A Letter from Young Adult Readers to Latinx Writers About Race, Gender, and Other Issues

 

By Marilisa Jiménez García with Lehigh Students: Kristen Mejia, Felicia Galvez, Sarah White, Caroline Raney

This Spring 2017, I taught a course at Lehigh University called “Latinx Youth Culture.” The course centered on studying youth literature and culture from the perspective of how past and contemporary Latinx authors depict, and to an extent recover, history and youth protagonists. We also looked at ways in which many popular and award-winning books for Latinx youth, and those depicting Latinx young people and/or youth movements portrayed issues of race, gender, nationalism, and Latin American revolutions. Our reading list included:

Jose Marti, La Edad de Oro (1899)

Pura Belpré, The Tiger and the Rabbit (1943)

Duncan Tonatiuh, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (2013)

Nicholasa Mohr, Nilda (1973)

Pam Muñoz Ryan, Esperanza Rising (2000)

Sonia Manzano, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (2013)

Francisco Jimenez, The Circuit (1997)

Julia Alvarez, Before We Were Free (2004)

Margarita Engle, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (2013)

Ashley Hope Perez, Out of Darkness (2015)

Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper (2015)

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As a class, we considered how these texts represent the Latinx community, and the history of Latin America and the Caribbean, to young readers, and in some cases, because of the lack of Latinx representation and authors in youth literature, these books may be the only portrayals a young reader may encounter in a book about Latinx people. At the end of the course, I asked students to create suggestions of what they hoped to see in Latinx literature for youth. What follows is a list of suggestions gathered from our collective conversation and survey of Latinx literature for youth, including comments composed by my students for those who are currently writing and those who hope to write for young readers. Students also kept in mind those in publishing and award committees.

Writers and award committees should pay more attention to their own racial and class biases in the Latinx community and internal struggles with anti-blackness. Students noted that many of the protagonists in award-winning and popular books are light-skinned Latinos, while Afro and Indigenous Latinxs characters tend to be marginalized as the supporting characters, in problematic tropes such as the servants and slave characters, and even the bullies. At that point, Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper was the only prominent young adult novel we could survey with a strong Afro-Latinx protagonist. In terms of race and class privilege, students noted that often protagonists migrating to the U.S. from Latin America were of the upper class in terms of escaping dire circumstances, such as dictatorships. Particularly when it came to representing the Latinx past, and historical moments such as abolitionism in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Mexican Revolution, students noted that light-skinned Latinxs tended to model some of the “white savior tropes” familiar in European culture. As Felicia Galvez, a Lehigh sophomore noted:

“I think culture and race are important. It’s an issue that most Latinx youth are experiencing. To ignore that part and to deny it is wrong. Black characters that writers decide to put in books should not be stereotypical. It’s wrong. Latinxs can be racist. It is not just a U.S. thing. Most of these writers being nominated are privileged and are whiter. It needs to be said because there’s a pattern here. Latinxs are a diverse culture. They come in many different colors. It’s said that we only see the whiter side in the media and in literature. Don’t be afraid to criticize other Latinxs. We want to get our books out, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of someone feeling excluded from the picture or seeing themselves as a stereotypical black person. Or ignoring the suffering that they feel and that their ancestors felt. Writers should try harder to incorporate different perspectives in various ways. Having the main character react to people around them does not make me sympathize with the character. Having the side characters, of African descent, only reacting to the main character who is white is not okay. It’s annoying and sad because it promotes the idea that they need a white savior to help them…”

On researching the American Library Association’s Pura Belpré Medal, junior Caroline Raney, noted, “I was surprised to learn that in a literary genre founded with the goal of being inclusive and celebratory of the Latinx experience, there are still perspectives and backgrounds that are not being recognized. I am not of Latin American descent, so this was my first chance to critically read and analyze a lot of books classified as Latinx literature.” Raney took time to study the trends of the Medal since its founding in 1996, pointing out that a Belpré win may also mean a book is ordered more through libraries and schools, and perhaps more likely to be suggested in curriculum. Raney notes that in the event a Belpré Medal winner contained potentially anti-black and elitist view, then the “normalization of racism and privilege throughout the story may have widespread effects since this book may be the only piece of Latinx children’s literature many young Americans will ever read.”

Raney writes, “I think in the future, it is important to publish more children’s novels about more diverse Latinx backgrounds and perspectives as well as have more critical discussions about race in classrooms so that children can be able to recognize how some books can be problematic. As long as prize-winning Latinx children’s literature features predominantly privileged, white, and Spanish protagonists, the authentic stories of mixed, Afro-Latinx, and indigenous Latinx people living in Latin America and the United States today will be marginalized or even invisible. Including more diverse stories would not only help children see themselves in the novels they read, it could effect change by reducing bias and potentially racism in the future.”

Writers and publishers should make sure they research various perspectives during critical moments of Latin American and Caribbean history, such as the Mexican Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, El Grito de Lares, the Trujillo era in the Dominican Republic. Students also noted a relative silence about how and why those revolutions in Latin America happened, yet much more detail was present about political figures and movements in the U.S. Consider who gets to tell the story. Consider also whether, as Latinx writers, we are relying more on our families’ experiences and not going into research practices which enable us to see multiple perspectives in our home countries. Kristen Mejia, an outgoing senior reflects,

“Unfortunately, the books and authors I had read growing up hadn’t written about my experience about being a second-generation Latina and not being able to speak fluently…Writers should avoid story lines that are not validated within history. When writing a story line that utilizes history in some way, writers MUST DO THEIR HOMEWORK. DO NOT make up stories and events UNLESS there is a note after the novel explaining why this was done. Children grow up reading certain stories [and might believe those] stor[ies] [are] the only experience a [Mexican, a Cuban, etc.] could have at the time. [Many authors seem to rely on their own family’s experiences when recounting history] While many authors do this, and authors should do this, we also need to hold ourselves responsible for what image we are presenting to younger audiences. When utilizing history as a backdrop of a story, it is our duty as underrepresented Latinxs within literature, to use this opportunity to educate our youth. We can help them become more knowledge about their history and the history that our people have faced.”

Writers should consider whether they are truly presenting the consequences of historical events, such as slavery, revolution, and civil rights activism for young readers. Students appreciated when we read experiences that didn’t sugarcoat border-crossing and racial, gender, and sexual violence. Sarah White, a graduate student in American Studies, writes, “Writers should take care to avoid over-generalizations, stereotyping, and romantic/simplistic notions of their subjects. I would like to see stories that speak to current, relevant issues that youth today are dealing with, such as bullying, navigating multi-racial or transnational identities, and how to keep their heritage and culture alive in an era of increasing censorship and violence.”

Mejia notes, “Publishers need to avoid stories that paint difficult life events in a positive manner when in reality, they may always be hard and full of struggle. We need to be more real with our youth. Many young people grow up with an image of difficult times ending up being fine. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s reality. Not every immigrant makes it across the border alive. Not everyone gets a rags-to-riches story. Our youth deserve more than just a fairy tale.  They deserve to know what they may be faced with in our society and what they can do to prepare themselves for this struggle.”

 

Marilisa Jiménez García is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in Latino/a literature and culture. She is particularly interested in the intersections of race, gender, nationalism, and youth culture in Puerto Rican literature of the diaspora. Jiménez García also specializes in literature for youth and how marginalized communities have used children’s and young adult texts as a platform for artistic expression, collective memory, and community advocacy. She is working on a book manuscript on the formation of Latino/a literature and media for youth. She has published in venues such as CENTRO Journal, Journal for the History of Childhood and Youth, Latino Studies, and Journal for Adolescent and Adult Literacy. Before joining Lehigh University, Jiménez García held a postdoctoral research appointment as a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (CENTRO) at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY). She was also an adjunct assistant professor in the Africana/Puerto Rican/Latino Studies department at Hunter College. She is the recipient of a Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color Fellowship from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and a Best Dissertation Award from the Puerto Rican Studies Association (PRSA). Jiménez García has also completed service projects in New York City public schools and with the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools. She has forthcoming book chapters on the Pura Belpré Medal and intersectionality in ethnic literature for Routledge and Teachers College Press, respectively. Jiménez García completed her Ph.D. in 2012 from the University of Florida.

Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older

Reviewed by Ashley Hope Pérez

This review of Shadowhouse Fall, book #2 in the Shadowshaper Cypher series, is based on an advance reader’s edition.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: The extraordinary sequel to the New York Times bestseller Shadowshaper is daring, dazzling, defiant.

Sierra and her friends love their new lives as shadowshapers, making art and creating change with the spirits of Brooklyn. Then Sierra receives a strange card depicting a beast called the Hound of Light — an image from the enigmatic, influential Deck of Worlds. The shadowshapers know their next battle has arrived.

Thrust into an ancient struggle with enemies old and new, Sierra and Shadowhouse are determined to win. Revolution is brewing in the real world as well, as the shadowshapers lead the fight against systems that oppress their community. To protect her family and friends in every sphere, Sierra must take down the Hound and master the Deck of Worlds… or risk losing them all.

MY TWO CENTSShadowhouse Fall adds depth to the fantasy world first introduced in Older’s acclaimed first YA novel, Shadowshaper. Perhaps more remarkable is how the second book in the series plugs into urgent conversations about racialized violence, white supremacy, and youth activism. Picking up a few months after the events at the end of Shadowshaper, Shadowhouse Fall probes the challenges of leading a secret society once the novelty and adrenaline have worn off—and after the school year begins again. Sierra Santiago’s role as Lucera, leader of the shadowshapers, already requires more energy than she feels she has, and that’s before factoring in complications on the romantic front, a death in the family, and the fatigue that comes from confronting daily racial microaggressions, such as being sent to the principal for diagnosing an instance of white privilege, the dehumanizing experience of passing through metal detectors to enter school, and regular police harassment in public spaces. These challenges intensify further when the appearance of the Deck of Worlds throws the spiritual realm into upheaval and when inappropriate police detention of shadowshapers leads to widespread youth protest.

Although readers are unlikely to share Sierra’s exact configuration of demands, they will relate to the complex dance between the demands of school, family, activism, and spirituality or self-discovery. Sierra’s fatigue and loneliness—even in the midst of her friends—are beautifully rendered, as are the irritability and impulsiveness that sometimes results. (Rendering a character’s struggle honestly without abrading her likability is no small feat.) Older shows that some real allies may be found in conventional figures like the school principal, but he also shows the difficulty of navigating complex, culturally sensitive problems that cannot be shared in school spaces without drawing judgment. There’s a real tenderness and humanity to how Older depicts Sierra as she navigates the difficult emotional territory that comes with the winding down of one romantic interest and the kindling of a new one.

The world of spirits in Shadowhouse Fall gains further particularity and interest from the growing detail about the rise (and fall) of different houses to how Older reveals how the Shadowshapers’ rival spirit house, the House of Light, depends on mythologies of whiteness to bolster its power. Readers drawn to complex, powerful heroines who actually reflect on the consequences of their actions will find much to like in Sierra’s fierce leadership and in her desire to make responsible use of her gifts. I was moved by Older’s tender portrayal of varied connections between spirits and the living.

Here, as in Shadowshaper, the cast of characters is varied and vibrant. The intergenerational, multi-ethnic coalitions that support action in the spirit world and on the streets of Bed-Stuy offer a welcome reprieve from the all-teen world manufactured in many YA novels. Sure, the villains can sometimes seem one-dimensional in their power-hungry myopia, but the density of nuance in characterization more than makes up for this. Older has a knack for evoking cultural particularity and evading stereotype, a talent evident in characterization and in dialogue. Readers encounter a range of English vernaculars, Haitian Creole, Jamaican Patois, and Spanish, and Older strategically breaks down presumed configurations of class and culture. For example, we see a Jamaican attorney deftly navigate multiple registers, making strategic use of his “lawyerly courtroom voice” when needed but electing to speak in Patois in most situations. The intergenerational friendships in the novel highlight the resourcefulness of multi-ethnic communities and the transmission of tactical knowledge.

Just as adults in the novel display their linguistic dexterity in a range of settings, so do Sierra and her friends. Sierra’s voice emerges equally authentically when she is bantering and strategizing with her fellow shadowshapers, sweet-talking a romantic interest, or, speaking truth to power in her AP History class. This latter moment merits a closer look.

Since you asked: I think you’re being defensive. No one wants to represent a whole bunch of other people, but the truth is, we have to do that all the time, and as much as you want to be treated as an individual, we still see all the other teachers who have shut us down and don’t want to talk about things that matter to us. So when you try to tell us to be reasonable, we’re looking at the fact that it’s slavery we’re talking about, possibly the least reasonable thing to happen in this country, and so all these people whose great-grandparents directly benefited from it telling us to be reasonable doesn’t sit well, and we’re tired of being told how to respond.

I plan to hold this mini monologue up in response to anyone who suggests that the novel’s frank engagement with structural inequality and the frequent injustice of the criminal justice system “lacks balance.” It would take a shipping crate full of interventions of the caliber of Shadowhouse Fall to even begin to balance the pervasive practice of centering white experiences, white priorities, and white perspectives that circulate in YA. And anyway, the novel offers powerful examples of what it means to own one’s privilege and act as an ally, from a teacher’s turnaround to the white students who answer to Sierra’s charge to action. (This is a great scene: one character tells another, “You gotta tell the whole world that white kids ain’t cool with this shit either,” and a few chapters later, we see a group of white students show up with a sign that reads, “White Kids Ain’t Cool With This Shit Either.” It’s a moment of humor amidst heightening tensions—“Yo, y’all real literal,” responds one of the shadowshapers–but it also shows the ongoing apprenticeship of allies who wish to act for social justice.)

Shadowhouse Fall centers on the shadowshapers’ growing self-awareness and efforts to develop their gifts to enable effective action in the world of spirits and of streets. Theirs is an example we would all do well to follow.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Shadowhouse Fall, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORDaniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher (Scholastic), the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series (Penguin), and the upcoming Middle Grade sci-fi adventure Flood City (Scholastic). He won the International Latino Book Award and has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, the Mythopoeic Award, the Locus Award, the Andre Norton Award, and yes, the World Fantasy Award. Shadowshaper was named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at http://danieljoseolder.net/, on youtube and @djolder on twitter.

 

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE REVIEWER:  Ashley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latinx experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015), which won a Printz Honor as well as the Tomás Rivera Book Award and the Américas Book Award. She is working on a fourth novel, Walk It Down, which is forthcoming from Dutton Books. A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her and currently is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University, where she teaches world literatures. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

May 2017 Latinx Book Deals

By Cecilia Cackley

This is a monthly series keeping track of the book deals announced by Latinx writers and illustrators. The purpose of this series is to celebrate book deals by authors and illustrators in our community and to advocate for more of them. If you are an agent and you have a Latinx client who just announced a deal, you can let me know on Twitter, @citymousedc. If you are a Latinx author or illustrator writing for children or young adults, and you just got a book deal, send me a message and we will celebrate with you! Here’s to many more wonderful books in the years to come.

May 31

Jennifer M. Brown at Knopf has bought Silver Meadows Summer, a middle grade novel by Emma Otheguy, in which 11-year-old Carolina moves with her family from Puerto Rico to upstate New York so her father can find work. In their new home, Carolina’s parents encourage her to assimilate by sending her to summer camp. Publication is set for spring 2019.

Author agent: Adriana Dominguez at Full Circle Literary.

Jennifer Besser at Putnam has bought a picture book from Newbery Medalist Matt de la Peña (l.) and bestselling illustrator Loren Long. Love is a story about the strongest bond there is and the diverse and powerful ways it connects us all. Publication is slated for January 2018.

Author agent: Steven Malk at Writers House.

May 25

None.

May 23

Katherine Harrison at Knopf has acquired in a four-house auction Caldecott Honor-winner Lauren Castillo’s Our Friend Hedgehog, an illustrated chapter book about Hedgehog, her best friend Mutty, Anika May, and several forest friends, on their first adventure, and its sequel. Publication is slated for fall 2019.

Author agent: Paul Rodeen of Rodeen Literary Management.

May 18

Taylor Norman at Chronicle has bought poet Rebecca Balcárcel’s middle grade novel, Quijana, about a biracial girl who’s navigating the Guatemalan side of her family, a burgeoning crush and a cool new friend, and trying to figure out what’s going on with her little brother, who is becoming remote and hard to reach, all while trying to determine just who she is. Publication is scheduled for fall 2019.

Author agent: Katie Grimm at Don Congdon Associates.

May 16

None.

May 11

None.

May 9

Nancy Paulsen at Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books has bought world rights to The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra illustrator Ana Aranda’s first solo picture book, an as-yet-untitled exploration of the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition. Publication is slated for fall 2019.

Illustrator agent: Adriana Domínguez at Full Circle Literary.

Jessica Echeverria at Lee & Low has bought world rights to Marsha Diane Arnold’s (l.) Galápagos Girl, a picture book about a girl who lives on one of the Galápagos islands, and the various species of the island that provide her with friendship and inspiration. Pura Belpré Honor recipient Angela Dominguez will illustrate; publication is planned for fall 2018.

Illustrator agent: Linda Pratt at Wernick & Pratt Agency.

May 4

None.

May 2

None.

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.

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 5: Alyssa Bermudez, Elisa Chavarri and Zara Gonzalez Hoang

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This is the fifth in a series of posts spotlighting Latina illustrators of picture books. Some of these artists have been creating children’s books for many years, while others will have their first book out soon. They come from many different cultural backgrounds, but all are passionate about connecting with readers through art and story. Please look for their books at bookstores and libraries!

Alyssa Bermudez

Photo by Mark Cowles

Photo by Mark Cowles

Alyssa Bermudez is a New Yorker who studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and now lives and works in Tasmania. She illustrated Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, which was published in 2017 by Pow! Kids Books.

Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist?

A:  I have always wanted to be someone who makes things. Whether it was designing shoes or learning to sew, I have always felt most like my true self when I’m making something. Growing up in New York, I had access to incredible artistic resources, and being exposed to that from a young age also made it feel totally natural. I don’t actually remember a time that I didn’t want to become an artist.

Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium.

A:  Watercolor and Photoshop are my current absolute favorites. Watercolor has a mind of its own and sometimes that spontaneity shows up on the page. I love the confidence of its presence and combining it with digital techniques where I can control it afterwards.

Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: Picture books are important because it allows children to visualize and understand their own stories as they grow up. They can see their lives reflected in this way. The world is an exciting and colorful place full of adventure, and picture books highlight this to kids and adults.

Lucia the Luchadora Cover

Elisa Chavarri

Elisa Chavarri is a freelance illustrator originally from Lima, Peru. She did much of her growing up in Northern Michigan where she now resides with her husband, baby girl, cat, and dog. Elisa graduated with honors from The Savannah College of Art and Design, where she majored in Classical Animation and minored in Comics.  Books she has illustrated include Rainbow Weaver/Tejadora del arco iris from Lee & Low Books, Maybe Mother Goose and Fairly Fairy Tales from Aladdin Books and various titles for American Girl.

Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist? 

A: For me, it was my love of the old classic Disney movies and cartoons, once I discovered that people actually created these characters and worlds by doing countless drawings and concept art, I was hooked. In addition I’ve liked drawing and coloring as long as I can remember.

Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium.

A: This is a tough one for me because I like different mediums for different reasons. My top favorites are pencil/paper, acrylics, watercolors, and digital. The one I use the most is digital, and it’s the one I learned last, but for completing work on time and revisions, it is the most versatile and efficient medium. To play around with on my own time and for personal projects I really enjoy acrylics and watercolors for their ease of use. I’ve been using these and oil paints since I was a kid thanks to my mom encouraging my artistic leanings and putting me in various classes. Digital painting I began learning in college, but mostly am self-taught.

Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: They introduce children to stories/reading and the arts which are among the most life enriching things in the world!

RAINBOW_WEAVER_fnl_JKT.jpg  maybe-mother-goose-9781481440363_hr.jpg  5246204269_e722bedb32_b.jpg

 

Zara Gonzalez Hoang

Zara Gonzalez HoangZara Gonzalez Hoang is an illustrator originally from Minneapolis, now living near Washington, D.C. She studied art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will illustrate the upcoming picture book Thread of Love by Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal for the Simon and Schuster imprint Beach Lane.

Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist?

A: I was lucky enough to be born into a family of teachers, so paper and art supplies were always around. I think at the heart of it all was the feeling of connection I got as a child drawing with my dad. I remember him lying on the floor with me, a sketchbook between us, drawing horses (my favorite) and boats (his favorite). My dad had a creative soul that wasn’t often expressed, so to be able to share a piece of it was always something special.

Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium.

A: I work primarily digitally. I’ve always been drawn to computers (I was actually a computer science major in college for a little while), so I think the idea of merging art and technology appeals to me on different levels. I like working digitally because it’s so easy to change things if you’re not satisfied. I have a tendency to change my mind a lot so being able to change colors with ease or move elements around is really appealing. I draw so much digitally that when I’m drawing traditionally and make a mistake my mind tells me I need to hit the undo button (even though that is obviously not possible!)

Also, being a mom of young son, it’s a lot easier to turn on my tablet and get some “painting” done without having to worry about my paint drying on my brushes or making a giant mess that I don’t have time to clean up when my guy needs me. There are so many great brushes being created for Photoshop these days (Kyle’s Brushes are my favorite) that emulate different traditional media that it’s become a lot harder to tell the difference if you know what you are doing.

Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: They help children make sense of the world around them. There is a quote that I read recently that really resonates with me and gets to the heart of why I think picture books are important so I will just put that here because I don’t think I can say it any better than Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirror in books.”

I got into picture books because as a mixed-race Latina Jew married to a Vietnamese refugee with a Vietnamese/Puerto Rican/Jewish Buddhist child I want to help create mirrors for children who don’t have them. There are so many stories that are not represented, I feel like part of my purpose is to help bring them to life.

Book Review: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Reviewed by Sujei Lugo and Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork that echoes Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean—and definitely not inside the lines—to be beautiful.

OUR TWO CENTS:

Radiant Child is a heartfelt and vibrant picture book about the childhood and life of Puerto Rican-Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Written for young children, it celebrates Basquiat’s art and traces the early steps of his artistic formation, as he makes his way toward the pinnacle of fame. From boyhood, he begins developing his own “messy” style of art-making, one that evokes powerful personal emotions, while addressing the sound and fury of social and cultural politics. Javaka Steptoe received the 2017 Caldecott Medal for his work as the book’s illustrator, a fitting recognition of the dynamic and engaging art seen in these pages.

The story in Radiant Child shifts through various New York City settings, including interiors of the Basquiat family home in Brooklyn, the exhibit spaces of an art museum, the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the artist’s studio. As a boy, Basquiat sees art everywhere he looks, not just in the museums he visits with his mother or in the poetry books she reads to him, but also in everyday objects that he encounters around the city. Early on, while other children in the neighborhood skip rope, young Basquiat “dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” You can tell how seriously he has devoted himself to this dream by the pencils, papers, and drawings scattered all over his bedroom.

Throughout childhood, the primary influencer on Basquiat’s art is his mother, Matilde, a Puerto Rican woman who “designs and sews,” and sometimes even joins her child in the act of drawing. Her artistic influence on him is not always intentional. After a car accident leaves Jean-Michel injured, Malide introduces him to Gray’s Anatomy. Her hope is to teach the young boy how the human body is knit together. Little does she anticipate that the diagrams from this book will seep into his catalog of artistic imagery and emerge as motifs in his mature work. In addition to taking Jean-Michel to museums, Matilde also conveys the message that art can be found in ordinary things, including the “messy patchwork of the city.” This sets up an interesting parallel, in which Basquiat, an Afro-Latino child of humble beginnings with no formal education in the arts, is shaped by the traditional, elitist, and largely white institutions of the New York art world, yet simultaneously absorbs the powerful visual elements inherent in his own cultural milieu. In the book’s museum scene, it is fascinating to note that his favorite work of art is Picasso’s “Guernica,” an immense painting that depicts the horrors of the Nazi bombing of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it is before this very painting that the boy begins to develop ideas about artistic self-expression as a major force in the world.

Tragically, when Basquiat’s mother suffers debilitating mental illness and is hospitalized, this shatters the circle of love that fed the young boy’s artistic growth. He continues living with his father, Gerard, but “things are not the same,” and as a teenager, Jean-Michel runs off to live on his own in the “concrete jungle where only the tough survive.” There, he begins his career as a graffiti artist. Signing his work with SAMO©, Basquiat creates street art that captivates the city and propels him from the streets to the galleries. Fame follows, just as the young boy dreamed, and this is where the story portion of Radiant Child ends. The book’s back matter, however, includes a substantial section that acknowledges Basquiat’s drug addiction and untimely death at 27.

How does a children’s illustrator depict the life and oeuvre of such a celebrated artist? As explained in an author’s note, Javaka Steptoe answers this challenge not by reproducing, but by reinterpreting Basquiat’s work. The result is original and memorable, yet strongly evocative of Basquiat’s signature style. Steptoe achieves this by employing the graffiti and collage methods that his subject used, in combination with traditional painting techniques, and by incorporating symbols and motifs associated with Basquiat, such as stylized human skulls and femurs.

Each page spread in Radiant Child is a small construction consisting of a scene painted over a textured background. For his background materials, Steptoe relies heavily on found objects, primarily throwaways. Due to their worn condition, these objects call to mind the crumbling cityscape of 1980s Lower East Side—one of Basquiat’s stomping grounds. The repurposed materials include wooden slats salvaged from dumpsters, and Steptoe glorifies the raw condition of these slats by assembling them into rough jigsaw-puzzle surfaces, in which each nail hole and splintered edge contributes to the painted illustration’s lively texture. Steptoe enhances the textured effect by collaging photographs over select areas, presenting pockets of visual intrigue for readers to explore.

Although this is a picture book, the rich inspiration it offers should not be denied to older kids. Native children and children of color stand to benefit the most from such exposure. In witnessing Basquiat’s artistic journey, we also arrive at a greater appreciation of the soothing power of art. We see that artistic creativity can act as a therapeutic exercise in the face of pain, fear, separation, and insecurity. Radiant Child also delivers the unmistakable and essential message that messiness and art-making go hand in hand, and that although the results may be “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, [it’s] somehow still beautiful.” Indeed, this message is joyously inscribed on every page, in every scribble, and through every splintered and splattered collage.

THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR

As the son of award-winning illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe grew up surrounded by art and children’s books, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. In his own career, the younger Steptoe has captured many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as recognition from the NAACP Image Awards, and the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Read more about him at his official website.

 

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING

In its final pages, Radiant Child appends information on portions of Basquiat’s life not covered in the story, including a section detailing motifs and symbols that appear in his work.

The publisher Little Brown provides an informative page on Radiant Child. There, you can view a book chat with Javaka Steptoe and watch an embedded video of a live art demo he shared on New York Times’s Facebook page.

Here is an additional interview with Steptoe, conducted by Travis Jonker, of School Library Journal, for the series “The Yarn,” which looks closely at how kids’ books are made.

For anyone interested in further exploration of Basquiats’s world, abundant online and print resources exist, although they are primarily aimed at adult readers. Here is a sampling.

Basquiat’s friend and one-time roommate Alexis Adler talks on video about photos she took of him. See it here.

Read an illuminating conversation with Basquiat, published in Interview Magazine in 1983.

The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat maintains a website devoted to his life and work. Visit it here.

 

 

Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This review is by Lila Quintero Weaver and is based on an advanced reading copy.

From the publisher:

The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief. Sal discovers that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

My two cents:

The 2012 multiple prize-winning YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, delivered a spellbinding story of remarkable teen characters on the brink of self-discovery. Among its achievements, the novel provided positive and authentic representations of gay teens and Latinx families. Sáenz follows that feat with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, which subtly echoes themes in Aristotle and Dante and reaffirms the author’s virtuosity.

Seventeen-year-old Sal (Salvatore) lives in El Paso, Texas, with his adoptive father, a gay Mexican-American art professor named Vicente Silva. Vicente assumed responsibility for Sal after his mother died, when Sal was just three years old. (The connections between Sal’s mother and Vicente don’t become clear until late in the book, when Sal finally opens a letter his dying mother wrote and left in Vicente’s care.) Although Sal is white, the adoption secures his place in the heart of a loving Mexican-American family, which is headed by the matriarch Sal comes to know as Mima. As his adoptive grandmother, Mima refers to Sal as her “hijito de mi vida,” and the adoration is mutual.

The warmth of the Silva family magnetically pulls in two other teen characters. Sal’s best friend, Sam (Samantha), is locked in raging conflict with her mom. Another friend, Fito, suffers the effects of a drug-addicted mother and an absentee dad. In order to survive, Fito must hold down two after-school jobs.

Compared to the home lives of his friends, Sal’s family is golden. But for all the advantages he enjoys, Sal is a complex character, who on the surface, feels secure in his identity as a peaceful, self-confessed straight edger. He eschews cigarettes and alcohol (well, mostly), and is still a virgin. But he harbors a reactionary side. When a classmate utters a homophobic slur against Vicente, Sal resorts to violence that lands him in Principal Cisneros’s office. This impulse to lash out physically catches Sal by surprise, and it won’t be the last time.

Other big questions disrupt Sal’s world. His beloved Mima is diagnosed with late-stage bone cancer. Vicente’s one-time boyfriend, Marcos, reappears on the scene, bringing heartache and mistrust to the Silva house. There’s still that matter of the unopened letter from Sal’s mother, and then, major crises hit Sam’s and Fito’s families, radiating tremors in all directions. How fortunate for everyone that Vicente possesses finely tuned paternal instincts and the willingness to open the family circle even wider. Even so, don’t mistake this for a sentimental story. The struggles these young characters wrestle with are real and not easily resolved.

Although compelling plot developments push the story along, this novel also distinguishes itself through skillful characterization and crisp, realistic dialogue. The dialogue especially stands out during volleys between the teen characters. Sal and Sam, who’ve known each other since early childhood, share a platonic friendship that’s built on love and mutual respect, but that doesn’t keep them from ribbing one another mercilessly and butting into each other’s business. As Fito becomes a larger part of their lives, his comi-tragic flavor gets added to the mix. The verbal conversations and text messages these three engage in are, by turns, hilarious, poignant, revealing, laced with profanity, and true to the way teens speak in 2017. These exchanges reveal the intricate give-and-take of teen friendships, where mutual support is often coded as deprecatory banter.

The novel also takes on complex racial and ethnic dynamics, but it’s done with a subtle touch. In writing Sal as a white child adopted by a Mexican family, Sáenz makes a daring choice that reverses typical scripts of interracial or interethnic adoption. Much of Sal’s identity stems from Vicente, the man he considers his true father. In the Silva family, Mexican heritage is freely offered as a gift—one Sal knows he’s lucky to receive and absorb into his cultural makeup. But acceptance at home doesn’t extend to every corner of Sal’s world, and elements of race appear mostly around his role as a rare white kid in a setting dominated by Mexican and Latinx culture. At one point, a classmate drops the slur “pinche gringo” on him, leading to one of several bursts of violence on Sal’s part. On the flip side, Mexican American Sam teasingly refers to Sal as “white boy,” all the while fully aware that by virtue of his upbringing, Sal is more deeply ensconced in Mexican tradition than she is. Sal appreciates the irony and won’t let Sam get away with drawing false distinctions. This is a tricky point, but Sáenz successfully plays it with humor.

The question that persists almost to the end of the book is why Sal puts off reading his mother’s letter. He doesn’t understand his own reluctance, and this is part of the “inexplicable logic” referred to in the title. Could it be that Sal fears losing the rock-solid foundation offered by the family that raised him? Many writers would’ve dangled such a compelling object as catnip before their readers. But Sáenz uses uncommon restraint, allowing mentions of the sealed letter to bubble up in conversation or in Sal’s interior monologue sparingly, as if he’s holding that question just inside our peripheral vision while the characters occupy themselves with more urgent concerns.

In the writing itself, the author demonstrates other forms of restraint that recall his poetic side. He clips sentences and keeps chapters unusually short, suggesting the poetic habit of brevity. While his prose enthralls the ear, Sáenz’s mastery goes beyond the level of the sentence. He’s an accomplished storyteller who works magic with dialogue, gives characters muscle and breath, and creates intrigue through the subtle layering of reveals and building questions. Another satisfying aspect of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is the treatment of intergenerational relationships. We’re reminded that healthy family connections help us thrive, while their absence leaves us yearning. Above all, Sáenz crafts a narrative around things that deeply matter to teen readers: identity, belonging, and finding one’s place in the world—and he charges his characters with the drive to pursue these prizes.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a scholar, a teacher of creative writing, and a prize-winning poet and novelist. Along with other distinctions, his 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won the Pura Belpré Award, the Stonewall Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Our review is here. In 2013, National Public Radio featured Sáenz in a fascinating interview. Long based in El Paso, Texas, Sáenz retired from teaching in 2016. Keep up with him via Twitter.