Mexican American author Sandra Cisneros's novella The House on Mango Street is the story of a Latina girl named Esperanza Cordero who grows up on the mean streets of an inner-city neighborhood. Originally published in 1984, the novel enjoyed immediate critical acclaim, winning the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1985. Now in its 25th year of publication, The House on Mango Street has sold over 2 million copies and is required reading in many middle schools, high schools, and universities across the country.
So, what's the big deal here? Why is everyone so infatuated with this book? Well, we have a couple of theories about that. First of all, you'll notice that it's not a difficult read. Like we said, The House on Mango Street is being taught both to thirteen-year-olds and college students. The writing is simplistic enough for younger readers to understand, while at the same time sophisticated enough to keep the interest of writers and literary scholars. Impressive, huh? And guess what? The author did that on purpose.
In her introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros explains that "she wants the writers she admires to respect her work, but she also wants people who don't usually read books to enjoy these stories too" (Introduction.19). In other words, the way Cisneros sees it, literature isn't an exclusive club. It's something that everyone should be able to enjoy, even those people who don't have much experience with reading literature because they're young or because they are busy working for a living. But just because her writing is easy to understand doesn't mean that it's boring or simplistic – pick up The House on Mango Street and you'll notice that each sentence is carefully crafted to evoke emotion, beauty, or even just the pleasure of sound. It's kind of like reading a poem that tells a story. (Oh, did we mention that Sandra Cisneros is also a poet?)
The other quality that makes this book so appealing is its pervading sense of optimism. Though many of the stories she tells are painful and sad, Cisneros never writes them with a sense of despair. Instead her characters display a determination to persevere, to reach, and to dream of a better life.
Cisneros's optimism is evident in her own varied career that has included such roles as counselor to high school dropouts, recruitment agent at Loyola University, and teacher of poetry in public schools. She started the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation to reward emerging Texan writers, and the Macondo Foundation to unite writers in fighting for social change. And, if that isn't enough evidence of her rosy outlook on life, consider the fact that she lives in a bright pink house, because, she says, "the colors make me happy" (source). Rock on, Sandra Cisneros.
Esperanza Cordero is one of the most likable characters you'll ever meet. She's smart, she's funny, she's lonely, and charmingly awkward – she's just like you. OK, so maybe you didn't grow up in an urban barrio in Chicago. But who hasn't ever felt ashamed about some part of their identity, whether it's the amount of money their family has, the house they live in, or just being different from the other kids at school? Ever felt embarrassed about wearing the wrong shoes to a party? Meet Esperanza – we think you've got a lot in common.
Our point is that, on nearly every page of The House on Mango Street, you'll probably find something that will make you cringe. Or laugh out loud. Or whimper in empathy. It's that kind of book. It's almost impossible not to relate to the sassy, spunky heroine – a budding writer who survives the pain and humiliation of puberty by writing angsty, heartfelt poetry. (Sound familiar? We wrote embarrassing poetry in our teen years, too. But you'll never find it. Mwahhahaha.)
Esperanza is the kind of character that draws attention to the universal experience of being human, and especially to the particularly awkward time of life that we call puberty. Reading her story helps us to feel more connected with the people around us, because it reminds us that even though we've all had painful or embarrassing experiences, we all have the potential to overcome them. And that's kind of awesome.