Book Review: Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre Written by Rene Colato Laínez, Illustrated by Laura Lacámara

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez

Main_mama_the_alien_fc_hi_res_finalDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Sofía has discovered a BIG secret. Mamá is an alien–una extraterrestre! At least, that’s what it says on the card that fell out of her purse. But Papá doesn’t have an alien card. Does that mean that Sofía is half alien?

Sofía heads to the library to do some research. She finds out that aliens can be small, or tall. Some have four fingers on each hand, and some have big round eyes. Their skin can be gray or blue or green. But she and Mamá look like human people. Could Mamá really be an alien from another planet?

Filled with imagination and humor, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre is a sweet and timely immigration story, and a tender celebration of family, no matter which country (or planet) you are from.

MY TWO CENTS: In this bilingual book, Sofía is bouncing a ball when she knocks her mother’s purse to the floor. In the purse, Sofia discovers a card with the word “ALIEN” at the top. Sofía begins to think that her mother is, indeed, an alien. She even thinks she must be half alien, “I started to put the puzzle together. Mamá was an alien. Papá didn’t have a card, so he was not an alien. That mean I was half alien.”

Sofia researches aliens and wonders how her mother has hidden the fact that she is an alien from her. As Mamá gets ready for her citizenship ceremony, Sofía sees a shadow of her mom with rollers in her hair and tells her parents her suspicion about Mamá being an alien. Sofía learns that the word alien can have different meanings.

Her mother explains, “Sofía, I’m not from outer space. What you saw was my old Resident Alien card. That card allowed me to live and work here in the United States.” The story comes to an end when Sofía’s mom becomes a citizen. This book provides a glimpse into one way a girl makes sense of a complicated immigration process. Few books allow the reader to understand the complexity of the immigration system in the United States through the eyes of a child. This book is an entrance into discussion of the complex process that families must go through to become American citizens.

The illustrations are large and beautiful. In particular, the illustrator, Laura Lacámara, provides vivid pictures of the imagined aliens with humans. It is through the illustrations that we learn that Sofía’s mother is from El Salvador. A picture shows Mamá standing on an outline of El Salvador on a map. The illustrations provided in the thought bubbles add to the story and help the reader understand what Sofía is thinking about.

The author’s note at the end of the book details his own story of coming to the United States and receiving his Resident Alien Card. The author ends the note with the following, “I want readers to know that immigrants may be referred to as aliens, but this only means that they come from other countries. We are all citizens on planet Earth.”

TEACHING TIPS: Author René Colato Laínez wrote a blog post for Lee and Low books titled “No More Illegal Aliens.” In this post, Laínez discusses the use of the term “illegal aliens” and why he advocates for the use of the term “undocumented immigrants. This blog entry could be used as a paired text with the book Mamá the Alien/ Mamá La Exraterrestre.

Also, Lee and Low has developed an extensive teacher’s guide for Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre. This guide includes vocabulary, discussion questions, specific activities for English Language Learners, and interdisciplinary activities.

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: René Colato Laínez is an award-winning Salvadoran author of many multicultural books. He is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. Rene is a bilingual elementary teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School, where he is known by the students as “the teacher full of stories.”

 

 

Here are other posts we’ve done about the author:

A Conversation with René Colato Laínez

Book Review: The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez


Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Laura Lacámara is a Cuban-born children’s books author and illustrator. Lacámara holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drawing and Painting from California State University, Long Beach and studied printmaking at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. Her love for writing and illustrating children’s books grew when she signed up for a children’s book illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of Floating on Mama’s Song/Flotando en la Canción de Mamá (Junior Library Guild Selection, Fall 2010 & Tejas Star Book Award finalist 2011-12) and illustrator of The Runaway Piggy/El Cochinito Fugitivo (winner of 2012 Tejas Star Book Award) and Alicia’s Fruity Drinks/Las Aguas Frescas de Alicia.

Here are other posts we’ve done about the illustrator:

Book Review: Dalia’s Wondrous Hair/El Cabello Maravilloso de Dalia

Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 2: Juana Martinez-Neal, Maya Christina González & Laura Lacámara

 

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.

Book Review: Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

 

Reviewed by Maria Ramos-Chertok

Lucky Broken Girl CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERS: Ruthie Mizrahi and her family recently emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to New York City. Just when she’s finally beginning to gain confidence in her mastery of English—and enjoying her reign as her neighborhood’s hopscotch queen—a horrific car accident leaves her in a body cast and confined her to her bed for a long recovery. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grow larger and she comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.

MY TWO CENTS:  I read this book and couldn’t put it down and then gave it to my 11-year-old son to read and he couldn’t put it down. His review was, “It’s really good,” and while I wholeheartedly agree with him, I’ll elaborate. Ruth Behar does a great job capturing the voice and thoughts of a young girl immigrating to the United States from Cuba. Ruti, the young protagonist, shares her insights about what it is like to be smart, yet treated as if she were “dumb” because she can’t speak English.

As a reader, I found myself joyfully cheering for her to succeed and then devastated when she is injured in an accident, only to find myself re-engaged in rooting for her as she embarks on a journey to regain to her childhood body and the ease of movement she once had. I fell in love with her bohemian neighbor whose child-like appreciation for fun and non-traditional ways of living made me want to copy his interior design tips and decorate my house with piñatas. Behar doesn’t sugar coat the immense challenges of immigrant life, including financial troubles, family tensions and jealousies. Nor does she hide the emotional complexity of love, sacrifice and resentment that Ruti’s mother experiences when she finds herself in the role of 24-hour caretaker for her bed-bound daughter. Behar is also able to capture the volatility of friendships and did a great job bringing me along as Ruti first adores a girlfriend, then feels betrayed by her, and ultimately understands her motivations. The added texture to the story is that Ruti is a Cuban-Jew, which adds another dimension to her arrival in the United States as she encounters friends from different religious (and cultural) backgrounds. As she experiences the beauty of multicultural friendship, she also learns about the boundaries such friendships can have.

In writing with such honesty, Behar allows the reader to examine his/her own assumptions, biases and prejudices and pushes us to consider what is gained by the immigrant experience, but also what is lost in that transition.  This book would have automatic appeal to an immigrant child, but clearly a much wider appeal given that both my son and I are U.S. born and we were immediately captivated by the story Behar has to tell.

TEACHING TIPS:  This book is a wonderful companion to courses related to English, U.S History, Social Studies, Civics/Civic Engagement, Religious Studies, Economics and Health. I’d recommend assigning a few chapters at a time and bringing students along the various stages of Ruti’s arrival in the United States. It is a particularly compelling story to use for any discussion of immigration into the United States and what life is like from the perspective of a young immigrant.  There are rich conversations to be had related to assumptions, biases and prejudices. It is also a great way to teach empathy, as readers get a sense of what it is like to be in need of care taking and to be the care taker as they are learning about life from the perspective of a newcomer.

From an economic standpoint, there are many layers of lessons and conversations that can be facilitated about the role of consumerism and “wanting” something. What are the actual costs of the thing and what are the hidden costs and the opportunity costs? In this regard, I’m thinking, in particular, about the role that the family automobile played in Ruti’s life.

There are also discussions about the impact of making choices:  the choices to drink, how much to drink, whether to drive when drinking and what the consequences of various choices can be.

There are also some very rich conversations to have about friendship:

  • How do you know when someone is your friend?
  • What’s the difference between a friend and an acquaintance?
  • What role do friends play during hard times?
  • What happens if something happens to a friend that is hard for you to deal with?

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Lucky Broken Girl, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ruth-bioporchABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): As a storyteller, traveler, memoirist, poet, teacher, and public speaker, Ruth Behar is acclaimed for the compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. She now makes her fiction debut with Lucky Broken Girl, a novel for young readers about how the worst of wounds can teach a child a lesson about the fragile, precious beauty of life. Born in Havana, Cuba, she grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. Her recent memoirs for adults, An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy, explore her return journeys to Cuba and her search for home as an immigrant and a traveler. She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and her honors also include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University, and an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

Displaying MariaRamos-5.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer who lives in Mill Valley, CA. She is the founder and facilitator of The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey. Her work, most recently, has appeared in San Francisco’s 2016 Listen to Your Mother show (www.listentoyourmothershow.com) and in the Apogee Journal of Colombia University. Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s anthology All the Women in my Family Sing  (2017) and she will be reading in San Francisco’s LitCrawl in October 2016.  For more information please visit www.mariaramoschertok.com

Book Reviews: Juana & Lucas, Rudas: Niños Horrendous Hermanitas, and Un Elefante: Numbers/Numeros

 

Reviewed by Becky Villareal

JUANA & LUCAS: Winner of the 2017 Pura Belpré Narrative Award

Juana and Lucas CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Juana loves many things — drawing, eating Brussels sprouts, living in Bogotá, Colombia, and especially her dog, Lucas, the best amigo ever. She does not love wearing her itchy school uniform, solving math problems, or going to dance class. And she especially does not love learning the English. Why is it so important to learn a language that makes so little sense? But when Juana’s abuelos tell her about a special trip they are planning—one that Juana will need to speak English to go on—Juana begins to wonder whether learning the English might be a good use of her time after all. Hilarious, energetic, and utterly relatable, Juana will win over los corazones — the hearts — of readers everywhere in her first adventure, presented by namesake Juana Medina.

MY TWO CENTSJuana & Lucas by Juana Medina is a colorful adventure through the life of young Juana as she learns to speak and read “The English.” Juana Medina sprinkles cognates throughout the book using them to their full potential. Since they are placed strategically, it does help with the understanding of most of the passages. Also, the manner in which she uses the position of the words to express emotion is engaging and reminiscent of comics.

Illustration is Ms. Medina’s strength. The pictures are drawn beautifully and meticulously detailed. Her use of brainstorming to list the characteristics is familiar to school age students and helps carry the story along.

As Juana learns more English and she is able to help others with her new linguistic skills, she gains an understanding of the importance of being multi-lingual.

As a teacher, I would recommend this book as a read aloud for a class of students who are working on second language acquisition.

For a look inside author-illustrator Juana Medina’s studio, check out this post.

img_4567ABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR (from her website): Juana was born in Bogotá, Colombia, where she grew up; getting in a lot of trouble for drawing cartoons of her teachers. Eventually, all that drawing (and trouble) paid off. Juana studied at the Rhode Island School of Design – RISD (where she has also taught). And she has done illustration & animation work for clients in the U.S., Latin America and Europe. She now lives in Washington, D.C., where she teaches at George Washington University.

 

 

 

RUDAS: NIÑO’S HORRENDOUS HERMANITAS

Rudas CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Señoras y señores, niños y niñas, the time has come to welcome the spectacular, two-of-a-kind . . . LAS HERMANITAS! No opponent is too big a challenge for the cunning skills of Las Hermanitas, Lucha Queens! Their Poopy Bomb Blowout will knock em’ down! Their Tag-Team Teething will gnaw opponents down to a pulp! Their Pampered Plunder Diversion will fell even the most determined competitor! But what happens when Niño comes after them with a move of his own? Watch the tables turn in this wild, exciting wrestling adventure from Caldecott Honor author Yuyi Morales.

MY TWO CENTS: Rudas: Niños Horrendous Hermanitas by Yuyi Morales is a wonderful addition to the world of Niño, the older brother of two twin sisters.

In this energetic children’s book, Niño has to deal with the misadventures of his sisters beginning with stinky diapers to horrendous crying fits.  All of which he does with as much patience as possible by enlisting the help of his imaginary wrestling adversaries.

Written with a commentary of a wrestling match, it may be a bit hard for someone to follow who is not familiar with this particular genre.  However, I found the book itself to be very entertaining as well as humorous as Niño has to deal with the repercussions of being an older brother.

This would be an excellent read for second language acquisition students.  For children who are learning the language, the author has included English definitions and illustrations in the book itself.  The illustrations are colorful and carry the reader along in this very busy day.

I would highly recommend this book for an early childhood classroom library.

For more about Yuyi Morales’s previous books abour Niño, check these out:

Guest Post: ¡Qué Vivan los Niños Luchadores!

Book Review: Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Yuyi Morales is a Mexican author, illustrator, artist, and puppet maker. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Physical Education from the University of Xalapa, México and used to host her own Spanish-language radio program for children in San Francisco, California.She has won numerous awards for her children’s books, including the Caldecott Honor for Viva Frida, Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award for Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (2004) and Los Gatos Black on Halloween (2008), the Pura Belpré Author Honor for Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book (2009), the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award for Viva Frida (2015), Niño Wrestles the World (2014) Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (2004), Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book (2009) and Los Gatos Black on Halloween (2008), and Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor for My Abuelita (2010) and Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez (2004). Morales divides her time between the San Francisco area and Veracruz, Mexico. Her next picture book, Thunder Boy Jr. (written by Sherman Alexie), will be published in May 2016.

 

UN ELEFANTE: NUMBERS / NUMEROS

Reviewed by Ruby Jones

31686520DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Inspired by one of the most beloved nursery rhymes in Latin America, “Un Elefante se Balanceaba,” this book will introduce little ones to numbers and their first English and Spanish words.

MY TWO CENTS: I grew up with my mother reciting the “Un Elefante se Balanceaba” nursery rhyme to me and my siblings so this simple bilingual counting board book is a fun and bright new way to teach counting to my little one.

Each page, as we progress in counting from 1 to 10 elefantes, brings a new, beautifully-illustrated, circus-talented elephant onto the spider web. The numbers are big and vibrant on each page with the number of elephants written beneath in both English and Spanish.

One thing to keep in mind is that this book is inspired by the nursery rhyme so there is no real story line except at the end where the spider web gives way. The book did make me wish that the whole rhyme was written out somewhere in the book, maybe on a final page, for those who may not be familiar with the nursery rhyme. That being said, the artwork is such that there is plenty to talk and engage with little ones about.

TEACHING TIPS: Other than the obvious bilingual number counting, educators can cover action words, discussing what each elephant is doing. Additionally, colors and simple shapes can be reviewed. Maybe even a fun balancing game can be played!

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Patty Rodriguez: Unable to find bilingual first concept books she could enjoy reading to her baby, Patty came up with the idea behind Lil’ Libros. Patty and her work have been featured in the LA Times, Rolling Stone, CNN Latino, Latina Magazine, Cosmopolitan, People En Espanol, Cosmo Latina, and American Latino TV, to name a few! Patty is currently Sr. Producer for On Air With Ryan Seacrest|iHeartMedia, jewelry designer for MALA by Patty Rodriguez, and creator of Manolos And Tacos.

 

 

Ariana Stein: Ariana Stein, a graduate from California State University, Dominguez Hills, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. Ariana spent the first 8 years of her professional career in the corporate world. Her life changed with the birth of her baby boy. She immediately realized that bilingualism played a very important role in his future, as well as the future of other children.

The publishers of Un Elefante, Lil’ Libros, have a series of other books that are also based off of Latinx cultural themes. See a short video here:

 

 
ABOUT THE REVIEWERS:
Displaying Headshot.jpgBecky Villareal, a retired teacher, loves working on family history and spending time with her grandchildren.  She has published three children’s books, Gianna the Great, Halito Gianna: The Journey Continues, and Snake Holes.  Her fourth book, The Broken Branches, will makes its debut in 2018.
 
 
 
 

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 Ruby Jones has been working in public libraries since 2007 in various capacities, including Adult & Teen Services technician and webmaster at her current library.  She currently lives in Maine with her husband and precocious 2 year old. She continually strives to impart a passion and a sense of fearlessness toward technology, reading and learning for all ages.

Book Reviews: Luis Paints the World, A Surprise for Teresita, and Maybe Something Beautiful

 

Reviews by Dora Guzman

The following books are a wonderful addition to any classroom library, as well as reading about how art inspires young artists and the beauty of waiting. One teaching tip is to use Luis Paints the World and A Surprise for Teresita to compare and contrast the main characters and their response to the act of waiting. Teachers can also use Maybe Something Beautiful and Luis Paints the World to compare and contrast how the main characters use art to express their current feelings to themselves and the community. Also, teachers can use all three books to compare and contrast characters and other story elements, but most of all for young readers to experience inspirational and impacting characters and stories.

 

MAYBE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL

Maybe Something Beautiful CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: What good can a splash of color do in a community of gray? As Mira and her neighbors discover, more than you might ever imagine! Based on the true story of the Urban Art Trail in San Diego, California, Maybe Something Beautiful reveals how art can inspire transformation—and how even the smallest artists can accomplish something big. Pick up a paintbrush and join the celebration!

MY TWO CENTS: A realistic fiction picture book in lyrical writing based on a true story, this book paints a picture of a diverse community coming together as artists to liven up the town, and their interpersonal relationships. Mira, a little girl, is an artist who decides to share her paintings with her neighbors. Soon after, the color fulfills the community’s craving for life. Neighbors begin to also contribute their ideas to the town through murals and other creative expressions like dancing, Suddenly, a gray old town turns into a warm, colorful community.

I absolutely loved this book, especially the main character, Mira. She is young, but she contributed a transformative gift to her town by sharing her paintings. Great contrast in the illustrations while Mira literally brings color and life to a gray world. This picture book depicts an essential component of a community, which is to share our joys and contributions to further enhance our lives and surroundings.

TEACHING TIPS: A great read aloud for all ages, especially those in elementary schools (K-5). When reading, teachers can:

  • focus on retelling
  • model similes and metaphors
  • use it as a writing mentor text for descriptive words and language
  • analyze the use of onomatopoeia
  • describe how the illustrations support the text

The possibilities are endless!

isabel-campoyABOUT THE AUTHORS (from the book)Isabel Campoy is an author, anthologist, translator, and bilingual educator who has won many awards for her professional contributions. Her many accolades include ALA Notables, the San Francisco Library Award, the Reading the World Award from the University of San Francisco, the NABE Ramón Santiago Award, the International Latino Children’s Book Award, and nine Junior Library Guild selections. She is a member of the North American Academy of Spanish Language. She lives in Northern California.

 

THERESA HOWELLTheresa Howell is a children’s book author and editor with many bilingual books to her credit. Mutually inspired by Rafael Lopez’s efforts to transform communities through art, they combined their talents in the lyrical text of Maybe Something Beautiful. She lives in Colorado.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López is both the illustrator of this book and the inspiration for the character of the muralist. He was born and raised in Mexico, a place that has always influenced the vivid colors and shapes in his artwork. He now creates community-based mural projects around the world and illustrates award-winning children’s books. Rafael López divides his time between Mexico and San Diego, California.

 

 

 

A SURPRISE FOR TERESITA / UNA SORPRESA PARA TERESITA

A Surprise for Teresita CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: In this bilingual picture book for young children, seven-year-old Teresita anxiously awaits her Tio Ramon, who has promised her a special surprise for her birthday.

MY TWO CENTS: This realistic fiction picture book in a bilingual English/Spanish text format is about a girl, Teresita, anticipating her uncle, Tio Ramon, and her birthday gift. As Teresita goes about her day, she meets other neighbors who are also anticipating her uncle’s famous snow cones. Soon after, her Tio Ramon arrives and not only shares his refreshing snow cones, but did not forget about Teresita’s unique birthday gift!

The main character, Teresita, is every child on their birthday, experiencing the anticipation of a birthday gift, but more importantly anticipating the visit of a loved one. The book also focuses on the joy that her uncle brings to the community, so the anticipation is shared between Teresita and the community. It reminds me of numerous memories of waiting for the raspados, paletas, and elotes. The moment when Tio Ramon arrives is an endearing moment for the reader and Teresita. Great character description throughout the story!

TEACHING TIPS: A great book to use for a read aloud at any age, especially elementary aged students. Reading and writing focuses can also include retelling, predicting, analyzing character feelings and/or traits, modeling narrative structure and writing.

Virginia Sánchez KorrolABOUT THE AUTHOR: Virginia Sánchez-Korrol is a Professor Emerita at Brooklyn College, CUNY. She is co-editor of the three volume Latinas in the United States and when she is not working on history brooks, she writes a blog for the Huffington Post.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Carolyn Dee Flores is a computer analyst turned rock musician turned children’s illustrator who loves experimenting with unconventional art equipment and art mediums. She has won numerous awards. She is currently serving as the Illustrator Coordinator for the Southwest Texas Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and mentor for the We Need Diverse Books movement.

For more information about Carolyn, check out this post, one in a series that highlights Latina illustrators.

 

LUIS PAINTS THE WORLD

Luis Paints the World CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Luis wishes Nico wasn’t leaving for the Army. To show Nico he doesn’t need to go, Luis begins a mural on the alleyway wall. Their house, the river, the Parque de las Ardillas—it’s the world, all right there. Won’t Nico miss Mami’s sweet flan? What about their baseball games in the street? But as Luis awaits his brother’s return from duty, his own world expands as well, through swooping paint and the help of their bustling Dominican neighborhood.

MY TWO CENTS: A sweet story between Luis and his brother, Nico, who is deploying to another country through the Army. The reader can sense the sadness and helplessness in Luis convincing his older brother, Nico, to stay home. Luis is then inspired to paint a mural in order to show the world to his brother. While Nico’s departure is inevitable, Luis continues to paint and add to the mural, which then also inspires his mom and neighbors to add to the mural. The descriptive language changes throughout the seasons and is reminiscent of the unknown arrival of a loved one in the armed forces. Loved the story format and the thinking process behind Luis’s mural additions. Art truly was Luis’s form of therapy and measure of time of when his brother will come back home.

TEACHING TIPS: A great book to read aloud to any aged students, especially in the elementary grades. Readers can also focus on certain reading skills like retelling, questioning, and predicting throughout the story. Writers can focus on writing skills like narrative writing and adding descriptive language and adding dialogue.

Image result for terry farishABOUT THE AUTHOR: Terry Farish’s picture books, novels, and nonfiction works often focus on immigrant and refugee populations, informed by her early work for the Red Cross in Vietnam and continual research. Terry presents literacy programs for the New Hampshire Humanities Council, and she received the New England Reading Association 2016 Special Recognition Award for Outstanding Contributions to Literacy. She lives in Kittery, Maine.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Oliver Rodriguez was born and raised in Miami, where his family settled after leaving Columbia. As a child, Oliver loved the way illustrations could bring a story to life. He received his BFA in Illustration from the Ringling College of Art and Design in 2008 and has illustrated multiple picture books. He lives in Florida with his wife, two dogs, and a collection of unique hats.

 

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-3 and also teaches an undergraduate college course in Children’s Literature. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never ending “to read” pile!

Latinxs and the MFA: A Chat with Emerging Writer Yamile Saied Méndez

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Writer Yamile Saied Méndez, surrounded by her family

Many aspiring writers look to MFA programs as the surest path to refining their writing skills. Yamile Saied Méndez, a native of Argentina who resides in Utah, is a recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program (VCFA). We were delighted to chat with her about her experiences.

LKL: Let’s get some background. When and how did you catch the writing bug?

Yamile: I’ve always loved stories and books. It wasn’t until my grandfather died, when I was six years old, that I wanted to tell my own stories. True to my writing process (which I recognized much later in life), the story simmered in my mind for a couple of years. I finally put my experiences and feelings on paper when the story had taken total possession of me, and I couldn’t go one more day without telling it.

So I wrote about a princess named Joanna who went out to find a cure for her grandfather’s cancer.

From my beginnings, my writing has been a tool to explore what’s happening in my life and the world around me, although my stories aren’t technically autobiographical. I write about third-culture children, sports, my beloved city of Rosario, life in small-town Utah, spirituality, etc.

Writing has always been a part of my life, but I never thought I could one day be a writer. I left Argentina at age nineteen to attend Brigham Young University, where I majored in International Economy. But during those years, I learned Portuguese and eventually became a translator. I devoured books from the library. When my children were born, I savored the books I didn’t have in my childhood (like Where the Wild Things Are, Ferdinand, and Good Night Moon, among others).

When my own stories started taking full possession of me, and I couldn’t go another day without telling them, I started writing. After the birth of my fourth child, I decided that I wanted to share my writing with the world. I rolled up my literal sleeves and started my writing apprenticeship.

LKL: Before VCFA, what types of self-directed activities or writing classes did you utilize to develop your craft?

Yamile: NaNoWriMo was the catalyst that sent the proverbial writing stone rolling for me. I was very active in the blogging community, and on November 6th, 2007, I read a casual comment about a novel-writing challenge. I headed over to the NaNoWriMo website, signed up, and started writing a story that had been germinating in my mind for a while and I hadn’t even noticed. The euphoria of typing The End is addictive, and after the first time, I couldn’t stop.

I wrote every day and learned there was much more to writing than pouring words on the page. I found books on self-editing, story structure, character development, and eventually, the publishing industry. With the help of my critique group (the Sharks and Pebbles, whose name originated from this spoof), finished a manuscript and queried it without apparent success. Some agents who rejected my piece were very encouraging, and that was all I needed to stay motivated.

I attended my first writers conference, LDS Storymakers, which is the largest writing conference in Utah, and entered the first-chapter contest. My entry won the first place in the Young Adult category, which told me I was on the right track.

I also attended the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference and workshop, organized and directed by VCFA alumna and award-winning author Carol Lynch Williams, and my life changed forever. At WIFYR I workshopped with Ann Dee Ellis, Martine Leavitt, and Cynthia Leitich-Smith. After savoring this yearly feast on craft and art, I wanted more. I knew Martine and Cynthia taught at VCFA, and when my fifth child was one-year-old (and in my mind, capable of surviving without me during the ten-day residency periods), I applied to the program.

LKL: Please share about your experiences with your MFA, starting with the decision to apply. How did you choose VCFA? What are some of the factors you would recommend for other writers to consider?

Yamile: I had looked into VCFA for years, but my four children were very young, my husband had (and still has) a very demanding job, and I didn’t think I had the skills required for such an intensive program. I perused the website nightly, and when I turned to the Acknowledgements page of a favorite book and read the author’s dedication and/or gratitude to VCFA, and its faculty and student body, my desire to apply intensified.

One day I realized that time kept going, and that my children were growing up quickly. If I wanted to pursue advanced education, now was the time. Fortunately, my husband was very encouraging. After all, I had supported him when he pursued his MBA degree and as he advanced in his career. Armed with my family’s support, I applied. When the acceptance letter arrived, I was thrilled.

LKL: Take us into the world of an MFA student. What were some of the turning points or eureka moments for you as a writer?

Yamile: In my first semester, I learned to be a flexible writer. I’d already written two MG novels before VCFA, and I was determined to write YA during my two years as a student. With my first advisor, I wrote YA, but I also wrote poetry, picture books, early readers, and my favorite surprise: short stories. Exploring with the format allowed me to study plot and story structure. It taught me to make my words count. Two of my YA projects were born of short stories. The experience was illuminating in regards to my own writing process. Another thing I valued from the beginning was being open to critique, but also trusting my writerly instincts. In our graduation ceremony, VCFA Thomas Christopher Greene told us graduates that we had earned a Master’s degree over our own writing. To trust this authority. I remind myself of this lesson daily.

yamile-daughterLKL: During your enrollment, you were also busy with family life. Could you share some tips for getting the most from classwork while also meeting everyday demands?

Yamile: As I flew back home from my first residency, I considered the work load for each of the five packets ahead of me that semester (40 pages of creative writing, 2 critical essays, an annotated bibliography of ten to fifteen books, and a detailed letter to my advisor), and I was overwhelmed.

How in the world was I ever going to do it all?

I learned to prioritize. I put myself on a schedule that started much earlier than my children’s so I could have uninterrupted writing time. With my kids in school, I had almost three hours of sacred morning writing time (I still do most of my writing during the morning when the kids are at school). Still, my obligations didn’t fit into 24 hours.

I learned to say no. I didn’t volunteer at the kids’ schools as much (or at all during my third semester). I gave up TV.

I also had obligations to my agent, my freelance writing job, and my church. I reached a point in which I put my writing, my family, my obligations ahead of my health. I started learning (I’m still learning this) to maximize my time so I could sleep a full night. I learned simple recipes, and my children helped with household chores. When they saw my dedication to my school work, my family teamed up to help me meet my deadlines. We read my “homework” before bedtime. We listened to audiobooks in the car. The kids brought me books from their school libraries to help with essays or research. Again, I also learned how to be a flexible writer. I wrote or read during halftime at soccer matches or long dance competitions. I did “character studies” during carpool (15 year-old boys will say the funniest things when they believe the driver can’t hear them). I learned to let go of things I couldn’t control, like the sea of Legos in the playroom. These habits prepared me for the writing life after the MFA. Nowadays, although I don’t have an advisor waiting for my packet, I have an agent waiting for my revision. A VCFA friend and I became accountability partners. It helps to have someone cheering for me and celebrating accomplishments at the end of a busy week.

The MFA was a family affair, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of so many friends and family.

LKL: A few years ago, Junot Díaz wrote a stinging essay about the experiences of people of color at various MFA programs. On its website, VCFA makes a strong commitment to diversity. In your view, how well do they honor this promise?

fellowlatinas

Yamile with fellow Latinas at VCFA

Yamile: I’m embarrassed to confess I didn’t know Junot Díaz until my first semester advisor assigned me one of his short stories. The beauty, honesty, and clarity of Junot’s words stunned me. My perception of my world, my writing, my country, and myself changed dramatically. I measured all I learned against my new perception of what it means to be a POC in a graduate program.

At VCFA, the student body is still not diverse enough. The staggering price of tuition and room/board is a deterrent to many POC applicants. VCFA is trying to mitigate the financial burden by granting scholarships (The Angela Johnson Scholarship for New Students of Color or Ethnic Minority established by literary agent Barry Goldblatt).

As far as the faculty goes, VCFA boasts an incredible roll of award-winning stars with ties to diverse communities: Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Uma Krishnaswami, An Na, Will Alexander, Daniel José Older, Kekla Magoon, and Shelley Tanaka, among others.

The rest of the faculty is invested in diversity and the promotion of writers from marginalized communities. Workshops and lectures are sensitive to the importance of inclusion and supporting marginalized voices. Alumni POC are wonderful role models and mentors. In the admissions department, prospective, current, and past students have a super champion in Ann Cardinal, a self-declared Gringa-Rican.

To summarize my answer, yes, VCFA honors their commitment to diversity, and they continue to strive to better serve the interests of all students, especially writers of color.

LKL: What advice would you give to aspiring Latinx writers about considering a creative writing program or preparing to enroll in one?

Yamile: I’m a strong advocate for education. However, I’d advise people to consider the motivations for pursuing a MFA.

Is it to take a shortcut on publication or success?

Keep in mind that there aren’t any promises for either publication or success even for VCFA MFA holders.

Is it to teach?

An MFA will provide the writer with better opportunities to teach at a university level, since it’s a terminal degree.

Is it to improve their craft?

You could also acquire these tools on your own, or by attending conferences and workshops. But during a structured program, you will be committed to do your work every day, no matter what.

Is it for the community?

At VCFA, I made personal connections with fellow students, faculty, and alumni, some of whom graduated years before I even started. The VCFA family is a tight-knit group, and I’m honored to be part of it.

Also, consider your financial situation.

Lastly, look into your heart. I always wanted to be a writer, but I felt I needed to study something practical, and that’s how I ended up studying economics. My love for writing and reading never waned though, so when I had the chance, I chose VCFA. I wonder how my story would have been different if I’d gone with my heart years ago.

If a writing program is what you want to do, then go for it.

LKL: Now that you’re an MFA grad, what’s next? What are you working on?

Yamile: I finished VCFA with a portfolio of exciting material. I’m revising an MG story about a girl, the star of an all-boy fútbol team. When she gets her period and gets kicked off the team, she goes on to earn a spot in a girls’ team, and to fight for the National Championship. For my critical thesis, I wrote on the importance of portraying girls’ puberty in middle grade, and following on the heels of that, this story has been fun and empowering to write. Eleven-year-old me would have loved it.

I’m also working on a story I call it my gender-bender Hamilton meets Joan D’Arc–my love letter to refugees and immigrants everywhere.

Next spring, I’m teaching a diversity class at Storymakers, and I applied to Junot Díaz’s VONA workshop, because education never ends.

LKL: Finally, permit us to show off a little on your behalf. You had an amazing 2015: You were named a finalist in Lee and Low’s New Voices Award. You secured a literary agent. You enrolled at VCFA. At some point, We Need Diverse Books named you a recipient of its inaugural Walter Deans Myers Grant. Wow! What has the Walter Dean Myers grant meant to your writing career? Tell us how 2015 fits into the story of where you’ve come from—and where you see yourself going—as a writer.

Yamile: The validation I felt after winning the New Voices Honor, and being chosen as an inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient was the fuel I needed to keep me motivated and engaged in learning as much as I could at VCFA. To think that I taught myself how to read and write English with a bilingual dictionary! I’m inspired to keep working towards publication, to tell the stories that I wanted to read as a child and that also reflect the reality of a large portion of the population of our country. My dream is to visit schools to tell children like my own that their voices matter. I’m excited for the future generation and the stories they’ll produce.

Keep up with Yamile on her website, where she blogs about the writing life, or on Twitter: @yamilesmendez. 

 

 

Book Review: Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez, PhD

28957208DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: An eloquent and moving account of the tragic migrations of thousands upon thousands of children who are leaving their homes in Central America, often alone, to seek refuge in the United States. Why are they going and how does it feel to be one of them? What is this terrible trip like? What do their hopes and dreams for safety, a new life and a loving reception mean to them?

A refugee from El Salvador’s war in the eighties, Jorge Argueta was born to explain the distressing choice confronting young Central Americans today who are saying goodbye to everything they know because they fear for their lives.

This book is beautifully illustrated by master artist Alfonso Ruano.

MY TWO CENTS: Somos Como Las Nubes/ We are Like the Clouds is a moving collection of bilingual free verse poems. This is one of the few books that I have encountered about the heartbreaking experiences of children who leave their homes to embark on their journey to the United States. This collection of poetry begins with poetry depicting the experiences and sights of the children’s home countries. The poetry then shifts to the journey that children take to get to the United States. The author includes poems that describe the fears of traveling on La Bestia (a fast moving moving train that many migrants use to travel), discuss being accompanied by “coyotes,” and describe children’s feelings as they cross the deserts.  I’ll share one of the most powerful poems about the journey titled “Las Chinamas”. The word Chinamas refers to the border between El Salvador and Guatemala.

When we crossed

the border at Las Chinamas

I saw the river Paz.

Its water runs smiling

between the rocks.

Here the cenzontles (mockingbirds)

never stop singing.

 

I remembered

our schoolyard,

the gualcalchillas, (small songbirds)

and my teacher

Miss Celia.

 

I remembered my mother,

my brothers,

my sisters.

Who knows

when I will see them again.

I look at the sky

and think,

we are like the clouds.

 

What I loved about this book is that there is message of hope in knowing that children are resilient, but the author does not hold back in depicting the heartbreak that goes along with leaving a home country. The book allows the reader to the experience the treacherous journey to the United States through the eyes and wonder of a child. The pictures in this book are also stunningly beautiful. The pictures depict the children’s home countries, families crossing borders, and children laying on the soft sand in the desert. The final poems in the book offer hope. In the poem “Fear,” a mother tells her child in his dream, “This is not a dream, you are in my arms.” The child has arrived to his destination in Los Angeles.

I shed tears when I read this book. It is heartbreaking and it is a poignant reminder that children are children and that there are difficult decisions that children should not have to make. In my opinion, what makes this book even more powerful is that it is written by Jorge Argueta. The author’s note at the beginning of the book shares Jorge’s own experience of fleeing El Salvador and coming to the United States. He shares his inspiration for writing the book by stating, “Like the clouds, our children come and go. Nothing and no one can stop them”.

TEACHING TIPS: This book is an invitation to learn about the harsh realities that children face when they leave their homes and embark on the difficult journey to the United States. It would be a great addition to any classroom library. It would be an excellent book to add to text sets about immigration or refugees. Teachers can also use this book to teach children about writing through difficult situations. It can also be used to show students how illustrations can enhance poetry as this book is beautifully illustrated.

To find Somos Como Los Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Image result for jorge arguetaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jorge Tetl Argueta is a celebrated Salvadoran poet and writer whose bi-lingual children’s books have received numerous awards. His poetry has appeared in anthologies and textbooks. He won the America’s Book Award, among other awards for his first collection of poems for children, A Movie in My Pillow. He was the Gold Medal Award winner in the 2005 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) for Moony Luna/Luna, Lunita Lunera. His other works for children include Xochitl and the Flowers, 2003 America’s Award Commended Title, Trees are Hanging from the SkyZipitioTalking with Mother EarthThe Little Hen in the City and The Fiesta of the Tortillas.

 

Alfonso RuanoABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Alfonso Ruano was born in 1949 in Toledo, Spain. He studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid. He has published about 20 books for children and has received multiple awards for his work.

 

 

 

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.