The Smell of Old Lady Perfume

By: Claudia Guadalupe Martinez
Chela faces the challenges of the sixth grade after losing her best friend: her dad.


Chela faces the challenges of the sixth grade after losing her best friend: her dad.

Claudia Guadalupe Martinez's debut novel for young adults is a bittersweet story about death, family, and the resilient emotional strength of the human heart.

Chela Gonzalez, the book's narrator, is a nerd and a soccer player who can barely contain her excitement about starting the sixth grade. But nothing is as she imagined—her best friend turns on her to join the popular girls and they all act like Chela doesn't exist. She buries herself in schoolwork and in the warm comfort of her family. To Chela, her family is like a solar system, with her father the sun and her mother, brothers, and sister like planets rotating all around him. It's a small world, but it's the only one she fits in.

But that universe is threatened when her strong father has a stroke. Chela's grandmother moves in to help the family. The smell of her old lady perfume invades the house. That smell is worse than Sundays. Sundays were sad, but they went just as sure as they came. Death was a whole other thing, and Chela doesn't understand that's what everyone is waiting for. In her grief and worry, Chela begins to discover herself and find her own strength.

Claudia Guadalupe Martinez was raised in El Paso, Texas. She learned that letters form words from reading the subtitles of old westerns for her father. She went on to graduate from college and moved to Chicago to become one of the city's youngest non-profit executives.

Awards and Accomodations

YA Top Forty, Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA)
Texas Institute of Letters' Best Young Adult Book Award
Southwest Books of the Year Award, 2009, Pima County Public Library
Recommended futher reading in the Spring 2009 One Book, One Chicago program
Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, 2009
Latinidad's Best Middle Grade Book of 2008
Hispanic Magazine Summer Must Read 2008
Best of the Best, 2008, Chicago Public Library
Américas Award Commended Title, 2009
ALAN's Picks, July 2008

15 reviews for The Smell of Old Lady Perfume

  1. De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children
    The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is highly recommended. —Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD

  2. Booklist
    As she starts sixth grade, 11-year-old Chela is straddling two borders, the figurative one between childhood and adolescence and the real one that divides Ciudad Juarez from El Paso. Chela is devastated when her new classmates in Texas laugh at her accented English and jeeringly call her a “Juaranota.” Then her best friend, Nora, abandons her to join a clique of popular girls. These problems pale, however, after her beloved father suffers a stroke and can no longer work. Her grandmother comes to help (it is her perfume that pervades the household), but fear and worry surround the family.

    Martinez’ highly episodic first novel is a quiet story that is filled with such coming-of-age staples as mean girls, popularity contests, first romances, sibling rivalries, and more. However, readers will also find the book’s loving portrayal of Chela’s family, its nicely realized setting, and its artful exploration of the problems of assimilation to be both engaging and heartfelt.

  3. School Library Journal
    Chela Gonzalez and her friend Nora are looking forward to sixth grade in their El Paso school. They have finally been placed in the A-class, the “smart class,” which is for students who only speak English. Then Chela’s father has a stroke on the first day of school, her grandmother comes to help out, and “the air became thick with the smell of old lady perfume, of dying flowers and alcohol…. It was the smell of bad things.” Nora becomes a member of the popular group of girls who’ve decided to make her an outcast. Chela is asked to enroll in the Gifted and Talented group that meets after school, which helps to ease her loneliness.

    Her father suffers another stroke, fatal this time, and again the smell of old-lady perfume fills the little house. The book ends with the family trying to regroup after their loss. Chela is rewarded with the highest honor at the school’s end-of-year awards ceremony–the All School Girl award. Through her pride, her sadness is also evident since her father was the one who always pushed her to do her best. This is a sweet coming-of-age story, telling of the cruelties of children toward one another and dealing with the loss of a parent. The story should appeal to readers dealing with their own tween years.

  4. Kirkus Reviews
    An autobiographical examination of sixth grade, death and life on the border. The year starts with great promise, and Chela confides her dream to her beloved Apa: winning the All-School Girl Trophy. But Apa has a stroke on the first day of school, and when he recovers, Chela finds that during her absence popular Camila has stolen her best friend. The balance of life on the border of Mexico and Texas is lightly sketched but sure-handed; occasional Spanish phrases and the sense of family and community come through. (Fiction. Ages 9-12)

  5. Southwest Books of the Year 2008
    Setting her story in El Paso, Claudia Guadalupe Martinez gives us the gift of a real world, filled with authentic kids and family dynamics…Martinez’s prose, always animated and descriptive, is frequently quite beautiful. She is an author to watch.

  6. Foreword Magazine
    The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is a touching story that will teach lessons on loss, family, loneliness, and the importance of being oneself. Not only does Chela deal with the pains of growing up — wearing a bra for the first time and discovering what the “napkins” under the sink are for — but she has to do it without friends to confide in. … The novel’s easy language reads like genuine narration from a sixth grader and complements the story’s complex themes.

  7. Kirkus Reviews
    In The Smell of Old Lady Perfume, Chela Gonzalez wakes up in eager anticipation of starting sixth grade like her older twin siblings before her. Instead something goes terribly wrong for her father, and soon Abuelita arrives, accompanied by a cloud of old lady perfume. “Thanks to the infinite wisdom of John Wayne and my father, I learned to read before I ever set foot in a school,” says Claudia Guadalupe Martinez. “My father taught me that letters form words, by making me read the subtitles of old westerns out loud. By the time I was six, I knew how to write too, and I was going to write a book…I was 11 when he passed. The loss was so great that I didn’t think I could share it with anyone. But I never forgot the smells, the sounds and the vast darkness.”

  8. Children’s Literature
    This sensitively-written novel provides unique insights into a bicultural family. —Phyllis Kennemer, PhD

  9. ALAN’s Picks
    While Spanish words are interspersed with English, there are not so many that the book is difficult to read for a non-Spanish speaking person but just enough to actualize the Hispanic culture in Chela’s home life and the circumstances of a bilingual student in an English-speaking school environment.

  10. Latinidad’s Best of 2008
    The original title gives a glimpse of the poetic lines peppered throughout this poignant debut. —Marcela Landres

  11. San Antonio Express-News
    The book flows easily; this is a story that seems to be told by a person still experiencing these things. —Wallis J. Monday

  12. El Paso Times
    First-time novelist Claudia Guadalupe Martínez makes her remarkable debut with “The Smell of Old Lady Perfume” … Martínez has crafted a beautiful and heartfelt journey of a girl who “wasn’t supposed to see” so much, but who “saw all kinds of things.” Young readers, especially those navigating difficult issues such as poverty, illness, isolation, depression and death, will find a friend in Chela Gonzalez.

  13. Chicago Young Adult Fiction Examiner
    The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is an independent reader/YA book about a young hispanic girl and her coming of age. It’s the first book by author Claudia Martinez, and one can hope that there are more to come.

    Most of all, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is the story of a young girl trying to find her way as life around her changes and she is powerless to control the changes. Love triumphs all and Chela learns that the love of family is something that never changes. —Pamela Kramer

  14. REFORMA Newsletter
    Sixth grader Chela Gonzalez is about to be challenged in ways she never imagined or desired. She is finally able to enter the all-English ‘smart class,’ leaving her ESL classmates behind; however, on her first day of school, she awakens to discover that her father has had a stroke. Grandmother, complete with her old lady perfume, comes to help. Chela’s life very quickly becomes one of sadness, anxiety, and lonely lunches. In her poignant first novel, Martinez encompasses the pains of school, the loss of friends, and most importantly the library collection masterfully discusses the power of smell and how it can evoke strong emotions and memories. Tweens will easily relate to Chela’s struggles and triumphs, particularly immigrant tweens.

    Highly Recommended.

  15. El Paso Scene
    [Smell of Old Lady Perfume] is a melodic and melancholy tale of a girl’s sixth-grade year. —Lisa Kay Tate

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