A Conversation with Lauren Castillo, illustrator of Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Cecilia Cackley: This is your twenty-first picture book! You’ve written three of them yourself, but you’ve also worked with a wide range of collaborators. How do you feel like your process has evolved as an artist?

Lauren Castillo: It feels like I’m choosing a different medium for each project, but somehow it ends up looking like the same type of art to others. Imagine for instance, doesn’t look too different from Nana in the City, but to me, I definitely worked in a lot of different ways to make the art. For example, because this book had so many landscapes, I really wanted to embrace that imperfect, texture-y feeling in a more abstract way. I wanted to have a looser style, so I used something that I had been playing around with in workshops with children—printmaking by painting on foam. It’s really fun because you don’t know what you’re going to end up with until you run the print. That’s kind of the beauty of printmaking, that nothing is going to be exact and precise. I think my art, over the years, felt like I was tightening up and it felt a little too crafted. I think it was because my drawing wasn’t as strong at first, so it gave this energetic, free feeling to the work and I liked that. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to trick myself into loosening up. For this book it was helpful to use this type of printmaking for the backgrounds. I would paint on the foam and then flip it over and stamp it on the paper. I work in a much smaller scale so when it’s enlarged it gets even more texture. With each book I need to use different types of materials to keep things interesting.

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CC: Is this your first non-fiction picture book about a living person?

LC: Yes.

CC: How was the research process different than for, say, your book about E.B. White?

LC: It was very different! I did not interact at all with Juan directly. I sent some questions through the publisher Candlewick because it was a poem and it was non-descriptive in terms of the locations and the years and that sort of thing. I had this vision for it so I didn’t want to know too many details but I wanted to gauge the era, the decade and the locations that he was speaking about. I had looked at some photographs of him and most were current so I decided, although I probably could have gotten some childhood photos of him, to do my own version of him and what I imagined he looked like when he was younger. So the character development was done without photo reference. But they gave me some locations to work with so I could get photos from the computer for those. It was a lot freer than working on E.B. White’s life, for example, because that was very descriptive and specific, even down to the animals that were in the barn.

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CC: Would you say this is the most poetic text you’ve ever worked on?

LC:  Probably. I would definitely call some of the other books I’ve worked on poetic, or poems but this feels most definitely like it was pulled out of a poetry book and it’s gorgeous. The first time I read it I thought “Well, I have to illustrate this!”

CC: Tell us a little about your own Latinx family background.

LC: My dad’s father is Cuban, and my mom’s mom is Puerto Rican.

CC: Is this the first book by another Latinx author that you’ve worked on?

LC: It is, which I was very excited about. I grew up asking a lot of questions about my grandparents’ lives and their parents’ lives, coming to the United States, and it seemed like I was more interested in my background and culture than a lot of my friends. I did a lot of reports as a kid, interviewing my grandparents. I would be curious to see how connected to my art Juan Felipe was, if there was anything that reminded him of his own life or if I took liberties that were very different. It would be interesting to have a conversation about it.

CC:  Do you think that you’ll ever make any work connected with your own family history?

LC:  My Puerto Rican great-grandfather was a musician, and when he moved to New York, his family lived in the Spanish Harlem area. My grandmother told me stories about when she was young and he had a band that would play around different venues in Spanish Harlem. So when I moved to New York for graduate school, we had to do a book project, and I decided I wanted to do a visual journalism project about this really old music store in Spanish Harlem called Casa Latina. I went there and asked them if I could spend a month coming in and out of their store and do drawings, so basically I did this whole visual journalism project that I turned into a book about the people in the store and how they interacted with each other and their customers. I would have conversations with them and take notes, so it was kind of like a diary, but it included drawings from the shop and portraits of people that work there, and I called it Casa Latina. I’ve wanted to turn that into a picture book at some point because when I was going to the store I had it in my mind that although that store wasn’t around then, that’s the same neighborhood that my great-grandfather was spending a lot of time in and playing music in. So I got really invested in that area, and for a while, I’ve been keeping some drafts of stories that I want to do, some ideas to turn that project into a picture book. So yes, I definitely want to do a project that connects to that Puerto Rican background.

CC: What are you working on now?

LC: At the moment I’m working on a very unusual project for me, which is completely imagined, because so far, my three picture books have all come from some sort of life experience, and so I’m working on this early chapter book. It’s about the hedgehog character that I had drawn that kept popping up in my sketchbook, and it’s all animals and one human character, and it’s very much a made up story. And also it’s a long format book, which is a lot of fun since I don’t have a lot experience with that!

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MORE ABOUT LAUREN CASILLO: Lauren studied illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She is the author and illustrator of the 2015 Caldecott Honor winning book, Nana in the City, as well as The Troublemaker and Melvin and the Boy. Lauren has also illustrated several critically acclaimed picture books, including Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley, Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, and City Cat by Kate Banks. She currently draws and dreams in Harrisburg, PA. You can find out more about her at http://www.laurencastillo.com/

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

A Studio Visit with Illustrator Zara Gonzalez Hoang

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Zara Gonzalez Hoang is an illustrator who is just beginning her career in children’s literature. She created the art for the picture book Thread of Love by Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal and recently sold her book A New Kind of Wild which is inspired by her father’s experience moving from Puerto Rico to the United States as a child. We met at her studio in Falls Church, VA to talk about her journey to becoming an illustrator.

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Cecilia Cackley: Tell me a little about your path to becoming an artist

Zara Gonzalez Hoang: When I was little my dad was really artistic and he used to draw with us. Some of my favorite memories are of me and my dad just laying on the floor in the porch or something and just drawing horses. My mom was a teacher so we always had paper and pens and I just always drew as a kid. And I think, too, everybody has things in their growing up that are probably not all that fantastically awesome and for me drawing was my escape. I would go hide in my room and draw and make up all these different worlds. I really liked to combine animals into new animals. My favorite was the “horseger”—it was a horse and a tiger which were my two favorite animals.

I’ve always been doing art, but I never considered doing it seriously. I went to college and took art classes but I also studied computer science and that was the practical side of me. There’s always been these two parts of me, the very logical side and the creative side. I’ve always been drawn to computers, and I’ve always been drawn to art. I majored in art, but then I worked doing network administration and web design—merging art and computers in a way. I didn’t start seriously drawing until the iPhone came out and I started a company with some friends making apps for kids and I illustrated them.

I never wanted to do kids books, it’s so weird! And it’s because I was afraid. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be consistent, that it was too much work, that I just wasn’t good enough. After I had my son, and I was reading all these picture books, I came back to this place I really loved that I thought I couldn’t have anymore. I always looked at picture books and wanted to buy them, but I always thought, I don’t have any kids, I can’t buy them, which is such a silly thing. There’s no reason why you can’t have these things you want just because you’re not a child. It doesn’t mean they’re any less beautiful or valid. I’ve always been someone who hid that part of me. I always hid my sketchbooks. It was such a personal part of myself that I felt I couldn’t flaunt it.

It wasn’t until I had my son that I felt like I really had permission to do this. I was looking for something to do with more meaning, and I realized–or my sister realized for me–that I have this gift for art and for writing. So I started putting together my portfolio for children’s books, and then I started going to SCBWI conferences, and I realized that everyone there was just like me: super nerdy about books and picture books! My friends talked me into submitting my work to agents, and I got a super awesome agent who I love. When I queried agents, I queried them as an illustrator who wanted to write, and I sent my portfolio but not any writing. The reason I knew she was the right agent for me was that she read my story A New Kind of Wild, and she told me how to make it better, and we spent the next year working on it to get it to a place where we could send it out. I feel like I finally came back to where I was supposed to be.

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CC: You started out working digitally, but in your studio, you showed me more traditional media like pen, ink, and watercolor. How has that process gone?

ZGH: When I did Thread of Love, I didn’t think I’d want to do anything the traditional way. I didn’t think I was any good at it. I liked digital, I liked the control of it. So when I got the manuscript of Thread of Love, that was how I was going to do it. I could see the color palette as soon as I read the manuscript. I don’t know if it’s my background in graphic design or what, but I saw the color palette first. It wasn’t until after that project that I started moving into more traditional media. Two things happened. One, I started thinking about the things that I liked and the illustrators and artists who I love the most work traditionally. There seemed to be a disconnect for me between what I did and what I liked, and I wanted to bring that closer.

When I started writing A New Kind of Wild, it had originally been digital to me, and that’s how I submitted my dummy, but I wanted to do it traditionally because in my mind that’s how it was. So I was doing all these studies of my characters traditionally and posting them on Instagram. My editor was creeping on me, and she saw them and she asked me if I would consider doing it traditionally. It was like she was seeing into my mind or my heart because that’s what I wanted, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to say what I wanted. I’m not at the point of making the art yet, so it may end up being digital, but it may end up being a hybrid mix. And that’s fine because I have a lot of comfort with the ability to erase mistakes digitally.

I’m a perfectionist in some ways. I don’t like the mistakes and even when I’m working traditionally because I’m using watercolor and colored pencil and ink, the things I love about watercolor I also hate. If you have a big swatch of color, you’re going to see the way the water moves in that swatch of color and those imperfections are the things that make it interesting.  I’m constantly fighting with myself to be okay with the imperfect, but I want to try and embrace it because the reality is, life isn’t perfect. I think there’s more emotion and interest in things that are loose rather than tight.

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CC: Thread of Love is about a very specific Indian holiday, Rashka Bandhan. What was the research process like for that?

ZGH: I am not Indian, so I had to do a lot of research to make sure I got things right. It’s something that was constantly on my mind while I was working on the book. Since I’m not of that culture, I worked really had to get it right. I checked out all the books I could from the library about the holiday, and I relied a lot on the authors telling me that I was portraying things correctly.  I also talked to friends who are Indian and who celebrate Rashka Bandhan. I wanted to make sure my illustrations depicted Raksha Bandhan accurately, especially since it is a holiday that is not one that I celebrate.

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CC: A New Kind of Wild is inspired by your own family history, so what has the research process been like for that?

ZGH: I wrote this book without thinking that it was about my dad’s story—it wasn’t until I was reworking the book that I realized that was the story I was telling. My dad passed away, and he’s not here for me to ask him, so a lot of the stuff I’m relying on is memories of the stories he told me about him growing up. My dad grew up in Puerto Rico with his grandmother until he was ten or twelve, when his mom was in New York. So, in the book, there’s a page where he’s leaving his grandmother. Pieces of my dad’s story are woven through like that. When we went back to Puerto Rico, we went to my dad’s house that he grew up in, so there will probably be some of that place in the book.

CC: What are some goals you have for where you want your career to go as a writer and illustrator?

ZGH: I think where I want to go does involve being a writer, so it means telling my own stories, and that’s both on the Latinx side and also on my other side because I’m half Puerto Rican and half Russian/Polish/Belaruski because my mom’s family came from a place where the borders kept shifting. I want to tell stories about people who are mixed. I have all these ideas for stories about things that are interesting about being from two cultures. I’m also Jewish and I think I’m the only Jewish person I know who had a big pork roast on Hanukkah sometimes because Hanukkah and Christmas fell on the same day and we always had a big pernil and arroz con gandules. I want to write more about that experience. There aren’t really a lot of stories that talk about what it’s like to be part of a family where you eat pho and also matzo balls. It can be confusing to be in the middle of everything. I want to start telling stories about my reality and the reality of kids that are mixed growing up. I don’t really feel that there are books out there that are telling those stories in a way that shows all the fantastic things about having multiple cultures.

CC: What advice do you have for other Latinx artists who are just starting out?

ZGH: The only real advice I have is to find other people that are doing it and try to make friends. One of the best things I ever did was meet someone who created a critique group that let me in. Having people to talk to who understand what you’re going through is priceless; even if nobody’s published, just having somebody to say keep going. It’s hard to talk to people who aren’t trying to be in publishing because they don’t understand how weird this industry is. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just persistence and luck. The advice is keep going and find people to share the experience with.

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

 

Book Review: Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies by Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera

 

Review by Mimi Rankin

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DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Mo Romero is a zombie who loves nothing more than growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. Tomatoes? Tantalizing. Peppers? Pure perfection! The problem? Mo’s parents insist that their niño eat only zombie cuisine, like arm-panadas and finger foods. They tell Mo over and over that zombies don’t eat veggies. But Mo can’t imagine a lifetime of just eating zombie food and giving up his veggies. As he questions his own zombie identity, Mo tries his best to convince his parents to give peas a chance.

Super duo Megan and Jorge Lacera make their picture-book debut with this sweet story about family, self-discovery, and the power of acceptance. It’s a delectable tale that zombie and nonzombie fans alike will devour.

MY TWO CENTS: This is a fun, silly, and wonderful book about familial acceptance as well as self-acceptance.

Mo Romero is a zombie who comes from a big, wonderful, brain-eating, human-scaring zombie family. His doting parents hope that he will follow in their slow-dragging footsteps by loving comidas de los zombis, like arm-panadas and arroz con spleens. However, Mo has a deep secret scarier than anything on The Walking Dead—he LOVES vegetables!

This book brings up a great conversation about “default” race and ethnicity in literature. Zombies are not monolithic and depending on which canon of origin you adhere to, let’s assume that Zombies are dead humans who have come back to life to eat your brains. Wouldn’t that imply that Latinx zombies exist? Even within fantasy and horror, is society defaulting to white? According to the illustrations in the Laceras’ work, these Latinx zombies are not bound by any particular race as they all have various hues of green skin.

With subtle touches of Spanish (in italics) in this version published in English, the true crux of this story is acceptance within families. Mo desperately wants for his parents to accept that he loves vegetables. He begs and begs to eat veggies, but his parents echo the refrain, “Zombies DON’T eat veggies!” The text goes on to read, “His parents wanted him to accept who he was—a zombie.” As this declaration sets in, Mo struggles to understand his own identity in the light of his parents’ expectations as the text reads, “Mo started to wonder if maybe he wasn’t a zombie after all.” This constant restriction on identity and all the assumptions and implications that go with it contribute to a really great conversation on our own expectations of identity. What is inherent to being “Latinx?” There is a massive range of qualities about ourselves that may make us feel like outsiders in our own families, Latinx or otherwise. In such a beautifully diverse claim of ethnicity, why should there be one definition of Latinx?

In the end, Mo decides to stick up for himself and remind his parents that he is still a zombie and still their niño. This fun and gorgeous story on the importance of family is sure to open up conversations about children’s individual identities.

Check out the book trailer below!

 

Image result for megan laceraABOUT THE AUTHORS & ILLUSTRATORMegan Lacera grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, with a book always in her hands. She became a writer and creator of characters and worlds for entertainment companies, and later formed her own creative company with husband Jorge Lacera. After reading many stories to their son, Megan realized that very few books reflected a family like theirs–multicultural, bilingual, funny, and imperfect. She decided to change that by writing her own stories for publishing, animation, and film. You can learn more about Megan and Studio Lacera at studiolacera.com.

Jorge Lacera was born in Colombia, and grew up in Miami, Florida, drawing in sketchbooks, on napkins, on walls, and anywhere his parents would let him. After graduating with honors from Ringling College of Art and Design, Jorge worked as a visual development and concept artist. As a big fan of pop culture, comics, and zombie movies, Jorge rarely saw Latino kids as the heroes or leads. He is committed to changing that, especially now that he has a son. The family lives in Cypress, Texas. You can find him online at studiolacera.com.

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager for over 20 international children’s publishers. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer or clients. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Book Review: Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo

 

Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERCharlie Hernández has always been proud of his Latin American heritage. He loves the culture, the art, and especially the myths. Thanks to his abuela’s stories, Charlie possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the monsters and ghouls who have spent the last five hundred years haunting the imaginations of children all across the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Central and South America. And even though his grandmother sometimes hinted that the tales might be more than mere myth, Charlie’s always been a pragmatist. Even barely out of diapers, he knew the stories were just make-believe—nothing more than intricately woven fables meant to keep little kids from misbehaving.

But when Charlie begins to experience freaky bodily manifestations—ones all too similar to those described by his grandma in his favorite legend—he is suddenly swept up in a world where the mythical beings he’s spent his entire life hearing about seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Hispanic folklore and into his life. And even stranger, they seem to know more about him than he knows about himself.

Soon, Charlie finds himself in the middle of an ancient battle between La Liga, a secret society of legendary mythological beings sworn to protect the Land of the Living, and La Mano Negra (a.k.a. the Black Hand), a cabal of evil spirits determined to rule mankind. With only the help of his lifelong crush, Violet Rey, and his grandmother’s stories to guide him, Charlie must navigate a world where monsters and brujas rule and things he couldn’t possibly imagine go bump in the night. That is, if he has any hope of discovering what’s happening to him and saving his missing parents (oh, and maybe even the world).

No pressure, muchacho.

MY TWO CENTS“Myths, my abuela used to say, are truths long forgotten by the world.”

Mythological figures are as real as anything in Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows. This debut middle grade from Ryan Calejo takes readers both familiar and unfamiliar with Latin American mythology (and everywhere in between) on a crash course of myths from all over the Spanish-speaking world.

Charlie is in middle school, where standing out for any reason can make you a target. When Charlie suddenly sprouts horns (which go away) and feathers (which keep growing back) soon after his parents disappear, Charlie knows he has to try to stay under the radar. One school bully targets Charlie for being born in Puebla, Mexico. That same bully jokes about Charlie’s parents being deported because news has spread that they have been missing for two months. Surprising everyone, including Charlie, popular girl Violet Rey stands up to the bully in defense of Charlie when the bully tries to steal a locket left behind by his mother. “No sweat. I can’t stand racists or bullies — and especially not racist bullies.” With Violet’s help, Charlie discovers a map inside the locket that matches the layout of an old cemetery in town.

While investigating the cemetery with hopes of finding clues to his parents’ whereabouts, Charlie and Violet encounter the first of many mythical figures — a mysterious groundskeeper who is actually a calaca, a walking, talking skeleton who tries to kill them! But Charlie uses knowledge his abuela gave him about Juancho Ramirez, who had cheated Death, a calaca in the fable. Juancho knew calacas were traders by nature and loved trinkets, in particular, which could be bartered to save your life. The calaca/groundskeeper wants to trade Charlie for his map, and on closer inspection, tells Charlie it is an ancient map handsketched by la Calavera Catrina. The map shows the way to the world between worlds. The calaca/groundskeeper confirms that all Hispanic myths are real. The calaca’s explanation is that “the landmasses currently known as Central America, South America, and the Iberian Peninsula are closer in metaphysical proximity to the spirit realm than anywhere else on the planet.”

And so begins a journey to find out where Charlie’s parents are. Charlie must use all of the knowledge his abuela shared with him to stay alive even when enemies of La Liga de Sombras try to kill him. One after another, famous mythological figures show up to either help or harm, believing Charlie to be the Morphling, a hero who defeats the world’s most powerful witch. All in all, over twenty mythological figures from all over the Spanish-speaking world make appearances, along with brief explanations, usually from Charlie himself.

The conclusion is satisfying, yet clearly leads the reader to believe that more is to come for Charlie. The sequel, Charlie Hernández and the Castle of Bones releases October 22, 2019.

Spanish is used throughout the story, often with English translations, though readers will notice that italics are only used to show emphasis, whether Spanish or English. A glossary provides more information about each mythological figure that appears in the book.

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows is fast-paced and funny — just right for readers who are looking for adventure!

Image result for ryan calejoABOUT THE AUTHORRyan Calejo was born and raised in south Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami with a BA. He’s been invited to join both the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and the Golden Key International Honour Society. He teaches swimming to elementary school students, chess to middle school students, and writing to high school students. Having been born into a family of immigrants and growing up in the so-called “Capital of Latin America,” Ryan knows the importance of diversity in our communities and is passionate about writing books that children of all ethnicities can relate to. Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows is his first novel.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Walsh is a K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist from suburban Chicago. She has been a middle school teacher for twelve years. She holds degrees in Secondary English Education and Reading Instruction. She is a mom, an avid reader, and a strong advocate for equity in education. You can find her on Twitter at @storiestoldinsf.

Book Review: Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle by Hilda Eunice Burgos

 

Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERHer last name may mean “kings,” but Ana María Reyes REALLY does not live in a castle. Rather, she’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two parents (way too loveydovey), three sisters (way too dramatic), everyone’s friends (way too often), and a piano (which she never gets to practice). And when her parents announce a new baby is coming, that means they’ll have even less time for Ana María.

Then she hears about the Eleanor School, New York City’s best private academy. If Ana María can win a scholarship, she’ll be able to get out of her Washington Heights neighborhood school and achieve the education she’s longed for. To stand out, she’ll need to nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase, which means she has to practice through her sisters’ hijinks, the neighbors’ visits, a family trip to the Dominican Republic . . . right up until the baby’s birth! But some new friends and honest conversations help her figure out what truly matters, and know that she can succeed no matter what.

Ana María Reyes may not be royal, but she’s certain to come out on top.

MY TWO CENTSAna María (Anamay to her family) is a 6th-grader, living in a two-bedroom apartment with Mami and Papi, her older sister Gracie (8th grade), and younger sisters Rosie (6) and Connie (3). With barely enough time and space to practice her beloved piano to prepare for her Lincoln Center performance, Anamay is less than excited when Mami and Papi announce that a new baby is expected to arrive in December.

It’s no surprise that Ana María doesn’t feel seen or appreciated at home until Tía Nona comes from the  Dominican Republic to visit. Tía Nona knows just how to make Anamay feel special with regular phone calls and praise for her piano-playing successes. When Tía Nona announces that she is getting married in the Dominican Republic, Papi quickly declares that they can’t afford to pay for everyone to attend. But with a little convincing from Ana María, and a financial intervention from Tía Nona, the Reyes family soon finds themselves preparing for the big trip and the big day.

Tía Nona likes to have every comfort, and Ana María is no different. She feels like she connects best with Tía Nona out of everyone in her family…until they arrive in the Dominican Republic and everyone is witness to Tía Nona’s cruel treatment of a young servant girl named Clarisa, whom Tía Nona calls “Cosita” (little thing). When Ana María sees Clarisa struggle to help her family eat, she gains a new perspective on her own privileges and life back home in New York…and a new perspective on Tía Nona.

As Ana María works to perfect her Lincoln Center recital piece, the lessons she learned in the Dominican Republic — about family, friendships, and what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re not — all lead Ana María to make some tough choices to make her dreams come true.

Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle has a lot of moving parts, each playing off the other to create a story with depth and heart, and Hilda Eunice Burgos weaves it all together like a master composer.

Lee & Low Books offers this Teacher’s Guide for Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle.

hilda9573ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hilda Eunice Burgos has been writing for many years, but Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle is her first published novel. Her parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born, and she grew up in Washington Heights as one of four sisters. She now lives with her family near Philadelphia, where she works as an environmental lawyer. Please visit her website at hildaeuniceburgos.com.

Check out the Middle Grade Author Q&A she did with us: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/10/22/spotlight-on-middle-grade-authors-part-7-hilda-eunice-burgos/

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJessica Walsh is a K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist from suburban Chicago. She has been a middle school teacher for twelve years. She holds degrees in Secondary English Education and Reading Instruction. She is a mom, an avid reader, and a strong advocate for equity in education. You can find her on Twitter at @storiestoldinsf.

Book Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:

Seventeen-year-old Marisol has always dreamed of being American, learning what Americans and the US are like from television and Mrs. Rosen, an elderly expat who had employed Marisol’s mother as a maid. When she pictured an American life for herself, she dreamed of a life like Aimee and Amber’s, the title characters of her favorite American TV show. She never pictured fleeing her home in El Salvador under threat of death and stealing across the US border as “an illegal”, but after her brother is murdered and her younger sister, Gabi’s, life is also placed in equal jeopardy, she has no choice, especially because she knows everything is her fault. If she had never fallen for the charms of a beautiful girl named Liliana, Pablo might still be alive, her mother wouldn’t be in hiding and she and Gabi wouldn’t have been caught crossing the border.

But they have been caught and their asylum request will most certainly be denied. With truly no options remaining, Marisol jumps at an unusual opportunity to stay in the United States. She’s asked to become a grief keeper, taking the grief of another into her own body to save a life. It’s a risky, experimental study, but if it means Marisol can keep her sister safe, she will risk anything. She just never imagined one of the risks would be falling in love, a love that may even be powerful enough to finally help her face her own crushing grief.

The Grief Keeper is a tender tale that explores the heartbreak and consequences of when both love and human beings are branded illegal.

MY TWO CENTS:

What first strikes me about Alexandra Villasante’s debut novel The Grief Keeper is its unique juxtaposition of science fiction, which we often don’t get to see in Latinx youth literature, and an undocumented border-crossing narrative, which is quite prevalent within the field. The combination creates a new experience for readers, one that I think we need more of. Given the predominance of immigration narratives, any innovation upon that common theme is a welcome addition. At the same time, The Grief Keeper is a difficult read. That Marisol, an undocumented asylum seeker, is abused as a test subject for a human trial no one else would volunteer for is horrifying. But, perhaps not so horrifying as the prospect that this book, though science fiction, feels very, very real insofar as it explores the dehumanization of Central American immigrants, many of them children.

Focusing on Marisol and her younger sister Gabi, who have fled their native El Salvador to escape gang violence, this book opens with Marisol’s meticulous preparations to plead her case for asylum, but there’s always the hint that Marisol is being less than truthful with the immigration officials. When Marisol’s concern that they don’t buy her story swells, she mounts her escape with Gabi, only to be picked up by the mysterious Indranie Patel, and taken to a medical facility with the offer that if Marisol participates in a clandestine medical trial, she and her family will be granted asylum. But Marisol’s participation in the trial—being implanted with a medical device that allows her to act as a surrogate for another human being’s grief—is turned on its head when she meets her counterpart: the grief-stricken Rey.

The medical trial seems an odd backdrop for what turns out to be rather moving, burgeoning romance between Marisol, whose queer identity is a point of contention in her past, and Rey. At times, I felt disconcerted by this tension. Is this a story of danger, violence, and corruption on both sides of the border? Or is this another excellent queer, Latinx love story? It’s somehow both. I’m torn about whether the levity offered through the love story undercuts the gravity of the immigration narrative. I haven’t resolved my feelings about this, to be honest. The more I think about it, I’m left feeling like the love story was out of place within a deeply serious and dark tale about homophobia, abuse, and immigration.

But, these retrospective feelings must also be seen through the lens of how much I genuinely enjoyed reading this book. It was a quick, pleasurable read. Villasante’s prose is immersive, pulling you out of your own head and putting you into Marisol’s. Further, the frank discussions of grief, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are unvarnished, but honest. For readers who struggle with mental health, this book may offer a distinct sort of validation and hope. But, I do caution some readers who may be struggling that this text is tough to read in certain moments. As someone who intimately understands the debilitating depression Marisol experiences, I can at once see Villasante’s accurate representation and the potential triggers it may offer.

Nevertheless, the open discussion of mental health, particularly because it’s underemphasized (to put it lightly) in many Latinx communities, is refreshing. The queer romance is necessary. And the blend of themes and genre conventions is intriguing. If you’re looking for a new kind of read, I encourage you to pick up The Grief Keeper to see for yourself its unique blend.

TEACHING TIPS:

Marisol and Rey are deeply impacted by their favorite TV show, Cedar Hollow. It would prove an interesting discussion or written activity to have students reflect on television shows or other media that have similarly impacted their lives.

This book would also be an interesting addition to teach current topics, whether in a government class, social studies class, or literature class. It might also be good to read alongside discussions of other medical experimentation—I was struck, in particular, with the connections The Grief Keeper shares with experiments done on other minoritized populations, from Native Americans to Jewish peoples during the Holocaust. Reading this text in addition to discussing those events might add depth to conversations that are often difficult, at the same time as they seem historically removed from our contemporary moment.

About the author: Alexandra Villasante holds a BFA in Painting and an MA in Combined Media. She was born in New Jersey to immigrant parents and now lives in Pennsylvania. Learn more about Alexandra’s work and appearances on her website. Her social media accounts may be found on Twitter and Instagram at @magpiewrites.

 

About the reviewer: Cris Rhodes is a regular contributor to Latinxs in KId Lit. At Texas A&M, she recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities. In the fall, she will begin an assistant professorship at Shippensburg University.