Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots

Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots

From the Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle comes a searing novel in verse about the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.Thousands of young Navy sailors are pouring into Los Angeles on their way to the front lines of World War II. They are teenagers, scared, longing to feel alive before they have to face the horrors of battle. Hot jazz music spiced with cool salsa rhythms ca...

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Title:Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots
Author:Margarita Engle
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Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots Reviews

  • Rachel Verhagen

    This is a wonderful representation of the Latinx life in LA during the 1940s. I enjoyed all of the poems and I thought they were beautifully written. I devoured this book in less than 2 hours and it was a great read.

  • Ms. Galván

    Beautiful! Jazz Owls is the story of the Zoot Suit Riots in LA during the 40's, when war has broken out all over the world and Mexican-American families wage war against racism at home. The story is narrated through the eyes of a "victory family" in LA. Mami, Papa, Marisela, Lorena, and Ray dictate their experiences working in the cannery, fighting for their lives, and dancing their troubles away with hearts full of Jazz. I recommend Jazz Owls to everyone who can read!

  • Sarah Rosenberger

    Ray is only 12, but that doesn't stop him from dressing up in his zoot suit and dancing all night. It also doesn't keep him safe from attacks by white police and soldiers...

    Marisela dances too, spinning and jitterbugging with soldiers who need one last hurrah before shipping out. But when racial tensions in the city boil over, those same soldiers, wielding baseball bats, come for her brother and the

    musician she loves...

    Lorena goes to the dance halls with her brother and sister, but spend

    Ray is only 12, but that doesn't stop him from dressing up in his zoot suit and dancing all night. It also doesn't keep him safe from attacks by white police and soldiers...

    Marisela dances too, spinning and jitterbugging with soldiers who need one last hurrah before shipping out. But when racial tensions in the city boil over, those same soldiers, wielding baseball bats, come for her brother and the

    musician she loves...

    Lorena goes to the dance halls with her brother and sister, but spends more time thinking about her future than the latest jazz craze. But in a city where girls are treated as less-than, especially

    girls, how big should she dare to dream?

    I don't usually like novels-in-verse, but really enjoyed this look at a Mexican-American family living in L.A. during World War II. I didn't know much about the Zoot Suit Riots (which the author notes really should have been called the Sailor Riots), and feel like I learned a lot, while remaining invested in the characters. I thought the portrayal of the reporters could have used more nuance, but maybe Engel went broad so that younger readers could really grasp the power of media narrative. The novel's focus on WWII's hometown heroes, especially those of color, is a welcome addition to the canon of WWII kidlit, which more often focuses on battles or the Holocaust.

    Good for tweens and teens who want unique historical fiction, or those who like novels in verse. It could also be used as a somewhat gentler look at police brutality and the dangers of of racism, because there is no language/sex/drugs, and the violence - though present - isn't gory or gratuitous.

  • Alex (not a dude) Baugh

    It's 1942 in Los Angeles, California. America hasn't been in World War II very long, but already the country is doing maximum war effort work. And that includes Mexican American sisters Marisela, 16, and Lorena, 14, who work long, exhausting days in a cannery, canning fruits and vegetables that will be sent to the armed forces overseas. But when night comes, the sisters are escorted to the local USO by their younger brother Ray, 12, to dance the night away with navy recruits on leave before they

    It's 1942 in Los Angeles, California. America hasn't been in World War II very long, but already the country is doing maximum war effort work. And that includes Mexican American sisters Marisela, 16, and Lorena, 14, who work long, exhausting days in a cannery, canning fruits and vegetables that will be sent to the armed forces overseas. But when night comes, the sisters are escorted to the local USO by their younger brother Ray, 12, to dance the night away with navy recruits on leave before they ship out to fight in the Pacific. Oldest brother Nicolás is off fighting somewhere in the where.

    Rau may only be 12, but he already identifies as a zoot suiter, wearing the large jacket and loose pants, he calls drapes, that are their signature style and giving dancers plenty of room for dancing the jitterbugging and lindy hop. One night, after dropping his sisters off at the USO, Ray heads to a private party at a place called the Williams Ranch. A fight breaks out there and some members from "the 38th Street gang" leave but later return to get revenge. Ray is beaten up pretty badly, and another teen named José Díaz is found with stab wounds, and dies the next day. Ray is arrested along with members of the gang.

    Reporters slant the story about the so-called "Mexican Problem" and the zoot suiters in such a way that they influence their readers against them for being unpatriotic. First, because they are Mexican, and second, they feel the large amount of fabric in a zoot suit is a waste and should be used for the war effort instead. Eventually released, Ray and the other zoot suiters are now seen by police, reporters, and civilians as baby gangsters.

    Meanwhile, Marisela meets an Afro Cuban musician named Manolito and the two fall in love and want to get married, but California's anti-miscegenation laws of 1941 prohibit them from doing that. Ironically, Marisela, though of Mexican descent and hated by whites for that, is still considered "white" under this law, and can even marry a white person, but not a person of African descent.

    Tensions increase over the next 10 months, during which time the family learns that Nicolás is now Missing in Action. The trial for the murder of José Díaz also concludes with a conviction of "a bunch of Mexican kids" sent to San Quentin for life.

    The convictions only serve to outrage the white sailors nearby, and one night they go on a rampage, terrorizing Mexican Americans, publicly beating and stripping any zoot suiters they find of their drapes and burning them, including Ray. Even though the police see what is happening, they do nothing to stop it, ultimately arresting a hundred kids and only two sailors.

    Angry at the pervasive discrimination they experience and the unimaginable violence they witness against the Mexican American community, and the poor working conditions at the canneries and factories they employ them, especially when so many have family members fighting in a war for freedom, the Zoot Suit Riots have a profound impact on the future of all three siblings.

    Jazz Owls tells the story of a not very well known part of American history. is a novel told in free verse. It is told mainly in the voices of Marisela, Lorena, and Ray, and to a lesser extent, by their Papá, Mami, Abuela, different reporters, sailors, police, and even the spirit of José Díaz. It sounds confusing, particularly since this is a relatively small volume, but each is realized to the extent that they need to be and plays a pivotal part in the narrative.

    Jazz Owls is a work of historical fiction based on real events and gives readers a window into the lives of patriotic Mexican Americans living in California during World War II. By interrupting and interrogating the predominate narrative in much the same way that books about the lives of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Chinese Americans do, it draws attention not only to the roles they played in helping to win the war, but also the unmitigated bigotry they were made to deal with on a daily basis.

    Ray calls zoot suits drapes, and whenever I look at Rudy Gutierrez' incredibly expressive illustration on the cover of Jazz Owls I can see exactly what he means, it is sheer drape and one of the most striking covers I've seen in a long time.

    Jazz Owls is a much needed addition to the body literature about WWII historical fiction based on a real event, and I believe today's readers may be surprised at how much the story of a Mexican American family and the racial hate they faced that led to the Zoot Suit Riots will most certainly resonate with them.

    This book is recommended for readers age 12+

    This book was borrowed from the NYPL

  • Chelsey

    I ended up really enjoying this because of the interesting history and the under-heard voices. However, it took me a REALLY long time to get into this. The poetry hindered my point of entry, and until I was hooked by the subject, I wasn't a fan. This will probably be a hard sell, which is sad, because it's a great story.

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