This delightful coming-of-age novel features eleven-year-old Naomi León Outlaw, who lives in California, in a trailer known as Baby Beluga, with her great-grandmother and her little brother Owen. Things are going fairly well for Naomi as the book opens - her biggest problem is that the boys in her class make fun of her last name, asking if she's robbed any banks lately. Naomi is very shy and soft spoken, definitely not one for confrontations, and she deals with things in her life by making lists - it helps her to see things written down in a nice, neat column in her notebook.
When her mother appears unexpectedly at the door, bursting in on a cloud of exotic perfume and boasting an exotic new name, Naomi isn't sure what to think. She doesn't even recognize her, not having seen her since she was a toddler. Naomi longs to have the kind of relationship with her mother that the other girls in her class seem to have, but it seems that Skyla, her mother, isn't going to fit any expectations she might have. Part of Naomi loves having her mother back in her life - the new clothes her mother buys her, the way she braids her hair - but part of her is nervous about her mother. For one thing, Skyla pays much more attention to Naomi than she does to Owen, who is smart as a whip despite his physical disability, and when Skyla's boyfriend enters the picture - along with the announcement that they intend to take Naomi - just Naomi - to Las Vegas to live with them.
Just as custody issues start brewing, Naomi and Owen's great-grandmother whisks them off on a trip to Mexico. There, Naomi learns some surprising things about herself, her family, and the country where her father lives. She dreams of being able to find him after all these years, but in the meantime, she hopes to learn to live up to her name - the León part of her name - and become a lion instead of a mouse.
This is a delightful book that explores issues of family, friendship, and self-reliance. It's easy to relate to Naomi, and to sympathize with the problems she faces with the unexpected turns her life has taken. The reader discovers along with Naomi that people can be very complicated, likable and loving, but sometimes careless about feelings and even downright scary. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Mexico, with their vivid sensory details, as well as the focus on Naomi's artistic endeavors as a soap carver.
I have not read Esperanza Rising, another popular book by this same author, but I have heard very good things about it, and I'm looking forward to reading it soon.
Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan; narrated by Annie Kosuch (Listening Library, 2004)
Also reviewed at:
A Fondness for Reading: "This is a wonderful story of a young girl growing up, finding out what is really important in her own life, and learning that she has hidden strengths."
The Water Lily: "The experiences and visualizations the author can create in the reader's mind are very vivid and caused me to want to go there and see what Naomi was experiencing too!"
Young Adult Lit: "I loved this book! It was very well written and I loved all of the characters in it."