Every 20th-century U.S. history class covers World War II. However, the 1943 attack by white sailors on Mexican Americans, Filipinos, and African Americans in Los Angeles, known as the Zoot Suit Riots, gets little mention. Author Margarita Engle uses free verse to bring this history to life through a wide range of characters. The story centers on a family of cannery workers in Los Angeles. During the Zoot Suit Riots (which Engle refers to as the Sailor Riots) we also hear from reporters, police, and sailors. Although all but one are fictionalized, their stories provide a bottom-up history for middle to high school readers, beginning with the Sleepy Lagoon Murder in 1942 and ending with the 1948 Supreme Court ruling about interracial marriage in Perez v. Sharp.
Jazz Owls by Margarita Engle
Published by Simon and Schuster on May 8, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Latinx, Poetry, Racism
Reading Level: Grades 6-8, High School
Review Source: Rethinking Schools
Also by this author: The Sky Painter, Hurricane Dancers, Drum Dream Girl
Publisher's Synopsis: From the Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle comes a searing novel in verse about the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.
Thousands of young Navy sailors are pouring into Los Angeles on their way to the front lines of World War II. They are teenagers, scared, longing to feel alive before they have to face the horrors of battle. Hot jazz music spiced with cool salsa rhythms calls them to dance with the local Mexican American girls, who jitterbug all night before working all day in the canneries. Proud to do their part for the war effort, these Jazz Owl girls are happy to dance with the sailors—until the blazing summer night when racial violence leads to murder.
Suddenly the young white sailors are attacking these girls’ brothers and boyfriends. The cool, loose zoot suits they wear are supposedly the reason for the violence—when in reality these boys are viciously beaten and arrested simply because of the color of their skin.
In soaring images and powerful poems, this is the breathtaking story of what became known as the Zoot Suit Riots as only Margarita Engle could tell it.