Book Review: Margarito’s Forest/El bosque de don Margarito

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Publisher’s Description

Margarito’s Forest, a bilingual book in English and Spanish with excerpts in K’iche’, is based on the life of Don Margarito Esteban Álvarez Velázquez as told by his daughter, Doña Maria Guadalupe. It is a story of Maya culture and wisdom passed from one generation to the next. As the devastating effects of climate change become clear, Don Margarito’s life and the ways of the Maya offer timely wisdom for a planet in peril.

My Two Cents

Margarito’s Forest/El bosque de don Margarito is a nonfiction account of a Guatemalan man’s extraordinary devotion to the forest he loved. In addition to offering a heroic and memorable story, this picture book also enriches the range of Latinx representation in U.S. children’s literature. The story takes place in the central highlands of Guatemala, among the K’iche’ people and includes phrases in the K’iche’ language. Margarito’s Forest also expands the range of truth-telling by taking on a reality I’ve never seen acknowledged in a children’s book: Guatemala’s dirty war, which brought tremendous suffering to many Guatemalans and was especially devastating for the country’s indigenous peoples. The book makes these contributions while focusing on introducing young readers to the late Margarito Esteban Álvarez Velásquez, an unsung warrior for the environment. This humble man dedicated his life to maintaining the forest near his Guatemalan home as a place of nourishment, beauty, and ancestral significance. Don Margarito often labored alone, saving trees even as many others in the region cleared them for the sake of crop cultivation, and his story offers a powerful example of the impact one person can have even when facing obstacles and indifference.

Based on oral histories shared by Don Margarito’s daughter, María Guadalupe Velásquez Tum, the narrative is set up as a conversation between Doña Guadalupe and her young grandson, Esteban. As Doña Guadalupe makes clear, her deep knowledge of the forest came from Don Margarito, who received it as a boy from the village holy man, Don Calixto. By emphasizing this chain of communication, the text also elevates the importance of transmitting family lore and practical wisdom to younger generations. It also offers valuable opportunities to recognize bodies of knowledge and practice that are often marginalized or belittled in mainstream narratives.

Engaging Difficult Histories

As mentioned, the story also touches on a deeply troubling passage in Guatemala’s recent history. For thirty-six years, beginning in 1960, Guatemalans endured a “dirty war” in which government military forces were deployed against citizens. During this protracted horror, indigenous peoples suffered disproportionate losses at the hands of government soldiers, including deaths now classified as genocide. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, the Guatemalan government often scapegoated Maya communities, and this was the precise fate suffered by the village where Doña Guadalupe and Don Margarito lived. Tragically, when Guatemalan forces raided their home village, Don Margarito was among those killed.

Doña Guadalupe, who witnessed the raid, describes her harrowing experience to Esteban in honest terms, yet sparing details that might disturb young readers: “While your father was still a baby, the army came and destroyed our village. They burnt our homes down to the ground and they dug up our crops.” She and her two children fled to the forest, where her father’s lessons on edible plants and healing herbs proved critical to their survival. Needless to say, this is an age-appropriate version of the story, but as Doña Guadalupe makes clear, Esteban will learn the rest later: “When you are a little older, I will tell you more about those days and the dirty war that tore us apart.” This approach carefully balances honesty with consideration for the age of readers, offering a compelling example of how to speak truthfully to young audiences about difficult topics.

Words and Images

Margarito’s Forest is also interesting in its layered approach to word and image. Incorporating the translation work of multiple contributors across three languages, the book is a multilingual text. English and Spanish sections appear on the same page along with embedded instances of K’iche’. (Adult readers may know this language by its former spelling, Quiché.) Although the presentation of K’iche’ phrases sometimes feels a bit forced and ungainly, its inclusion is a positive step toward unmaking the assumption that Spanish is “the” language of Central America by foregrounding its linguistic diversity. In fact, K’iche’ remains Guatemala’s second most widely spoken language after Spanish, and it is one of numerous surviving members of the Mayan language family.

  

(Images are the work of Allison Havens, used here by permission from Hard Ball Press)

The illustrations in Margarito’s Forest are multimedia collages by Allison Havens, a native of Chicago who now resides in Guatemala. Her original art is central to each collage and often appears as black-and-white graphite figures framed by a patchwork of full-color elements. The collages incorporate photography, scraps of textiles, and drawings made expressly for the book by children from the village of Saq Ja’.

In sum, Margarito’s Forest offers a tender glimpse into the life of a visionary, a courageous individual who followed his heart and acquired immense wisdom without the benefit of a formal education. Although the story makes clear the tragedy of Don Margarito’s death during the dirty war, it also demonstrates the enduring impact of his passionate devotion to the forest. Thanks to his daughter’s account—and to those who took pains to preserve it—his beautiful legacy lives on as the subject of this absorbing picture book.

More information:

According to the website for Hard Ball Press, Margarito’s Forest received the following distinctions: Most Inspirational Children’s Book by Latino Book Awards, a Commended Title in the 2017 Américas Award from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, and a Best Book of 2017 by the Bank Street College of Education.

The final pages of the book provide study questions for educators, librarians and parents. There is also a generous author’s note, detailing how the story came to his attention, and a section about the illustrator’s collaboration with the schoolchildren of Don Margarito’s village.

For those using this book with older readers, or for parents and educators who would like to be better prepared to answer young students’ questions, it may be important to engage with the role played by the U.S. in training Guatemala’s military, including in the notorious School of the Americas, a U.S.-backed training site that played a pivotal role in violent repression in Latin America. The commission report on the Guatemalan dirty war specifically identifies the U.S. as a source of extreme and abusive military techniques that had “significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.”

For further reading on Latinx activists working to save the environment, see this article.

And don’t miss this post by Marianne Snow Campbell about reading kid lit as an ecocritic.

Finally, experience the beauty K’iche’ as spoken by a native speaker.

 

Ready for 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia: Fútbol/Soccer Children’s Literature Bibliography

 

by Sujei Lugo

For the next couple of weeks, the 2018 FIFA World Cup, one of the world’s biggest sports events, will be held in Russia. This international soccer/fútbol competition brings spectators of all kinds together, drawing on their common passion—and this applies to avid fans who follow the sport throughout the year, as well as those who only pay attention every four years when the World Cup is played. Either way, this is the time to catch up with the latest players and root for your favorite team/country.

I live and work in a neighborhood where the caregivers of my library’s kids are often watching fútbol games on their phones, and where once in a while the little ones wear their favorite player’s jersey, or that of their parents’ or grandparents’ national team. It is one of those times when we break down certain barriers of communication with neighbors, family, friends, co-workers, and the people sitting next to us—because we are all speaking fútbol.

Like my fellow children’s librarians, the time for summer reading/learning programs is upon us, and we are always eager to support and encourage recreational and informational reading for our youth. The 2018 FIFA World Cup is a great opportunity to showcase our fútbol/soccer children’s books, and to start or continue conversations with our small patrons—and root (or debate!) together.

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I posted a picture on my social-media accounts of the fútbol children’s books display that I put together at my library, along with coloring sheets of this year’s World Cup mascot, Zabivaka! My great colleagues Angie Manfredi and Cory Eckert suggested that I should assemble a bibliography of these books, and well, here it is! Included here are titles in Spanish and English, as well as bilingual editions, and it contains everything from early readers to graphic novels to chapter books. The majority of these titles are by Latinx or Latin American authors or illustrators. Many feature Latinx or Latin American characters and players, but I also included more general titles about the game and its players. My list focuses on books available at my library branch, but we know there are many more great ones out there! I hope this list inspires you to get your library display going, or perhaps to acquire some of these winners for your library, classroom, or home shelf, all for your favorite little ones!

Fútbol/Soccer Children’s Literature Bibliography

Alexander, Kwame (2016). Booked. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. [Chapter Book; Novel in Verse]

Apps, Roy; illustrated by Chris King (2015). Dream to Win: Leo Messi. Franklin Watts. [Early Readers; Biography]

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Boelts, Maribeth; illustrated by Lauren Castillo (2015). El fútbol me hace feliz. Candlewick Press. [Picture Book]

Boelts, Maribeth; illustrated by Lauren Castillo (2012). Happy Like Soccer. Candlewick Press. [Picture Book]

Borth, Teddy (2017). Fútbol: grandes momentos, récords y datos. Abdo Kids. [Early Readers]

Brown, Monica; illustrated by Angela Dominguez (2015). Lola Levine is not Mean! Little, Brown and Company. [Early Readers]

Brown, Monica; illustrated by Rudy Gutiérrez (2009). Pelé: King of Soccer/Pelé: el rey del fútbol. Rayo. [Picture Book; Biography; Bilingual]

Cline-Ransome, Lesa; illustrated by James E. Ransome (2007). Young Pelé: Soccer’s First Star. Schwartz & Wade Books. [Picture Book; Biography]

Colato Laínez, René; illustrated by Lancman Ink (2014). ¡Juguemos al fútbol y al football!/Let’s Play Fútbol and Football! Alfaguara. [Picture Book; Bilingual]

Crespo, Ana; illustrated by Nana Gonzalez (2015). The Sock Thief. Albert Whitman & Company. [Picture Book]

Dahl, Michael; illustrated by Christina Forshay (2018). Goodnight Soccer. Capstone Young Readers. [Picture Book]

Doeden, Matt (2017). Sports All-Stars: Cristiano Ronaldo. Lerner Publications. [Biography]

9789874616364Domínguez, María & Juan Pablo Lombana (2014). El Chavo: El partido de fútbol/The Soccer Match. Scholastic. [Picture Book; Bilingual]

Duopresslabs; illustrated by Jon Stollberg (2016). Messi superstar. ¡Achis! [Biography]

Elzaurdia, Paco (2013). Superestrellas del fútbol mexicano: Rafael Márquez. Mason Crest. [Biography]

Franz Rosell, Joel; illustrated by Constanze v. Kitzing (2012). Gatito y el balón. Kalandraka. [Picture Book]

Garlando, Luigi; illustrated by Stefano Turconi (2012) ¡Gol! Un gran equipo. Vintage Español. [Chapter Book & Comics]

Javaherbin, Mina; illustrated by Renato Alarcão (2014). Soccer Star. Candlewick Press. [Picture Book]

Jökulsson, Illugi (2015). James Rodríguez. Abbeville Press. [Biography]

Jökulsson, Illugi (2015). Stars of Women’s Soccer. Abbeville Press. [Biographies]james-rodriguez

Jökulsson, Illugi (2015). Stars of World Soccer. Abbeville Press. [Biographies]

Lombana, Juan Pablo; illustrated by Zamie Casazola (2014). Soccermania/Futbolmanía. Scholastic, Inc. [Bilingual]

Manushkin, Fran; illustrated by Tammie Lyon (2018). Pedro: el golazo de Pedro. Picture Window Books. [Early Readers]

Morgan, Alex (2016). The Kicks: Settle the Score. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. [Chapter Book]

Nevius, Carol; illustrated by Bill Thomson (2011). Soccer Hour. Marshall Cavendish Children. [Picture Book]

Oldfield, Tom & Matt Oldfield (2017). The Little Genius: Sergio Agüero. Dino. [Biography]

Oldfield, Tom & Matt Oldfield (2016). El pistolero: Luis Suárez. Dino. [Biography]

Paul, Batiste; illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara (2018). The Field. NorthSouth Books. [Picture Book]

Pelé; illustrated by Frank Morrison (2010). For the Love of Soccer! Disney Hyperion. [Picture Book]

Pérez Hernando, Fernando (2016). Armando. Takatuka. [Picture Book]

Pinkney, Brian (2015). On the Ball. Disney Hyperion. [Picture Book]

downloadRadnedge, Aidan (2018). 50 Things You Should Know About Soccer. Quarto Publishing.

Simon, Eddy; illustrated by Vincent Brascaglia (2017). Pelé: the King of Soccer. First Second. [Graphic Novel]

Teixeira Thiago, Jorge (2013). Superestrellas del fútbol brasilero: Neymar. Mason Crest. [Biography]

Vázquez Lozano, Gustavo A. (2013). Superstars of Soccer Colombia: Iván Córdoba. Mason Crest. [Biography]

Vázquez Lozano, Gustavo A. (2013). Superstars of Soccer Mexico: Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. Mason Crest. [Biography]

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Book Review: Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

 

Review by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Moss Jeffries is many things—considerate student, devoted son, loyal friend and affectionate boyfriend, enthusiastic nerd.

But sometimes Moss still wishes he could be someone else—someone without panic attacks, someone whose father was still alive, someone who hadn’t become a rallying point for a community because of one horrible night.

Six years ago, Moss Jefferies’ father was murdered by an Oakland police officer. Along with losing a parent, the media’s vilification of his father and lack of accountability has left Moss with near crippling panic attacks.

Now, in his sophomore year of high school, Moss and his fellow classmates find themselves increasingly treated like criminals by their own school. New rules. Random locker searches. Constant intimidation and Oakland Police Department stationed in their halls. Despite their youth, the students decide to organize and push back against the administration.

When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.

MY TWO CENTS: As a teenager, all you do is dream of being someone else, but for Moss, it is less about escaping his world and more about escaping himself. Since the loss of his father six years ago due to police negligence, Moss’s life is thrust into a state of disarray that is constantly afflicted by anxiety and self-doubt. Injustice is rampant in his community, and the death of his father is a marker of a world meant to dismantle communities that are different, whether it be in race, gender, sexuality, or other. Moss knows he should fight, but the pain is still real and it immobilizes him. While others want him to fight, rally, and march, Moss first wants to find peace so that freedom from his anger can finally bring about progress.

Through Moss, we learn that all the feelings he experiences are in fact his tools for survival. His mother teaches him that where he sees anger due to injustice, he can also find power, freedom, and strength that can lead to progress. Oshiro brilliantly gives us a challenging and truthful world that will foster profound discussion on a topic we shouldn’t be shying away from. I also admire that Anger is a Gift highlights how oppression targets so many due to their identities and shows us that we cannot ourselves rise while leaving others behind.

TEACHING TIPS: Police violence is a difficult topic to make sense of, let alone explain to others. With honesty, Anger is a Gift allows us to realize that the confusion and array of feelings that come with experiencing sensless violence in our communities are justified. Through Moss, we are allowed to experience how one individual utilizes those feelings to bring action rather than inmobilize him. Anger is a Gift can be used in conjunction to other books that explore police violence, but I encourage you to supplement your readings with news clips and articles that report on police violence. Encourage your students to identify the differences and potential biases in these reports.

RECOMMENDED READING: 

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles
  • All American Boys by  Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE AUTHORMark 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 debut YA contemporary fiction novel.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries. She has an M.A. in history and MLIS from Simmons College, where she focused her studies on the role of libraries and archives in the cultural preservation of the U.S.-Mexican border. Additionally, she holds a BA in ethnic studies from Brown University. Her research is greatly influenced by her hometown of Laredo, TX, which has led her to work in serving immigrants and underrepresented communities. Her current work is bringing new and diverse literature to the T in Boston through Books on the T. You can find Araceli on Instagram.

 

Book Birthday: What the Wind Can Tell You

 


Happy book birthday to What the Wind Can Tell You

(May 15, Islandport Press)

About the book:

In this new middle grade novel by Sarah Marie Aliberti Jette, seventh-grader Isabelle Perez is fascinated by wind. And this year, she’s determined to win the middle school science fair with her wind machine. She’s just as determined to have her brother, Julian, who has a severe form of epilepsy and uses a wheelchair, serve as her assistant. But after Julian has a grand seizure, everything changes.

Isabelle is suddenly granted entry into Las Brisas, a magical world where Julian’s physical limitations disappear, and one, she discovers, that he visits every night. The more Isabelle explores Las Brisas, the more possibilities she sees––for Julian, and for herself––and the more she finds herself at odds with her parents. Debut author Sara Marie A. Jette has told, with remarkable insight, humor, and a touch of magical realism, a powerful story of a family struggling to love without fear.

About the author:

Sarah Marie Jette grew up in Lewiston, Maine, and now lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, but her route from Maine to Massachusetts was anything but a straight line. She got her degree in English and Women’s Studies at Mount Holyoke College, then went halfway around the world to serve in the Peace Corps in Mongolia. She then studied rehabilitation counseling at Boston University’s Sargent College of Rehabilitation before turning to teaching. She now teaches fourth grade at Thompson Elementary School in Arlington, Mass. Somehow, between her students and her own three young children, she finds time to write. “Finding time to write is hard, but necessary,” she says.

  1. How does your heritage affect your writing? Why did you choose to make Isabelle and her family Mexican-American? 

A: When I wrote What the Wind Can Tell You, I made Isabelle Mexican-American because I wanted to write the character I searched for as a child. I spent my childhood searching for characters who looked like me in books. Fairy tale princesses were always ‘fair.’ The books I read described characters with blue eyes and freckles. Whenever I found a character with dark hair or brown eyes, I told myself that they were like me, though, deep inside, I knew that they weren’t. Representation matters—not token characters in the background, but complex and interesting characters from diverse backgrounds that you can fall in love with. I make an effort to fill my classroom library with diverse books. There are more than there used to be, but still not enough.

Q: What was the inspiration for What the Wind Can Tell You?

A: The inspiration for What the Wind Can Tell You was a single lightning bolt. It hit me as I drove home after visiting with friends. I had just held their newborn baby and spent time with the baby’s big brother. On my drive, I imagined the relationship these boys were going to have. I thought about the love between siblings and how special it is. I pulled my car over and wrote my idea down on a paper napkin.

The baby’s big brother has epilepsy, much like my character, Julian. He was diagnosed when he was a few months old. On Sunday mornings, for about two years, I babysat him. I held him, fed him, changed his diapers, soothed him through seizures, and read to him. Sometimes, therapists visited and I learned ways to help him strengthen his muscles or track objects with his eyes. His music therapists were my favorite.

I had been writing for years, but this was the first time I found a story that felt so right. I wrote furiously and completed the first draft in three months. It would be many more years of revising before my story was ready to submit to editors, but my inspiration carried me through.

Q: Do you have any writers or books you most admire and turn to for inspiration? 

A: I admire the writing of Michelle Cuevas. The language in her books is rich and beautiful. She deals with big issues—growing up, identity, and loss—but she is also very playful in her writing. I love reading her books out loud so I can see how my students react to her words. I am also a big fan of Jonathan Auxier. I read his book Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes to my students every year. His stories are unusual, engaging, and a lot of fun.

Best of luck to the brand-new What the Wind Can Tell You

Book Review: Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life, Written & Illustrated by Alberto Ledesma

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Publisher’s Description

In this hybrid memoir, Alberto Ledesma wonders, At what point does a long-time undocumented immigrant become an American in the making? From undocumented little boy to “hyper documented” university professor, Ledesma recounts how even now, he sometimes finds himself reverting to the child he was, recalling his father’s words: “Mijo, it doesn’t matter how good you think your English is, la migra will still get you.”

Exploring Ledesma’s experiences from immigrant to student to academic, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer presents a humorous, gritty, and multilayered portrait of undocumented immigrant life in urban America. Ledesma’s vignettes about life in the midst of ongoing social trauma give voice to a generation that has long been silent about its struggles. Delving into the key moments of cultural transition throughout his childhood and adulthood—police at the back door waiting to deport his family, the ex-girlfriend who threatens to call INS and report him, and the interactions with law enforcement even after he is no longer undocumented—Ledesma, through his art and his words, provides a glimpse into the psychological and philosophical concerns of undocumented immigrant youth who struggle to pinpoint their identity and community.

My Two Cents

Powerful and timely, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life is the stunning, hand-illustrated chronicle of Alberto Ledesma’s twelve years in undocumented limbo and the psychological toll those years exacted. Drawing—or doodling, as he often calls it— became of one Ledesma’s most reliable coping mechanisms for the stresses of living in the U.S. without documentation. He began the doodling practice as a quiet act of defiance, since even privately acknowledging one‘s lack of papers broke a cultural taboo held by many insiders in Ledesma’s undocumented community. This taboo reached inside the very walls of his family home, where the fear of detection and deportation hung like a black cloud over their daily existence.

In this work, Alberto Ledesma offers a perspective of the American experience that few have written about, plumbing its layers of complexity through richly observed episodes, supplemented by striking text-and-image panels. His personal stories reveal troubling family dynamics, from the pain of feeling misunderstood to his father’s emotional unavailability and bouts of drinking. They also explore Alberto’s adolescent years, when the ache to free himself from the constant secrecy demanded by the family’s status was at its height. Stories of close calls render the fear palpable. In one vivid example, Alberto, his siblings, and their mother sit in a parked car next to a field while their father wanders into the undergrowth to pick wild cactus leaves. As cars occupied by white people pass by, some drivers cast suspicious glances at the Mexican family. When one of the sisters spots a no-trespassing sign, tension turns to panic and eventually to anger at their father for placing them in such a vulnerable position.

In 1986, the Ledesma family achieved legal status through provisions outlined in the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a law passed during the Reagan administration. But as Alberto explains, “though we were now ‘legal,’ those twelve years of conditioning did not disappear.” Long after his status is resolved, the fear of being hunted persists. He demonstrates the extent of that struggle through contemporary exchanges with his young daughter, Sofia, who peppers him with such questions as, “What does it mean that you were once illegal?”

Ledesma ultimately transitioned into academic life, earning a Ph.D. and landing a teaching and administrative position at the University of California at Berkley. He connects his academic drive to the phenomena of “hyper-documentation.” Originated by Dr. Aurora Chang, this term “describes the effort by Dreamers to accrue awards, accolades, and eventually academic degrees to compensate for having been undocumented.” The burdensome effect of this impulse comes through in one of Ledesma’s most potent drawings, which shows a brown-skinned person dressed in cap and gown, pulling a file cabinet tethered by rope and bursting with award certificates.

In addition to its memoir sections, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer includes dozens of serial and stand-alone text-and-image panels, which reflect on multiple aspects of undocumented life. An entire chapter, “The Undocumented Alphabet,” illuminates twenty-six poignant realities experienced by the community. They include:

        “A” is for the ABUELITOS left back in Mexico and the knowledge that until you fix your status you can’t go visit them no matter how much you miss them.

        “E” is for the EDUCATION your mother asked you to get so that you wouldn’t end up working at the same garment factory she did.

Crossing the southern border without papers is an act fraught with peril, but as Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer makes clear, it’s only the start of a long, precarious journey that plays out in the daily existence of millions of undocumented Americans. At this writing, the future of many DACA recipients and other undocumented youth remains in limbo. Their fate is in the hands of elected officials all too willing to play political football with human lives. Alberto Ledesma’s account offers a strong and essential counterpoint to the xenophobia infecting public discourse about U.S. immigration. It brings penetrating light into the liminal spaces occupied not only by Dreamers, but all undocumented immigrants, and makes a convincing case that their stories deserve a chapter in our national narrative.


Last month, while Alberto Ledesma was at The Ohio State University for a panel on comics and immigration, he stopped for this photo opportunity with Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés Pérez, sons of our fellow Latinxs in Kid Lit blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez.

Liam Miguel read Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer from cover to cover (even the parts in cursive, which were tricky for him at first), and he was thrilled to get his copy signed. For him, hearing Alberto’s stories was a way to better understand his father’s path to legal status as well as the realities for many young people who were not so fortunate to come at a time when that path was opened.

About the author-illustrator: Alberto Ledesma, a Mexican-American scholar of literature, holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include poetry, academic articles, and short stories, which have appeared in Con/Safos: A Chicana/o Literary Magazine, and in Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series (#17). He has also published essays  in ColorLines and New America Media. Ledesma, who participated in Sandra Cisneros’s Macondo Workshop and in the VONA Writers Workshopserves as Graduate Diversity Director for the Outreach and Diversity Office of the Arts & Humanities Division in the College of Letters & Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Book Review: Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

From the book’s back cover:

“I see reality in another way with a camera. Looking through the lens, I peer into another world… “

Born in Mexico City in 1942, Graciela Iturbide wants to be a writer, but her conservative family has a different idea. Although she initially follows their wishes, she soon grows restless. After tragedy strikes, she turns to photography to better understand the world. The photographic journey she embarks on takes her throughout Mexico and around the globe, introducing her to fascinating people and cultures, and eventually bringing her success and fame. With more than two dozen photographs by Iturbide herself, Photographic explores the question of what it means to become an artist.

My two cents

Photographic is a lively and compelling celebration of the life and work of critically acclaimed Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. Young readers and fans of nonfiction graphic novels will devour it. I certainly did. Written by poet-novelist Isabel Quintero and illustrated by Zeke Peña, this slender graphic novel from Getty Publications tells its stories through an arresting blend of text and photocomics. Not many graphic novels attempt Photographic‘s approach—that is, placing reproductions of Iturbide’s camerawork alongside Peña’s pen-and-ink drawings. Then again, Photographic is no routine examination of an artist’s life. Guided by Quintero’s lyrical narrative, it also offers a powerful and disarming time capsule of Mexico’s cultural and social glories, as encountered by Iturbide during her photographic journey.

Photographic‘s pictorial narrative crisscrosses decades, allowing readers to peer through Iturbide’s lens as she traverses the geographic spine of Mexico, ventures across the border into Latinx communities in the United States, and on to international settings. The story flows from present-day views of Iturbide to flashes of her youth, when her father buys her a Brownie camera. It resumes in young womanhood, as she studies under photography master Manuel Álvarez Bravo. From there, we witness the continuing evolution of the artist as she undertakes a series of photographic projects.

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

Iturbide possesses a selective eye, one that ennobles the disregarded and humble. This is most evident in her deeply humanizing portraits of people found along the margins of society. Such subjects include young men in Tijuana whose tattooed bodies read like a codex, as well as Juchitán’s “muxes, who are both men and women at the same time,” as Quintero explains in the text.

Iturbide’s range of subjects is wide. She occasionally photographs mammals and reptiles, but birds dominate this area of interest. In her photos, they appear singly and in flocks, on perches and in flight, as living creatures and as dusty, feathered bodies. Echoing this passion, Quintero skillfully adopts avian motifs to express some of the most elusive aspects of Iturbide’s photographic instinct.

Each time I look through the viewfinder I see myself…

I use my bird sight to see the fragments. The camera as mirror as bird eye.

And I with eyes to fly.  

Always midflight.

I look to the skies.

Birds like shifting stars and all of them speaking to one another—telling different stories. Wings spread and reverberate until silence.

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

Although Iturbide resists being labeled magical or surrealist, her art unquestionably plays along the edges of reality. Even when photographing everyday objects, the images she captures teem with mystery and questions. A notable example is her work at Casa Azul, the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. There, in the bathroom, which was sealed after Kahlo’s death for fifty years, Iturbide’s camera brings our attention to porcelain fixtures, detached leg braces and corsets. Although composed of ordinary objects, these tableaus wordlessly communicate Kahlo’s physical suffering and bring into sharper relief the triumph of her immense contributions.

Iturbide’s portraits of uncelebrated women are among her greatest achievements. In one striking photograph, four young women from East Los Angeles pose in front of a mural devoted to Mexican revolutionary and political figures Zapata, Juárez, and Pancho Villa. In their defiant expressions and unapologetic stances, these women testify to the subversive spirit that lives on in their community. Even more startling is Iturbide’s documentation of Juchitán, a city in Oaxaca whose inhabitants are chiefly Zapotec, and where for generations, women have called the shots. “In Juchitán, women drive commerce, and men ask for an allowance.” Out of this matriarchal setting comes one of Iturbide’s most unforgettable photographs, a portrait of a market vendor wearing a crown of live iguanas. Zobeida, as she is identified, is rendered mythical, regal, an image for the ages, La Medusa Juchiteca. Yet Zobeida is a flesh-and-blood woman, making a living selling her wares and not anyone seeking immortality as a goddess. Iturbide’s camera lens frames these dual realities. She has learned how to see what many others miss— a reflex she cannot help but exercise in one after another iconic photograph.

And now, Photographic has brought Iturbide’s empathetic, ennobling, and powerful art to young readers and fans of the graphic novel. It’s no small order to synthesize a lifetime of artistic growth and achievement, but this book delivers, thanks to the wonderful collaborative work of Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña, who are impressive artists in their own right, with rich futures in their respective fields.

Teaching ideas

For middle school or high school, Photographic could be used as a supplementary text for the study of Latinx/Mexican culture and sociology, as well as in biographical examinations of artists and their working methods.

In addition to its broader classroom potential, Photographic suggests fresh approaches to the teaching of photography. Borrowing from themes found in its pages, here are some shooting assignments to consider: 1. Go on the hunt for a naturally occurring still life (not staged). 2. Locate a striking landscape or urban-scape that most people would pass by without noticing. 3. Scour your world for intriguing human faces—not necessarily pretty ones—and take care to photograph them with respect and dignity. 4. Include a self-portrait. For inspiration, examine Iturbide’s revelatory photos of herself, which offer strong and original counterpoints to the superficial selfie.

In addition, every frame of Iturbide’s work demonstrates principles of design and composition. Ask students to study her photos for their use of negative space, symmetry, asymmetry, minimalism, close ups, and judicious cropping—then have them pull out their cameras and emulate.

Finally, the wonderful teaching blog Vamos a Leer has published a preview of Photographic, which includes links to many resources, including interviews with Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña. Don’t miss it!

About the subject: Graciela Iturbide lives and works in Mexico City, where she was born. Her photography enjoys worldwide acclaim and has received major international prizes. It is often the subject of solo exhibitions at heralded art centers, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Paul Getty Museum, and the Centre Pompidou. Learn more about Iturbide’s life and view galleries of her work by visiting her official website.  Photo by Christopher Sprinkle

 

About the author: Isabel Quintero is a poet and novelist of Mexican heritage, born in California. She is best known for her trailblazing Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Punto Press, 2014), winner of the 2015 William C. Morris Award for YA Debut Novel and many other distinctions. It was reviewed on Latinx in Kid Lit by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez. Follow Isabel’s writing journey on her blog.

 

About the illustrator: Zeke Peña is a comics artist and illustrator from El Paso, Texas. Among his many book covers, Zeke is the artist behind the powerful cover of Gabi, a Girl in Pieces. Explore his illustration and painting galleries at his website.

 

 

 

About the reviewer: Lila Quintero Weaver (no relation to Isabel Quintero) is one of the founding bloggers of Latinxs in Kid Lit. She wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and will release My Year in the Middle, her first children’s book, on July 10, 2018. Learn more about her work here.