Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 1

Latinxs in Kid Lit owes tremendous thanks to the wonderful contributors who review books for us!  We were curious to learn how they conduct the reviewing process and which books sit atop their TBR lists, along with other topics. This post brings you Part 1 of a roundtable discussion with some of our current team members. Stay tuned—there’s more to come! 

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Tell us about yourself as a child reader. How do those experiences color your impressions of the books you read now?

Sanjuana Rodriguez

Sanjuana Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department of Kennesaw State University.  I attended kindergarten through second grade in Mexico, where I was born. Since most of my reading there was in workbooks, my first memories of actual books was after we moved to the United States, where I read as a way to learn English. I vividly remember searching the library for books that included Latinx characters. There were only a handful, including a biography of Gloria Estefan, which I read about 100 times. This is partly why I developed an interest in books by and about Latinx. My own background taught me the importance of kids seeing their experiences reflected in texts.

Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in English, who recently completed her doctorate in literature. My mom was an elementary school teacher, so she knew the importance of reading to my twin sister and me. Because of this, I became an avid reader. I read and reread the Josefina American Girl series. She was the first character I encountered who looked like me, and I used to put on traditional dresses to pretend I was her. As an adult, I’ve revisited those books and am sad to say they’re pretty awful, as far as representation goes. Now, when I do research on representation, I keep my child-reader self in the back of my mind. That little girl deserved better, so I let that inform how I read and advocate for the many excellent Latinx children’s books available today.

Mark Oshiro, the author of Anger is a Gift, is also the driving force behind the website Mark Does StuffI started reading at a very young age, and after reading almost everything in my school library, I moved on to my local branch. But few books had characters like me. Prior to high school, I recall only Bless Me, Ultima, which I have not revisited in a long time. Reading The House on Mango Street, at 14, is what made me realize that people like me could be in a novel. It’s one of the most important books in my life.

Katrina Ortega is the young adult librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. As a child, I was just as avid a reader as I am today. My first experience with Latinx characters didn’t come until high school, when I was assigned to read Bless Me, Ultima. Before that, I was only exposed to Latinx characters through books published in Mexico, read to me by my mom. I was never exposed to characters who came from similar situations as my own—Mexican-Americans whose families had lived in the U.S. for generations— and my view of “normal” book characters was very different from what I saw in my own life. Looking at some of the books currently available, I cannot imagine how much more I might’ve related to characters who looked like me or lived in environments like the one in which I grew up.

LiKL: What is your reviewing process like? Do you take notes throughout your reading time? Are there sticky flags involved? Are there sticky fingers involved (because: sugary snacks)?

Mark Oshiro

Mark: For my Mark Does Stuff reviews, I record myself while reading, so no note-taking there! But for publications like Latinxs in KidLit, I do take notes. What stands out? Which parts do I want to comment on? I keep track of my thoughts and how they develop as I experience the text. Those transitions can often be the coolest part of reading.

Sanjuana: My first step is to read the book just for fun! As I reread, I begin to think about my impressions of the text. My last step is to see what resources already exist online that teachers or librarians may find helpful.

Katrina: I read through the book first, then write down my initial thoughts about characters, setting, plot-lines, and go back through certain parts to read them more closely. My style of reading is such that I sometimes get completely consumed by the story and forget to stop and write things down. 

Cris: I bookmark important moments and quotations with sticky flags as I go, but I also tend to have a document open on my computer or phone where I type out some rough sentences and thoughts that may make it into the final review. I end up Frankensteining these notes together after finishing the book.

LiKL: Your work as an educator, youth librarian, scholar of children’s literature, or author of books for young readers is bound to affect your work as a reviewer. Help us understand the professional perspective you bring to the evaluation of texts.

Cris Rhodes

Cris: It’s really hard to turn off my scholarly training when I’m reading, so whatever I consume is filtered through that lens. I always have questions running through the back of my mind: How might this book be approached from a critical standpoint? Does feminist theory apply? Queer theory? Trauma studies? Sometimes those questions don’t make it into a review. Regardless, they’re always present, even if on the periphery, and they generate other modes of analysis that do come out in the reviews.

Katrina: The area I live and work in is a predominantly Latinx community. One of my main responsibilities as a teen/young-adult librarian is making sure the youth I work with find content to which they can relate. This doesn’t mean characters have to be from Harlem or the Bronx, although that definitely is a huge selling point. Instead,  the books I suggest must have genuine and honest characters, situations, and conversations. When I review a book, I ask myself, “Is this believable? Would a teen say something like that or behave in that way?” Authenticity in the representation of characters and situations is super important. 

Sanjuana: My work as an elementary teacher shapes the work I do as a reviewer. I am always thinking about how texts could be used in the classroom and how those books can facilitate conversations, particularly around difficult or controversial issues, such as immigration. In my current role, working with pre-service teachers, one of my goals is introducing them to books they’re unlikely to encounter in their field-experience classrooms. I want them to see the value of diverse characters and experiences in books, which they will hopefully include in their own future classroom libraries.

Toni Margarita Plummer is an award-winning writer of short stories, who has also worked in publishing. I was an acquiring editor for many years, meaning I was the one always hoping for good reviews for my titles, for those one or two golden lines I could put up online or on the paperback. I think the best reviews accurately describe what the book is about, place it in context, and highlight the successes and shortcomings of the work, all toward the end of helping readers to discover books they will enjoy. That is what I try to give in my reviews, along with those few golden lines of praise someone can pluck.

LiKL: Let’s draw up a wish list for authors and publishers. Which genres, storylines, locations, representations, or other considerations do you pine for in books for children or teens?

Katrina Ortega

Katrina: I love reading stories about the border. It’s where I grew up, and writers like Guadalupe Garcia McCall and Benjamin Alíre Saenz take me back to the desert and open skies of West Texas. I also love reading fantasy that is Latinx-character centric. The Brooklyn Brujas series by Zoraida Córdova is by far my favorite. In addition, I’d love to read more about Latinx families that have been living in the United States for generations, like mine has—families that have sprawled across the country, and their stories of traversing back and forth.

Mark: More Afro-Latinx rep is super important to me. I’m always on the lookout for more rep of queer Latinx, LGBT Latinx, and ace Latinx!!! The tradition I write in deals with the difficulties Latinx people face, historically and in our present time. But these days, I am also super into fluffy beach reads. I want some big Latinx rom-com YAs. Soon. I may be writing one myself!

Cris: As a Latina who grew up in a rural area with no other Latinxs besides those I was related to, I want more stories like that–more diverse Latinx experiences represented. We need more queer Latinx stories, more Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish, more Latinxs living outside of big cities, more Latinxs who don’t have large, extended families. We also need to make being Latinx not a plot point—I love books where being Latinx is incidental to what’s going on.

Sanjuana: I see a need for more books that represent diversity in the immigration experience, as well as more bilingual texts that reflect the growing number of multilingual students in schools.

LiKL: Now let’s flip the coin. What are your reading pet peeves? Specify the tired tropes, stereotypes, or overused plot machinations that cause you to roll your eyes—or to slam a book shut.

Cris: In continuation of my previous answer, I’m tired of books that homogenize the Latinx experience, even if they don’t mean to do so. Not all Latinxs act, live, and think the same way.  I encounter certain plot lines over and over: barrio life, single-parent homes, racism and xenophobia. That’s not to say these things aren’t valid experiences or necessary for a certain readership.

Mark: My reading pet peeves? Writers using a very easily solved misunderstanding to fuel their plot. Plots that could be solved by people just TALKING to one another. Also, Latinx drug lords. I’ll roll my eyes at the inevitable ICE or US border story written by a white person, with an attitude of “how can this possibly happen in our country?” Spoiler alert: it’s been happening for far, far longer than this past year.

Sanjuana: I don’t like to read books that paint a perfect picture of the world. I believe that literature should represent current realities and issues that children and teens are grappling with.

Katrina: My biggest pet peeve? When authors use Spanish in their characters’ dialogue, but then repeat the dialogue in English. It drives me up the wall to have to read the same thing twice! 

LiKL: What is your current hot read and which books are at the top of your to-be-read list?

Toni Margarita Plummer

Toni: I am reading Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, from the new Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney. Naturally, I am eager to read the imprint’s forthcoming Latinx titles by J.C. Cervantes and Carlos Hernandez. I think it’s so exciting that children will be invited to explore Latinx mythology through these books! I also still need to read I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L Sánchez and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Sanjuana: This a list of books currently on my desk ready to be read: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez ( I know that I’m late reading this one!). Picture books I can’t wait to read and share with kids: The Day you Begin by Jacquline Woodson, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, and Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera.

Mark: Just read Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath and it was just as stunning as I’d thought it would be. I’m about to read and review the newest Anna-Marie McLemore, and then am eager to start The Resolutions by Mia García!

Cris: My current “hot read” is any book I’m using for my dissertation, but I’m particularly enjoying digging into Celia C. Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk. My current TBR is anything I’m not using for my dissertation! I’m very excited to dive into Zoraida Cordova’s Brooklyn Brujas series. I recently began Lila Quintero Weaver’s My Year in the Middle, and there are some rad looking anthologies that have been recently released!

Katrina: I just finished Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, a semi-autobiographical (or so it seems) account of the journey north from Central America, written in verse. It’s heartbreaking and redemptive and beautifully put together. 

Our warmest thanks to the reviewers who participated in this roundtable discussion! We’ll continue the conversation in the next installment. 

 

Book Review: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

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This review by Lila Quintero Weaver is based on an advance uncorrected galley.

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Bryan has a good idea of what’s tight to him—reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But “no drama” doesn’t come with the territory of where he’s from, so he’s feeling wound up tight. While his mom encourages his calm, thoughtful nature, his quick-tempered dad says he needs to be tough because it’s better for a guy to be feared than liked.

And now Bryan’s new friend Mike is putting the pressure on—all of a sudden, his ideas of fun are crazy risky. When Bryan’s dad ends up back in jail, something in Bryan snaps and he allows Mike to take the lead. At first it’s a rush as Bryan starts cutting school and subway surfing. But Bryan never feels quite right when he’s acting wrong, and Mike ends up pushing him too far.

Fortunately, if there’s anything Bryan has learned from his favorite superheroes, it’s that he has the power to stand up for what he believes.

MY TWO CENTS: Starring an Afro-Puerto Rican character from Brooklyn, NY, this entertaining middle-grade novel is a brilliant read layered with emotional richness and nuance. Along with its primary selling point as a solid and strongly voiced story, Tight delivers an important but subtly threaded message on self-respect and moral courage. Bryan’s internal wrestling match, one brought on by a questionable friendship, lies at the crux of the story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story line could have easily devolved into a morality play. But Maldonado avoids such cardboard cutouts in favor of a skillfully crafted portrait of a relatable middle-grader facing down his vulnerabilities and learning how to choose the higher road.

Sharply drawn from head to toe, Bryan is a sympathetic character with a mounting dilemma that begins as soon as a boy named Mike makes his appearance. Initially, Bryan feels suspicious of the new boy, but lets go of those reservations when Mike reveals a kindred love of superhero comic books. Still, subtle things about Mike continue to nag at Bryan, setting up an undercurrent of mistrust. As Mike works his charisma on Bryan, gradually opening doors to dangerous and alluring pastimes, Bryan begins to rationalize his original misgivings. To complicate matters, things on the home front are going south, too. Bryan’s father, who’s recently gotten out of jail, seems to be courting trouble again, putting the whole family in a state of tension.

Although at times Bryan succumbs to risky behavior, he seems most like himself when the drama is dialed way down. He actually relishes the peace and quiet of his “office,” an unused desk at his mother’s workplace, where he spreads out his homework. In this vein, we also witness him happily chatting on a park bench with his mom, who he endearingly refers to as “my heart.”

You cannot help but love Bryan. He reads as a real boy, with a real life, and a rings-true voice that expresses rich interiority. But as if to test his tender side, Bryan’s world is complicated by the code of machismo. At his school and in his neighborhood, the message telegraphed at boys is don’t be soft. This refrain of warped masculinity features in many a Latinx treatment. Fortunately, Maldonado lifts the story above such tropes by enlivening Bryan with contradictory currents and introducing fresh possibilities that will keep readers on their toes.

Other elements of Latinx life include food (chicharrones, alcapurrias) and observations on ethnic identity. In an early scene, Bryan reveals that he purchased the new Miles Morales Spider-Man comic because “he’s my age and looks like me. He’s half black and half Puerto Rican. I’m full Rican but heads rarely guess right.”

It’s obvious that Bryan has a lot on his plate. Here he is at the corner bodega presenting a note from his mom, in which she appeals for store credit.

When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.

I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.

Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”

Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous-smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.

What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.

Does it need pointing out that Maldonado nails the art of voice?

In addition, he commands a spare approach to description, choosing a handful of small details for the sizzle they bring. One of my favorite examples of colorful scene-setting occurs when Bryan and Mike pass through a crowded train station. “Mike ducks under a turnstile and races up the steps. ‘PAY YOUR FARE!’ the teller’s voice yells through the microphone in the MetroCard booth. It sounds extra scary because it’s all metallic, like Darth Vader’s voice.”

This is a novel that kid readers across the board will go for, and that readers hungry for Afro-Latinx representation will cheer on. In Bryan, Maldonado has created a vivid, relatable character with a lot going on between his ears. He has also built a fascinating and realistic world for this character to occupy, and spun a story that packs punch, enclosing within it hidden, but never preachy, lessons about life and love and healthy self-respect.

IMG_5888ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

Click here to see our recent Q&A with Torrey Maldonado.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and a novel for kids, My Year in the Middle. Connect with her on Twitter, where her handle is @LilaQWeaver.

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 6: Torrey Maldonado

 

We are back from our summer break with lots of great, new interviews, book reviews, and events planned. We start today with a Q&A with middle grade author Torrey Maldonado, who is celebrating the release of his latest novel, Tight.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the sixth in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Torrey Maldonado. And it’s an extra-special day because…

Torrey’s latest novel, Tight, releases TODAY!!

HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY, TORREY!!

 

Here’s a description of the novel: Bryan knows what’s tight for him–reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But drama is every day where he’s from, and that gets him tight, wound up.

And now Bryan’s friend Mike pressures him with ideas of fun that are crazy risky. At first, it’s a rush following Mike, hopping turnstiles, subway surfing, and getting into all kinds of trouble. But Bryan never really feels right acting so wrong, and drama really isn’t him. So which way will he go, especially when his dad tells him it’s better to be hard and feared than liked?

But if there’s one thing Bryan’s gotten from his comic heroes, it’s that he has power–to stand up for what he feels.

Torrey Maldonado delivers a fast-paced, insightful, dynamic story capturing urban community life. Readers will connect with Bryan’s journey as he navigates a tough world with a heartfelt desire for a different life.

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And here’s more about Torrey: What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping, relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

 

And now, here’s our Q&A with Torrey Maldonado:

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

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Torrey and his mom. Photo given by Torrey Maldonado.

A:  My mom inspired me to become a writer. When I was a boy, maybe no taller than a fire hydrant with my Jackson 5 Afro probably bigger than my head, she told me, “I read out loud to you when you were in my belly.” But a lot fought against my Mom trying to build me into a reader and writer. In the Brooklyn Red Hook housing projects, where I was born and raised, and in lots of neighborhoods, boys were and are bullied for our bookishness, and it happened to me. Currently, a buzz-phrase is “safe spaces.” My mom made our apartment my safe space to be bookish. The rapper 50 Cent’s debut album was Get Rich or Die Tryin’. My mom’s attitude was “Get My Kid into Lit or Die Tryin’.” My whole life, her apartment was the only in our projects where I saw a library. For being bookish, I got bullied outside and in school, then cuddled with Ma on our couch as she read to me. When she read and wrote, her eyes always smiled. As I got older, she took me far out of our projects to authors’ readings. She is my heart, loved writing, and admires writers. My motto is “Kids will be what they see,” and it’s fitting that I followed her footsteps. I represent her writing-spirit out in the world.

 

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. I have taught middle school for nearly twenty years. I see my students as me at their ages. The middle school years are “crossroad years” where tweens need direction. Plus, so much of their awesomeness should be spotlighted. I see them unplug from books because a lot of required readings aren’t culturally responsive mirrors and windows. It inspires to give my students and other middle schoolers essential books that I needed at their ages. Pretty cool related news: a teacher recently tweeted that Tight is the “most essential reading for middle grade teachers recommending books to their readers this fall.” Let’s hope my middle students and others agree.

 

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A.  My favorite middle grade novels do for readers what my favorite books did for me. Best books are a fleeting magic carpet-ride out of problems yet show kids the magic around them. They help kids feel that their world is bigger than their zip code. Also, my favorite middle school books are culturally responsive mirrors and windows. Some think books fall in different categories: windows here and mirrors over there. My favorite middle grade books are both windows and mirrors.

 

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

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Torrey in middle school. Photo given by Torrey Maldonado.

A. What I’m about to share is what I wish I knew sooner because it would’ve steered me from drama and sped me toward my life goals faster. Here’s my advice: accept and develop all helpful sides of you and know how to code-switch, meaning switch what you show others depending on where you are. My characters of Tight do that. Here’s why accepting and developing all helpful sides of you matters. That perfect person you see over there? They’re not perfect. Everyone is not perfect. That’s a reason Insecure on HBO by Issa Rae is a hit. On it, Issa is herself, a mess, insecure, and quirky with many sides. Millions of people and I love her because we relate. Now, here’s the thing about accepting and “doing you”—you have to know how to code-switch. Issa code-switches when she talks to her boss because she knows what Bryan in Tight knows—you can’t show all of you all of the time. President Obama kicked slang with Jay-Z and Beyoncé then spoke mainstream American English in his White House meetings with advisors. Why code-switch? You see in Tight how you need to shield your candle flame so know one blows it out. Code-switching is a shield. Then the right time comes when you can bring out and shine a different light and others will welcome it. People shielded my light until I learned to shield it, and it helped me be a bullied bookish, insecure, quirky boy who developed his many sides on the DL. In time, I grew into a published book author who is lucky to be invited to shine and share light in cool interviews like this one.

 

Q. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

A. Middle grade novels are important because middle school youth are awesome, multidimensional, heroic in many ways and all of that should be spotlighted.

 

Torrey’s novels:

   

 

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: All the Way to Havana written by Margarita Engle, illus. by Mike Curato

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Together, a boy and his parents drive to the city of Havana, Cuba, in their old family car. Along the way, they experience the sights and sounds of the streets–neighbors talking, musicians performing, and beautiful, colorful cars putt-putting and bumpety-bumping along. In the end, though, it’s their old car, Cara Cara, that the boy loves best.

MY TWO CENTS: I really enjoyed the trip this picture book takes through the Cuban countryside and into the city of Havana. It is easy to identify with the narrator, as he gets squashed in the backseat by all the passengers! Engle makes the question of whether or not the narrator and his father can get the car to work a suspenseful one, but as the journey gets underway, we don’t feel pity for the family for having an old car, but rather excitement for everything they see along the road to Havana. The bright colors of the cars alongside the blue of the sky and ocean make the pictures very attractive and illustrator Mike Curato adds plenty of detail to the vehicles and the scenery in Havana. The figures in the pictures can sometimes look a little flat, but it was nice to see an Afro-Latinx family featured—an unfortunate rarity in a lot of picture books. Both the author and illustrator include notes at the end talking a little about the background of the story and the process of researching the illustrations.

TEACHING TIPS: As might be expected, this is a perfect story time book, especially for kids around ages 2-4 who are usually VERY into cars, trucks, and trains (so much that many bookstores have a separate section just for those books). The sounds the car makes invite call and response with story time or classroom listeners. The way the narrator talks about how Cara-Cara looks compared to all of the other cars might be a good lead in to having students draw their own imaginary car, including what it would look like and what sounds it would make. The context of traveling to a family celebration is also a good discussion point, where children can talk about their own trips to visit relatives and various family celebrations.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find All the Way to Havana, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Margarita Headshot

ABOUT THE AUTHORMargarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots. Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist as well as a poet and novelist. She lives in central California with her husband.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Mike Curato loves drawing and writing almost as much as he loves cupcakes and ice cream (and that’s a LOT!). He is the author and illustrator of everyone’s favorite polka-dotted elephant, Little Elliot. His debut title, Little Elliot, Big City (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Macmillan), released in 2014 to critical acclaim, has won several awards, and is being translated into over ten languages. There are now four books in the Little Elliot series: Little Elliot, Big City; Little Elliot, Big FamilyLittle Elliot, Big Fun; and the latest addition, Little Elliot, Fall Friends. Meanwhile, Mike had the pleasure of illustrating Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, and contributed to What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends. He is working on several other projects, including What If… by Samantha Berger and his first graphic novel. Publishers Weekly named Mike a “Fall 2014 Flying Start.” In the same year he won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder’s Award.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia 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.

Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.

With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

MY TWO CENTS: I had a difficult childhood. I was queer and Latinx and stuck in a home with parents who did not understand either identity and certainly not the intersection of them. (I was adopted.) It meant that I felt that I existed in constant friction with them. That friction manifested in a deep, existential desire in me: I wanted acceptance. I wanted to live.

I found that same desire within the pages of The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo’s masterful and gut-wrenching debut. Told in verse, I devoured this book in one sitting, only taking a break to wipe at the tears that welled in my eyes. Acevedo has crafted a living, breathing world in Xiomara, and you can tell that from the very first page. Her unique voice, coupled with an engaging story about acceptance, rebellion, and identity in this Dominican-American teen, makes The Poet X a powerful read.

There’s nothing here I could nitpick, even if I tried. The pacing is brilliant, and my heart was racing as I approached the climax. Acevedo’s prose, which is informed by her years of work in slam poetry, is vivid, lyrical, captivating. There were countless sentences or lines that knocked me flat on my ass, and you’re certain to find one of your own. But it’s the characterization that gripped me the most. I related so intensely to Xiomara’s desire to live beyond the prescriptions of her mother’s religion that at times, I felt that Acevedo had reached deep down into a well within me, extracting the pain, terror, and—ultimately—vindication I experienced when I clashed with my own parents about my sexuality, my body, and my need to be my own person. The supporting cast is well-rounded and memorable (particularly Xiomara’s twin brother, Xavier, since I am also a twin), and they each affect the story in meaningful ways.

This is an astounding accomplishment, and I’m so thrilled that Dominican-Americans (and those who identify as Afro-Latinx) have a book that so brilliantly represents them. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Sandra Cisneros (particularly The House on Mango Street), and Liara Tamani’s Calling My Name.

TEACHING TIPS: Another reason I admired The Poet X is because Acevedo so seamlessly addresses weighty topics with ease and care, and the book never feels like it’s teaching you a lesson. The novel addresses issues such as sizeism, street harassment, homophobia, misogyny, sexual shame, and abuse, particularly when that abuse is paired with religion. Because the book is composed in verse that work like vignettes, it will be easy to assign essays or discussions based on specific poems. Acevedo’s language is modern and youthful, so I expect teens will connect with it quicker than most other works.

WHERE TO GET IT: The Poet X released on Tuesday. To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

                        Photo: Bethany Thomas

Photo: Bethany Thomas

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with Dominican bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit.

She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over twelve years of performance experience, Acevedo has been a featured performer on BET and Mun2, as well as delivered several TED Talks. She has graced stages nationally and internationally including renowned venues such as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, and South Africa’s State Theatre, The Bozar in Brussels, and the National Library of Kosovo; she is also well known for  poetry videos, which have gone viral and been picked up by PBS, Latina Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Upworthy.

Acevedo is a National Slam Champion, Beltway Grand Slam Champion, and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C, where she lives and works.

Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Puerto Del Sol, Callaloo, Poet Lore, The Notre Dame Review, and others. Acevedo is a Cave Canem Fellow, Cantomundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. She is the author of the chapbook, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016)  and the forthcoming novel, The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018).

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors and is usually busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal to pet every dog in the world. His YA Contemporary debut, Anger is a Gift, is out May 22, 2018 with Tor Teen.

 

Book Review: Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Hispanics featured in this collection come from many different backgrounds and from many different countries. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!

Poems spotlight Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez Wright, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Tomás Rivera, and Ynés Mexia.

MY TWO CENTS: This beautiful and memorable picture book once again showcases the partnership of creative luminaries Margarita Engle and Rafael López, following their award-winning collaboration on Drum Dream Girl. In Bravo!, Engle’s eighteen poems and López’s accompanying illustrations highlight notable Hispanics with strong connections to the United States. Some subjects are Puerto Ricans, while many are Latinx notables from the U.S. mainland. Quite a few came to its shores as immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A few are world-famous, like Tito Puente, César Chávez, and Roberto Clemente, but most are not. In fact, some individuals whose thrilling achievements should have earned them a prominent place in history have yet to receive their due, such as Cuban American Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot. (I eagerly anticipate the March 2018 release entitled The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book by Margarita Engle illustrated by Sara Palacios, which should go a long way toward filling that gap.)

The profiles are arranged chronologically, and each featured individual receives a double-page treatment consisting of a brief poem and a portrait illustration. The first spot belongs to Juan de Miralles (1713-1780), a Cuban supporter of the American Revolution, whose intervention helped save George Washington’s troops from scurvy. The final selection is Tomás Rivera (1935-1984), an influential teacher, poet, and University of California chancellor, who was also one of Margarita Engle’s creative-writing professors.

As with her novels in verse, Engle presents the stories of the characters through first-person-voiced poems that draw attention not only to that individual’s contributions to society, but also to the passions that drove them to action.

As mentioned earlier, most of these historical figures are not widely recognized. For example, how many readers in the U.S. are familiar with poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who advocated for her native Puerto Rico’s independence? In “My River of Dreams,” we learn of her poverty-stricken childhood and the natural world that she loved, as well as the heart of her advocacy:

I struggled to become a teacher

and a poet, so I could use words

to fight for equal rights for women,

and work toward meeting

the needs of poor children,

and speak of independence

for Puerto Rico.

Another selection, “Wild Exploration,” profiles Ynés Mexia (1870-1938), highlighting Mexía’s botanical studies in Mexico and South America, but also bringing out her bicultural origins, the anguish she suffered as the child of warring parents, and the fact that she discovered her true calling later in life than most:

But when I’m all grown up and really quite old,

I finally figure out how to feel useful,

Enjoying the adventure of a two-country life.

As with all eighteen of the profiled subjects, we can learn more about Ynés Mexía in the supplement “Notes About the Lives,” which explains that her career as a botanist began at age fifty-five and led to the discovery of five hundred new species.

In his bold, graphic portraits, Rafael López signals each person’s setting and historical period through carefully selected details in their apparel, the background scenery, and through visual symbolism that enriches the poetic text. One noteworthy example is in the profile of Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest whose ministry in New York focused on newly arrived Irish immigrants. In his portrait, Varela wears a clerical collar and holds an olive branch in his right hand, signifying the pacifism that set him at odds with his countrymen in Cuba. On the opposite page, a smaller and simply rendered three-leaf clover pays homage to Varela’s Irish parishioners.

Readers familiar with Margarita Engle, whose poetry often elevates the work of unsung Latinas, will not be surprised that the collection includes seven noteworthy women. In addition, a generous proportion of those featured are of African or indigenous ancestry, and this diversity is satisfyingly represented in López’s stunning portrait work. By showcasing extraordinary, yet under-represented achievers, Bravo! enhances their visibility and sends an affirming message to girls and children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. With that said, this collection would have felt more complete if it offered a wider representation of ancestral lands. Among the eighteen profiles, there are no Dominicans, and only one of each from Central America and South America. (Editors, please take note that Latinx people represent a broad sweep of nations and cultures.) Perhaps in recognition of the impossible task of selecting just eighteen subjects, a supplement at the back of the book entitled “More and More Amazing Latinos” provides a list of over twenty more Latinx achievers. These include Tony Meléndez, a Nicaraguan American guitarist; Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian American planetary geologist for NASA; and Jaime Escalante, a teacher of mathematics from Bolivia.

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics is a jewel of a picture book. It offers children an introductory glimpse of important historical figures they may never otherwise hear about. And let’s face it: adults will learn a great deal from these pages, too. As members of the Latinx community, these history-makers represent a rich variety of educational and economic backgrounds, an impressive array of careers and causes, as well as a diverse range of racial and ethnic legacies. Taken together, the tributes in this beautiful book point to the depth, complexity, and durability of Hispanic contribution to culture, innovation, civic advances, and many other components of life in the United States.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. For more information, visit Margarita’s website.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City, is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. A children’s book illustrator, he won the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2012, he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival poster. He has been awarded the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, three Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards. The illustrations created by López bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Learn more on his website.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERLila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.