. If you’ll just start making your way toward the exit…”
The woman who pulled the power cord still looks shaken, trying not to make eye contact with the disgruntled dancers.
And I wonder for the first time who’s inside that casket. Because the look on her face tells me they were everything.
Suddenly, I’m angry all over again. Because someone she loves is dead. Because my mom is too. Because you can’t just take the sun away and expect everything else to go on living.
“Is that what you call this?” the robot gestures around the room. “Living?”
This time when the alarm sounds it’s like an electric shock. A sign that I could be. If I was just brave enough to try.
I pack up my stuff and race through the exit doors, my backpack bouncing like a ton of bricks. I pray the laptop doesn’t shatter against my keyboard.
Please let Señora Muñez be waiting for the bus. Please let Señora Muñez be waiting for the bus.
Señora Muñez is ninety years old. If she’s waiting for the bus, Mr. V will have to put it in park so he can get out and help her up the ramp. She’ll hold his arm in a death grip, trying to make small talk while the other passengers look on in annoyance. She’ll start calling Mr. V Enmanuel because that’s her oldest son’s name. He’ll correct her, a reminder that Enmanuel is dead, and then she’ll burst into tears while Mr. V and the other passengers desperately try to console her.
If Señora Muñez is waiting for the bus, I can make the audition.
If Señora Muñez is waiting for the bus, well, it could change everything.
I round the corner, bounding over broken sidewalk and past Speedy’s gas station. A horn blares. A pickup truck almost swipes me as I’m crossing the driveway. I wave my hands, more of a prayer than an apology.
Please let Señora Muñez be waiting for the bus.
I see the bus stop on the other side of the school building and cut across the grass, trying not to remember all the times I puked my guts out on the track. My twin brother, Miguel, was always the star athlete, not me.
But I try to channel his speed as I cut through the courtyard and zigzag across the parking lot. When I emerge on the sidewalk directly in front of the bus stop a truck is idled, blocking my view. It pulls away as I cross the street.
And on the other side… Señora Muñez is not waiting for the bus.
I look down the road, searching for taillights.
Instead, there are two cats spitting at each other, wrestling over something rotten. I sit on the empty bench and I don’t want to feel it. But I do.
I’m a coward.
The street is quiet, but my skin can feel what my eyes can’t see. Bass jumping a few blocks over at Speedy’s. Mutts snapping at the holes in the chain-link fence lining the highway. My father’s alarm screaming in his ear to get ready for his night shift.
The relief I was feeling just a few seconds ago is replaced by a pang. Because he’s the reason I have to get out of here. Because orbiting a black hole is exhausting.
My phone buzzes again and I silence it.
It was stupid. I’m stupid.
“You’re scared.” The robot stretches his arms across the back of the park bench. “The difference is slight, but there is one.”
“Can you be quiet?”
“I don’t know. Can you?” He shrugs. “I’m in your head, kid. Not mine.” The robot that is just a figment of my imagination sighs like he’s the one being inconvenienced by my constant presence instead of the other way around. “Hey, not just any robot. I think you mean, the robot that is the stage persona of a musician who you idolize a little too much and who is also just a figment of your imagination. I’d call it an obsession, really. And I’d be flattered, you know, if the whole thing didn’t have this creepy serial killer vibe, which come to think of it, I shouldn’t actually be worried about since I’m already dead.”
“You’re not dead,” I say, even though I have no idea.
Xavier López, aka La Maquina, who is a musician that I deeply admire but am in no way obsessed with, has been missing for almost a year, and I may or may not have been collecting clues in an attempt to find him. But just to make sure he’s okay.
“Like I said. Creepy. Also you forgot to mention the love letters.”
“They’re not ‘love letters,’” I snap.
They’re more like updates; neighborhood news to let him know that he still matters. Like when the Little League baseball team he sponsors, the Flying Chanclas, took photos in their new uniforms, robot patches sewn onto their sleeves, or when La Puerta Abierta held their annual Easter egg hunt on the soccer field he paid for, every kid in the neighborhood waddling home with baskets overflowing with candy thanks to a generous donation that I know came from him.
“If you know it came from me, then why the hell would I need an update?”
“Because someone should say thank you.” I shrug. “Shouldn’t they?”
And because this isn’t the first time La Maquina has had a mental breakdown and disappeared. Reminding him he matters might be the key to pulling him out of it.
“And if I don’t want anyone to pull me out?” the robot asks. “What then?”
My stomach twists. Because I don’t know what happens then.
In the quiet, I’m bombarded by the sound of my own heartbeat, still racing. I let it swell in my ears until I’m dizzy with it. And yet, I still don’t know it quite as well as the night screams and chattering TV screens. The monotone voice at the crossing lights mixed with the Spanish guitar intro of Amor Eterno.
I know the sounds of this neighborhood better than my own heartbeat.
They usually make me feel safe. But right now, sitting on this park bench instead of the bus, weighed down by the chains of my own indecision, I wonder what it would feel like to not exist within this symphony. To leave Monte Vista and live in a fancy dorm, the sounds of instruments I’ve probably never even heard of wafting down the corridors.
But then I remember that Monte Vista is not a symphony. Not to the people in the new high-rise apartments on the edge of our neighborhood. Not to the teachers at Acadia or the judges who would have been listening to my performance tonight.
When they drive through our barrio or see it on the news, they don’t hear a song. They hear sirens. Secrets.
If I had gotten up on that stage, if I’d played something for them, maybe that’s all they would have heard. A secret language they’d rather make disappear than try to understand. Or maybe they would have understood. Maybe if I could have arranged the notes just right, they would have heard something they could understand. Something they could accept.
Around the neighborhood, gas ranges click on, flames gasping for air. It’s dinnertime, voices swirling around hot stoves and cramped kitchen tables, families full on big belly laughs and posole. There’s static—someone adjusts the radio. “Soy de Rancho” plays as bare feet dance on linoleum floors.
I wait for something inside me to click and catch fire too.
Maybe I need a match.
I tap my cell phone screen, igniting the sound in my headphones that always saves me. Suddenly, Monte Vista is behind glass, drums punching at the barrier, making everything rattle and shake. Sometimes I turn La Maquina’s music up so loud that I can feel my skull filling with cracks.
But that’s when things slither out. Sometimes those things are choruses and drumbeats. And sometimes they’re giant robots that follow me around wherever I go, whispering things, calling me crazy. The one thing my brain hasn’t been able to create is a remedy. Maybe I just haven’t found the right song yet, something to turn my cracks into puzzle pieces.
“Or maybe there’s just no figuring you out.” The robot grins, his mouth a neon U.
Suddenly, the whir of an engine pulls my gaze and the brakes squeal as the 37 bus comes to a stop in front of me.
The doors open with a gasp. “Hey, Aarón, sorry I’m running late. I know you have your audition tonight.”
I look past Mr. V and see Señora Muñez dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. There’s a pharmacy bag on her lap.
She was waiting for the bus. She was waiting for the goddamned bus.
“S’okay,” I mumble because I can barely open my mouth.
I sit across from Señora Muñez, not sure if I want to kiss her or start crying too. Because now I have no choice. I have to do this.
I think I’m going to be sick.
At the next stop, I consider hopping out and saving myself from what is guaranteed to be a total shit show, but then the doors open and the thing that’s usually pumping blood through my veins starts to go haywire. Like when you drop an Alka-Seltzer in a soda bottle and the whole thing fizzes and explodes.
Because there is Mia Villanueva, hair in a bun, lips like the pink seam of a peach, holding her trumpet case and scanning the empty seats.
After God flooded the earth, he fashioned a rainbow as a promise—that no matter how bad a storm seemed, it wouldn’t keep raining forever.
In the weeks leading up to my mom’s death, the rain didn’t stop. It pelted me in her hospice room. Stung me in my sleep.
Until the day she died.
When the nurses told us she was gone, I ran out of the sliding glass doors, down the next street and the next, and when my legs finally slowed, it was her voice that made me look up.
“Does it look brighter to you?”
Mia was standing on the sidewalk outside Speedy’s, head hanging back.
“What?” I followed her eyes to the cobalt sky above our heads.
It was electric, pocked with silver clouds. Even the trees looked different, the leaves so vibrant, I could barely look at them without squinting. And I felt her. In the colors too saturated to be real. In the sunlight and birdsong and warm gentle breeze.
As if the second my mother slipped away, God took the best pieces of her and scattered them like glitter.
And I almost didn’t notice; wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Mia stopping me in my tracks. The rainbow after a yearlong storm that I was so sure would swallow me whole.
“Maybe I’m wrong.” Mia furrowed her brow.
“No.” I shaded my eyes, taking in the way she sparkled like everything else. “You’re not wrong. I see it too.”
I wanted to tell her that my mom was dead. I wanted to tell her that sometimes when I walked past the empty band hall and heard her playing her trumpet alone, I thought about stopping and asking her what it felt like. How she survived it when she lost her dad; when we were twelve and the other kids wouldn’t stop staring at her, like if they looked in her eyes long enough, they might be able to see how it happened.
But when she smiled and walked away, taking that sparkle with her, I didn’t try to stop her.
I didn’t tell her that our hearts now carried the same scar.
Just like I never mustered up the courage to ask her out.
Just like I never mustered up the courage to do anything.
Now there are just a few weeks until graduation and I’m still choking.
“Mia, your audition is today, isn’t it?” one of the other bus riders, Mrs. Molina, asks.
She nods and I can tell by her blanched knuckles that she’s nervous.
“You’re going to be amazing,” Mr. V promises.
Her tense smile disappears as she heads to the back of the bus. And then Mia Villanueva, the girl that turns my brain to static, comes to stand directly in front of me.
I glance to my left. The seat is empty. I look to my right at the seven-foot robot sitting next to me. But I know she can’t see him.
“Is this seat taken?”
I shake my head, too hard and too fast. Then she sits, her leg brushing mine, and I stop moving. Everything stops moving. The other bus riders. The cars that just a few minutes ago were whizzing past the windows. The people on the sidewalk. The clouds overhead. Everything stands perfectly still, pressing every millisecond of this moment into a memory.
But then Mia’s fingers start tapping her bare knee, and everything is set in motion again, my heart pumping at warp speed.
“You okay?” she asks.
Words somehow force their way to my lips. “I don’t know.” I find her reflection in the window across from us, too afraid of looking at her directly. “You?”
“Same.” Then she turns to face me. “Are you auditioning tonight?” She nods to the keyboard sticking out of my backpack.
I swallow. “Yeah…”
“Me too,” she says. “I think…”
The tires graze the concrete curb, signaling our arrival at the auditorium.
“Buena suerte, mija.” Mrs. Molina reaches over and pats her hand.
Mia heads for the exit but not before looking back at me one last time. She means Aren’t you coming?
But for some reason I’m not moving.
I. Can’t. Move.
Mia’s face softens and I can’t read what’s there. Disappointment? Anger? Betrayal?
“She barely knows you,” the robot interjects.
My mouth falls open, but I don’t know how to speak to her. I don’t know how to tell the truth. That I’m scared.
She knows it anyway and I can tell by her eyes, shifting from me to the stairs of the auditorium, that she feels it too.
The last of the exiting passengers are almost down the steps.
I inhale, but the words are stuck.
“Wish me luck?”
Then she heads for the exit, disappearing into the crowd headed for the concert hall as I bury my phone and all its useless alarms in my bag. Because my songs are not a symphony and nothing I’ve made will catch the world on fire.
IN MY FAMILY, DOUBT IS AN INHERITANCE. IT CHASED my mother out of her bed in the middle of the night, into our 1998 Chevy pickup truck, and off to God knows where the year I turned twelve. It kept my father in an alcoholic chokehold that squeezed the life out of him six months after she left. It’s forced my brother Andrés to breathe his muffled poetry behind the elastic of a luchador mask, and it’s taught my other brother, Jazzy, that the only way to avoid a broken heart is to break the other person’s heart first.
Some nights it pulls up a chair at the dinner table; others it stares at us from the dark corner behind the television. But we are never allowed to mention it by name. We are never allowed to show how it haunts us.
And the hardest part is that Doubt does not lie. It just doesn’t tell the whole truth.
For the past two days, Doubt’s half-truths have frozen me to the back row of bus number 37, holding my hand and whispering in my ear. You can’t let them see you. They’ll hate it. They’ll hate it. And tonight, it will be the only member of my family watching from the audience as I perform for a spot at the Acadia School of Music.
“Psst.” A sharp hiss makes me jump. A girl in a black dress and a tight shiny bun waves a hand at me. “Hey, what number are you?”
I stare down at the number stuck to my chest.
Her eyes widen. “You’re right after me.” She turns her attention to the stage. “Can you see what number she is?” Adrenaline paints her cheeks a rosy pink. “Eighteen. Three more musicians and then I’m up.”
I feel myself pale in reply. Three more musicians before her means four more musicians before me.
“Are you going for one of the scholarships?” she asks.
I swallow, tasting bile.
The school received an anonymous donation along with explicit instructions to hold auditions for students from Monte Vista, Real, Los Feliz, and Grant Avenue. Places these fancy private university people would never actually step foot in, which is why they needed an incentive.
Although, that hasn’t stopped some of the rich kids from the west side from showing up anyway. I heard some of their parents had a problem with special auditions being held for mostly Black and brown kids and have been screaming about reverse racism.
I think it’s funny since Acadia has been holding auditions on the west side for years at donors’ homes, pretending they were just invitation-only fundraisers. In other words, the white parents loved the pay-to-play policy when they were the only ones who could actually pay to play. But this donation has changed everything.
A 2022 Booklist Editors’ Choice
A 2023 TAYSHAS Selection
A Bank Street Best Book of the Year
"A gripping, authentic, and vivid portrayal of grief and the many ways it can manifest itself."—Jonny Garza Villa, author of Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun
"A heartwarming, soul-searing coming-of-age journey."—Raquel Vasquez Gilliland, author of How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe
- * "This story will be resounding in readers’ hearts long after they’ve turned the last page. With the lyricism of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s works, this novel is recommended for all collections."—SLJ, starred review
- * “Kemp’s latest novel is a multilayered symphony in itself, keeping the reader’s emotions heightened from the first sentence until the finale, during which readers will be left breathless in wonder. Kemp effortlessly creates beautifully flawed characters who are impossible to forget.”—Booklist, starred review
- "A powerfully emotional story about two teens pursuing their dreams in a difficult world."—BCCB
- "A lyrical standalone about pursuing one’s dreams despite impossible odds."—Publishers Weekly
- "A story of surviving grief with the help of community."—Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet:
*"Fans of Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High will cherish Xander and Pen’s love story and Pen’s passion for food. This stellar debut offers a cathartic take on a relationship between a father and daughter. Authentic flavor inside and out."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
*"Kemp’s novel serves up finely rendered, stirring character arcs...as well as an intimate portrait of two teens grappling with mental health, complicated family relationships, and newfound love."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "Wonderfully realized characters, a vibrant setting, and so much more. I loved this."—Melina Marchetta, award-winning author of Jellicoe Road
"Pen and Xander will steal your heart. One to savor."—Laura Taylor Namey, New York Times bestselling author of A Cuban Girl's Guide to Tea and Tomorrow
"A bold new voice to watch in children's fiction."—Eric Smith, author of Don't Read the Comments
"An affecting, timely debut....Add it to your 2021 TBR list immediately."—Liz Lawson, author of The Lucky Ones
"Like the delicious food and decadent desserts described within its pages, Kemp's debut explores the often bitter and sweet complexity of family, new love, and what it means to find home. "—Mia García, author of The Resolutions
"Pen and Xander's unforgettable love story refuses to sugarcoat difficult topics, but instead deftly explores them with a thoughtful hand. A cathartic read and new favorite author."—Nina Moreno, author of Don't Date Rosa Santos
- "Lush imagery celebrates Mexican culture and depicts how food can bring people together. . . . not to be missed."—School Library Journal
- "Students will enjoy the food descriptions and community culture that lend the story a sense of authenticity and believability."—School Library Connection
“Kemp’s precise writing flows from Pen’s perspective to Xander’s effortlessly, even while revealing their individual lives….Recommended for readers who enjoy strong stories about found families, expectations, and food.”—Booklist
- On Sale
- Oct 3, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers