The Moon Within by debut author Aida Salazar is a beautiful middle grade novel in verse which explores growing older and self-discovery.
The protagonist, Celi Rivera, has questions about growing older: about her changing body, about her first attraction to a boy, and her best friend Mar’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.
It is incredibly important to Celi’s mother that Celi will have a moon ceremony, a ceremony marking her transition from girl to woman, as Celi explains in one of the first poems, “Moon Ceremony”. Celi initially refuses not only the ceremony, but the prospect of growing older:
“I dread the ceremony where she will gather
all six of my aunts
some of my dance teachers
a constellation of grown-up women
to talk to me
about what it means to bleed monthly…
Embarrassment will eat me up whole!” (9-10)
Celi expressed a fear that may be relatable to both readers who have gone through a moon ceremony, and those who have dealt with their first menstruation as well. Although she is embarrassed, her Mima explains,
“Our ancestors honored
our flowering in this way.
It is a ritual taken away from us
during so many conquests.” (10, italics in original)
Salazar here not only shares an important part of her heritage with the reader, but she is alluding to the need to take back this ceremony from the times whiteness has attempted to snuff out the rich heritage that Mima is passing along. This snuffing is from the shame that is associated with menstrual cycles, while Celi’s culture celebrates it. Through the reader being privy to Celi’s thoughts, the emphasis on her ceremony brings up interesting points of discussions on preserving culture and taking back a sense of ownership when puberty may make someone feel out of control of their body. Like the ritual being taken away by colonizers, Celi tries to take back control of her body and her moon ceremony.
Although Celi struggles with the idea of growing older, poem by poem she comes to explore what it is to be changing. We follow Celi as she grows to accept her changing body through dance, comradery, and self-love. Dance is one of the spaces that allows Celi to feel comfortable in her body and her femininity, as explored in the poem “Puerto Rican Drum Dance”.
She began dancing as a very young girl:
“I held the tips of my little dress
and pretended I was catching
butterflies in the air.
That is what the music told me to do.” (89)
Celi for once does not have questions when she dances, she simply knows how to dance, how to answer the rhythm of the music.
The verse of this poem sways like a dancer and Salazar expertly breaks lines to create space within the poem, like a dancer awaiting their next move. Salazar’s poetry is full of vivid imagery which made me feel as if I were falling into the middle of Celi’s world.
Celi is not the only young character going through change, but her best friend, Marco (previously known as Magda), begins to explore his gender fluidity and finds his own self best expressed through his short hair and pants instead of the long dresses Celi loves to wear.
The Moon Within is an honest portrayal of some of the feelings of growing up and having a changing body and mind. Salazar’s verse is an excellent novel exploring the themes of changing and growing older.
Kirkus Reviews calls The Moon Within “a worthy successor to Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret”, and US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera says the book is “revolutionary and culturally ecstatic”.
This book was not published until I was in my twenties, but I wish I had this book when I was Celi’s age, and I hope that readers going through a similar experience as Celi or Mar will find this book. In beautiful prose, Salazar works to destigmatize gender fluidity and menstrual cycles. I can imagine readers experiencing either of these topics will find solace not only in feeling less alone, but seeing Salazar turn these experiences into beautiful poems.
Salazar has more books planned for publication, including Jovita Wore Pants, her first picture book about the revolutionary Jovita Valdovinos. She also recently published her sophomore novel The Land of the Cranes, a novel in verse about a young girl being held in a family detention center for migrants and refugees.