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Me in the Middle

by Ana Maria Machado

While her mother is cleaning out a closet, Isabel (Bel) Miranda discovers a new treasure:  an embossed, sepia-toned picture of her bisabuela (great-grandmother) Beatriz (Bisa Bea) as a child.  Feeling an instant connection with the pretty, curly haired girl, Bel asks to keep the picture but soon loses it.  When Mama asks about the picture, Bel excuses herself by saying that "Bisa Bea . . . wants to stay and live with me. . . . but she prefers being on the inside (36-7)."  Bel explains that Bisa Bea lives inside her, like an "invisible, transparent, inside tattoo on [her] chest (37)."
Little does Bel know how true her deception is.  Bisa Bea really does live inside Bel and communicates with her.  Bisa Bea expresses surprise at modern conveniences in her great-granddaughter's life.  Bel explains many things about modern life and in return, Bisa Bea tells Bel "lots of things about her childhood (40)" from years ago in Brazil.  Bel learns about beds with mosquito netting, chamber pots, and bibelots.  They discuss favorite foods (hot dogs, black cows, camel drool and ladyfingers (sweet treats [46-7]).
Bisa Bea loves to give advice, however, especially when it comes to modern day manners.  Girls who whistle, asserts Bisa Bea, don't "know how to behave and [sound] like a street child (56)."  Bisa Bea expects Bel to act coyly with boys; after climbing a wall with would-be boyfriend Sergio, Bisa Bea instructs, "Pretend you're hurt, silly girl, and he'll help you.  Cry a bit and he'll want to protect you (64)."
The unwanted advice causes a problem when Bel contracts a cold.  Bisa Bea doesn't approve of tissues (preferring instead dainty lace handkerchiefs).  However, Bisa Bea drops the tissues on the ground, hoping that a gallant Sergio would retrieve the tissues.  It doesn't happen, however.  Bel sneezes ferociously and, to her mortification, her classmates laugh uproariously as Bel frantically tries to wipe up the excess of snot.
Angry, Bel decides not to listen to Bisa Bea.  Instead, she turns to another voice she is hearing.  This voice turns out to be from the future - Bel's own great-granddaughter, Nieta Beta.  Nieta Beta urges Bel to drop things from the past:  Don't try to be coy.  Don't learn proper young lady arts (embroidery) - "stop being such a dodo (86)."
Faced with opposite ideas of how she should behave, what does Bel do?
I figured it out all of a sudden. . . . I knew that schoolwork isn't just done through books or outside me.  It also happens in my own life, inside me, in my secrets, in my mysteries, in my doubts.  Bisa Bea argues with Nieta Beta with me in the middle being pulled this way and that.  Boys and girls have different ideas of how to act, and those ideas are changing. . . . Looking back at the past and walking toward the future, I stumble every once in a while, as I invent new styles.  I am also an inventor.  All day long I invent a new way of living. (109-10)
Bel compares her new, multigenerational outlook to a braid, the three strands of which are Bel, Bisa Bea, and Nieta Beta.  They remain connected, intertwined, getting better with each generation.  Bel embraces a philosophy of cherishing the past and building on it for the future.
"The ending is a bit preachy and forced," says reviewer Jean Gaffney.[i]  This is probably true, even though the tale was translated from Portuguese.  The preachy ending can't be wholly attributed to vagaries of translation.
There are a number of cultural markers in the tale.  These markers give the reader both a contemporary and an historic view of life in Brazil.  Cultural markers include names (the main characters and others such as the teacher, Doña Sonia); places (the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro [14]); and foods (genipap, the "liqueur made from the genipap fruit [49])."
Historic cultural markers include the use of French terms (bonbonnière); descriptions of furnishings; games (hoop and stick [19]) foods ("sweets like gypsy's arm and mother-in-law's eyes" [47]); and clothing.
Caroline Merola's collage-like illustrations tie together several pages of the book on a single page.  Her illustrations effectively show slices of history, action, and emotion.
[i] Gaffney, Jean. 2002. Review of Me in the Middle. School Library Journal 48 (8). 
Machado, Ana Maria. 2002. Me in the middle. Trans. David Unger. Illus. Caroline Merola. Buffalo: Douglas & McIntyre. Originally published as Bisa Bia [sic], Bisa Bel. 1982. Río de Janeiro: Salamandra Consultoria Editorial. ISBN: 0-88899-467-2
This review was written for a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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