My Name is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada (originally published 1993) is a thought-provoking story about a shy Hispanic girl growing up in the USA who finds herself in a new school. When her teacher decides to call her “Mary” instead of Maria Isabel, she misses opportunities and gets in trouble for not paying attention. In this brief collection of situations, reflections, and flashbacks, Maria Isabel’s story reflects on how important names and families are to our own personal identity.
I really enjoyed My Name is Maria Isabel. There is so much in this slim early chapter book to explore and discuss. It is less than 70 pages, but Maria Isabel’s situation stayed with me. Because she is a shy person, Maria Isabel shares a gentle and reflective story. She frequently recalls things happening with other friends and with loved family members in the past months as she moved into her current situation.
But none of the reflection comes across in the story as “telling” about her past, her family, or her priorities. On the contrary, her past and her present seem very much alive. The author did a great job of “showing” instead of “telling” throughout the book. Although her teacher thinks she does not pay attention and possibly is not “smart” because she cannot answer simple questions, Maria Isabel is active, involved, and intelligent, as her thoughts show.
I also especially liked the emphasis on her growing realization of her own identity. She is challenged in that identity in every step throughout the story. Most obvious is her teacher’s choice to call her “Mary Lopez” to avoid confusion with the other two Maria’s.
But more subtly, Maria Isabel must decide what she thinks about many aspects of her life. She does not want to wear makeup as her friend does. She knows she feels lonely. She does want to be in the school play, even though the teacher says she doesn’t. She knows the answers to the problems her teacher asks, even though she does not speak out and say those answers. And finally, at school, she is able to admit to her teacher in her “Greatest Wish” essay that her name, specific as it is, is a part of this identity as well. She has overcome her shyness in order to express her identity and insist that she be acknowledged. Like Charlotte and Wilbur in the book she reads, Maria Isabel comes to the self-realization that she is “terrific”, and that is how she breaks out of her frustrating web of shyness.
I like this slim book so much I believe I will be reading it with my son’s elementary grade homeschool language arts class next year, in connection with the picture book, The Name Jar, which explores similar themes of identity as related to our names.
What does your name mean to you?