Contemporary history isn’t something I know a lot about, unless it has to do with the Southern Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (my focus as a History major). So my interested was piqued when I saw that 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis was on this years Florida Sunshine State book list.
When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami via the Pedro Pan operation, the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves.
Operation Pedro Pan?! Living in Florida I’d known a little bit about this program but not very much. For those of you who don’t know what Operation Pedro Pan began when Cuban parents afraid the Cuban government would take away their parental authority sent their children to the United States. For two years, (December 1960 to October 1962) more than fourteen thousand Cuban children arrived alone in the United States in what is now known as the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere. Super interesting huh?!
The story of Operation Pedro Pan is told through the eyes of Julian, the youngest boy in his family. Loveable Julian is often overlooked as the “baby” but wants to be treated like his older brothers and in the end is the one who makes his mark in the lives of many.
Because this is a middle grades story about preteens and teenagers 90 Miles to Havana is full of boys being boys and kids being kids; competing against one another, playing pranks, and trying to win the attention of girls. The interactions between the kids in the camp are hilarious and believable (I work in a middle school where competition, pranks and attention-getting are all common occurrences!). There were so many times I chuckled to myself just picturing my students in the story! Flores-Galbis mixes the history with humor so you just “get” Julian’s story.
Flores-Galbis, who himself was sent to Florida under Operation Pedro Pan at the age of 9, plays on the idea of a dictatorship by creating a very tyrant-like character who is in charge of the kids at the camp in the United States. The children think they’ve been saved from a totalitarian regime only to discover that this type of leadership can exist anywhere; even amongst a group of teenagers at a camp. Their method of toppling this ruler is both serious and humorous.
So far my students at school have really enjoyed this book, especially those of Hispanic background. If you’re looking for a middle grades novel with a little more depth to it (and one relating to Florida history!), you should most definitely read 90 Miles to Havana. I promise you won’t be disappointed!