What initially makes The Immortal Boy, written by Colombian author Francisco Montaña Ibáñez, stand out from other YA novels is its innovative dual language format. Published this year by Levine Querido, the book can be read in English or in Spanish, depending on how one holds the book. On one side, the reader can read the English language translation by David Bowles; turn the book upside down, and there is the original Spanish text. But what stays with you, long after reading the book, is the story inside. This one will haunt you.
Originally published as No comas renacuajos (which translates literally as Don’t Eat Tadpoles), The Immortal Boy tells two intertwining stories set in Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia. The book opens on a family of five children, ranging in ages from 5 to 13. They are living on their own, in one room of a dilapidated house. There is not enough food to go around, and work is hard to come by for the teenagers. While other people in the neighborhood—shopkeepers, the upstairs neighbor, a teacher at the local school—can see just how dire the situation is for the five youngsters, no one seems to be able, or willing, to provide any kind of support. Hector, the oldest, is determined to keep his siblings together, no matter what.
We next meet Nina, a young girl learning to navigate the orphanage at which she is now living. She catches the eye of three bullies, but another boy steps in and puts a stop to their torment. Nina wants to thank him, but he runs away before she can say anything to him. From the other children she learns that he is known as the Immortal Boy. He never says anything, only that he is hungry. Most of the time, however, he pretends to shoot people using his hand as a gun. Nina sets out to befriend the Immortal Boy, even as he continues run away and shoot at her with his fingers.
I will leave it to those who read The Immortal Boy to learn exactly how the stories of Nina and the five children are come together. Suffice it to say, I finished this book in one day, and I still cannot forget that moment. I had to reread it several times to be sure of what actually happened. Because of its subject matter and its shocking climax, this book is most appropriate for upper YA readers.
The Immortal Boy is rich fodder for discussion. What do we owe one another when family, economic, and social systems break down? What do we owe the most vulnerable among us? And are we responsible when tragedy inevitably occurs?
What can only one of us do when confronted with the depths of another’s pain and isolation? Like Nina, perhaps the best we can do is continue to be there, to be present, to be a patient friend.
Title: The Immortal Boy
Written by Francisco Montaña Ibáñez
Translated from Spanish by David Bowles
Levine Querido, 2021
Awards (for Spanish Edition): International Youth Library White Raven, 2010; GLLI Translated Young Adult Book Prize Honor Title, 2022.
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.