The Watermelon

In his new novel, THE WATERMELON,  Laser’s idealistic teenage protagonist, Jenny, heads to South America with a group of American high school volunteers. Their summer project is to build a school in a small town—a town close to the border of a hostile country. Years of political strife have resulted in deep prejudices, as Jenny learns when she falls in love with one of the locals. The book offers young readers an exotic locale, a love story, and tense drama when war threatens to break out around the Americans.

After deciding to spend the summer with a group of American volunteers building a school in a desperately poor Latin American country, Jenny witnesses the deadly local politics firsthand, even as she gets a crush on the gorgeous work group leader, Nelson; argues with her fellow workers about their role as outsiders in the community; and burns with jealousy when sexy Yvonne gets Nelson’s attention. Readers may have some difficulty keeping track of the novel’s huge cast, which includes each of the 10 volunteers as well as many locals, but the friendships, attractions, and spats show the diversity of experience on all sides. The teens’ fiery arguments humanize the big questions, as Jenny witnesses the prejudice against the poorer and darker people who have lost their land, including the housekeeper who works for the volunteers but eats alone. What choices do the oppressed have? How can they get back their country? Are the hostile guerrillas on the border terrorists or freedom fighters? Readers will join the discussion.

— Hazel Rochman, Booklist