We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh


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From the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers comes her much-anticipated new novel about young love, hard choices, and hope against all odds.
For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children—Alex, fifteen, and Luna, just six—in their tiny apartment on a forgotten spit of wetlands near the bay. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life.
Navigating this new terrain is challenging for Letty, especially as Luna desperately misses her grandparents and Alex, who is falling in love with a classmate, is unwilling to give his mother a chance. Letty comes up with a plan to help the family escape the dangerous neighborhood and heartbreaking injustice that have marked their lives, but one wrong move could jeopardize everything she’s worked for and her family’s fragile hopes for the future.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh blends gorgeous prose with compelling themes of motherhood, undocumented immigration, and the American Dream in a powerful and prescient story about family.

Praise for We Never Asked for Wings
“Deftly blends family conflict with reassurance: Wings is like Parenthood with class and immigration issues added for gravitas.”People (Book of the Week)
“This poignant story will stay in readers’ hearts long after the last page. . . . Diffenbaugh weaves in the plight of undocumented immigrants to her tale of first- and second-generation Americans struggling to make their way in America. Moving without being maudlin, this story avoids the stereotypes in its stark portrayal of mothers who just want the best for their children.”RT Book Reviews (Top Pick)
“Diffenbaugh is a storyteller of the highest order: her simple but poetic prose makes even this most classically American story sing with a special kind of vulnerable beauty.”Bustle
“[A] gripping, heartfelt exploration of a mother’s love, resilience and redemption.”Family Circle
“Satisfying storytelling . . . Diffenbaugh delivers a heartwarming journey that mixes redemption and optimistic insight [and] confirms her gift for creating shrewd, sympathetic charmers.”Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553392333
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 319,094
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Vanessa Diffenbaugh is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Language of Flowers, which was translated into more than forty languages. A mother of four, she lives with her husband in Monterey, California. In addition to being a writer, Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a passionate foster care advocate and sits on the board of Youth Villages, where she supports their mission to radically improve outcomes for America’s most vulnerable children and families.

Read an Excerpt

1 The edge of the mattress dipped as Alex sat down. Luna was curled into a ball, doing that thing she did when she wanted someone to believe she was still asleep: eyes scrunched too tightly closed, lips pulled down at the corners because Alex had told her once that she smiled when she faked sleep, so now she overcorrected. Wisps of long black hair had escaped her braids and tangled around her gold earrings; a smudge of drool flaked white off her cheek. Checking to see who was there, she squinted at Alex through crusted eyelashes and then snapped her eyes shut again. Where she’d recently lost her two front teeth, her gums were swollen and red.

Excerpted from "We Never Asked for Wings"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Vanessa Diffenbaugh.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide


Random House Reader’s Circle: What was the writing process like for this novel? How was this experience different than when you wrote your first novel, The Language of Flowers?

Vanessa Diffenbaugh: It was a completely different experience in every way. First of all, for me, writing a book is a very messy process—-I write a lot of really, really bad drafts before a book starts to come to life. When I started writing The Language of Flowers, it didn’t matter if a love scene was sappy or the backstory didn’t make any sense. I could just tell myself that no one would ever read it and keep going. In this way I was able to write a book with very little self—criticism or self—censorship. With We Never Asked for Wings, I couldn’t tell myself that no one would ever read it. I’d met my readers, and they were wonderful! And I wanted to impress them! So from the very beginning, I struggled. Terrible sentences tormented me. I was so worried about writing a “good” book that I ended up writing a carefully polished book with absolutely no heart. Finally, a dear friend in my writers’ group, after reading the second or third terrible draft, said to me: “You know, you don’t actually have anything to prove.” Somehow, these words set me free. I stopped trying to be good and just started to write—-and the book improved dramatically from that moment on.

RHRC: What was the idea that sparked We Never Asked for Wings? Were you inspired by a particular experience in your own life?

VD: My first job out of college was in East Palo Alto, a low—income community in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had been hired by a nonprofit to run an after—school art and technology program, and what struck me immediately was the intense isolation felt by the kids who lived there. East Palo Alto had a reputation for failing schools and violent crime; in the late 1990s, there were more homicides per capita in East Palo Alto than anywhere else in the country. But what made East Palo Alto so unique—-and this is more true now than ever—-is that it is surrounded on all sides by incredible wealth. San Francisco is thirty miles to the north, Silicon Valley just a few miles south. Stanford University is within walking distance. But even though East Palo Alto sits in the center of incredible affluence and opportunity, very few of the kids I worked with had ever been outside their own neighborhood. They’d heard of Stanford; they’d seen San Francisco in the movies and on TV, but they’d never been there. It was this experience—-working with kids raised in a community so physically close to all the wealth and opportunity our country has to offer, but whose daily experience was completely cut off from that opportunity—-that inspired me to write We Never Asked for Wings.

RHRC: Letty makes some difficult choices as a mother in this novel—-and some readers might not find her to be the most sympathetic character, at least in the beginning. Do you think her struggle—-especially in trusting herself to be a good mother—-is universal?

VD: I do! Some of us certainly struggle with being a mother more than others, but I’ve yet to meet a mother who feels she gets it right one hundred percent of the time. Parenting is exhausting, unrelenting work, and it requires making hundreds of decisions each day that affect the wellbeing of very demanding, often unreasonable, not—yet—fully—formed humans. How could we possibly get it right all the time? We don’t. We can’t. No one does. When I make a mistake I apologize to my children, forgive myself, and shake it off. I can do this because I deeply believe that even though I am not perfect, I am good enough. But for Letty, who has very little self—confidence, every small (or big) mistake feels like a sign of her worthlessness. It takes a long time for her to start to see what she has to offer her children, and to believe that what she has to give is exactly what they need.

RHRC: Why do you think so many authors are exploring the topic of illegal immigration, and what was the most surprising thing you learned about this issue when writing We Never Asked for Wings?

VD: That is a great question. For me, it is especially interesting that I wrote a book about immigration, because I had no intention of doing so. I was thinking about economic and educational inequality, and themes of motherhood and family. But as I got deeper and deeper into this novel, it struck me that I had created a cast of characters in which immigration status would be an issue. It would be disingenuous to write about a low—income community in California and pretend that every citizen in the book was documented. That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live and work here. So, to answer your question, I think so many writers are writing about immigration because so many people are living it, and for those of us who are trying to capture this moment in time, undocumented immigration is an issue we can’t ignore.

RHRC: For your first novel, you had to learn so much about horticulture, but this book was all about the feathers (from ornithological and migratory details to utilizing feathers in an interesting art medium). How did you come up with this idea for your story, and how did you research birds and feathers to shape this theme?

VD: When I came up with the idea of the Landing—-an abandoned housing project on a marshy peninsula near San Francisco—-I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the Espinosa family had stayed. Why would they stay, even when everyone they knew had already left? It was this question that led me to create the character of Enrique, a Mexican feather worker. He stayed for the birds. I imagined him at the window, sitting underneath the Pacific Flyway; I imagined his vast and intricately organized feather collection. The year after my husband and I were married we lived in Mexico, and we met a fourth—generation feather worker whose giant house was filled with bursting jars of feathers, so I had an image from which to draw. In terms of research, I am lucky to have very knowledgeable family members, and when I needed an idea for Alex’s science project based on the feather collection, I called my brother—in—law, Noah Diffenbaugh, who is a climate scientist at Stanford. We spent hours talking about all the things Alex could learn from the feathers, and with his guidance I was able to come up with a project using feathers and the migratory patterns of birds to look for changes in climate over time.

RHRC: As a former teacher of youth in low—income communities and the founder of the former Camellia Network (now part of LifeSet Network), were you able to channel your experiences working with struggling youth into the children in your story?

VD: It’s funny: with The Language of Flowers, interviewers often asked, or even just assumed, that Victoria was based on the children I fostered. She wasn’t! In fact, her personality was as different from my two sons’ as it could have been. But in We Never Asked for Wings, I drew a lot of inspiration for Alex from my two oldest sons. Both Tre’von and Donovan are incredibly smart, responsible, and resilient. Tre’von was the kind of kid who read the encyclopedia for fun; I interviewed him a few different times about what it felt like to be a smart kid who loved to learn in a school that didn’t expect anything from him. My oldest son, Donovan, was fiercely independent because he had to be. Raised in foster care, he could get himself anywhere—-to football practice or friends’ houses, on foot or by bus. I thought about him a lot when I wrote the scenes of Alex navigating the bay area alone and with his sister in tow; I tried to cultivate in Alex the quiet confidence that Donovan would have projected in the same situation.

RHRC: How did you come to be interested in educational inequality?

VD: We all know that our education system is unequal; researchers have said that the most accurate predictor of educational outcomes is a student’s zip code. But what upset me most as I conducted research for this book is that in many states, our school districts are unequal by design. In California, for example, districts with the highest property tax base (known in the education world as “basic aid” districts) are allowed to keep their own property taxes. This results in affluent school districts serving predominantly affluent kids, which are able to spend thousands of dollars more per student than middle—class or low—income districts. Where I live, on the central coast, one of these “basic aid” districts spends over twice as much per student as a high—poverty school district less than a mile away—-extra funding that allows for full—time art teachers, music teachers, science programs, and field trips that are nonexistent in the high—poverty district. It is easy to see why a parent like Letty, who just wants to do what is best for her children, would do anything possible—-including breaking the law—-to find a way into a more affluent school district.

RHRC: Like your first novel, We Never Asked for Wings deals with a lot of social issues and problems—-ideas that elevate all your work. Do you hear from people who have been changed or encouraged or inspired from reading your books?

VD: I love to write about social issues, but I try to stay away from having any kind of political agenda because I think it gets in the way of the story. In an interview with The Paris Review, Tobias Wolff was asked if he believes a writer has an obligation to write politically, and he said that “the most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being.” I love this, and I think it is right. While I do write about social issues, I try to first and foremost write about people, because I think that the only way we will ever care about an issue is if we care about the people who are facing these issues. Foster care and immigration are both examples of issues that can be easily ignored if you aren’t living them. A great number of people will never be in foster care, will never lose their child to the foster care system, will never be a foster parent, and will never even know anyone who has directly experienced any of these things. The same is true for immigration in many parts of our country. Fiction is one of the best ways to truly live inside the experience of someone who is different from you, someone who is struggling with something you may not have ever even really considered. And once you have lived inside someone else’s experience, it is almost impossible not to feel empathy for that experience.

RHRC: There is a theme of hope through a lot of your writing and your presence on social media. Do you think there is hope for all families?

VD: Absolutely. I am an optimist by nature, and by experience as well. As Gloria Steinem writes in her new book, My Life on the Road, “Altogether I’ve seen enough change to have faith that more will come.”

1. Maria Elena raised Alex and Luna almost as if she were their mother, even calling them “my babies,” and yet she makes the incredibly difficult decision to return to Mexico and leave them alone with Letty. How do you think she justifies that to herself? Do you agree with her decision? Why or why not?

2. The novel alternates between Letty’s perspective and Alex’s. Which did you find more interesting? Why?

3. It’s no secret that Letty is struggling as a mother, from drinking heavily and working multiple jobs to leaving her children alone in the middle of the night. Were you able to sympathize with her in spite of her flaws? How does Letty evolve as a mother as the book goes on?

4. Do you think Letty’s decision to hide her pregnancy from Wes was justified? Why or why not? What about the way she conceals Wes’s identity from Alex?

5. By dating Letty, Rick takes on a greater responsibility. What does that say about his personality? Do you find him to be a relatable character?

6. When Alex shows Enrique’s feathers to Yesenia, he discovers a note that reads: “For my Alex: Make wings.” From Enrique’s feather art to Alex’s migratory project, there are a lot of flight—themed images and references throughout the book. How do you think flight relates to the challenges the characters face?

7. Given the flight motif, why do you think the author chose the title We Never Asked for Wings?

8. Even though Letty slowly works to pull her life together, at different points in the novel she comes across as beaten—down, and often struggles with fear and self—confidence. At the same time, Alex is unwilling to accept that he (or Yesenia) deserves anything but the best education, no matter the risk involved. What do you think explains that difference in their outlooks?

9. “Yesenia was not a U.S. citizen. All her life she’d been here illegally, and she hadn’t even known it. Alex didn’t know what to say.” Yesenia and Carmen reflect the reality of millions of people living in America without documentation today. How do their experiences in the novel shed light on broader social issues? Did you learn anything from the challenges they face?

10. Were you surprised by the way things worked out in the end? If you could change one thing about the novel, what would it be?

Customer Reviews

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We Never Asked for Wings 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Diffenbaugh's second novel was another heart-rending family saga. Well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow! I'm really glad you finished it. Fantastic. I couldn't put it down. Loved both of your books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I normally do not read contemporary fiction, once I started this novel, I could not put it down. Well developed characters, could feel what each one was going through. I am a bookseller and have recommended this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved tne stoy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the story and getting to know the characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tired story, and stop pushing the it is ok to be in America illegally, it is not, it's ILLEGAL.
sandrabrazier More than 1 year ago
Letty was always too busy to take care of her own kids. As a single parent, she worked three jobs for fourteen years, while her mother took over the responsibility of the children. Now, in her early thirties, Letty’s parents are leaving her and have decided to move back to Mexico. How will Letty manage? As each day passes, she does the best that she can do, and each day she learns more and more. One day, she decides to get her son out of their dangerous neighborhood high school and into a school that offers opportunities. That’s when things start unraveling little by little. This book is utterly amazing! I fell in love with the realistic, very human characters, as I followed their struggles with poverty and life in general. This book has a timely message as it deals with a young girl who was brought to this country, illegally, as an infant. This is a story of hope and family and survival.
sandrabrazier More than 1 year ago
Letty was always too busy to take care of her own kids. As a single parent, she worked three jobs for fourteen years, while her mother took over the responsibility of the children. Now, in her early thirties, Letty’s parents are leaving her and have decided to move back to Mexico. How will Letty manage? As each day passes, she does the best that she can do, and each day she learns more and more. One day, she decides to get her son out of their dangerous neighborhood high school and into a school that offers opportunities. That’s when things start unraveling little by little. This book is utterly amazing! I fell in love with the realistic, very human characters, as I followed their struggles with poverty and life in general. This book has a timely message as it deals with a young girl who was brought to this country, illegally, as an infant. This is a story of hope and family and survival.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this story. A story about Letty that had to finally take responsiblity for her two children after her parents move back to Mexico. She had a son out of wed lock who is now fifteen. Very smart. Letty did not tell her boyfriend at time because she did not want to hold him back. Alex finds his father and starts new school. He is very involved with a science project that his dad helps with. Letty works as a bartender, and her co-worker Rick helps her. They become close but she still has feelings for Wes, Alex's father. Her daughter Luna is six and a handful. Alex likes a girl Yesenia from his old school. He gets in trouble with her when they try to get her in the school Alex goes to, a much better school. Yesenia was bullied at her school and Alex wanted to protect her. Carmen, her mother is illegal and Letty and Rick help her daughter when she gets taken away because of what she and Alex did by breaking into his school to get her registered illegally. It all comes around. Letty becomes the mother her mother knew she could be. She gets stronger as she goes through the trials of her family.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bought this for my NOOK but the reader will not open. Cannot offer a review at this time
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PagesofComfort More than 1 year ago
I LOVED this book! I thought it was so, so good! I read Diffenbaugh's first book, The Language of Flowers, earlier this year for my book club and fell in love with Diffenbaugh's writing style. That book was so original and full of emotions; I knew I needed to get her next book. When I started reading We Never Asked for Wings, I was immediately hooked. I finished it in three days while traveling to and from Chicago for the weekend. I never wanted to put this book down. Letty is a young mother of two children; she got pregnant at 17 and wasn't ready for motherhood. As a result, her mother raised her two children until one day, her mother and father leave California to return to Mexico. Letty's forced to grow up and start caring for her children. It definitely isn't smooth sailing and they have a lot of issues. But what I loved so much was watching as Letty grew up, matured, and became the mother that her children needed. It's a lot of trial and error with Letty, her son Alex, and her daughter Luna. Alex is a young, high school kid trying to find his way in the world, and Luna is a spunky 6 year old who loves her mother unconditionally. Things don't go perfect, but they are a family and learn to work things out together. This is another really great book by Diffenbaugh; so original and thought-provoking. I really loved Letty and Alex as characters and I couldn't wait to keep reading their story. I wish it didn't have to end! I know this book was just released, but I seriously can't wait until Diffenbaugh writes something else! She's easily a favorite author of mine! pagesofcomfort.blogspot.com
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
The world is an enormous place with big responsibilities as you get older. These obligations get immense when you bring two children into the world and for Letty, she would rather not have to deal with these obligations or make choices for its too complicated. She’s been sliding by for years, relying on her parents to raise her children but when they abruptly return to Mexico, Letty must now learn to be a parent. No longer able to rely on her parents, Letty must learn to navigate on her own and make decisions that will affect her children’s future. Like all parents, Letty wants the best for her children but the means in which she tries to obtain them is not honest. Children are like sponges and Letty’s children are no different, for her actions result in her children following in her footsteps. Her children mean no harm; they just want what is best just like their mother. Letty’s older son Alex is almost 15 and although he thinks he knows the identity of his father, Letty has not been honest with him about it. As the two of them share what they know, Alex learns the identity of his father and I loved how Wes played a role in the novel. He didn’t dominate the male status but he shares it with Rick as Letty again has to deal with choices in her life, choices she needed to make on her own. There were a few stories within the novel, these accounts run alongside each other throughout the novel which allows you to see the whole picture, how everyone is connected.
Fredreeca2001 More than 1 year ago
When I read Language of Flowers I knew this author had talent. I was unsure if she would be able to repeat it. But, repeat it she did! Letty’s parents leave her and move back to Mexico. She must now become a real adult and take care of her own children. Letty is a misguided mother of two who must face reality and accept responsibility for her children. She makes some mistakes and these mistakes lead her to face her past and expect more from her future. I love the woman Letty becomes. She grows into a tough, strong mother and nothing will stop her from achieving what is right for her children. Sometimes her plans do not work out the way she wants but, this just keeps the story fascinating. This tale completely captivates the reader. You get so caught up in the characters’ lives, it is impossible to stop thinking about them, even when the novel is over. I received this novel from Netgalley for an honest review
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Does not have the depth her first book had.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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DimplesDA More than 1 year ago
From the moment I picked up this book, I just did not want to stop! Definitely another winning title from this author. A beautifully crafted story about family, relationships and the love of a mother for her children, and most important-hope for the future. A title not to be missed and so thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you!
AnnieMcDonnell More than 1 year ago
Vanessa Diffenbaugh crafted an amazing story of the strength and perseverance it takes to reach for the “American Dream”, especially when undocumented citizens are involved. I was truly captivated by her “make-your-heart-beat-faster” themes! It all began right away ~ from the very first page where Letty is driving south to the Mexican Border….leaving her children sleeping in bed, with no adult to wake up to. Just a note! You’ll worry about the outcome of this trip to Mexico. You will worry about a lot of things. But, it is all rather thrilling…”We never asked for Wings” delivers a story that will keep you at the proverbial, “edge of your seat”. This is a story of the Espinosa family; and when you finish reading about them, I assure you that you will feel better for having read it. I have a better understanding of the struggles people have coming to America from Mexico to make a successful life here. I thought that Vanessa Diffenbaugh told this story beautifully. I did not want to like Letty because of all of her “faults”. She tries to figure out the simple things in life from feeding your children, giving them shelter and a getting them a good education. But, she is met with hurdles all along the way. Nothing is coming easily, and Letty wants to give up quite a few times. How will she make all of this possible? Is it too late? Stepping in to take care of her two children at age 33! Luna is a feisty 6 year-old and Alex is a teenager trying to find his own way. She has not learned anything about Motherhood. Alex is one of the best characters I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. He is 14 going on 15, yet he has huge adult size dreams, he is smart, he knows how to love, and he wants to give this life all he has. He was an awe inspiring young man. You will love him, too! Alex takes over his grandfather’s collection of bird feathers, not to use in art as his grandfather did, but for a more scientific reason. The analogies of the birds’ flight plans, migrations, and all you could learn from a simple feather was so interesting to me. It all begged me to ask: “Don’t we all need wings?” Oh, and, I loved Letty!!!