Skip to Main Content

The Things We Didn't Know

About The Book

The inaugural winner of Simon & Schuster’s Books Like Us contest, Elba Iris Pérez’s lyrical, cross-cultural coming-of-age debut novel explores a young girl’s childhood between 1950s Puerto Rico and a small Massachusetts factory town.

Andrea Rodríguez is nine years old when her mother whisks her and her brother, Pablo, away from Woronoco, the tiny Massachusetts factory town that is the only home they’ve known. With no plan and no money, she leaves them with family in the mountainside villages of Puerto Rico and promises to return.

Months later, when Andrea and Pablo are brought back to Massachusetts, they find their hometown significantly changed. As they navigate the rifts between their family’s values and all-American culture and face the harsh realities of growing up, they must embrace both the triumphs and heartache that mark the journey to adulthood.

A heartfelt, evocative portrait of another side of life in 1950s America, The Things We Didn’t Know establishes Elba Iris Pérez as a sensational new literary voice.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Things We Didn’t Know includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The inaugural winner of Simon & Schuster’s Books Like Us contest, Elba Iris Pérez’s lyrical, cross-cultural coming-of-age debut novel explores a young girl’s childhood between 1960s Puerto Rico and a small Massachusetts factory town.

Andrea Rodríguez is nine years old when her mother whisks her and her brother, Pablo, away from Woronoco, the tiny Massachusetts factory town that is the only home they’ve known. With no plan and no money, she leaves them with family in the mountainside villages of Puerto Rico and promises to return.

Months later, when Andrea and Pablo are brought back to Massachusetts, they find their hometown significantly changed. As they navigate the rifts between their family’s values and all-American culture, and face the harsh realities of growing up, they must embrace both the triumphs and heartache that mark the journey to adulthood.

A heartfelt, evocative portrait of another side of life in 1960s America, The Things We Didn’t Know establishes Elba Iris Pérez as a sensational new literary voice.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The Things We Didn’t Know is inspired by the author’s own experiences growing up between Woronoco, Massachusetts, and Puerto Rico. How do you predict that her connection will impact your reading experience? As you read, reflect on how the author writes about these places that are extremely meaningful to her.

2. The book opens with a conflict between Andrea and Pablo’s parents, as their mother hopes to return to Puerto Rico and their father wants to stay in Woronoco. How do these opposing viewpoints affect Andrea and her brother?

3. On page 16, Andrea explains that her father permitted bike-riding and playing after school, a monumental difference from their previous isolation. What do you think this shift felt like for Andrea and Pablo? How does the author show these emotions in the text?

4. We meet Aunt Cecilia at the airport on page 23. Raquel is taken aback by her appearance, but Andrea and Pablo watch their interaction with confusion, since they “couldn’t imagine her being any other way” (27). How does the children’s point-of-view impact your experience of this scene? What might it suggest about how people can be more inclusive in real life?

5. Many dishes are written in Spanish with English descriptions, such as “viandas con bacalao, a codfish stew with root vegetables” (37). Why do you think the author chose to use language in this way, and how does this affect your impression of the food?

6. On page 42, Andrea proclaims that Tito is her hero. Who was your hero when you were growing up? Was it a family member, neighborhood friend, book character, or someone else?

7. Andrea describes her excitement to wear her school uniform with complete exhilaration: “The hours couldn’t go by fast enough. All I could think of was wearing my uniform on Monday. Life was the best it had ever been” (61). What were some of the simple pleasures you were excited about as a child (such as, Halloween candy, new school supplies, jumping into piles of leaves)?

8. Pause on page 93, when Andrea and Pablo are about to return to Woronoco with their father. What do you think will await them back in the Beehive? How would you feel if you were Andrea and Pablo?

9. On page 101, Andrea learns some upsetting news. How has the author written this scene to embody the mind of a child? Are there any specific words or phrases that stick out to you as being particularly good examples of how this news affects Andrea?

10. Two characters experience a delightful reunion on page 251. How has time changed their relationship, and what aspects have endured despite the distance?

11. How do you think Julio’s childhood compares to Andrea’s and Pablo’s experience growing up? How do all three compare to your own experiences?

12. At the end of the book, Andrea and Pablo have been on quite a journey. Which twists and turns did you predict, and which surprised you?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. When Andrea and Pablo first meet Tito, he teaches them how to help with chores around Titi Machi’s farm. Andrea and Pablo absorb these lessons with wonder and delight. Create a schedule of your own childhood chores, then describe them to your book club. Refer to page 38 for inspiration. How does your perception of these tasks change after teaching them to someone else? After learning about them, does your book club’s perspective on them differ from your own?

2. The beginning of Chapter 9 describes Andrea and Pablo living out a perfect summer day, from cartoons to baseball and beyond. Design your own perfect day! What activities do you incorporate, what foods do you eat, and who do you spend it with? As you share with your book club, think about how this current perfect day compares and contrasts what your childhood perfect day may have been.

3. Two characters discuss the importance of music on page 284, with one saying the following: “Sometimes you don’t know how to say something, and you hear your heart in one of his songs.” Create a playlist of songs that evoke this feeling in you and play it on shuffle in the background of your next book club meeting.

About The Author

Cristie Reddehase

Elba Iris Pérez is from Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, spent her early childhood in Woronoco, Massachusetts, taught theater and history at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo, and now lives in Houston. She is also the author of El teatro como bandera, a history of street theater in Puerto Rico.

Why We Love It

“Selected from hundreds of novel submissions, Elba Iris Pérez’s beautiful, heartfelt debut, The Things We Didn’t Know, is the first-ever winner of Simon & Schuster’s Books Like Us Contest. This stood out immediately as an unfeigned coming-of-age story, taking us from the lushly drawn mountain villages of Puerto Rico to industrial small-town Massachusetts. In this semi-autobiographical novel, Pérez has brought to life a refreshingly different 1950s American family. We are swept into the lives of Andrea and her brother, Pablo, as they grapple with an absent mother and navigate two cultures, painful familial uncertainties, and the quest for identity and belonging.”

—Amara H., Senior Editor, on The Things We Didn’t Know

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (February 6, 2024)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668012086

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"Elba Iris Pérez’s debut novel, The Things We Didn’t Know, breathes with narrative magic ... Andrea's coming-of-age as she searches for a stable sense of family will resonate with readers as if it were their own reality."

—Harry Youtt, poet and author of I'm Never Not Thinking of You

"The Things We Didn't Know will sweep you up from Massachusetts to Puerto Rico and back again in a whirlwind of unfamiliar cultures, betrayals, cruelties, and loves. Elba Iris Pérez delivers a wonderfully compelling read."

—Judith Simon Prager, co-author of The Worst Is Over and author of What the Dolphin Said

“Elba Iris Pérez gifts us with rich and powerful storytelling, the triumphant intelligence of the heart.”

—Elidio La Torre Lagares

The Things We Didn’t Know, Elba Iris Pérez’s debut novel, flows along two rivers: one in Woronoco, which means ‘the winding river,’ and the other in Aguas Buenas, or the ‘untainted waters’ of Puerto Rico. As Andrea moves from a working-class, all-American town to the great disparities of American colonization and back, she must tame even wilder waters, coming to terms with self, race, and personal identity in the shadow of history.”

—Elidio La Torre Lagares, author of Wonderful Wasteland and other natural disasters

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images