The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos is both heart-wrenching and masterfully crafted. Ramos’s teenage protagonist, Macy Cashmere, is a character who, like many young people who experience tough circumstances, could be easily glossed over or written off by the casual observer as lacking the desire or capacity to succeed. Yet, readers will learn as they read Macy’s “dictionary” that her character is incredibly complex and possesses enviable strength – in spades.
Macy – who based on a series of historical references is of Puerto Rican descent – is a high school student with a complicated life. The story unfolds through Macy’s eyes and the reader is taken through various vignettes that travel through time; these events and flashbacks provide insight into Macy’s character and propel the reader through an intense and sometimes emotional storyline, that is in every way about Macy as it is about every young person like her.
Macy’s family dynamics are raw and uncensored, making them believable and at times painful to take in. With a father in prison, a mother who struggles to care (for herself, and for and about her children), Macy battles food insecurity, predators, and systemic issues and societal ills to survive. On the surface the novel’s title appears to relate to the protagonist’s psychological state. However, as the ever-morphing “bad guy” and obstacle are revealed, one is left believing that the title can refer just as easily to how these outside forces have disrupted her state of being. In some ways, this work is the literary equivalent of Newton’s first law of physics in that a character is fine when left alone or moving, until an outside force disturbs it.
The themes of the book, as well as some of its more R-rated language, are more suitable for the older segment of the young adult literature age spectrum. This is not to say that the allusions to sexual situations and assault, the profane language sprinkled throughout, and the NC-17 aspects of this novel are unique to older audiences. Indeed, Macy’s circumstances are unfortunately all too similar to those children who have had interactions with the child welfare system and to those who have experienced hardships outside of its grasp. Yet, because of the intensity and complexities of several of the novel’s themes, unguided consumption of this work is better aimed at more mature audiences.
There were so many aspects of this work that stood out and made it one of the most thoughtfully written pieces I have read. For example, Macy has a very authentic voice, akin to those who universally use the article “a” before any word, regardless of whether it precedes a consonant or vowel sound – like when she thinks to herself, “I want to tell Alma I want to be marooned with her on a island” (Ramos 202). As you read through each (nearly) alphabetized entry in Macy’s dictionary, you discover that so many stories have backstories. Ramos gives readers a lot to process, not only in terms of the depth of Macy’s character, but also by how she challenges common assumptions that people make about others’ circumstances, motivations, and appearances.
Macy is quick-witted, thoughtful, insightful, self-aware, and undeniably strong. She is smart, perhaps smarter than she would like anyone to know, and cares deeply for those who stand in her corner. She is also misunderstood, underestimated, under-appreciated, abused, and neglected.
The entries in Macy’s dictionary should be read and carefully digested by so many audiences; whether to introduce a different perspective to those from more fortunate upbringings, or to provide a mine of material for literature and sociology students, as well as budding teachers and social workers, who could examine the text, characters, and socially relevant situations as their respective disciplines call for.
This was Ramos’s debut novel. Unequivocally, its caliber is far from the “first pancake” analogy, as her storytelling ability is commensurate with those of seasoned novelists. There is so much heart in this novel; it is as palpable as it is mic-dropping. Having just devoured it, the only thing left to say to Macy and Ramos alike is, bravo, fellow Boricuas, bravo.
The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary
Written by NoNieqa Ramos
2018, Carolrhoda Lab ®, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group
Page Count: 344
A 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection
A 2018 New York Public Library Best Book for Teens
Reviews: Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Latinxs in Kid Lit
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.
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