Book Review: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders by René Colato Laínez, illus by Fabricio Vanden Broeck

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Young René’s mother has sent him a new pair of shoes from the United States. He loves his new shoes. “They walk everywhere I walk. They jump every time I jump. They run as fast as me. We always cross the finish line at the same time.”

René—with his new shoes—and his father set off on the long journey to meet his mother in the United States. He says goodbye to his friends in El Salvador, and “Uno, dos, tres, my shoes and I are ready to go.” The trip is difficult. They take buses and walk across El Salvador, into Guatemala and then into Mexico. His brand-new shoes lose their shine, turning dirty and gray. They become elephants, pushing against the wind; race cars, fleeing hungry dogs; swim shoes, escaping floods; and submarines, navigating through sticky mud. When holes appear on the soles of his shoes, his father won’t let him give up. “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá.”

Sharing his own experiences, René Colato Laínez’s moving bilingual picture book brings to life the experiences of many young children who make the arduous journey from Central America to the United States in search of a better life.

MY TWO CENTS: This picture book was inspired by the author’s own journey as a child. This book is very similar to his book My Shoes and I (2010), but different in that it is a bilingual book and is the author’s journey as he crossed borders as a child. The English text in this book has been modified, and the Spanish version has been added. The text is simpler and intended for young readers. The book begins when, for Christmas, René receives a pair of shoes from his mother, who lives in the U.S. The book details the journey that René and his father take by focusing on what the shoes go through in traveling across three countries.

The book does not overtly describe the dangers in crossing borders, but there are some instances where hardships are described. One example of this is when René describes having to live in a dark trailer because his father loses his wallet in Mexico City. Another example is when they are crossing the Mexico/U.S. border and René states that the water comes up to this stomach and then to his shoulders. René and his father travel through El Salvador, Mexico, and finally cross the border into the U.S. where his mother is waiting.

The focus on the shoes throughout the book allows the author to tell about the journey, but not go into the arduous, dangerous details. The resiliency of the young boy is shown throughout the book as he continues his journey to be with his mother. In one case, Papá encourages him, “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá. We won’t give up” (n.p.).

This book would be a great addition to a classroom unit about immigration. It specifically focuses on the border crossings and the long journey that families embark on to search for a new life. The book also addresses the desire that families have to be together and the dangers that families endure in search of a better life. The reprint of this book is timely as immigration, border crossings, and the journeys that children embark on continue to be scarce in children’s literature.

The author’s note at the end of the book tells the reader that this story is actually based on his life. René Colato Laínez shares some of the details that inspired him to write the book, such as the fact that this mother sent him a pair of shoes for his journey. The author also shares that, along with his father, they had to leave El Salvador due to the civil war in that country. At the end, René shares that he wrote this book to “tell readers about the hard journey that immigrant children and families face. They are escaping from violence and crime. Their journey is not a choice but a necessity to look for a better place, where they can accomplish their dreams”

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR: I reached out to the author via social media to see if he would answer some questions about the book. Here are René’s responses to my questions:

This book is very similar to your wonderful book My Shoes and I. How is this one different?

René: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders/ Mis zapatos y yo: Cruzando tres fronteras is a new edition of My Shoes and I. For this edition, the English text has been modified to have a bilingual version. The original text was longer, and, in order to have the English and the Spanish text on the same page, I did some edits. In My Shoes and I, the name of the boy is Mario. In this bilingual edition, I could use my name. The name of the protagonist is René.

Why is it important for you to tell your story?

René: Many children cross borders around the world everyday. They are escaping war, crime, or violence. It is hard to leave a country and your loved ones. As an author who had to cross borders, I want to give voice to the voiceless. I also want to tell readers that their journey is not a choice, but a necessity.

Many teachers shy away from having discussions focused on what are perceived as “difficult” topics. Why is it important for teachers to discuss issues such as immigration in the classroom?

René: In the news, children watch about numbers and politics, but they also need to know about real experiences. I think that children’s books are great for children to see what is beyond their windows and horizons. By telling children about immigration and other hard topics, we can build empathy in our children.

Please share anything else that you would like others to know about your new book?

René: I am so happy that this book is back in print and now it is bilingual. I hope that this book can touch the hearts of many readers.

RESOURCES: 

Teachers can visit the website below for information about the book

https://myshoesandi.weebly.com

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website): I am René Colato Laínez, the Salvadoran award winning author of many bilingual/ multicultural children’s books. I have  a master’s degree from  Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for  Children & Young  Adults.

My goal as a writer is to produce good multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States. Do you want to know more about me? Please read my long biography.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

Latinxs in Kid Lit at the Library: Interview with Librarian Yesenia Villar-Villalobos

 

By Sujei Lugo

The Latinxs in Kid Lit at the Library series is an occasional feature of this blog, featuring interviews with children’s library workers. In these interviews, we highlight the work librarians do for Latinx children’s literature, especially in libraries that serve Latinx communities. In case you’d like to catch up on previous posts, you can find links to them below this article. 

In this new entry, we talk with Yesenia Villar-Villalobos, a Mexican-American children’s librarian in Los Angeles, California.

Sujei: Tell us a bit about your background and identity.

Yesenia: I’m a first-generation Mexican-American, born and raised in East Los Angeles, California. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, and raised seven children on menial salaries. While I grew up in poverty, I was nearly an adult before I began to realize the true disparity of resources and opportunities that existed among my high school peers. However, what my parents couldn’t provide for me materially was far less significant than the perseverance and resilience they modeled while struggling to cover the family’s most basic of necessities. In fact, on my path to higher education I lacked an academic role model. Yet, my parents instilled in me what I truly needed: a willingness to endure hardship and uncertainty in order to achieve a goal.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, I never placed much emphasis on my ethnic identity.  Everyone around me was Latinx, mostly Mexican, so it wasn’t something I felt the need to address. However, now that I have entered the library world and function as a minority among my colleagues, I recognize the significance of my identity. I encompass a degree of cultural competency and lived experience that many of my colleagues do not. Because of this, I strive diligently to model cultural competency and advocate for more equitable services to Latinxs.

Sujei: What’s your current position, which type of library do you work in, and what is the demographic of the community?

Yesenia: I’m currently the children’s librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) at the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library in Boyle Heights. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, our community is 97.7% Hispanic or Latino, 86.5% of which are Mexican. Of the adults ages 25 and over, 38.6% have less than a 9th-grade education. It’s a highly dense working-class community with 71.1% of renter-occupied housing and also of large family sizes, with 14.8% of homes occupied by seven or more residents. The median income is $37,472, and the median income for families is $38,632, an alarmingly low figure considering how large families are.

Sujei: The librarians we’ve interviewed for this series often highlight their childhood reading experiences, including the impact of public libraries. What were your experiences like? 

Yesenia: Books were not something we had in our home. From a young age I developed a love of reading, but I never had the resources to explore books at home. Repeatedly, I would find myself reading cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, and the weekly church flyer. Once, in first grade, I sneaked a textbook out of class and read it cover-to-cover at home before discreetly returning it to the classroom. 

I wasn’t introduced to public libraries until sixth grade when a homework assignment required me to venture to my local public library. Neither my dad nor I had any knowledge about how a public library functioned or what resources were available there. At that time, the library-card application required a social security number. As an undocumented person who had been deported on multiple occasions in his early years in the U.S., my dad initially refused to fill out the application. But I begged and pleaded with him to get me a library card, and he finally gave in. 

That public library card remained unused until eighth grade, when I was sent to the counselor’s office for turning in a book report on a preschool-level book. Back then, the only book I had access to was Captain Kitty by Godfrey Lynn and Elizabeth Webbe, which I had bought at a yard sale for 10 cents. The counselor decided that since I frequently completed in-class assignments early, I would be allowed to visit the school library during class time. I had attended this school for nearly four years, and this was the first time I’d realized we had a library. That’s where I picked up a copy of Blubber by Judy Blume, because that was what a classmate was reading.

I never looked back. I read every book by Judy Blume in our school library. Then I started sneaking out of the house to visit the public library. I would take my backpack, check out as many Judy Blume books as I could fit in it, and then sneak back into my house. I devoured book after book in secret. I went to a third library in search of more Judy Blume books, but then realized I had read them all. I was devastated. At that time, I didn’t know librarians existed. I didn’t know I could ask questions or seek suggestions. I simply roamed the library aimlessly. Fortunately, I continued to find books to enjoy and became a lifelong reader.

Sujei: How can public libraries be more welcoming and engaging for Latinx immigrant families?

Yesenia: Cultural competency is severely lacking in library services. This is not something that can be taught in a single class or workshop, or through training. It takes ongoing effort to learn the customs of a community and find effective ways to communicate with them. This goes beyond speaking the same language. It requires attention to the dialect they use, the interests they share, and their spoken and unspoken needs. For example, when librarians translate materials at our branch, we involve the entire staff to ensure that the translations reflect the languages our patrons use. Spanish translations are plentiful—and there are so many ways to say the same phrase—but is that the phrase our patrons use?

Being relatable is key to extending a welcoming environment. When a branch is located in a community predominated by immigrants, we have to adopt the framework that public libraries may be a foreign concept for some patrons. As librarians, we are fully aware of the power a library offers toward improving the living standards of a community. But if the community is unaware, or worse, fearful of stepping inside the confines of a government building, what good does it serve? 

This is why I practice a type of guerrilla outreach, placing myself in situations outside the library where Latinxs congregate. I provide information in a visually appealing, linguistically relevant, and non-threatening format. I approach people face-to-face and leave myself open to questions. I don’t over-hype our services, since I’m fully aware of our limitations, but I do offer information in a way that entices the community to at least walk into the building. Additionally, I sometimes conduct programming outdoors, as an outreach tool to emphasize that the library is here to serve everybody, and that everybody is welcome. 

The programs I conduct are meant to involve the entire family. Because of large family sizes and limited access to childcare, I envision the entire family working as a unit to create, assemble, and invent. For example, a program I created three years ago using do-it-yourself slime continues to be my most popular family program. It regularly attracts from 100-200 participants. By using inexpensive household items, we allow kids, teens, parents, and even grandparents to engage in hands-on science and create their own toys in an incredibly fun manner.

Sujei: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a Latinx woman pursuing a career in children’s librarianship?

Yesenia: Some common themes that my Latina colleagues and I encounter are a lack of resources, limited cultural expectations, and the lack of representation. 

Let’s start with education. Even though I performed well during my entire K-12 schooling, I never considered college as an option, since I never imagined it financially possible. I began working at the age of 15, and by the time I was 18, I held the position of assistant manager at a retail store. I was earning a salary comparable to that of my parents, but was bored. I went to my local community college and inquired about taking classes. At the time, I had no intention of pursuing a degree, but simply wanted to continue learning. One day when I asked my mom for a ride to school, she asked, “ What are you going to school for? You’re pretty enough to get married.” This was the first time I realized the cultural expectations that my family had for me. Despite my intelligence, I was merely a woman.

After taking the assessment test at the East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC) I got placed in honors classes. While others doubted my capabilities, I began to believe in them. Then, when a financial-aid representative spoke to my honors class about financial aid, higher education started to feel like a more realistic opportunity. While I still hadn’t envisioned a degree as the end goal, I loved to learn and continued to attend school off-and-on while employed full-time. After three years, my counselor notified me that I had enough credits to transfer to a 4-year university for my bachelor’s degree. I had no idea what he was talking about; I had never heard of a bachelor’s degree. But I went home, looked it up in my dictionary and decided I would pursue it. 

Having never considered a profession, I was torn about what to pursue. Teacher? Social worker? Then one morning I woke up and the word “librarian” literally flew out of my mouth! It was so clear, I could see it right in front of my eyes. The library had made such a profound difference in my life. It had opened my eyes to new experiences and opportunities. No doubt my avid reading had improved the writing skills that placed me in the honors class that made going to college a real possibility. As I researched librarianship as a profession, I quickly discovered that it required a master’s degree. It was at that moment that I began to take my academic ambitions seriously. I enrolled in the California State University of Los Angeles (CSULA) with a major in Liberal Studies and a minor in Women’s Studies. I focused my education on the history of minorities in the U.S.— specifically, on the political and socio-economic conditions that hinder minorities from pursuing a higher education. I educated myself about the experiences faced by people like my parents, who are undocumented, under-educated, monolingual, and economically disadvantaged.

When I began library school at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) I was astonished by the lack of diversity. For the first time, my status as a Latina became center stage. Unknowingly, I was one of the few students interested in the information needs of Latinxs. I didn’t apply to UCLA with the intention of becoming an advocate for Latinxs and Spanish-speakers, but this is what developed through my experiences and research interests. Since then, I have encountered mentors that have helped me navigate through the library world and enhance my skills and abilities. While the number of Latinas in librarianship may still be low, I have encountered women who empower and elevate one another other to strive for success.

Sujei: Where does your library acquire Latinx children’s books, bilingual books and Spanish- language books? Which places to get books do you recommend?

Yesenia: Obtaining relevant Spanish literature is a challenge. Spanish publications by Latinx authors often print on such a short run that unless you learn about them immediately, you may lose the opportunity to purchase them for your collection. Additionally, the Latinx community is vast and the vernacular varies from country to country and region to region. In our library system there is a department dedicated to creating the list of Spanish materials available for purchase. We order materials from that list, and never get the opportunity to examine them first. More often than not, we’re unable to read reviews before purchasing. 

I prefer to purchase my Spanish materials in person. In Los Angeles there is a children’s bookstore that sells only materials in Spanish, and which come from countries all over Latin America. It’s called La Librería and it displays books from each country individually. As a librarian, I’m able to select materials in the dialect that best suits my community. In my opinion, this is the greatest children’s bookstore for Spanish materials in Los Angeles, and possibly, California. Although small in size, the selection is so great that I wonder why anyone would buy Spanish books elsewhere. Also, the staff is kind, passionate, and knowledgeable.

Sujei: Your favorite Latinx children’s books? 

Yesenia: I relate to books that reflect my Mexican-American culture. I speak Spanglish, so I prefer to read books that incorporate both English and Spanish. At my bilingual storytimes, in addition to alternating between books written in English and in Spanish, I also read books written in Spanglish. Some of my favorites include Señor Pancho Had a Rancho, written by René Colato Laínez and illustrated by Elwood Smith, and La Princesa and the Pea, written by Susan Middleton Elya and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal.

Explore our other interviews in this series, linked below. AND, if you’re a library worker serving a Latinx community and would like to share your experiences through an interview, we invite you to contact us! 

María F. Estrella, Cleveland Public Library

Angie Manfredi, Los Alamos County Public Library

Crystal Brunelle, Northern Hills Elementary School, Onalaska, Wisconsin 

Patricia Toney, San Francisco Public Library

About the interviewer: Sujei Lugo was born in New Jersey and raised in her parents’ rural hometown in Puerto Rico. She earned her Master’s in Library and Information Science degree from the Graduate School of Information Sciences and Technologies at the University of Puerto Rico and is a doctoral candidate in Library and Information Science at Simmons College, focusing her research on anti-racist children’s librarianship. She has worked as a librarian at the Puerto Rican Collection at the University of Puerto Rico, the Nilita Vientós Gastón House-Library in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the University of Puerto Rico Elementary School Library. Sujei currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. She is a member of REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking), American Library Association, and Association of Library Service to Children. Sujei can also be found on TwitterLetterboxd and Goodreads.

 

 

Of Myths and Monsters: A Conversation with Author Ryan Calejo

   

In 2018, Aladdin Books published Ryan Calejo’s Charlie Hernández and The League of Shadows. Fantastical and adventure-packed, this middle-grade novel introduces us to Charlie, a regular kid with some highly irregular experiences, plus a large cast of mythical figures from across Latin American and Spanish folklore.

(Learn more from our review by Jessica Walsh.)

Just released, Charlie Hernández and The Castle of Bones promises yet another heart-pounding ride with Charlie and his sidekick, Violet Rey, as they navigate an underworld teeming with witches, monsters, humanoids, and other wild and woolly creatures!

We are brimming with questions, and Ryan Calejo warmly accepted our invitation to field a few.

LiKL: Ryan, welcome to Latinxs in Kid Lit. We’re always excited to come across superbly crafted, high-adventure fiction starring Latinx characters. As you know, this combination is still too rare, leaving young Latinx readers hungry for compelling stories that mirror their experiences. As a kid, did you feel a similar disconnection?  In the Charlie Hernández series, were you consciously thinking of filling that void?

Ryan: I’ll admit, growing up, I did feel a similar disconnect. I fell in love with reading at a very early age, but back then there just wasn’t a whole lot of MG fiction featuring Latinx protagonists. I remember wondering why none of the characters in any of the books I read ever spoke Spanish, or even a little Spanglish, which, by the way, is the official language down here in South Florida—just kidding . . . sort of.

But, yes, it was definitely a goal of mine to fill that void. I believe that it’s incredibly important for kids to be able to read about characters that look and sound like them and have similar backgrounds. Every child should be able to see themselves in the books they read. Every child should be afforded the opportunity to see their inner hero. Also, with the changing demographics in our country, by not producing enough fiction featuring Latinx characters we run the risk of alienating a huge portion of our young readers and depriving them not only of the joys of reading but also of all its many benefits—which would be quite a shame, not to mention extremely unfair to those children. With so much technology out there to distract today’s youth, we need to be focusing on ways to get them excited about books and one of the easiest ways to accomplish that is by writing characters they can identify with. But thanks to wonderful organizations like Latinxs in Kid Lit I believe we are going to see a lot more diverse fiction in the years to come. And that’s a wonderful thing indeed!

LiKL: Your Charlie Hernández novels feature mythical figures drawn from the ancient folk tales of South and Central America, as well as Spain. Please share more about finding inspiration in myth and how you decided to build your stories around these tales.

Ryan: Myths have always fascinated me. Growing up I wasn’t exactly the best-behaved kid on the planet, so to keep me from running amok my abuelitas would entertain me by telling me stories—all the wonderful myths and legends they’d heard as children. Some were heartwarming, others funny, and quite a few were actually pretty terrifying! For some reason I remember the scary ones the most. Probably because my grandmothers used those to try to frighten me into behaving! I can’t tell you how many times I heard: “¡Comete toda la comida, si no La Cuca se enoja!” Or, “¡No te levante del sofa que La Mano Peluda te va a cojer!” (A line which my grandmothers loved to tell me right before lunchtime, when one of my favorite moves was to wait for them to become distracted, then jailbreak my little cousins from their high chairs!)

But the truth is, every single one of those stories, from the terrifying to the hilarious, became ingrained in me. They became a huge part of my everyday life, and as a result it was easy to imagine them existing in the real world because, in my young imagination, that was where they’d always existed. As a little kid listening to those stories and growing up in such an ecologically diverse place like South Florida, I always felt as if the supernatural was lurking just around the corner, hiding under my bed or somewhere deep in the Everglades, so building a novel around these myths felt quite natural, almost like an extension of my childhood. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of fun writing the books. But it’s also been a deeply personal experience because my goal was to pass these myths and legends down to the next generation just like my grandmothers passed them down to me. As funny and entertaining as most of them are, these tales are actually cultural time capsules wrapped up in story; they give us incredible insight into what our ancestors believed, what concerns they had, what knowledge they felt was vital to pass on to their children. And it’s this richness of culture that has always inspired me to dig deeper into these myths—and even write stories about them!

LiKL: We’d love to hear about your path to publication, as well as your writing practices.

Ryan: Writing became a thing for me in elementary school. And that’s thanks to my wonderful fifth grade teacher—Hi, Mrs. Homans! She assigned us a writing project with the only requirement being the length: One page, front and back. I remember coming home and brainstorming ideas with my mom. It was a blast! And I’ve been scribbling down stories ever since! As far as writing practices, I do try to hit a daily word count—about twelve hundred words—but I don’t make it a huge deal. For me, writing has always been fun and that’s exactly how I want to keep it. My advice for aspiring writers would be just that: have fun! Don’t make writing a stressful process. Write because you love to write. And remember: even the unruliest of chapters can be tamed with the mighty backspace button!

LiKL: So what is Ryan Calejo working on next?

RyanI’m currently working on the third book in the series, which I’m super excited about. A slew of new myths will be joining the cast and, of course, there will be plenty of laughs and adventure! I think readers are really going to enjoy it—fingers crossed! For sneak peeks and cover reveals, follow me on Twitter @thebookglutton and on Instagram @ryancalejo!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ryan Calejo was born and raised in south Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami with a BA. 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.

 

Book Review: Barely Missing Everything by Matt Mendez

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Simon & Schuster): Juan has plans. He’s going to get out of El Paso, Texas, on a basketball scholarship and make something of himself—or at least find something better than his mom Fabi’s cruddy apartment, her string of loser boyfriends, and a dead dad. Basketball is going to be his ticket out, his ticket up. He just needs to make it happen.

His best friend JD has plans, too. He’s going to be a filmmaker one day, like Quinten Tarantino or Guillermo del Toro (NOT Steven Spielberg). He’s got a camera and he’s got passion—what else could he need?

Fabi doesn’t have a plan anymore. When you get pregnant at sixteen and have been stuck bartending to make ends meet for the past seventeen years, you realize plans don’t always pan out, and that there some things you just can’t plan for…

Like Juan’s run-in with the police, like a sprained ankle, and a tanking math grade that will likely ruin his chance at a scholarship. Like JD causing the implosion of his family. Like letters from a man named Mando on death row. Like finding out this man could be the father your mother said was dead.

Soon Juan and JD are embarking on a Thelma and Louise­–like road trip to visit Mando. Juan will finally meet his dad, JD has a perfect subject for his documentary, and Fabi is desperate to stop them. But, as we already know, there are some things you just can’t plan for…

MY TWO CENTS: This book felt so real to me for a number of different reasons. First, as a native El Pasoan, it’s hard to not immediately feel pulled to any novel which takes place there. Though likely not recognizable by the average reader, Mendez does an incredible job of capturing the city’s personality, and displays the city’s many characteristics through descriptions of the neighborhoods and characters.

I appreciated that Mendez wrote with such authenticity. He explains that the experiences in the book are similar to those that he went through as a youth in El Paso, which makes the authenticity reasonable, but it’s more than that. Mendez writes Juan’s and JD’s characters in an incredibly life-like manner. They have genuine teen personas and voices. They make realistic teen decisions: they’re emotional, impulsive, and reactionary, but the reader can also see the calculated thought processes that happen in their heads. The characters develop in nuanced and genuine ways, becoming deeper, more advanced versions of themselves as the plot advances and they confront new situations.

Like many youth who grow up in the city, Juan wants to leave as soon as possible to achieve lofty goals elsewhere; whether his goals are in any way realistic or attainable is a conversation that adults often have with teens (again, authenticity!). JD is coming from a household in the midst of tumult, and, as expected, his easygoing persona is his crutch. He tries to be the best person that he can be, even in the midst of cynicism and negativity from his family. But even though both JD and Juan struggle to keep their heads straight while their family lives become chaotic and challenging, their ability to pursue their dreams despite the chaos is so genuine and, to me, exemplifies exactly what teens everywhere struggle to do every day.

The icing on the cake of this book was Fabi’s character. It was so refreshing for a YA novel to portray an adult who was trying as best they could to help their family succeed, but who was very much struggling in the process. Fabi’s character was, to me, very unlikable initially. I assumed she was going to be the sort of parent who had checked out of their teenage child’s life and never looked back. As the book continues, though, the reader can see her hidden depths, much in the same way that we see Juan’s and JD’s multiple layers shine through as we get to know them. Mendez does a phenomenal job of creating characters that are complex, intricate, and very well-developed.

The plot of this book, particularly the ending, is a fast-paced, interesting, and very realistic portrayal of the lives and experiences of a couple of families living in an area of the country that is currently a political, social, and humanitarian hotbed.

TEACHING TIPS: The point of view: Mendez’s use of three narrators makes the storyline feel varied and interesting throughout the book. This novel offers a great opportunity to speak about how using these varied points of view make the story feel fuller and more complete, as well as helping to give further perspective about the characters themselves.

Representation: The book also offers an opportunity to speak on a number of issues involving representation. First, these characters come from low socioeconomic communities, and their experiences are contrasted a number of times with those of people in higher socioeconomic groups. Readers can see how belonging to the group that Juan, JD, and Fabi do often have to navigate around the world, how their class can affect the decisions that they make, and how they interact with people in other classes.

image20ABOUT THE AUTHOR (From Simon & Schuster): Like his characters, Matt Mendez grew up in central El Paso, Texas. He received an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of the short story collection Twitching Heart. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tucson, Arizona. Barely Missing Everything is his debut young adult novel. You can visit him at MattMendez.com.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the manager of the New York Public Library’s College and Career Pathways program. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Review: Color Me In by Natasha Díaz

 

Review by Maria Ramos-Chertok

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, sixteen-year-old Nevaeh Levitz never thought much about her biracial roots. When her Black mom and Jewish dad split up, she relocates to her mom’s family home in Harlem and is forced to confront her identity for the first time.

Nevaeh wants to get to know her extended family, but because she inadvertently passes as white, her cousin thinks she’s too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices African Americans face on a daily basis. In the meantime, Nevaeh’s dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen, which guarantees social humiliation at her posh private school. But rather than take a stand, Nevaeh does what she’s always done when life gets complicated: she stays silent.

Only when Nevaeh stumbles upon a secret from her mom’s past, finds herself falling in love, and sees firsthand the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has her own voice. And choices. Will she continue to let circumstances dictate her path? Or will she decide once for all who and where she is meant to be?

MY TWO CENTS: In Color Me In, Nevaeh Levitz shares her adolescent journey as a bi-racial girl trying to find herself in the races and cultures that make up her ancestry.  Daughter of a Jewish father and a Black mother, Nevaeh is caught between two worlds when her parents get divorced. I was very excited to read this book because I identified with many of the themes:  parents getting divorced, Jewish heritage, multicultural family, and trying to find myself in the two distinct cultures that make up my background. What I was reminded by reading this book is that despite the many levels on which I could relate to the themes, every journey is unique. This is particularly the case when dealing with the reality of what it means to have black skin in a country founded on racism and white supremacy.

The book exposes how skin color plays out not only in Nevaeh’s family, but when she’s out in her community trying to live life. It also exposes the implications of how the class divide operates to create different realities in education and access to material goods.

The book does a wonderful job of grappling with the challenges and gifts of a dual identity (and in some instances dueling identities). Nevaeh is looking to find herself in places that don’t have a blueprint for her existence. I wish this book had been available for me forty years ago.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the letter from the author at the end where she talks about what this book means to her and why she wrote it. That is where the entire book came together for me at a deeper level.

TEACHING TIPS: While the primary audience for this book is adolescents, I think anyone of any age with a bi-racial identity could relate to the themes.

Nevaeh’s grandmother is portrayed as overbearing, controlling, and unloving, so if this is a class’s first introduction or discussion of Jewish people, it might leave a negative impression, especially given that the Jewish father is a philanderer and not a very sympathetic character either. Nevaeh is able to find a foothold in Judaism despite them, but not because of their full support or acceptance. I’d encourage teachers to provide a larger context for understanding Jewish people.

The theme of bullying and racist language used against Nevaeh by her classmate and former friend Ally allows for an opportunity to discuss how words hurt and can be used as weapons. This could lead to an interesting discussion about hate speech, how the Supreme Court defines and classifies hate speech, and how the legal standard doesn’t necessarily help someone being bullied at school. Identifying strategies to respond to bullies and bystander intervention role plays could be fruitful.

There is an opportunity to discuss the role of ritual in developing and maintaining cultural identity. Students could be asked to examine the rituals in their life and how they offer (or don’t offer) them a way to deepen their understanding of who they are.

Given Nevaeh’s friendship with Stevie, I could imagine a meaningful discussion about what it means to be a good friend, how friendship makes a difference in one’s life, and what Nevaeh learned about friendship over the course of the story.

The topic of police brutality and misuse of power also stands out in two scenes where racial profiling occurs. Both of these situations help open Nevaeh’s eyes to the reality of racism and could lead to a discussion of how folks walk in the world with or without white skin privilege.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Natasha Díaz is a born and raised New Yorker, currently residing in Brooklyn, NY with her tall husband. She spends most of her days writing with no pants on and alternating between E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy binges. Natasha is both an author and screenwriter. Her scripts have placed as a quarterfinalist in the Austin Film Festival and a finalist for both the NALIP Diverse Women in Media Fellowship and the Sundance Episodic Story Lab. Her essays can be found in The Establishment and Huffington Post. Her first novel, Color Me In, was published by Delacorte Press/Random House August, 20 2019.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey.  In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost.  Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.   Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018) http://nothingbutthetruth.com/all-the-women-in-my-family-sing/. She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.organd a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas. For more information, visit her website at www.mariaramoschertok.com

 

Finding a Home in Stories: A Guest Post by Middle-Grade Author Adrianna Cuevas

By Adrianna Cuevas

In my debut middle grade novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Publication date: 5/12/20, FSG/Macmillan), military kid Nestor Lopez moves houses so much, he loses his sense of place. He finds a home trading books with his deployed dad, father and son writing notes and questions in the page margins while artistic Nestor adds illustrations. Stories connect him to his dad stationed thousands of miles away.

When Nestor reads a book with his father, he’s able to explore his dad’s military experiences in a new way and the book enables conversations service members are often reluctant to engage in. As Nestor explains:

“I flip through the pages of this book, Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, and stop the first time I see Dad’s handwriting. I press my fingers over his words, closing my eyes and imagining him sitting in his rack, reading. I flip through each page, looking for his handwriting, scanning for evidence of the life he lives when he’s away from us.”

Stories connect Nestor to those around him and deepen his relationships—particularly important for a boy who feels that home is something impermanent and unreliable.

Not all young readers will relate to Nestor’s constant moves. Not all will connect with the concept of a parent who is far away. But regardless of their current situation, readers can see books as a home. A place to retreat. A place to feel seen and accepted.

Growing up, that’s what books were to me.

My teenage social life summed up in one photo

As a child, I devoured any story I could get my hands on. With parents and a sister who were all avid readers, trips to the library to fill up bags of books and evenings spent browsing bookstore shelves were as expected as pastelitos for Nochebuena and Celia Cruz on the radio. I knew the bookstore and library at the University of Miami, where my dad was a professor, as well as my own house.

The books of my childhood transported me to places I’d never been. As a Florida girl, I was obsessed with the snowy wilderness in Jack London short stories. A solitary introvert, I marveled at the friendships in the Babysitters Club series. My early thirst for the gruesome and grim was satisfied by an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. I didn’t think I needed books with Cuban-American main characters because my culture was all around me in Miami—in the food, the language, the music.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I realized what a haven books can be for readers. I’d never lived anywhere so homogenous, both culturally and ideologically. In Miami, I was allowed to be a book-obsessed hockey fan who was bad at sports and loved to travel. In my new surroundings, I was Latina, nothing more and always less. I was complimented on my mastery of the English language, even though I didn’t speak Spanish fluently until I was in my twenties. Despite receiving an academic college scholarship, I was required to attend seminars about how not to get pregnant and drop out, the expectation for minority students. I was met with confused stares when I confessed that I didn’t like spicy foods because don’t all Mexicans like that? No longer able to see my culture or myself in my environment, I turned once again to my reliable home—books.

I shielded myself from ignorance and microaggressions I had never before experienced by diving into books by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, and Isabel Allende. Their words were familiar, a hand on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t alone. In their stories, I saw loud, boisterous families that mirrored my own. I read mouthwatering descriptions of the food I missed, whose ingredients weren’t even available to me anymore. My language was presented as something beautiful and poetic, not something to be overcome and unlearned. I had never understood the importance of seeing yourself represented in stories until I wasn’t represented in the society around me.

In Total Eclipse, Nestor moves from a place where he is seen and accepted to a place where he is misunderstood and othered. For the first time in his life, he lives off-post and experiences what it’s like to live away from a military base.

“Fort Hood had a Whataburger, a video arcade, and a comic book shop… Most kids at school had parents in the military, so everyone understood if you didn’t want to talk in the middle of science because your dad had flown across an ocean the night before. Now Mom’s moved me to a town where I’m a circus freak. An alien from a distant planet. My only comfort is knowing I might not be here long.”

Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t have the option like I did to dive into stories and see himself in books, as military family representation, especially Latinx families, is incredibly small in children’s literature. How much would it have meant to him to have books like Pablo Cartaya’s Each Tiny Spark to help him while his father is deployed?

Similarly, my choices when I moved to the Midwest were limited and it was difficult to find books that reflected my Cuban-American experience. Twenty years ago, the catalog of stories featuring characters like me was microscopic. How much more at home would I have felt with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos or Laura Taylor Namey’s The Library of Lost Things at my disposal when I was an awkward freshman? I would have taken Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe to college with me, turning to them when I felt othered and isolated.

Children deserve to see themselves in stories, not just as caricatures of their culture, but as representatives of the diversity that exists within a culture and as humans with all their quirks and flaws. Nestor Lopez isn’t just a Cuban-American kid who scarfs down his abuela’s croquetas de jamón and plays dominos with his abuelo. He loves dart gun battles, Pokémon cards, and random animal trivia. He’s quick with a snarky remark and his fingers are constantly smudged with pencil lead from sketching. It is my hope that in Nestor, young readers will find a friend they can relate to who shares their eccentricities and hopes.

In a world increasingly antagonistic toward Latinx people, our words as authors have the opportunity to whisper to children, “You are not alone.” Our books can serve as a blanket that warms them when they’re surrounded by the coldness of indifference and ignorance. Our characters can show them they can be heroes.

Our stories can welcome them home.

 

 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adriana currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food. Learn more about Adrianna on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!