Review: Running by Natalia Sylvester

 

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

SUMMARY FROM THE PUBLISHER: When fifteen-year-old Cuban American Mariana Ruiz’s father runs for president, Mari starts to see him with new eyes. A novel about waking up and standing up, and what happens when you stop seeing your dad as your hero—while the whole country is watching.

In this authentic, humorous, and gorgeously written debut novel about privacy, waking up, and speaking up, Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president. Throughout his successful political career he has always had his daughter’s vote, but a presidential campaign brings a whole new level of scrutiny to sheltered fifteen-year-old Mariana and the rest of her Cuban American family, from a 60 Minutes–style tour of their house to tabloids doctoring photos and inventing scandals. As tensions rise within the Ruiz family, Mari begins to learn about the details of her father’s political positions, and she realizes that her father is not the man she thought he was.

But how do you find your voice when everyone’s watching? When it means disagreeing with your father—publicly? What do you do when your dad stops being your hero? Will Mari get a chance to confront her father? If she does, will she have the courage to seize it?

MY TWO CENTS: Natalia Sylvester’s YA debut novel, Running, is remarkable in many ways, but particularly in its attention to youth culture and the important role teens play in activism. Mariana (Mari) Ruiz, the protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old Cuban American girl, whose father is running for president but who has been in politics for most of his life. While the novel focuses on this Cuban-American family, and centers on Miami, Florida, as the geographical location of the story, it is not only about this. Sylvester masterfully weaves the complexity of growing up Latina/o with current issues of the region that resonate in other parts of the country, or are in some ways universal.

For example, Sylvester uses Spanish in the novel, especially in the dialogue between Mari’s parents and her abuelo, who lives with them, and we know that Mari understands it. At various points throughout the story, the protagonist reflects on the complexity of living in two languages and how incomprehensible literal translation is. I particularly enjoyed her reflection on the word desahogarse because I have used this word myself so many times and realize that some of the meaning is lost when you translate it. The novel also paints Latinx/Cuban-American identity by way of family traditions and food.

In the story, there are sociopolitical issues that Mari has heard about most of her short life but without understanding their gravity. For example, gentrification, water safety issues, and immigration. There are several moments throughout the novel when Mari is forced to think more critically about all these issues. She understands the impact of gentrification and water contamination more fully when her best friend, Vivi, along with Vivi’s recently divorced mother, are forced to leave their neighborhood. When Vivi moves to Miami Beach, she and her mother have to live in a small apartment with her aunt because they cannot afford anything in their old neighborhood. We also learn that Vivi’s grandmother ends up in the hospital due to water toxicity.

Mari, however, does not connect the dots that easily. She is also dealing with being the daughter of a politician. Along with this comes the pressure to be a perfect and supportive family. She also suffers the loss of privacy, which leads to cyberbullying–not to mention the usual challenges of being a teenager. When Vivi is forced to leave their high school, Mari connects with a group of students who are fighting for change by protesting and holding local leaders accountable. The group, called PODER, is made up of peers who are of Haitian, Dominican, and Peruvian ancestry, all with personal connections to some of the issues they advocate for. For example, Didier, whose family is Haitian, explains to Mari the different paths to immigration that Cubans and Haitians have had; one considered an exile and the other a refugee. It is through these encounters and personal stories that Mari begins to come into her own consciousness and political awareness; indeed, the political becomes very personal to her as she looks further into her own father’s voting record and his stand on issues. It is through PODER that she begins to understand the power of social media and technology in general. Yet, because of her family’s public life, she does not have access to these modes of communication and the political impact they wield.

As an orderly reader who reads books from beginning to end, I did not get to the author’s note which explains that the novel was inspired by real events until I had finished the story. Yet, throughout the novel, I kept thinking about the role played by young women like Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, Florida; Mari Copeny from Flint, Michigan; and Greta Thunberg, from Sweden, who have used their voices and the reach of social media to bring about action regarding gun control and environmental justice.

Instead of a traditional coming-of-age story, or even a love story, what Sylvester shows us is the growth of a leader and an activist. Mari—who grew up in politics, hearing her father’s speeches regarding family, justice, and community—slowly becomes aware of her own blindness on these issues. Although not fully explored in the novel, I would also like to add that the author reveals some of the dangers of technology. In this case, Mari becomes a victim of cyberbullying, but her newfound community helps her see that what happens is not her fault. This part of the story briefly addresses issues such as consent, shame and victim-blaming.

Given our current political environment, during a presidential election year and in the middle of a pandemic, I find this novel especially timely.

Note: This book’s release date is July 14, 2020, but is now available on pre-order. 

Photo credit: Eric Sylvester

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Natalia Sylvester is the author of two novels for adults, Chasing the Sun, and Everyone Knows You Go Home, which won an International Latino Book Award. Born in Lima, Peru, she grew up in Miami, Central Florida, and South Texas, and received a BFA from the University of Miami. Running is her YA debut. She lives in Austin, Texas, and can also be found at nataliasylvester.com

 

 

 

 

Elena Foulis

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She is also producer and host of Ohio Habla.

 

 

Review: The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie by Frederick Luis Aldama, illus. by Chris Escobar

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

SUMMARY FROM OHIO STATE PRESS: In their debut picture book, Frederick Luis Aldama and Chris Escobar invite young readers along on the adventures of Chupacabra Charlie, a polite, handsome, and unusually tall ten-year-old chupacabra yearning for adventure beyond the edge of los Estados Unidos. Little does Charlie know when he befriends a young human, Lupe, that together, with only some leftover bacon quesadillas and a few cans of Jumex, they might just encounter more adventure than they can handle. Along the way, they meet strange people and terrifying danger, and their bravery will be put to the test. Thankfully, Charlie is a reassuring and winsome companion who never doubts that he and Lupe will return safely home.

With magical realism, allegory, and gentle humor, Aldama and Escobar have created a story that will resonate with young and old readers alike as it incorporates folklore into its subtle take on the current humanitarian crisis at the border.

MY TWO CENTS: Based on real and imagined tales, The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie, tells the story of a young Chupacabra whose life at the border is full of adventure, if you dare to follow. Charlie lives in the attic of a Bordertown in Mexico. He tells the reader about how, although considered a monster and sometimes feared, he is a kid who is looking for adventures. He tells us about his family life, and we see and read about the importance of family, education, and creativity. For example, the author and illustrator provide a wonderful scene of Charlie’s family dinner, the long tradition of family storytelling and the importance of listening to and learning from these stories. The story provides a great, balanced view of the value of learning in formal and informal settings and of using our imaginations to solve problems. The storyline always warns us about forgetting those family values and how that sometimes leads into negative stereotypes that can affect an entire community. While this is a children’s story, the writing and illustrations help young readers see how the poor choices of a few bad apples can impact the welfare of others.

Despite some of the obstacles and negative perceptions that Charlie faces, this story is about a voyage of bravery, and the meaning of friendship, even with people who do not look like you. We can choose to share life together. Charlie’s new friend, Lupe, becomes Charlie’s partner in an adventure that provides more than a thrill for them; indeed, their mission becomes to free children al otro lado of The Wall, who have been kept in cages. This young readers’ book is refreshing in the way it incorporates life at the border, through bilingualism and storytelling rooted in Latin American traditions such as Realismo Mágico.

One thing that catches our attention is the use of Spanish. While it only incorporates a few words and phrases, it only writes them in italics once, and if the word or phrase is used again, it uses the same font as the rest of the story. This is significant, in my view, because it allows the reader—who may or may not be bilingual—to pause, but then it expects them to learn and normalize bilingualism. Indeed, much of what this book presents are topics that are often complex or controversial and frequently void of the human perspective. More specifically, in the thinking about The Wall that separates the U.S. and Mexico, accepting people’s use of Spanish as part of who they are, and the reality of family separation at the border, which includes putting young kids in detention centers that are cage-like, often times, we forget to broadly think about how real people are deeply affected by all of this. The book tackles those topics in a way that is natural and promotes acceptance and heroism, as we dare to imagine that we can all do something to make someone else’s life a little or a lot easier.

Lastly, the illustrations are detailed and complement the storyline beautifully. I like how the images pay attention to details of city and rural life, highlighting cultural and geographical markers with care, such as el paletero, los nopales, the Wall, and even the flying car and the jar of pickles.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frederick Luis Aldama is Irish-Guatemalan and Mexican Latinx. His mamá was a bilingual elementary school teacher in California. As a kid, he couldn’t get enough of his abuelita’s stories of El Chupacabra, La Llorona, and El Cucuy. Today he is a Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University. He is the author, coauthor, editor, and coeditor of 36 books.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Chris Escobar is a printmaker and cartoonist currently living in Savannah, Georgia. He has an MFA in Sequential Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Chris has created illustrations for the comic anthology Floating Head and editorial illustrations for Dirt Rag magazine, among other publications.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She is also producer and host of Ohio Habla.

 

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

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it important for you to tell your story?

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

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

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

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

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

RESOURCES: 

Teachers can visit the website below for information about the book

https://myshoesandi.weebly.com

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

By Sujei Lugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sujei: Your favorite Latinx children’s books? 

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

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

María F. Estrella, Cleveland Public Library

Angie Manfredi, Los Alamos County Public Library

Crystal Brunelle, Northern Hills Elementary School, Onalaska, Wisconsin 

Patricia Toney, San Francisco Public Library

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

 

 

Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez

 

Reviewed by Romy Natalia Goldberg

Description of the book:

“Where are you from? they ask.” A young girl’s confidence is shaken after increasingly persistent questioning from her peers, teachers and friends’ parents. She turns to Abuelo, her loving grandfather, for answers. “Where am I from?” she asks, knowing he has faced these questions before. Abuelo answers by describing with lyrical beauty her parents’ places of origin. As he speaks, the landscapes around them morph, from the Pampas and Andean peaks of Argentina to the coastline and rainforests of Puerto Rico. But this immersive journey is not powerful enough to quell the doubts instilled by her peers. Echoing their questioning, she insists, “where am I really from?” At this, Abuelo points to his heart. She comes from her family’s love. As he continues, they are joined by a large, joyful family. The sun begins to set as her doubts settle. Surrounded by their unquestioning love, bathed in the light of the afterglow, she is newly confident.

Released simultaneously in English and Spanish, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? joins a slate of high quality Latinx books dealing with identity and belonging. Additionally, it is one of very few picture books depicting Latinx characters from the Southern Cone.

My two cents:

“Where are you from?” The question implies a progression – where did you begin and where are you going? Though often asked out of sheer curiosity, many times it is a loaded question, one whose answer can be used to justify exclusion and discrimination. The girl’s declaration that she is “from here, from today, same as everyone else” is a request to be treated as an equal, as someone who belongs. Once this request is ignored, she retreats to the family that created her, that asks her to justify nothing. The luminous landscapes with skies full of birds and stars suggest the limitless possibilities Abuelo wants for his granddaughter. Though the soaring landscapes could have felt overwhelming, they exude warmth and reassurance. As educators and parents, is this not how we want our kids to feel?

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? could easily have opened with a scene of overt bullying. Instead, the author and illustrator create a more nuanced scenario. The girl is being questioned by a diverse group of kids and adults, all with facial expressions that range from neutral to kind.

By eliminating a stereotypical “villain,” WHERE ARE YOU FROM offers a more realistic depiction of microaggressions endured by children of color (and children with other noticeable differences, such as accented speech).

One of the things I appreciate the most about this book is that we never circle back to the people who questioned the main character at the start. This is an excellent example of what happens when an “own voices” author is allowed to write from their experience. As adult readers, we know the girl will be asked “where are you from?” countless times and ways throughout her life due to the color of her skin. We know that, for some people, her answers will never be right or good enough. By allowing the girl to find an emotional resolution entirely within the context of her support system, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? sends young readers a powerful message: you do not have to justify your existence to others.

For children of mixed heritage, the question “where are you from?” has the power to generate an additional level of self-doubt. A few spreads into the girl’s journey with Abuelo, readers are lulled into the sense that they know where she is from. When Abuelo takes us from Argentina to Puerto Rico we are challenged to open our minds. Like many children, she is not “from” a single place.  Rather than simplify (or flatten, or erase) her heritage, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? invites readers to accept the main character’s complex heritage as something that is beautiful to behold.

Teaching Tips

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? can be used as a prompt for students to explore their heritage. This could be done exclusively as a writing exercise or could incorporate art in the form of illustrations or collage/printed images. Additionally, students could choose who they would like to go on their journey with – would they want to travel through space and time with a family member, as the girl in this book does? Or would they rather choose a historical figure as their guide?

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? naturally lends itself to a nuanced discussion of microaggressions. Students could be prompted to discuss whether they believe the main character’s peers are questioning her out of curiosity or malice. Does that change the effect their constant questioning has on the girl? Do they even have the right to ask this question? And what does it mean that no one was willing to accept the girl’s original answer? However, educators should take care to ensure class discussions do not put undue burden on students of color to share personal experiences of mistreatment.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? can be a starting point for learning about two very different parts of the Americas. Lessons for younger students could focus on the eco-systems of both regions. Older students can tackle heavier subjects alluded to in the final spreads for each location: the history of colonialism and slavery in Puerto Rico and the human rights abuses of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Lessons on Puerto Rico should also touch on the territory’s relationship to the rest of the United States and Latin America. Like the protagonist, Puerto Rico has a multifaceted background.

Additionally, the vivid verbs featured in WHERE ARE YOU FROM? could be incorporated into a lesson on synonyms and/or creative writing.

About the author: Yamile Saied Méndez is an Argentine-American who lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adult program. In this blog post from 2017, she shares with our readers what it was like to study for her MFA. Much has happened since then. Yamille is now a PB, MG, and YA author, and is also part of Las Musas, the first collective of women and nonbinary Latinx MG and YA authors. To learn more, visit Yamile’s website.

 

About the reviewer: Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, OTHER PLACES TRAVEL GUIDE TO PARAGUAY, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators.

Book Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:

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

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

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

MY TWO CENTS:

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

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

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

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

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

TEACHING TIPS:

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

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

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

 

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