If I Could Fly by Judith Ortiz Cofer is as much a vivid account of a teen’s experiences with the adults in her life and how their choices impact her, as it is about the gritty realities of those in her flock.
The story soars between the mainland and the island – the United States and Puerto Rico – with scenes taking place in New York and Puerto Rico, sometimes almost simultaneously because of how palpably Puerto Rico beats in the hearts of some characters despite being hundreds of miles from the island.
Doris, a teenage Puerto Rican born stateside, matures quickly while facing the complexities of her home life. Like a baby bird who must learn to fly, life’s circumstances thrust her from her nest, forcing her to navigate the winds of change brought by her parents’ professions, parenting style, and separation.
In this novel Ortiz Cofer artfully crafted a plot that tackles the very real, and sometimes messy, phenomena of processing change, honing emotional survival skills, and learning resilience. Ortiz Cofer throws the kitchen sink at the protagonist by presenting Doris with complex social issues and personal circumstances. Love loss, health issues, domestic and gang violence, identity, aging, (ir)responsibility, self-awareness—these are just a taste of life’s realities that Doris encounters along her course, whose flight path she is charting as she goes.
This novel is a nesting doll, with stories within the story, and affords many opportunities to discuss important issues. It is fertile ground for analysis about how Ortiz Cofer portrayed them, how Doris experienced them, and about their persistence outside of the novel’s pages.
The prose is simple, but loaded. True to her Puerto Rican roots, Ortiz Cofer sprinkles the Spanish language into the work of fiction, but never in an isolating way, as she follows each occurrence with an immediate translation. Perhaps to balance the work that Doris and the reader must do to maneuver through tough social issues, Ortiz Cofer takes it easy on the reader by painting clear pictures of each scene. She does not overcomplicate each setting Doris occupies. Instead, she supplies simple, but detailed descriptions that concretely place the reader alongside Doris. Ortiz Cofer also kept the difficulty-degree of the story’s vocabulary on the moderate side. That said, be on the lookout for gems like “alight” and “intone” as you turn (or scroll through) the pages.
The themes in this text are on the more mature side and would perhaps be better geared toward the late middle school to tenth grade audience. Importantly, this novel sheds light on the weight(s) that many kids carry—silently, yet with so much strength–thus making it a great way to open up dialogue with an audience of this age range that is sometimes reluctant to talk about these issues in the abstract.
Written by Judith Ortiz Cofer
2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Page Count: 208
The Honorable Luis Maldonado graduated from Stetson University, magna cum laude, with a degree in English, and the University of Florida, Levin College of Law, cum laude. Since 2004 he has worked in the nonprofit and public sectors, having served as an advocate for domestic violence victims and foster children, as well as counsel for the State of Florida in dependency hearings. He began his federal government service in 2006; during that time he has handled administrative trial and appellate matters, federal litigation, and served in advisory and management roles. He was appointed to the bench in 2020 and serves as an Immigration Judge in Memphis, Tennessee. Judge Maldonado is a member of Stetson University’s Board of Trustees.