If there's any justice, this year's National Book Award finalists for children's literature will include Bait, the seventh YA novel from Lammy winning author Alex Sanchez, about a smart, troubled, straight 16 year-old legal Mexican immigrant named Diego MacMann. Constantly at war with himself, Diego wants help but would rather deny his problem ever happened. He wears a shark's tooth on a necklace and when he's overwhelmed, he takes it off and cuts his arms with it. (Hence all the long-sleeved shirts even in hot weather.) Also, he flares into sudden rages and punches holes in his bedroom walls or hits his classmates, particularly a gay boy wearing purple fingernail polish who looks at him "funny." Diego's Irish stepfather forced himself on Diego from an early age and even three years after his stepfather's death, Diego doesn't feel he's escaped him. In the book's measured account, it's clear that the likeliest outcome in this particular case is that Diego will be destroyed by the trauma and self-loathing. Try as he does to behave for his mother who works two jobs and to help his younger half-brother, Diego just can't cope. He thinks about swimming out to sea until he drowns.
The book opens with Diego and his mother meeting the potential probation officer Mr. Vidas, whom Diego initially dislikes but comes to realize might actually be a grownup who will listen to him. Angering all the adults who worked out a deal to avoid probation, Diego interrupts the judge in court to say he wants probation. So begins the two-steps-forward-one-step-back relationship between Diego and the sympathetic but overworked and slightly guarded Mr. Vidas, who Diego does not understand is gay. That unwanted revelation is one of many setbacks on their difficult road. Drawing their sessions deftly and with affection, Sanchez shows perfect command of the territory because he used to be a probation officer. Despite the heavy subject, he gives his characters a good sense of humor and notices quirky details in their lives. (Responding to Mr. Vidas's point-to-your-emotion chart, Diego says, "You should have a smiley face for 'It sucked.'") Subplots with Diego's best friend Kenny and his new girlfriend Ariel add other layers of texture to this moving, memorable novel. Among the year's best.
School Library Journal said, "Unlike most recent fiction that addresses sexual abuse, this story focuses not on the telling of secrets, but on making sense of the experience and building a healthy foundation for moving forward. This groundbreaking novel brings to life an appealing young man who is neither totally a victim nor a victimizer, one who struggles to handle conflicts that derail many young lives. Teens will identify with Diego’s dreams and frustrations, his feeling of difference, his yearning for “normal” life and relationships. High interest and accessible, this coming-of-age story belongs in every collection. For the one in six boys who is sexually abused, it could be a lifesaver."
Kirkus said "Sanchez draws his characters lovingly, making it very apparent that he knows teens like Diego and genuinely understands their peril." But they found other elements of the story "groan-inducing" and "cringeworthy."
PW: "Sanchez does a masterful job explaining the protagonist's complicated emotions as he deals with his past."