Marcelo Sandoval is a 17-year-old Mexican-American Catholic kid who loves horses, tree houses, his dog, his rabbi (more on that later), and listening to the imaginary music generated by his very own brain. Yes, you read that right: he's a Catholic with a rabbi and a music box between his ears. Marcelo has something resembling Asperger's syndrome, and it manifests itself in his unique obsession with both religion and music. That's right: classical music and Judaism are homeboy's jams.
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, was published in 2009 to serious acclaim. Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal (basically, all the big reviewers) named it a Best Book of 2009. Stork has written four other award-winning YA books, all of which, like Marcelo, deal with a teen facing heavy problems.
So what's Marcelo's heavy problem? His dad's representing a corrupt corporation that manufactures faulty products, and Marcelo realizes someone's been hurt really, really badly as a result. On top of all that, he's learning about social class distinction for the first time, and it's not exactly a beginner's lesson.
Stork knows a little something about all of this. He's a lawyer in Boston, just like Marcelo's dad Arturo, but he was born out of wedlock (which is what they used to call unmarried girls having babies) in a convent (which is one of the places out-of-wedlock babies used to be born) in Monterrey, Mexico. You could definitely say he learned about class struggle the hard way. We're betting there's a bit (or a lot) of him in our Marcelo.
Sure, Marcelo in the Real World is a work of fiction, but it was inspired by the time Stork spent living and working in a L'Arche house, part of a faith-based community that provides services to people with intellectual disabilities (seriously, can we just go ahead and give him the Awesome Human award now?). As he told School Library Journal, "When you live with the disabled, you learn more from them than, frankly, they learn from you. The people who are so-called disabled have a true place in our world and actually contribute to healing some of the things that are wrong in our society" (source).
We totally agree. And after you meet Marcelo, we're pretty sure you will too.
We contend that any book that begins with our narrator in a brain scanner and features a character searching for a new face is a book worth reading, but that's not why you should care about Marcelo in the Real World. This is a story about the little guy taking on the big guy and winning, and that's worth more than all the MRIs and reconstructive surgeries in the Western literary canon. (Go ahead, we'll wait here while you think of a few more.)
If you've ever needed proof that sometimes kids really do know more than their parents, look no further than Marcelo and Arturo. Arturo's a prime example of how greed corrupts people, while Marcelo proves that a clear vision and strong heart can take corrupt people down. Seems simple, right? But of course nothing's ever that easy in the real world—or the Real World, as the case may be.
Anyone who's ever struggled to do the right thing in the face of formidable consequences will relate to Marcelo's struggle. He's got some serious consequences, too: not only will he have to leave the school he loves if he does what's right, he could also threaten his family's financial security to boot. But he knows there's someone in the world suffering way more than he is, someone who's lost something much bigger than he can even fathom: half her face.
In taking on a wealthy corporation to save a poor individual, Marcelo's fighting for underdogs everywhere. And who among us hasn't been the underdog in some way, at some time? Who hasn't dealt with bullies, either by being bullied ourselves or watching it happen to someone else? We're willing to bet that at some time in your life the fear in your stomach and fire in your heart have done battle, and that's why should care about Marcelo: he reminds us that the fire should always be our guide.