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.

MG Latinx Characters & Their (Sometimes) Complicated Relationships with Spanish

 

by Lila Quintero Weaver, with Cris Rhodes, Ph.D.

According to the Pew Research Center, broken Spanish (or no Spanish at all) is a reality lived by a growing number of Latinx, especially youth.

Although many Latinx children and teens tackle Spanish confidently and with smooth results, others are not so lucky. As speakers, they fumble for the right words and grammatical constructions. As listeners, they miss out on idioms, inside jokes, and culturally buried subtexts. Often these scenarios take place within family settings, where older members may speak limited English or no English at all.

How do such language gaps affect a young person’s connection to family and community? What is the impact on their sense of cultural belonging or ethnic identity, and on the pride they feel in claiming Latinidad?

Connection, belonging, knowing who you are and where you come from: These things deeply matter, which is why the Spanish-language journey of Latinx youth deserves authentic representation in children’s literature.

Fortunately, middle-grade fiction is addressing the many shades of Spanish proficiency that exist out there, and the most compelling examples come from Latinx authors, whose personal experiences and finely-tuned observations collectively yield a rich and varied picture of how young people in the Latinx community navigate the language gaps they encounter.

Below is a list of recently published middle-grade novels featuring Latinx characters whose Spanish is less than perfect. 

*Note: Although this post addresses the role of Spanish in Latinx youth literature, it’s critical to acknowledge that many people connected to the Latinx community speak indigenous languages, whether exclusively or in addition to Spanish. Furthermore, Latinx youth of Brazilian origin are likely to face similar issues with Portuguese.

Recommended Reading

Listed Alphabetically by Author

The Epic Fall of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya  

This is the story of how 13-year-old Arturo’s world is set ablaze by love and activism. It happens during a summer in Miami, when a real-estate developer threatens the future of the restaurant run by Arturo’s grandmother, simultaneously affecting the neighborhood’s other businesses and residents. These are the people who become Arturo’s extended “family.” During this momentous summer, he also navigates a heavy crush on Carmen, a girl who brings poetry into his life. With respect to Arturo’s command of Spanish, our reviewer writes: “Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he ‘sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.’” Read the full review by Jessica Agudelo here.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya

Marcus Vega’s at-school hustle using his towering height and bulk to protect smaller kids from bullies comes to screeching halt when Marcus punches a bully for calling his little brother, Charlie, a derogatory term related to Charlie’s Down syndrome. Fearing that Marcus needs a break, Marcus’s mother resolves to take Charlie and Marcus to Puerto Rico–the home of their absent father. To Marcus, Puerto Rico is a land of mystery, paralleling the mystery of the father whom he doesn’t know. Marcus’s inability to speak Spanish doesn’t prove so much a barrier on the island, where he’s pleased to learn many of his relatives speak English in addition to Spanish, but he is shocked upon arrival on the island that his mother is fluent, having studied Spanish in college. This revelation spurs Marcus to realize his own Spanish isn’t as bad as he’d first thought, as he reads signs and listens to conversations, pleased that he understands even a little of the language. Even as his father’s continued absence makes Marcus feel disjointed, the trip to Puerto Rico helps him realize a connection to his heritage, his paternal language, and his familia. –Summary by Dr. Cris Rhodes

Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

When 7th-grader Paloma Marquez heads to Mexico City to spend a month, it’s not exactly by choice. Tagging along on her mom’s business trip, Paloma arrives knowing little Spanish. Although she packs a Spanish phrase book, she resists the idea that she should learn more. Almost immediately, she’s caught up in a mystery at La Casa Azul, the former home of the famous painter Frida Kahlo, which has been converted to a museum. Also hanging out at the museum are local twins Gael and Lizzie. They become Paloma’s intercambio partners. In exchange for tutoring Paloma in Spanish, the twins refine their grasp of colloquial English, with Paloma’s help. Soon the three kids are swept into the story’s central quest involving a missing peacock ring and some sketchy characters with dangerous schemes. Learn more about this rollicking adventure from our review by Jessica Agudelo.

Stella Díaz Has Something to Say by Adriana Dominguez

Stella is shy. When she and her best friend, Jenny, are assigned different teachers, Stella loses the built-in comfort of a ready ally. Forced to make new friends, Stella hopes to find someone who speaks Spanish. How interesting that she specifies this preference, because Stella’s hold on Spanish isn’t solid. In her review, Jessica Agudelo writes: “At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because ‘here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.’ Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although it is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as ‘code switching’ or speaking ‘Spanglish,’ Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.” Read Jessica’s full review of Stella Díaz here.

Lucky Luna by Diana López

Luna Ramos is an endearing character with a mischievous bent. She’s part of a huge and loving Mexican-American family based in Corpus Christi, Texas. At school, Luna is flunking fifth-grade Spanish. How can this be when her last name is Ramos, she asks herself? But growing up in a home where Spanish isn’t spoken, Luna doesn’t have ready access to the in’s and out’s of Spanish. Teachers and family members keep insisting that the person best suited to tutor her is cousin Claudia, a fluent speaker. Trouble is, Claudia is pushy, meddlesome, prone to tattling, and often a thorn in Luna’s side. Initially, Luna figures she’d be better off getting help from a different cousin. Hm, maybe not! Young readers will get a kick out of the hilarious miscommunications that ensue along the cousin grapevine. Will Luna manage to make peace with Spanish? 

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

Talk about feeling left out! Unlike her older sisters, 11-year-old Leo Logroño doesn’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. The oldest two Logroño girls learned at Abuela’s knee, while the middle two have enrolled in Spanish courses at school and are far ahead of Leo. The family owns a bakery, the Amor y Azucar Panadería, famous for its Day of the Dead pastries and for hosting an annual festival celebrating that holiday. In the lead-up to the festival, mysterious events at the bakery put Leo on high alert. Just what are her mom and sisters up to, she asks herself?  Leo’s eavesdropping could’ve yielded better results, if only she’d learned more Spanish. For further insights, check out Cecilia Cackley’s review of the novel here. I also recommend this interview with the author, which includes personal reflections on the role of Spanish.

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez

María Luisa, better known as Malú, is an aficionado of punk rock, thanks to her dad’s influence. When Malú moves with her mom from north Florida to Chicago, her exposure to Spanish intensifies. But although her mom is a scholar of Mexican culture, Malú does not feel competent or comfortable in speaking Spanish. At school, she’s surprised to be admitted into the class section designated for fluent speakers. One of the students in that class sneers at Malú’s Spanish and labels her a “coconut,” a derogatory term that implies Malú is brown only on the outside. Malú’s emotional journey finds expression in punk music and zines, and both lead her to embrace Spanish more fully. See our full review by Lettycia Terrones.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

Echoing my own immigrant experience in small-town Alabama, this novel takes place in 1970 and features 12-year-old Lu Olivera. Lu’s challenges include becoming a better runner. She also faces unfolding conflicts related to school desegregation, as well as a gubernatorial election that turns racist and nasty. Lu’s state of Spanish is rusty, but passable. She manages to interpret Spanish conversations for English-only speakers, and even helps a Cuban neighbor conduct a banking errand, although not without trepidation over unfamiliar terms. On the school bus, a bully delights in teasing Lu about her South American origins, calling her native language “spinach.” Here’s what teen reviewer Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama wrote on our blog about My Year in the Middle.

Readers, this list is far from comprehensive! I hope to add more titles as I learn about them, and I welcome your feedback.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR TEACHERS

Here are some points to ponder regarding Latinx characters and their encounters with Spanish:  

  • Within a single story, characters’ experiences may reflect multiple levels of Spanish-language literacy, comprehension, and verbal fluency.
  • Some characters are raised in homes where no Spanish is spoken or where only one parental figure is fluent enough to speak it. This includes families in which one partner is Latinx, while the other is not.
  • Although around 70% of Latinx parents encourage their kids to speak Spanish at home, there are also those who discourage it, perhaps fearing their children will not master English. Such parents are often anxious to shelter their children from racism, while some calculate that limiting Spanish will ease their way in an English-dominant world.
  • Parents, grandparents, teachers, and neighbors vary widely in how supportive, coercive, or judgmental they are regarding a character’s level of Spanish.
  • In some settings, such as schools and communities, Spanish is prevalent; in others, it’s less common or even rare.
  • Characters express a broad range of positive-to-negative feelings about using Spanish or improving the Spanish skills they possess.
  • The immigration histories of characters’ families vary widely.
  • Some characters also struggle with defining their ethnic identity, and sometimes this is tied to their Spanish-language skills.
  • Further complicating the language struggle, narratives sometimes engage with representations of colorism, internal oppression, white supremacy, and racist bullying.
  • Spanish words, sentences, and expressions often appear in these stories. Translations are rarely provided within the text–a rapidly fading practice we are happy to see go. Even so, English-only readers will be able to intuit meanings through context.

Relevant articles to explore:

Consider these findings by the Pew Research Center: “Overall, about 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, making it the country’s second-most spoken language. At the same time, growth in the number of Spanish-speaking Hispanics has slowed, according to the Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. As a result, the share of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home has declined, while the share that speaks only English at home has increased, especially among children.” [Emphasis mine]

From the Center for Applied Linguistics, this FAQ addresses the subject of heritage speakers and language-learning programs designed specifically to help them.

Reprinted in TIME magazine, Daniel José Older’s “I Rejected Spanish as a Kid. Now I Wish We’d Embrace Our Native Languages” is an essay that originally appeared in the anthology The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America.

Here’s a poignant reflection by Kevin Garcia on the NPR website, entitled “Can You Lose a Language You Never Knew?”

12 Reasons People Are Told They’re Not Latino Enough” is a fascinating exploration of Latinx community metrics by Tanisha Love Ramirez. Reason No. 2 is all about imperfect Spanish.  

Don’t miss these videos:

 

Do You Have to Speak Spanish to Be Latino?

 

“When You’re Latino and You Suck at Spanish.” Humorous–and lightly profane!

 

Book Review: Lowriders Blast from the Past, written by Cathy Camper, Illustrated by Raúl the Third

Reviewed by David Bowles

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When new friends Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio are each bullied by Los Matamoscas, they know they’re going to like one another. When they find out they all love lowrider cars, they know they’ll be friends for life. But the bullies won’t leave the Lowriders alone—and they don’t let any girls or babies into car clubs. Can these three determined outcasts prove they deserve to be in the car show? Humor, Spanish words, and lowrider culture come together in this heartwarming graphic novel of three friends navigating the bumpy terrain of friendship, bullying, and standing up for what you believe in.

MY TWO CENTS: The third book in Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third’s wonderful Lowriders graphic novel series may seem at first to break with the genre of the previous installments by giving us an origin story, but the series has already established itself as genre-bending, going from sci-fi to mythological adventure. A bit of historical fiction seems to fit nicely in the creators’ wide-ranging work. It’s lots of fun and uplifting to see young versions of our heroes push back against the sexism of Los Matamoscas, a group of bullies who have been making the kids’ lives difficult. It happens that these overly macho men also dictate the ad-hoc rules of a popular car show so they can bar women from competing. As the women in question are furthermore queer (Mamá Impala and Mamá Gazelle, Lupe’s two mothers), the affirmation and representation of marginalized, intersectional identity is particularly poignant.

Just as in life, the hurdles male bullies set for the women are ridiculous (cross speed bumps without scraping the bottom of car, make sure a 5-gallon jar of agua fresca doesn’t spill during a full lap, paint car with no visible brush strokes). But the three new friends (united as allies of the women and victims of Los Matamoscas’ bullying) use their individual skill sets to beat the gang at their own game. Along the way, they earn the respect (and possibly friendship) of some of the macho dudes.

Along with Raúl’s amazing ball-point art (he brings green in this time!) and the linguistic exploration of Spanish and indigenous languages, Lowriders Blast from the Past takes advantage of its historical setting to introduce young readers (and old) to Chicano art of the 70s and 80s, specifically the work of ASCO (great name, heh), an East Los Angeles art collective that was active between 1972 and 1987. Raúl’s recreations of some of their signature pieces was a highlight for me, showcasing just how diverse his talents are. (Full disclosure: he and I have been working on a graphic novel together.)

Camper deftly defies the stylistic patterns that a middle-grade book might normally default to, and if the storyline itself is comfortably predictable, the execution (with its edifying digressions and code-switching) is one-of-a-kind and culturally spot-on.

I loved this volume, and can’t wait to see what adventures Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio go on next!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth and Lowriders Blast from the Past, with a fourth volume in the works, all from Chronicle Books. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow (Dial/Penguin), and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives (Simon & Schuster). Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12. Cathy is represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. For insights on the creative originas of the Lowriders series, read Cathy’s Camper’s guest post.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Raúl the Third is an award-winning illustrator, author, and artist living in Boston. His work centers on the contemporary Mexican-American experience and his memories of growing up in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Lowriders in Space was nominated for a Texas BlueBonnet award in 2016-2017 and Raúl was awarded the prestigious Pura Belpré Award for Illustration by the American Library Association for Lowriders to the Center of the Earth. He was also a contributor to the SpongeBob Comics series. Raúl wrote and illustrated the picture book ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to The Market!, which Versify will publish on April 2. For a fun and lively conversation about art, comics, growing up in El Paso and more, check out this one-of-a-kind audio interview with Raúl, conducted by illustrator Roberto Trujillo.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

Book Review: The Hidden City (Garza Twins Book 3) by David Bowles

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Carol and Johnny learn of the Ollamat, an ancient stone that can channel savage magic, they convince their parents to take them to the cloud forests of Oaxaca. With Pingo’s help, they search for the legendary city where it has been protected for a thousand years. But the twins aren’t the only ones hunting for the Ollamat. After it is stolen, they must travel through an emerald mirror into the beautiful yet dangerous Tlalocan: the paradise of the rain god. To retrieve the stone, they must face talking apes and forest elementals, rock worms and vicious elves, demons of lightning, and something even more unexpected: the souls of people they have watched die. As always, they are aided by allies old and new, though nothing can quite prepare them for the biggest foe of all – a member of their very family.

MY TWO CENTS: As with the first two books in the Garza Twins series, The Hidden City follows a similar structure: Carol and Johnny Garza, twin shapeshifters, learn more about their heritage and powers, uncovering a dire plot that must be foiled. This time, Carol and Johnny go in search of the Ollamat, a stone created from the heart of one of the ancestors, another in a set of twins who could wield savage magic. Along the way, however, Carol and Johnny learn that their uncle is a member of a militaristic force bent on eradicating naguales, or shapeshifters like Carol, Johnny, and their mother. Their lives are further thrown into turmoil when their hunt for the Ollamat requires that they once more travel into mythical lands, navigating a series of planes inhabited by the dead. The plot takes Carol and Johnny on another magical journey and sets the stage for future entries into the series.

As Carol and Johnny face new foes and meet new friends, The Hidden City adds more dimension to this series by revealing Carol’s crush on her friend, Nikki. Carol’s sexuality isn’t treated as a novelty or a token, but an extension of herself. Carol is aware of the heteronormative bounds within which she and Nikki live, and so her trepidation to reveal those feelings to Nikki feels natural. She questions her sexuality and attraction like many young people do—is this love? Is this just friendship? She’s confused, but not because of any internalized homophobia, rather she’s young and this feeling is so new. What’s more, Carol’s sexuality is normalized when Johnny reveals to her that he’s known about her bisexuality for a while and, of course, he’s accepting of it because both of their parents are bi. Thus, not only do we have a young, Latinx, bisexual protagonist, but we also have queer parents—this is radical for Latinx youth literature, and, frankly, all youth literature. Carol’s sexuality is implied and hinted to in the previous books, but that this text names it—and names it bisexuality in a world where media is so often guilty of bisexual erasure—is significant and changemaking.

Carol’s sexuality, juxtaposed against the search for the Ollamat, produces a dynamic and intriguing plot, one that will doubtless captivate young readers. As with all of the other books in this series, Bowles has a particular magic in making his worlds believable even as he adds more and more fantastic elements. For readers familiar with Latinx youth literature, it is easy to recognize that Bowles’s Garza Twins series not only fills in a gap as far as queer representation within the genre, but it also provides some much-needed fantasy. Latinx children’s literature is a relatively young genre, but contributions like Bowles’s mean that we’re getting more and more texts that move away from the racialized problem novel and instead offer fun, engaging, and challenging texts for young readers, Latinx and non-Latinx alike.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. 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.

 

Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 3

This is the third and final installment in a roundtable conversation with some of the reviewers on our team. It can’t be said too often: we’re overflowing with THANKS for the hard work and wisdom they pour into their reviews! Still, we figured they’d have more to say on the topic of children’s and YA lit, so we posed a few questions. 

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

Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries. I was an avid reader as a child and have very fond memories of Scholastic Book Fairs. My dad, who was a teacher, was one of my biggest literacy advocates. He would bring home piles of books and advanced reader copies that his colleagues shared with him. As a Mexican immigrant, he was mostly happy that these books were in English. It made for a really diverse set and rarely included bestsellers. Today, I still look for diversity in genres and aim to search for hidden gems. I also tend not to read bestsellers until years after their release.

Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach with The Butterfly Series. As a bi-cultural child (Cuban immigrant father/Jewish American mother) growing up in a majority white neighborhood in the 1960 and 70s, I did not have any books that reflected my Latinx heritage. As a result, it was very challenging for me to articulate my identity. My father, who spoke English with a heavy accent, chose not to teach us Spanish. That further compounded my confusion as child named “Maria Diana Ramos” who did not speak or understand Spanish.

Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist, creator of puppet theater, and a children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC. I was a voracious reader as a child and it has been a huge part of my identity since I was about six or seven years old. In elementary school, I mostly read historical fiction—I didn’t get into fantasy or sci-fi until I was in middle school. I read a lot of what we term the ‘canon’ like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, etc and only as an adult have I realized that I never read a chapter book about a Latinx character as a kid. Even though I went to a dual immersion school, most of the Spanish books in the library were translations of things like the Little House series. I work hard to hold onto the mindset of a kid when I read, especially when reading books about Latinx characters and try to imagine how they would have affected me if I had read them earlier in life.

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

Cecilia Cackley

Cecilia: I usually read a book through once and often I’m not sure if I’m going to be the person reviewing it. Since I’m a book buyer, I’m reading most books about six months ahead of publication date and my first thought is always for whether or not I’ll purchase this book for the store and what short blurb I can write to get a customer interested in it. Once I know I’m reviewing it for the blog, I make a list of points that I thought were especially interesting about the book and I read it a second time, paying close attention to those elements.

Maria: I tend to read a book and then sit with it for a bit before writing. I like to see what it makes me think about. I don’t typically take notes or use sticky flags and I avoid eating when I write because I find it distracting (I take a dedicated break when I eat). I really don’t like people who earmark pages in books or who write in books with pen, so I avoid doing both. Over the course of a few days, I might jot down some phrases to jog my memory for when I do sit down to write. I prefer an organic flow on the page to the pre-outlined, thoughtful preparation. I’m that way in a lot of my life –not just writing (spontaneous versus planned).

Araceli: Most of my reading happens during my long commute on the Boston T, so I keep tools to a minimum. Before writing a review, I keep a document on my phone filled with notes by categories — overall thoughts, teaching connections, and related readings. I make a note of quotes and page numbers that speak to me and my Latina identity. On my happiest reading days, I sit on my couch next to my dog. Unfortunately, this means keeping my snacks to a minimum.

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

Cecilia:  I used to be a third grade teacher and now I am a bookseller (I still teach art as a freelancer). My number one goal has always been to give kids and teens books they will love, books that will give them a greater understanding of the world and books that will reflect their own experiences. However, as a bookseller, I’m focused on selling, and I try to figure out who the audience is for the book and the best way to describe it in order to move it off the shelf. I’m not a trained critic and haven’t studied literature in an academic way, so a lot of how I approach books is from the point of view of “Who will read it?” and “How do I sell it?”

Maria Ramos-Chertok

Maria: In my youth, I worked a lot with kids who had severe challenges (sexual abuse, emotional disturbance, severe physical disability). I always had an acute awareness of how dependent children are on adults, and how the information we provide them, including the stories we tell, influences their development and sense of self. I never wanted to betray any child’s trust, so in my evaluation of texts I look for honesty and stories grounded in truth. I had my own children later in life, age forty and forty-two, and that perspective is what guides me most as a reviewer. I want a book that I would feel good reading to my two sons; I want a book that will make them think; I want a book that has characters that look like them.

Araceli: As a librarian, I try to be open-minded. While I may sometimes find fault with the story line or characters, that does not make a book bad. It just means it may not be for me! Reading is all about finding the right fit for yourself. I don’t believe there are people who aren’t readers, I just think they haven’t found the right literature yet. With so many formats, genres, book lengths, and topics, the possibilities are endless. With this perspective, I try to think about what type of reader each book is aimed for and highlight what they would find the most interesting.

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

Maria: I am the daughter of a mother who came out as a lesbian when I was fourteen. That was in 1976 and there were no books that I knew of then that spoke to my circumstance or to my changing family construct. I love that there are books on alternative families now, but I also want characters who are racially and culturally mixed. I want layered characters and I also want strong feminist characters.

Cecilia: Central-American representation, PLEASE! I live and work in a city where the majority of the Latinx community has ties to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Across the river in Virginia, we have a huge Bolivian community. I almost never see these kids represented in books, especially by authors who share their heritage.

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

Cecilia: Books that treat Dia de los Muertos like Halloween, books where everyone from Latin America lives in a little village, books where all the Latina characters are the “tough girl,” books where all the Latinx characters are poor or in a gang.

Maria: I’m tired of girl meets cute boy and they have a crush. I know that sells, but there are many other realities related to sexual orientation that are non-binary and gender fluid. That is a huge challenge for kids and I’d like to see more fluidity in the gender roles and stories.

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

Maria: Someone just sent me a copy of Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run The World. It’s not a book I would have bought for myself, but I found it interesting and think it’s a good read — especially for young adult women. Also, two dear friends of mine Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy wrote the book Yes! We are Latinos (2013) and gifted me a copy. I absolutely love that young adult book because it does exactly what I’ve always wanted in a book: share a diverse grouping of stories about the many different ways to identify as Latinxs. I wish I’d had a copy when I was growing up, but having it now is healing something inside of me.

Cecilia: I’m about to start WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE by Tehlor Kay Mejia and I’m super excited for it!

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In case you missed the previous posts in this series, here are links to Parts 1 and 2.

Unfortunately, not every current or recent contributor was available to respond to this Q&A. Here’s a list of those reviewers–mil gracias to each one! 

Chantel Acevedo reviewed Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad.

Dora M. Guzmán loves covering picture books. Here are her thoughts on Alma and How She Got Her Name/Alma y como obtuvo su nombre.

Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros supplied great insights on Jabberwalking.

Christa Jiménez did an excellent round-up review of baby books from indy publishers.

Marcela Peres provided her insights on Sci-Fu: Kick it Off.

Lettycia Terrones gave us a breakdown of The First Rule of Punk.