49 pages 1 hour read

Pablo Cartaya

Each Tiny Spark

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Pablo Cartaya is the author of Each Tiny Spark, published in 2019. A Cuban writer whose past novels spotlight young Hispanic protagonists, Cartaya centers Each Tiny Spark, a work of young-adult fiction, on Emilia Rosa, who manages her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), confronts unflattering truths, and embraces change and activism.

The page numbers refer to the 2019 Kokila edition.

Content Warning: The story includes racism, bullying, and allusions to war trauma.

Plot Summary

Emilia Rosa Torres is 12 years old, and she attends Merryville Middle School in Georgia. She has ADHD, so she can have trouble focusing. Sometimes, she can get into her “flow” and concentrate intensely. Emilia doesn’t take medication, but her mom, Sue, helps her, as well as her teachers and friends. Her dad, Toni, is a Marine, returning from an unspecified warzone, which makes Emilia nervous. She compares her emotions to a science experiment wherein a Coke bottle exploded with lemon juice and baking soda. Toni’s arrival coincides with Sue’s departure: She’s traveling to San Francisco to present a translation app. Emilia also lives with her Abuela, or grandma. Abuela is Toni’s mom, and she runs the only mechanic and auto-body shop in town.

Emilia and Clarissa have been friends since kindergarten. Clarissa’s dad was in the army, and he died when she was in the first grade. Clarissa has parties, but Emilia doesn’t like going to them. She likes hanging out with Gus, but Clarissa doesn’t like Gus.

Clarissa and her mom worry about redistricting. Officials are considering sending students from the overcrowded Park View neighborhood to Merryville schools.

Mr. Richt, Emilia’s social-studies teacher, wants his students to make a tourism guide for Merryville without using the internet. Emilia and Gus go to the library, and Emilia gets acquainted with the librarian, Mrs. Liz, who tells her about the microfilm machine.

Emilia wants to include Don Carlos’s Grocery Latino, where Abuela grocery shops, in her guide, so she interviews him and discovers he helped build the Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Returning to the library, Emilia learns that officials didn’t enforce immigration laws so immigrants would come to Georgia and work for the Olympics. Now, authorities have harsh immigration laws and force people to leave even if they’ve been in the US for most of their lives.

Horror movies captivate Gus, so he makes a film about monsters and myths for his tourism guide—Emilia will play multiple roles. Abuela doesn’t like Emilia hanging out with Gus. She thinks Emilia should behave like a young lady, and she wants to throw her granddaughter a quinceañera—a celebration in Latinx culture for a girl at 15, marking her transformation into womanhood. Emilia doesn’t want a quinceañera.

Emilia wants to bond with her dad, but he’s difficult to talk to. She made her dad 30 videos when he was at war, but he never replied. When she asks him why, he doesn’t answer. Sometimes, he tells her about his experiences, like showering in “poo water,” but mostly he’s quiet and sad. In the shop, he fixes up a Shelby Mustang, and he lets Emilia help her.

Clarissa has another party on Friday, and Emilia persuades her to invite Gus, even though Gus doesn’t want to go. Emilia forgets to go, but Gus shows. On the way home, a cop pulls him and his dad over, but they have documentation; nevertheless, Gus is mad at Emilia.

When Emilia shares what she learned with the class, Mr. Richt praises her, but Clarissa scolds her, believing Emilia wants to make Merryville look bad. Emilia’s focus on activism and change pushes the other students to change their projects to focus on more socially and historically complex topics. In the hallway, Gus and Clarissa fight. Feeling overwhelmed, Emilia hurries away. During dinner, she explodes like the Coke bottle and yells at Abuela for trying to force her to be someone she’s not, and she screams at her dad for not responding to her videos.

The principal doesn’t like the commotion caused by the tourism guides, so Mr. Richt has to cancel the project. He makes the students attend the redistricting meeting and tells them to prepare to discuss it in class. Gus and Emilia make up, and they create a video about redistricting, interviewing Park View residents. A granddad likes redistricting—his granddaughters will be closer to school. A high schooler doesn’t like redistricting—she doesn’t want to start over and go to a new school. Clarissa dislikes the video, but Mr. Richt posts it to the school’s YouTube channel. Emilia tells Clarissa that she doesn’t hate her, and they don’t have to fight.

Abuela explains why her struggles make her want to give Emilia a quinceañera, and Sue gets a lucrative job offer in San Francisco. Toni encourages Sue to accept the position, but Emilia, Abuela, and Toni will stay in Merryville: It’s Sue’s turn to pursue her career. Toni makes Emilia a video explaining why he didn’t reply to her videos. Emilia watches her dad’s video with him on the couch, where they hold hands. He feels he is likely experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, and he promises to get help.