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.

 

Book Review: Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

MY TWO CENTS: There are few authors writing at the level of poetic brilliance and crushing emotional complexity as Anna-Marie McLemore does with each novel. I’m a huge fan of Wild Beauty and When The Moon Was Ours, so I was eager to fall into another lush, layered world. McLemore writes in the tradition of magical realism, but manages to make each of her stories feel so vastly different from one another. Weaving together four distinct points of view, she captures the challenge the del Cisne sisters face: at some point in their life, one of them will be claimed by the swans and become them. Blanca, who has fairer skin and yellow hair, is expected to survive the curse, and Roja, who is darker-skinned with red hair, believes that she’s bound for an inevitable fate. But this thrilling element provides a chance for McLemore to delve deep into themes teenagers will find compelling: Love. Acceptance. Colorism. The terror of changing bodies, the fear of isolation. The del Cisne sisters love one another so much that they vow to save the other, no matter the cost to themselves.

Yet each new chapter builds the complexity of this novel, which borrows from a number of traditional fairy tales and myths, such as Snow White and Swan Lake. Two mysterious boys—Paige and Barclay—become wrapped up in the del Cisne’s attempts to outwit and manipulate the swans, and they are both fully-realized, unique characters. I love a book where I am eager to read every character’s POV, and McLemore accomplishes this with ease. It helps that this book is so effortlessly diverse, in skin color and culture, in gender identity and fluidity, in showing us just how many different ways you can love another person. It is one of the most outwardly queer books I’ve ever read.

And the writing is just stunning. This novel manages to balance realistic, modern dialogue with a hypnotic and lyrical prose that is overflowing with sentences and scenes that broke my heart. Made me laugh. Made me yearn for more words, more chapters, more of every bit of this gorgeous book. I thought I knew what I was in for because it was a retelling of stories I’m familiar with, but Blanca & Roja establishes an entirely different kind of tale, one that is distinctly from the mind of McLemore. I expect this book will appear on a lot of lists by the end of the year, and it deserves to be. The young adult world needs more books that are challenging, odd, and imaginative, and you can tell from reading this one that the author deeply respects her readers.

Embark on this journey. It’s worth it.

TEACHING TIPS: Blanca & Roja is the perfect novel to analyze for a lesson on metaphors, as there are so many fantastic ones utilized by McLemore to explore issues surrounding sexuality, gender, colorism, and familial ties. It would also serve as a fantastic chance to talk about retellings and how an author goes about making a story feel like their own, even if some of the pieces are taken from something else. But more than anything else, I was drawn to the story of Page, who alternates between using he and she pronouns throughout the book based on what they feel most comfortable with at the time. It’s a fantastic example of gender fluidity, and I highly recommend reading the Author’s Note upon finishing.

Anna-Marie McLemoreABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is the author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award, 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, WILD BEAUTY, a Fall 2017 Junior Library Guild selection, and BLANCA & ROJA, which released October 9, 2018.

 

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his acclaimed debut YA contemporary fiction novel, and his follow-up, planned for 2019, is a magical realism/fantasy novel about self-discovery.

Book Review: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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