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Creating a Diverse Book Legacy: Interview with Culture Chest Founder

The climate in our country at present makes it increasingly urgent for us to bring diverse portrayals of diverse peoples to young readers. In addition to the resources we promote through schools, libraries, and other communities, there’s a new kid on the block, a subscription service called Culture Chest, which provides books that highlight diverse experiences geared toward readers aged 3-8. Several subscription options are available.

Here are some highlights of my chat with Rose Espiritu, founder of Culture Chest.

LKL: Tell us the mission behind Culture Chest. What does it bring to the work of diversifying children’s literature?

Rose: Two years before beginning Culture Chest, I was working on a documentary about parenting someone of a different race. I interviewed over one hundred interracial families as well as those brought together through transracial adoption. Many families explained the difficulties of finding books with characters that looked like their children. While filming, I interviewed a young Latina girl who was adopted by a Caucasian family when she was born. She told me about a book that described the adoption process and compared it to a “birthing video.”  It was the only explanation she had for how she came to be. Through her, I realized the importance of children’s literature.

culturechestboxRose: As a second generation immigrant of Nigerian and Filipino descent, I struggled with finding literature about my heritage when I was growing up. I created Culture Chest to help people learn about themselves and other cultures. I wanted to provide a resource for parents to teach their children about the world within the comfort of their own homes.

I think of Culture Chest as a social venture, and I want to support the diversification of children’s books. The goal is to show publishing companies that folks want diverse stories with cultural relevance which will hopefully prompt them to invest more resources towards supporting authors from diverse backgrounds.

LKL: How do you select the books?culturechest1

Rose: I consult with children’s book reviews and testimonials as well as books that I personally enjoy. I look for books written by diverse and emerging authors who have a personal connection to their work. At Culture Chest, we do not look for books where characters “happen” to be a person of color. We want stories with cultural relevance that encourage children to love other cultures.

LKL: What are some of your favorite books by or about Latinxs? 

In children’s books, one favorite is The Gullywasher by Joyce Rossi. The book is a
grandfather telling a tall tale about how he got older. I was super close to my lolo (grandfather) and it reminded me of that special bond.

 

Tito Puente, Mambo King by Monica Brown is a fun vibrant story of about Tito Puente banging on pots and pans as a child. I’ve seen many children light up after reading it to them! We featured this title in our September box.

garciagirlsFor older readers, I love How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Álvarez. I immediately related to this book and its themes of pressure to assimilate, racial identity, and the immigrant experience. I love the fact that it is told from the perspective of four girls. It felt like snapshots of the past. I was introduced to the time of Trujillo and the political unrest in the Dominican government that led to their family fleeing to America. This book had adventure, laughter, and stories everyone with strict Catholic roots can relate to.

LKL: What else should readers know about Culture Chest?

We are a humble startup with big dreams of promoting culture through books, toys, and other avenues. Traveling to other countries and reconnecting with my heritage as an adult has helped me become a much more self-assured, confident person. My parents immigrated to this country, so their goal was to be American. As an American, I feel I have to work twice as hard to hold onto my heritage. I know others share this desire. Our goal is to help make it easier for parents and children to engage with their culture.

LKL: How can folks learn more about what you do? 

Please join to our email list and connect with us on Twitter at @CultureChest. You can also find us on Facebook and at our website. Learn more and subscribe at culturechest.com, and use the promo code WELCOME to get 10% off as a new subscriber.

 

Good Men & Bad Men: On Latino Masculinities in Joe Jiménez’s Bloodline

 

By Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD

Throughout this presidential campaign, Donald Trump has referred to Latino men, generally speaking, as “criminals,” “rapists,” and “bad hombres.” Unfortunately, the image of Latino men in popular culture as hyper-masculine, violent, and dangerous is not new. Trump tapped into, and exploited, a long standing, racist, xenophobic fear of black and brown men in this country. After many of his comments, I saw many folks challenge these stereotypes by posting pictures of themselves in their graduation gowns or with their diplomas. In doing so, the message was to state that not all Latino immigrants or Latinos of immigrant descent are criminals. The images of young Latinos in their graduation gowns were indeed powerful and much needed, in their own right. However, in saying “we are not criminals, we are college educated,” or whatever, we have further distanced ourselves from the Latinos that are “criminals” and are criminalized. In other words, the pictures of us in our graduation gowns don’t remove the stereotypes of Latino men as criminals, but instead, reinforces a dichotomy between the “good” type of Latino men, the college students as productive citizens, and the “bad hombres,” the criminals exhausting our resources. Clearly there’s a problem when we limit our understanding of Latino masculinities as “good men” and the “bad” ones. These polarizing possibilities of what it means to be a Latino man are harmful and we need more complex images of Latino men and Latino masculinities that give us a broad spectrum.

Bloodline CoverBloodline by Joe Jiménez is an excellent example of the impact these polarizing views of Latino masculinity can have in the lives of Latino boys and young adults. At the center of the novella is Abram’s struggle to define his manhood. The women in his life have made it clear that they want him to be a “good man,” but he doesn’t know what that means. His grandmother brings in his Uncle Claudio to serve as a father figure and guide Abram. But Abram also doesn’t understand why Claudio “with his slick ways and his fat police sheet, his visits that usually end in conflict” (p. 10) is called upon to teach him how to be a man.

Throughout the story, Abram is burdened by the absence of his father because it means he needs to determine, on his own, what kind of man he wants to be. At the heart of his search is the question of whether he is innately bad or not. Abram narrates: “You wonder if there is anything in the world you can do, or if it’s true that some people are really just born bad, born to enact badness, born to punch and kick and scream and fight and destroy shit, because the genes in your body have selected you for it” (p. 11). Abram is convinced he is “bad” because he knows, based on what his grandmother and Becky have said, that his father and his uncle are bad men. So, then, if his father and his uncle are bad then doesn’t that make him bad too? In regards to Uncle Claudio he says, “You hate that your blood is his, the sameness coursing through you like pinpricks of words entering the ear, becoming the air, the sigh, the wickedness of rage and ire and disgust for all the shit he’s done poised to become the whole body. His blood, your blood” (p. 22). The badness that he feels coursing through his veins is what he struggles with until it’s too late.

“Torcido,” twisted, is the word Abram hears in reference to his father from his aunts and his grandmother. He says, “Not a good man, you have figured that much out. You know that he died and that no one mentions his name. You know you are not supposed to be like him” (p. 9). Later in the story, it is revealed that his father was shot by a drug dealer but what the family doesn’t know is that Claudio set him up. In this way, the silence around Abram’s father has a lot to do with the way he died. It is also because his involvement with drugs that the women in the family insist that Abram not turn out like him. Abram’s father is devalued because of the way he died—at the hands of a heroin dealer—which further marks him as a criminal. The family does not read Abram’s father as a productive citizen because he died in a situation that was already criminalized by such tactics as “the war on drugs.” In other words, Abram’s father is a “bad” man because he was supposedly participating in what was already considered criminal behavior by society. His inability to prove himself a productive citizen, or because he did not leave a legacy to prove that he was a productive citizen, he instead serves as a warning story.

In an article about her cousin’s death due to drunk driving, scholar Lisa Cacho states, “This is why we could not talk about Brandon as valuable; he was not only marked as ‘deviant’ by his race, but he also did not perform masculinity in ways to redeem, reform, or counter his (racialized) ‘deviancy.’ He did not leave us with any evidence to narrate him as a productive, worthy, and responsible citizen, who had been ‘unfairly’ treated. ‘unjustly’ targeted, and ‘wrongfully’ accused” (p. 184).  In other words, Brandon’s race marked him as “deviant,’ or bad, or torcido, which means that to have been considered valuable in our society he would have had to prove he was a productive citizen by potentially being a good student, having a job, saving money, etc. Cacho further explains that this was not the case for Brandon. He wasn’t at the top of his class, and he spent his money on recreational activities that were considered “bad.” She concludes that his life became a narrative for what not to do. Similarly, Abram’s father is demonized as a “bad man” because he was not considered productive and therefore not valuable. Abram experiences this same devaluation when he is suspended from school for fighting and when his grandmother scolds him for the same reason.

Abram’s inner turmoil demonstrates how the intersectionality of race and gender affect boys and men of color. Abram is marked as bad, deviant, or torcido based solely on the color of his skin. Getting in trouble for fighting only reinforces the negative conceptions his academic institution, and society in general, already had of him. What is painful to read in this story is that the women in his family are the ones reinforcing the gender expectations by continuing to read the men in his life through the harmful lens of “good men” vs “bad men.” Grandma is afraid that Abram’s fighting will lead to bigger problems later on in life and it is therefore important that Abram learn to be a good man before it’s too late. What grandma wants is for Abram to be a productive citizen because she wants to keep him safe. In this way, we want to understand that being a productive citizen or a “good man” will mean that our boys will have access to certain rights and benefit from protection. However, we have too many examples of how this is not always the case.

Abram is not a bad man, even if he does get into fights. His family doesn’t think so either, but they are afraid he will turn into one and that fear also needs to be challenged and discussed. Jiménez does a phenomenal job at representing the construction of Latino masculinity as a complex process. Abram is complicated and beautiful and loves deeply. Jiménez’s poetic voice presents Abram as vulnerable, hurt, protective, and loving. Jiménez gives us a protagonist that could easily be any of our boys or young men. It is probably for this reason that the ending hurts so much. Abram reminds me of other male protagonist in Latinx kid lit that complicate Latino masculinity: Juanito from Downtown Boy by Juan Felipe Herrera, Zach from Last Night I Sang to the Monster and Aristotle from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Marcus from Suckerpunch by David Hernandez, and Sean from Secret Saturdays by Torrey Maldonado. Having multiple representations of what it means to be a Latino man is important because it expands our conversations beyond “good men” and “bad men.”  In an article about Chicano children’s literature and representation of masculinity, Phillip Serrato says, “Perhaps above all else, this literature invites boy readers in particular to think about the examples of masculinity surrounding them, to reflect upon the pressures that they themselves have faced or will face as they grow up, and to figure out what kinds of men they want to become” (p. 154-5). Again, we need texts like Jimenez’s that complicate Latino masculinity because at the end of the day so many of their lives depend on it.

Also check out this recent post by the author: Things Boys Have Asked Me: A Guest Post by Joe Jiménez

Works Cited

Cacho, Lisa Maria. (2007). “‘You Just Don’t Know How Much He Meant’: Deviancy, Death,

and Devaluation.” Latino Studies 5.2 (2007): 182-208.

Jimenez, Joe. (2016). Bloodline. Texas: Arte Publico Press.

Serrato, Phillip. (2012) “Transforming Boys, Transforming Masculinity, Transforming Culture:

Masculinity Anew in Chicano Children’s Literature.” Invisible No More: Understanding the Disenfranchisement of Chicano Men and Boys. Eds. Pedro Noguera, Aída Hurtado, & Edward Fergus. New York: Routledge.

Crossing Borders: A Guest Post by Author Reyna Grande

dsc_0205In my memoir, The Distance Between Us, I write about my experience as a border crosser. Borders have always been a part of my life. It saddens me to see that the world—instead of tearing down border walls—is actually building more of them. There are more border barriers today than ever before. In 1989 there were only 15 border walls in the world. Today there are more than 63, and counting.

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The author’s childhood home

My first experience with borders came at the age of two when my father left Mexico to seek a better life in the U.S. Two years later, my mother also left to the land across the border, leaving me and my siblings behind. By the time I was five, I had no mother and no father with me, and a border stood between us, separating us. I was left behind to yearn for the day when my family would be reunited.

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Reyna (center) and siblings Carlos & Mago

At the age of nine I found myself face to face with that border. I had to run across it, become a ‘criminal’, break U.S. law for a chance to have a father again. I succeeded on my third attempt and began my new life in Los Angeles at my father’s house. I thought I was done with borders; I didn’t know there would be more to be crossed—cultural borders, language borders, legal borders, gender and career borders, and more.

As a Mexican immigrant, as a woman of color, as a Latina writer I’ve fought to break down the barriers American society puts up for the groups I belong to. It’s always been a struggle to be Mexican in this country, and especially so in these dark times. For over a year Mexican immigrants had been under attack, blatantly demeaned and vilified by Donald Trump, who began his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, drug dealers, criminals. He said he would literally build more border walls, and now that he’s been elected president, we will bear witness to his hatred of my people. But he’s wrong about many things—especially when he said that Mexico doesn’t send its best. Like most Mexican immigrants, I have given nothing but my best to this country since the moment I crossed the U.S. border. I’ve worked hard at learning the language, understanding the American way of life, at pursuing my education, honing my writing craft, so that one day I could be a contributing member of this society and use my skills and passion to keep this country great. This is what most immigrants do. Our work ethic, our drive, our perseverance, our passion, our commitment to succeed and to give our best is undeniable.

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Reyna in her college years

Being a woman has never been easy. In the U.S. we might have it better than other countries, but still, women here have always struggled to overcome the borders put before us. We’ve had a long battle to redefine our place in the home and the workplace, our right to earn equal pay to what men receive. To be seen as more than someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. We had a long fight for our right to vote and to have a political voice, and for the past year we were fighting for our right to lead. For the first time we could have had our first female president since the birth of this nation, but despite her qualifications, since the very beginning of her campaign, Hillary Clinton was held to a double-standard because of her gender. Because she was a woman. We let that man get away with saying the most insulting, offensive, and ridiculous things. But Clinton? We let her get away with nothing. We elected a man who has absolutely no experience in running a country, instead of the woman who was more than qualified to do that and more.

We witnessed, at a national level, what happens on a daily basis to women in the workplace—we lose to men who are less qualified than us.

Last week we bore witness to a white woman failing to tear down the wall put before her by a sexist, patriarchal society. The fight is even harder for women of color who struggle not just against gender inequality but racial inequality. Since race impacts our feminism, we’ve always fought two battles at the same time. As a woman of color, I fight for equality but I also fight for justice. For us women of color, it isn’t enough to integrate ourselves into the existing system. We seek to transform the system and end injustices.

As a Latina writer, I’ve been dealing with other kinds of borders throughout my career. Latinos are 17.4 % of U.S. population, around 55 million of us, but we’re only around 4% of working professionals— including artists, writers, actors. We’re often kept on the periphery of the arts—and we fight on a daily basis for the right to contribute our stories, our talent, our creativity to American identity and culture. Through our art, we aim to fight against the barrier of invisibility. If we aren’t in books, in film, in TV, in art galleries, in music, does that mean we don’t exist?

The publishing industry lacks diversity at every level. The majority of books are written by, and are about, white people. Eighty-two percent of editors are white. Eighty-nine percent of book reviewers are white. They’re la migra of the publishing industry, the border patrol. They decide who gets in and who doesn’t, who gets published, whose books get attention. Latino writers have often struggled to get across the border of the mainstream publishing industry, often ending up with tiny presses (who lack the resources to do right by them) or self-publishing.

But having successfully run across the U.S. border at the age of nine taught me one thing—I can cross any border. This is the biggest reason why I wrote The Distance Between Us. I want to inspire others to believe in themselves and to find the strength to overcome. It is this belief that has helped me succeed in ways I never dreamed of. I want to encourage our youth, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, to keep giving their best and continue striving toward their dreams, despite the obstacles they find along the way.

Now more than ever, let us continue fighting for social justice, for a world without borders, for our right to create art, for our voices to be heard. It is through our stories that we will build bridges and tear down walls.

Reyna Grande is the award-winning author of two novels and a memoir, The Distance Between Us, which was recently published as a young readers edition. See our review here, where you may also learn more about Reyna’s story and watch video interviews. Her official website offers additional information about her published works, speaking schedule, and career news.

(Left) The original version of The Distance Between Us; (right) the young readers edition.

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Words from a First-Time Demonstrator: Speak up with Your Kids

liamash_whetstonevigilSunday, at the age of 32, I went to my first demonstration. My husband and I took the kids and gathered with about 500 neighbors for a peaceful, family-friendly vigil and march. Our goal: to come together in response to acts of intimidation and intolerance in Columbus. We wanted to show that there’s no place for hate in our community.

Whatever your political views, here’s why you should seek opportunities to speak up, create, and act with your kids to affirm diversity and take a stand against racism and hate.

Kids need context. As in other moments in history, present economic and political tensions have combined with racism to cause some people to blame shared problems on specific groups and to take this moment as an opportunity to lash out against them. Tell your kids that this is wrong, and that when we hear it or see it directed at ourselves or others, we speak up.

Kids need to know we stand against racism, scapegoating, and hate. With the talk and images that are circulating, we need to name racism and intolerance as real, dangerous, and unacceptable. To stay silent, even with our kids, is to normalize hate. We need to make plain that it is not “just words.” Now, more than ever, we are seeing that words can do damage, both directly and indirectly, and that’s something to talk about. At home, we have been talking a lot about how respecting a political office does not mean accepting hateful speech from the person who has achieved that office or his supporters.

Kids need to know we stand for diversity. We’ve been making a point of talking with the boys about faith traditions and cultures different from our own as well as sharing the range of stories that can exist within any particular community. This matters especially for those groups that have been maligned and targeted, including Muslims, Latinxs, immigrants, LGBT people, and victims of sexual assault.

Thanks to hearing chants at the vigil, including “Education, not deportation!” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” Liam Miguel had great questions about what it means to be an immigrant. That was an opportunity for us to share that, with the exception of American Indians, all family stories in America began with immigration. Talk about the numerous motives for immigration and the still more numerous reasons for welcoming others into our communities.

Kids need to know that we are not alone. We can come together in support for each other and in commitment to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. My older son was beaming as he marched, and I know that part of that joy was that he had a chance to join his classmates, teachers, and neighbors to send a powerful message.liammakesposters

Kids need to know that they can act. Creating positive posters might seem like a small thing, but it gave Liam Miguel and me time to talk about what has been happening. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever gotten to share with him. We talked about things we might write or draw, and he was able to understand how some things we might agree with wouldn’t work (e.g. the regular American flag) because right now they are also being used by some folks connected to hate speech. And he got it–that a message is not just in the text but in the context as well.

Working on something together that has a positive goal or helps others can give kids—and us—agency at a time of overwhelming uncertainty.

Kids need words of strength. By seeing the beautiful signs promoting diversity and love—and challenging injustice—kids at the march saw the power of words for positive change. Liam Miguel stood with me when one of the organizers asked me to speak at the beginning of the meeting. The speaker wasn’t loud enough to reach the back of the crowd, but I know that my most important audience, the little guy beside me, could hear. Here’s what I wrote to share. I hope it gives you strength, too.

Words from a First-Time Demonstrator

Many of us are working through grief and disbelief and anger.

Some of us are stunned and frightened by what we are seeing in our communities, reports of hate, intolerance, and racism. Others of us knew and heard and felt this ugliness long before the election season.

Some of us are new to this fight. Others have never had the luxury of not fighting.

For all of us, it is clear that we have a lot of work to do.

There are people out there now who see this election as license to injure and demean.

We will stand up to them, and we will stand with all those who have been vilified and scapegoated. We reject hatred and blame. We reject verbal and physical attacks. We reject all efforts to demean or diminish or terrorize.

We may be angry, but we will not hate. Instead, we’re here to show what we embrace. We affirm the beauty of human diversity. We honor all kinds of love, all kinds of families. We believe that deep differences enrich us instead of dividing us.

There are also people out there now who are blind to the injury they inflict or that is being inflicted around them.

I believe—I have to believe—that they have hearts capable of growing and minds that can change. These are the people we want to win over. These are the people we talk to and listen to with as much patience as we can muster.

In this work, we need to be passionate… and compassionate. We need to be outspoken for what’s right while also being capable of listening, guiding, making a path into new ways of being in community. We need to remember that we’re working on ourselves, too. We need to learn from people who’ve been doing this work longer than we have.

We need to answer human brokenness with human connection.

Let’s walk together.

Let’s care for each other.

Let’s reach out to our neighbors here and beyond our town.

Let’s be a place of sanctuary, because the need is already there, and it’s going to get bigger.

Let’s organize, advocate and act.

Let’s keep showing up, keep standing up, keep speaking up because there is no place for hate in our hearts, and there is no place for hate in our community.

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Libros Latinx: The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande

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The original version of this memoir was written for general audiences. This review is based on an advance reader’s copy of the young readers edition.

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Echoes of Cinderella reverberate throughout Reyna Grande’s forceful and captivating memoir of a family torn apart by internal and external stressors, centered in a years-long separation across the U.S.-Mexico border. The Distance Between Us thrums with novelistic tension and detail, offering chiseled portraits of individuals and rendering the settings they come from in vivid form. As the story lends breath and heartbeat to a particular Mexican girl and her struggle to overcome unimaginable obstacles related to poverty, migration, and family turmoil, it also humanizes the faceless, nameless stream of undocumented migrants that we hear so much about in the news.

Due to the physical and cultural distances that develop between members of the family, Reyna spends much of her childhood feeling like an orphan. The memoir begins as her mother, Juana, leaves Reyna and her two siblings under the care of Evila, the children’s paternal grandmother. Motivated by the promise of steady work and higher wages, Reyna’s father has already left Mexico for El Otro Lado, and this happened so long ago that four-year-old Reyna must rely on a framed photo to remember what he looks like. Later, Juana decides she must migrate, too, and although she vows to return within a year, the separation stretches out much longer, stranding her children—Reyna, Mago, and Carlos—in a bleak, loveless existence. Even as the three siblings tend to chores and subsist on meager rations, Abuelita Evila lavishes treats and special privileges on Élida, another grandchild living under her roof. Although some of Élida’s spoils come from the money that Juana and her husband send for their children’s necessities, the couple remains unaware of these abuses. Each time they call to speak with their kids, Evila hovers nearby to make sure they don’t disclose anything negative.

When Juana returns from her two-and-a-half year absence, she is almost unrecognizable to Reyna. Her hair is dyed bright red, her clothes are much fancier than anything she used to wear, and there is a new baby in her arms. Worse yet, she demonstrates a chilling degree of detachment toward her children. Before long, Juana acquires a boyfriend and foists all four kids off on their other abuelita—a far poorer, but kinder woman whose house is a one-room shack constructed of bamboo sticks. A river nearby subjects the house to serious flooding.

When the children’s father finally returns to Mexico for a visit, eight years have passed. He reluctantly agrees to take Reyna and her two older siblings back to El Otro Lado. This will involve a bus trip of two thousand miles from the Mexican state of Guerrero to Tijuana, where they will engage the services of a coyote. But at a critical moment before they leave, Reyna catches a glimpse of Juana as she used to be and, aching to believe that her mother loves her, she is tempted to stay behind. Then it dawns on Reyna that her sister, Mago, is the true maternal figure in her life, the one who has offered sacrificial love and protection at every turn, and if Mago is fleeing Mexico, Reyna will, too.

In many aspects, Reyna’s story is reminiscent of the mother-son alienation described in Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario, reviewed here. Like Enrique’s odyssey, Reyna’s story reveals conditions of unrelenting poverty, and shows the personal drive and courage of individuals who dare to leave behind all that is familiar in order to make a better life. The book also shows the steep costs, both literal and metaphoric, of migration in general and chain migration in particular. (Chain migration refers to the practice of one or more family members setting out to establish a home and/or save up money, usually in preparation for the rest of the family to join them.) We see this especially in how separations intended to be brief often last much longer than planned and lead to deep relational breaches. For those of us privileged with predictable lives of plenty, it is all too easy to pronounce judgment on parents who take such drastic steps, yet stories like The Distance Between Us illuminate the complex dilemmas faced by immigrant families caught in extreme poverty with no apparent recourse in their countries of origin.

Although this memoir offers an eye-opening opportunity to grasp the bigger picture, most young readers will home in on Reyna’s personal journey, as she crosses figurative and literal landscapes pocked with obstacles. Once she and her family take the plunge toward the better life they imagine is waiting for them in El Otro Lado, readers will clutch at their hearts, rooting for Reyna with every page turn. And their hopes will be rewarded.

Reyna Grande is the author of two novels, Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies. The original edition of her memoir, The Distance Between Us, was a finalist in the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Awards. She is a speaker and workshop leader for creative writers, and is the recipient of scores of awards and honors. Visit her official website to learn more.

Reyna Grande has made many televised appearances and other interviews which are available on video. Here are a few:

BookTV interview:

Informal conversation with KBeach Radio:

Reyna’s video of Abuelita Chita:

Here is an excellent interview in Spanish. There are no subtitles, but even non-Spanish speakers will enjoy the images.

 

A Studio Visit with Author-Illustrator Juana Medina

img_4567by Cecilia Cackley

Juana Medina’s latest book is Juana and Lucas, published this September by Candlewick Books. An illustrated early chapter book, it is narrated by Juana, a little girl living with her dog Lucas in Bogotá, Colombia, who gives the reader a tour of her city and her life. Juana loves her family, her friends and her school, but she does not like having to learn English. Only when her family reminds her that they have a trip planned to the theme park Astroland in the United States, does Juana admit that maybe English has its uses after all.

Medina was born in Colombia and now lives in Washington, DC, where she works out of a shared studio space on the northwest side of the city. I spent an afternoon with her there, looking at the tools she used to create the illustrations for Juana and Lucas and talking about the process of creating the book.

Medina started out working in graphic design. She originally came to the United States from Colombia to study at the Corcoran School in DC, but found that the program there didn’t fit her needs and instead she moved to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Her study of graphic design prepared Medina to write and illustrate this story. “It gave me great structure to understand books,” she says, adding that studying alongside undergrad students “made it more fun, gave it a sense of exploration.”

img_4574That sense of exploration is on full display in Juana and Lucas, which features a loose, sketchy quality to the ink drawings. Medina points to the British illustrator Quentin Blake as a key influence, noting that he draws with both hands, and she often does too, or sometimes draws with one hand and colors with the other. Another favorite artist is Joaquin Salvador Lavado, better known by his pen name Quino, who created the iconic comic strip Mafalda for the Argentine newspaper El Mundo. Medina gushes about Quino’s “level of expressiveness.” She points out: “He includes wit in such simple traces and achieves complexity and an incredible level of detail in just a few lines.”

Medina likes the ability to switch between different artistic media from book to book. For her, it’s about what the story asks for.  Juana and Lucas is illustrated in pen and ink, and colored with watercolor, which is a very personal medium for Medina, as it reminds her of childhood and illustrations by favorites such as Quentin Blake. The personal components of the story of Juana and Lucas meant that watercolor felt right for the book, because it gives it a sense of nostalgia. Other illustration projects that Medina has worked on, such as Smick, written by Doreen Cronin, and the counting book 1 Big Salad combine found objects with digital drawings.

img_4573For Juana and Lucas, Medina experimented with sketches in pencil first, then used a light box to draw the final version of each illustration in ink. Watercolor came next and the drawing was then scanned so that the colors could be adjusted digitally. This process also allowed Medina to correct small errors without having to redraw an entire composition. She showed me one spread containing an airplane that hadn’t been in the original sketch. Later in the process, it was added digitally to cover up an unruly inkblot!img_4571

For Juana and Lucas, her first chapter book, Medina wrote the story first, and then went back to draw. Through writing and rewriting, she found the balance between word and image. She says “It’s important to make a book where even if a kid can’t read yet, they can still get a sense of the story.” The relationship between Juana and Lucas, in particular, is mostly visual, so even if Juana isn’t talking about him very much in the text, you see them interacting in the illustrations. Medina points out that this is more realistic, as our interactions with our pets are mostly visual and tactile. Having narrative both in the text and in the illustrations makes this a great choice for readers still transitioning from picture books to chapter books.

img_4570 The dynamic presentation of text (words that curve, get bigger or in other ways deviate from the standard type) featured throughout the story was Medina’s idea. Her thinking is that typography is part of language, explored, and it can cue certain meanings of words that may be unfamiliar to young readers.

Medina says about her writing process: “I was telling a story that was personal in my second language, so that was hard. I was lucky to be working with an editor who got it—figuring out the exact language to make it understandable without imposing too much. Candlewick has been great at not treating the text as precious, but instead seeing what is working and what isn’t.”

The book was written first in English, and she says it was almost like writing lyrics, choosing places where Spanish could be inserted in a way that made sense. Medina wanted to avoid echoing the English words in Spanish. She felt it was important to be respectful of readers and give them a chance to figure out the meanings of the Spanish words on their own. Its inclusion adds richness and reminds the reader that English isn’t Juana’s first language. The mix of the two languages feels very genuine, because mixing languages happens with all multilingual children. Their brains are trying to figure it out, and it’s natural for them to begin a sentence in one language and end it in another. The Spanish hasn’t deterred young readers who aren’t already familiar with the language. According to Medina, “I gave it to my niece, who was the first kid to ever read it. She doesn’t speak Spanish, but as soon as she finished the book, she went to the computer and pulled up Google Translate. After a moment she turned to me and said, ‘Me encantó tu libro,’ which was just…I was crying.”

img_4572For readers in the United States used to seeing European cities such as London or Paris in children’s literature, it’s a breath of fresh air to get such a detailed, child’s-eye view of a major South American city. Medina went back to Bogotá after writing several versions, and says the trip was bittersweet. “It was the first time there without my grandparents, without having a place there to call home. It was a difficult trip, but it was sweet to see the mountains and smell the eucalyptus, and it was validating to see everything. I took some license in the book. I’m not tying myself to fact-checking everything, which was liberating in a way. There was a lot I left out, especially surrounding the conflict and civil war I grew up with. That’s something I’ll maybe address in another book. The hardest illustration was my grandparents’ house, which no longer exists. It was a safe haven, so no illustration could truly do it justice.”

Readers will be happy to learn that Medina is already working on a second book in the Juana and Lucas series. In addition, her follow up to 1 Big Salad, an ABC book called ABC Pasta, will be out in the spring from Penguin Random House. Medina’s advice to other Latinx artists looking to break into illustration is to be persistent and disciplined about their work. “Tell your own stories,” she says “Not the ones that will simply please an audience, but the ones that are meaningful.” And like her character Juana, struggling to balance her two languages, Medina advises artists to “find the language for the story you want to tell.”img_4568

Juana Medina is a native of Colombia, who studied and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her illustration and animation work have appeared in U.S. and international media. Currently, she lives in Washington, DC, and teaches at George Washington University. See more of Juana’s work at her official website.

Cackley_headshotCecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.