By: Emma Murray
“Cicada, Ladybug” is a little slice of fiction that you can finish in less than an hour, but when you read it, be seated comfortably so you can handle it’s sudden plot accelerations and twists.
“Cicada, Ladybug” introduces teenage Santiago and his seven-year-old brother Izzy, a sibling duo that quickly clenches your heart. When their grandfather goes missing, Santiago sacrifices his future to raise Izzy on his own, but after Izzy gets in a fight at school, Santiago swears to keep him safe and struggles to teach him that real men avoid violence, without divulging his own secret: in order to make ends meet, Santiago has joined MS-13, America’s most dangerous gang.
The book is Javier Sandoval’s first novella and has quickly become a Top 50 Best-Seller for its category on Amazon. The juxtaposition of heartfelt tenderness and gut-wrenching action gives the novella depth, passion, and the sincerity of an experienced, outstanding author. With succinct but raw prose, Sandoval delivers the energy of a Kerouac novel and the attention to detail of Hemingway short story.
Narrated through Santiago’s eyes, the novella depicts the horrors of Hispanic gang life as Santiago does what he has to do to keep his little brother safe. It’s clear Santiago is different from the rest of the gang. He questions his involvement as he’s forced to make life or death decisions. He’s unusually intelligent and almost manipulative. And he agonizes about keeping his little brother safe at all costs. The dichotomy between fast-paced violence and brotherly love spins the reader in suspense until the very end, which sets this novella apart.
Acute metaphors and relatable descriptions lend the text immense credibility as it approaches sensitive details about gang life. The mystery of Santiago and Izzy’s grandfather flitters through the novella and can be daunting, if not confusing at times. This ambiguity, however, is a major theme throughout the novella that ultimately adds to the depth and character of the piece as a whole.
Interestingly, Sandoval started the project for a writing competition, but after months of work, realized the contest was strictly for females. “They should have made the fine print bigger,” joked Sandoval. This however wasn’t any setback because what mattered most was starting. “That draft wouldn’t have won anyway,” said Sandoval, who over the last year whittled the piece down to half its original length. “The easiest way to edit,” shared Sandoval, “is to just cut the crap out.”
Because he based the novella on much of his own life growing up with his little brother in a homeless shelter, authenticity shines through the entire piece. The sibling love in the novella is conveyed with such conviction, the reader feels as though reading a personal journal. As for less familiar topics, like first-hand gang violence and cockfights, he researched at length, watching hours of videos and even observing a real cockfight in Mexico to write such convincing scenes. “Even though I worked like a journalist, the role of fiction isn’t necessarily to teach you about certain things. The role of fiction is to take interesting stuff and make it more accessible,” Sandoval said.
When asked what he hopes readers take from the piece, he expressed his desire that they appreciate the details. “Everything in there is on purpose. From the cassettes in the car, to Izzy’s backpack, it all matters,” Sandoval explained. Then his lips curled, and he said, “If they do, they may discover where the grandpa is, or maybe even catch the main twist.”
Santiago and Izzy are waiting for you to hear their story on Amazon. Or listen to an excerpt below.
Emma Murray is a writer and life enthusiast. She studies philosophy at Brown University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for any comments, questions or interesting conversation.