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Author's story hits home for many students

Author Reyna Grande talks to students at Petaluma High School about being a writer and about her book "The Distance Between Us."

Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 6:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 6:56 p.m.

Prize-winning author Reyna Grande told a crowd of students at Petaluma High School Tuesday that her new memoir “The Distance Between Us” isn't just her story, but her family's.

But for many of the students in the audience, it's their story, too.

“The Distance Between Us” tells the story of Grande's family — after her father leaves their hometown in Mexico for the U.S. to find work, after her mother also leaves, and what happens to a family left behind in deep poverty and emotional turmoil. It also tells the tale of what happens to that same family when they are brought back together after years have passed and lives have changed.

“It was really hard to reconnect,” Grande said of life in Los Angeles with her father, eight years after he first left their hometown of Iguala. “There were so many things he didn't know about me and there were so many things I didn't know about him.”

Grande spent more than three hours Tuesday speaking with Petaluma High School students, followed by a community reading at the high school last night. Grande will speak with students at Casa Grande today.

The author's visits were paid for by both high schools.

Petaluma High School librarian Connie Williams likened Grande's visit to that of a rock star after the reaction just select chapters of the book got in Christina Lee's English language development classes.

“Ms. Lee said she was reading with the kids, they were so incredibly taken by the book that they wanted to read the whole book,” Williams said.

That's when Principal David Stirrat stepped in and offered to buy a set of 25 books for Lee's classroom at a cost of about $600 from the campus discretionary fund.

“When you think about education budgets, when you have kids who say, 'Hey, I really want to read a book,' that becomes priority one,” he said. “They said, 'Those are our books.' You don't hear that with 'Lord of the Flies' or 'Macbeth.'”

Students in Grande's afternoon reading peppered the 37-year-old with questions: What did her father think of the book? How is her relationship with her younger brother? When did she decide she enjoyed writing?

Grande, who published two novels before writing the memoir, said it was, in part, a gift to her two children.

“If I were to die today, my children would be able to find their mother in this book,” she said.

The Los Angeles Times called the book “unforgettable,” “brutally honest,” — “the 'Angela's Ashes' of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.” It is nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Sophomore Juan Ortiz called the book revelation — a story that was something like his.

“I really haven't been able to read Latino books, it's just outstanding,” he said. “I came (to the U.S.) at 3, I also lived in L.A. with my father while my mother was back there (in Mexico).”

“It made me feel like I was in her shoes, that I could feel what she felt,” he said.

The book moved sophomore Miguel Arango, whose father left Mexico, and his wife and children, for the United States when Miguel was 4. When he returned, Miguel's younger sister didn't recognize him.

“Me and my two older brothers went to hug him and my sister would cry and say, 'Who is this man?” he said.

The novel was equally compelling for other students in Lee's class, according to Arango.

“It's noisy class usually. When we are reading it, it gets quiet,” he said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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