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

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: 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

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “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 TIPS: 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.

 

Book Review: Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Hispanics featured in this collection come from many different backgrounds and from many different countries. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!

Poems spotlight Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez Wright, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Tomás Rivera, and Ynés Mexia.

MY TWO CENTS: This beautiful and memorable picture book once again showcases the partnership of creative luminaries Margarita Engle and Rafael López, following their award-winning collaboration on Drum Dream Girl. In Bravo!, Engle’s eighteen poems and López’s accompanying illustrations highlight notable Hispanics with strong connections to the United States. Some subjects are Puerto Ricans, while many are Latinx notables from the U.S. mainland. Quite a few came to its shores as immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A few are world-famous, like Tito Puente, César Chávez, and Roberto Clemente, but most are not. In fact, some individuals whose thrilling achievements should have earned them a prominent place in history have yet to receive their due, such as Cuban American Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot. (I eagerly anticipate the March 2018 release entitled The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book by Margarita Engle illustrated by Sara Palacios, which should go a long way toward filling that gap.)

The profiles are arranged chronologically, and each featured individual receives a double-page treatment consisting of a brief poem and a portrait illustration. The first spot belongs to Juan de Miralles (1713-1780), a Cuban supporter of the American Revolution, whose intervention helped save George Washington’s troops from scurvy. The final selection is Tomás Rivera (1935-1984), an influential teacher, poet, and University of California chancellor, who was also one of Margarita Engle’s creative-writing professors.

As with her novels in verse, Engle presents the stories of the characters through first-person-voiced poems that draw attention not only to that individual’s contributions to society, but also to the passions that drove them to action.

As mentioned earlier, most of these historical figures are not widely recognized. For example, how many readers in the U.S. are familiar with poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who advocated for her native Puerto Rico’s independence? In “My River of Dreams,” we learn of her poverty-stricken childhood and the natural world that she loved, as well as the heart of her advocacy:

I struggled to become a teacher

and a poet, so I could use words

to fight for equal rights for women,

and work toward meeting

the needs of poor children,

and speak of independence

for Puerto Rico.

Another selection, “Wild Exploration,” profiles Ynés Mexia (1870-1938), highlighting Mexía’s botanical studies in Mexico and South America, but also bringing out her bicultural origins, the anguish she suffered as the child of warring parents, and the fact that she discovered her true calling later in life than most:

But when I’m all grown up and really quite old,

I finally figure out how to feel useful,

Enjoying the adventure of a two-country life.

As with all eighteen of the profiled subjects, we can learn more about Ynés Mexía in the supplement “Notes About the Lives,” which explains that her career as a botanist began at age fifty-five and led to the discovery of five hundred new species.

In his bold, graphic portraits, Rafael López signals each person’s setting and historical period through carefully selected details in their apparel, the background scenery, and through visual symbolism that enriches the poetic text. One noteworthy example is in the profile of Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest whose ministry in New York focused on newly arrived Irish immigrants. In his portrait, Varela wears a clerical collar and holds an olive branch in his right hand, signifying the pacifism that set him at odds with his countrymen in Cuba. On the opposite page, a smaller and simply rendered three-leaf clover pays homage to Varela’s Irish parishioners.

Readers familiar with Margarita Engle, whose poetry often elevates the work of unsung Latinas, will not be surprised that the collection includes seven noteworthy women. In addition, a generous proportion of those featured are of African or indigenous ancestry, and this diversity is satisfyingly represented in López’s stunning portrait work. By showcasing extraordinary, yet under-represented achievers, Bravo! enhances their visibility and sends an affirming message to girls and children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. With that said, this collection would have felt more complete if it offered a wider representation of ancestral lands. Among the eighteen profiles, there are no Dominicans, and only one of each from Central America and South America. (Editors, please take note that Latinx people represent a broad sweep of nations and cultures.) Perhaps in recognition of the impossible task of selecting just eighteen subjects, a supplement at the back of the book entitled “More and More Amazing Latinos” provides a list of over twenty more Latinx achievers. These include Tony Meléndez, a Nicaraguan American guitarist; Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian American planetary geologist for NASA; and Jaime Escalante, a teacher of mathematics from Bolivia.

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics is a jewel of a picture book. It offers children an introductory glimpse of important historical figures they may never otherwise hear about. And let’s face it: adults will learn a great deal from these pages, too. As members of the Latinx community, these history-makers represent a rich variety of educational and economic backgrounds, an impressive array of careers and causes, as well as a diverse range of racial and ethnic legacies. Taken together, the tributes in this beautiful book point to the depth, complexity, and durability of Hispanic contribution to culture, innovation, civic advances, and many other components of life in the United States.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. For more information, visit Margarita’s website.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City, is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. A children’s book illustrator, he won the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2012, he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival poster. He has been awarded the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, three Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards. The illustrations created by López bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Learn more on his website.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERLila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Book Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

This review is based on an advance reader’s edition.

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: In the tradition of Before I Fall and If I Stay, this tour de force from acclaimed author Adam Silvera, whose debut the New York Times called “profound,” reminds us that there’s no life without death, no love without loss—and that it’s possible to change your whole world in a day.

Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio are going to die today. The two boys are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. There is some good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure—to live a lifetime in a single day.

MY TWO CENTS: The release date for They Both Die at the End was September 5, 2017. It’s no coincidence that the novel also takes place on that date, with chapters time-stamped to reflect the passing hours. This is no ordinary day for Mateo Torrez, 18, and Rufus Emeterio, 17, both of New York City. An unfailingly accurate notification service known as Death-Cast delivers the news that it is their last day on earth. Sadly, both boys have lost loved ones whose deaths were predicted in the same, bone-chilling fashion.

They Both Die at the End sends readers on a spellbinding adventure, following the two main characters as they squeeze in one more day of living. The story hits the ground running at 12:22 a.m., when Mateo’s phone sounds the eerie Death-Cast alert. Rufus receives his alert not long after that. Yet for all the tension of the ticking countdown, this novel narrates a surprisingly tender friendship that springs up between the two strangers. They connect through the app Last Friend, one of numerous social, cultural, and commercial spin-off products resulting from the launch of Death-Cast, which has been in existence for six years.

By the time Rufus and Mateo’s last day arrives, society has accepted the reliability of the Death-Cast predictions, and has developed norms in response to the ubiquitous presence of so-called Deckers, people who’ve received the last-day warning. This is made evident in a scene where subway passengers realize that a Decker and her Last Friend are among them. A stranger offers sympathy. “Sorry to lose you,” she says to the Decker, and commends them both for spending the final hours together. The Death-Cast phenomenon has changed the landscape of everyday life in other ways. Restaurants offer discounts to Deckers, and at a special amusement park called Make a Memory, Deckers and their companions indulge in simulated extreme sports. Social media has summoned a flurry of responses, too, including CountDowners, a blog devoted to the postings and live-feeds of Deckers, who share real-time accounts of their final hours on earth. Silvera weaves these fictitious cultural creations seamlessly into an otherwise recognizable version of contemporary city life.

How Death-Cast knows when a person will expire is anyone’s guess, but because his mom died in childbirth, Mateo has been death-haunted all his life. Paranoia about dying has kept him from making friends and participating in childhood activities, such as going on sleepovers and roller-skating in the park. Now, with the bitter reality of death squarely before him, Mateo is engulfed in the pain of wasted opportunities. When the End Day news comes, he is home alone. His father, who is hospitalized in intensive care, has been in a coma for weeks, and Mateo’s only other significant connections are with a close friend, Lidia, and her one-year-old daughter.

While Mateo is a loner, who from the safe confines of his apartment has engaged primarily with the digital universe of blogs, games, and apps— Rufus is more of a here-and-now guy: confident, socially connected, and comfortable jumping into new experiences in a way that Mateo never has been. When readers meet Rufus, he’s giving his ex-girlfriend’s new guy a beat-down. Then the Death-Cast ringtone goes off and everybody freezes. Although foster brothers Malcolm and Tagoe are on hand to provide Rufus with backup during the fight, for reasons that aren’t immediately revealed, they can’t help him once the police get involved. So Rufus takes flight alone, into the darkened streets of the city. He needs a friend.

The novel follows Mateo and Rufus from their separate, but equally jarring Death-Cast notices until they connect through the Last Friend app. During the course of their hours together, they bridge the initial awkwardness, and in cementing a friendship, defy the opposing pull of their personalities and lifestyles. Rufus gently goads Mateo to push aside long-held fears, and Mateo responds by embracing new experiences, from small to significant. By the time they land at Clint’s Graveyard—a dance and karaoke club that exists to give Deckers an unforgettable send-off—Mateo is more alive, more himself than ever, and the boys’ friendship turns romantic.

In his debut, More Happy Than Not, Adam Silvera demonstrated a fluid command of speculative fiction. In They Both Die at the End, he repeats that impressive feat, crafting a futuristic world that lands credibly in all its disquieting aspects, yet never forgets that telling a specific story is the most important order of business. Silvera’s ability to weave the strange and disturbing world of Death-Cast into a powerful character-driven narrative keeps readers on the edge to the last page, and drives a keen level of anticipation for the next offering from this gifted writer.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find They Both Die at the End, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adam Silvera was born and raised in the Bronx. He has worked in the publishing industry as a children’s bookseller, marketing assistant at a literary development company, and book reviewer of children’s and young adult novels. His debut novel, More Happy Than Not, received multiple starred reviews and is a New York Times bestseller. Visit his author site for more information.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: Evangelina Takes Flight

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: It’s the summer of 1911 in northern Mexico, and thirteen-year-old Evangelina and her family have learned that the rumors of soldiers in the region are true. Her father decides they must leave their home to avoid the violence of the revolution. The trip north to a small town on the U.S. side of the border is filled with fear and anxiety for the family as they worry about loved ones left behind and the uncertain future ahead.

Life in Texas is confusing, though the signs in shop windows that say “No Mexicans” and some people’s reactions to them are all-too clear. At school, she encounters the same puzzling resentment. The teacher wants to give the Mexican children lessons on basic hygiene! And one girl in particular delights in taunting the foreign-born students. Why can’t people understand that—even though she’s only starting to learn English—she’s just like them?

With the help and encouragement of the town’s doctor and the attentions of a handsome boy, Evangelina begins to imagine a new future for herself. But will the locals who resent her and the other new immigrants allow her to reach for and follow her dreams?

MY TWO CENTS: Diana J. Noble’s Evangelina Takes Flight is timely to a startling degree. As a work of historical fiction, Noble’s portrayal of upheaval in Mexico caused by the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa’s raids on farming villages remains relevant to this day. In confronting the racism and xenophobia rampant at the border, where shops display signs declaring “’No Dogs! No Negroes! No Mexicans! No Perros! No Negros! No Mexicanos!’,” Evangelina’s story parallels contemporary struggles for racial equality (92). As racial tensions build both in the text and in real life, Evangelina’s stand to keep her school desegregated feels remarkably current, and in its demonstration of child activism, Evangelina Takes Flight holds up a powerful example.

Though Noble doesn’t spend much time explaining the political situation of Mexico during the early twentieth century, the book doesn’t suffer from this lack of context. Indeed, told from the first-person point of view of Evangelina, the text should not offer details outside of her awareness. The book begins mere days after Porfirio Díaz was ousted as president of Mexico, an event that certainly would not have reached the secluded rancho where Evangelina lives, let alone Evangelina herself. Yet, as we journey along with the tenacious and imaginative Evangelina from her fictional Mexican town of Mariposa to the United States to escape the violence wrought by Villa, Noble invites the reader to watch Evangelina grow and mature. She might not be able to foment resistance in her native Mexico, but she certainly can in the United States, and eventually does when called upon to stand up for her right to an education.

Though Evangelina is still a child, at least by modern conceptions of childhood (she turns fourteen during the course of the book), she is entrusted with great responsibility, much of it in the field of medicine—leading her to dream of one day becoming a nurse or even a doctor. While this dream defies the limitations put upon her by her race and her gender, Evangelina does cling to some, perhaps stereotypical, tenets of Mexican femininity. She’s excited for her upcoming quinceañera, and she longs for the attention of boys—one boy, in particular: Selim. Evangelina’s blossoming relationship with Selim is doubly interesting because he is Lebanese—a fact that would likely cause some waves among her traditional Mexican family. Though Noble keeps their relationship chaste, the potential of an interracial relationship adds intrigue, and I wish there was more to it. Understandably, however, Evangelina and Selim’s feelings for each other are overshadowed by an upcoming town hall meeting, which will decide if foreign-born students will be allowed to attend school with their white peers.

Though Evangelina Takes Flight confronts historical (and contemporary) racism with aplomb, it still contains some troubling tropes about marginalized peoples, namely the White Savior figure. Evangelina has multiple encounters with the local doctor, Russell Taylor, whose compassion transcends race. Unlike his neighbors, Dr. Taylor is more than willing to help the Mexicans and goes out of his way to treat Evangelina’s Aunt Cristina when she gives birth to twin sons, one of whom is stillborn. Because of his position as the town doctor, Dr. Taylor holds sway with those who seek to segregate the school. He attempts to act as a mediator between the Mexican families and white townspeople, who are led by the mean-spirited Frank Silver. But Dr. Taylor’s intercession strays into White Savior territory when he is the one who discovers a secret that discredits Silver. After revealing Silver’s secret, Dr. Taylor parades Evangelina in front of the crowd at the town hall meeting, ostensibly to demonstrate her intelligence and humanity; but in a moment such as this, she actually becomes less of a humanized figure and more of a token. Additionally, it is not her own words that sway the townspeople to keep the school unified, but her ability to quote from the Bible, in English, that persuades them. While it is possible to read Evangelina as a key activist figure in spite of Dr. Taylor’s intervention, his role in this scene is a little disappointing, coming as it does in a text that otherwise offers so much in regards to racial equality.

Regardless, this book resonated with me on multiple levels. Evangelina’s struggle for independence, respect, and acquiring her own voice is something that many young Latinas, myself included, face today. Noble’s poetic yet accessible prose allows the reader to slip into Evangelina’s world and understand that problems can be overcome with perseverance and bravery. Though the book is at times slow moving and the plot is occasionally sparse, I would argue that such components allow the industrious reader to dive deep and think critically about Evangelina’s circumstances. However, these characteristics may also make this book difficult for reluctant readers. As a result, though this book is marketed as a middle grade novel, it may be more appropriate for experienced or older readers. Even if some parts were troublesome, I still found Evangelina an intriguing and captivating read,. Ultimately, for those looking for a book that faces contemporary issues through the lens of historical fiction, Evangelina Takes Flight certainly fits the bill.

TEACHING TIPS: Evangelina Takes Flight would pair well with other books about school de/segregation or child activists, such as Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation   or Innosanto Nagara’s A is for Activist. In addition, because of its historical setting, Evangelina would also be useful in teaching about the Mexican Revolution, the history of Texas, or historical race relations in the United States.

Evangelina Takes Flight offers lessons on metaphor and imagery, especially in its use of the butterfly as a symbol of resilience. When Evangelina’s grandfather tells her the story of the migratory butterflies for which her hometown of Mariposa is named, she starts to see the butterfly as an image of strength. Students could be guided to find passages where butterflies are mentioned to see how Noble constructs this extended metaphor. Students may also be encouraged to deconstruct the representations of butterflies on the cover of the book in a discussion about visual rhetoric.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Diana J. Noble was born in Laredo, Texas, and grew up immersed in both Mexican and American cultures. Her young adult novel, Evangelina Takes Flight, is based loosely on her paternal grandmother’s life, but has stories of other relatives and memories from her own childhood woven into every page. It’s received high praise from Kirkus Reviews, Forward Reviews (5 stars), Booklist Online and was recently named a Junior Library Guild selection. [Condensed bio is from the author’s website.]

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.

 

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

As devoted fans of Francisco X. Stork, we were excited to learn about Disappeared, the latest in his growing collection of novels for young adults. Garnering acclaim from many corners of the book world, Disappeared brings to life the heart-pounding story of Sara and Emiliano Zapata, a pair of siblings from Juárez, Mexico, who are thrown into peril as Sara delves into the unsolved disappearances of young women and Emiliano stumbles into criminal activity.

At Latinxs in Kid Lit, we advocate for strong and authentic representation of Latinx characters. There is much to praise in Francisco’s body of work, which includes The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, The Memory of Light, and Marcelo in the Real World. When Francisco agreed to answer questions about Disappeared, as well as other aspects of his writing life, we could not have been more thrilled!

 

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Welcome, Francisco! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us!

Francisco X. Stork: Thank you! I’m delighted to be here.

LiKL: You have publicly stated that the creative impulse for Disappeared flowed partly from your response to the recent surge of anti-immigrant/ anti-Latinx sentiment taking place in the United States. In this novel, how did you manage the dual challenge of representing these often disheartening realities, yet offering young readers a gripping story?

FXS: It ultimately boils down to creating believable characters that readers identify with and care about. If the story is to work, that is, if the story is to pull the reader into its world, then there must be something in the characters and something in the adversity which speaks to or touches the reader in a personal way. Often this is a recognition that what the characters are experiencing is something that the reader has experienced also. It could be that the experience was hidden in the reader and he or she is putting words to the experience for the first time. Books about disheartening realities can be gripping if there are heroes in the story that we can identify with. And by “heroes” I mean frail human beings like us who struggle to muster up what is best in us.

LiKL: In Disappeared, your depiction of Mexico and, in particular, Ciudad Juárez, is likely to come as a revelation for many U.S. readers. While you do show characters engaged in activities widely associated with Latinx culture, such as a quinceañera, you also complicate the picture by placing them along a full range of economic classes and professions, including newspaper journalism and information technology. You also shine a spotlight on Mexico’s problems with criminal violence and corruption. Talk about incorporating these complex, and sometimes contradictory, elements in a tightly plotted novel.

FXS: The idea here was to be as true as possible to reality. The reality of Mexico happens to be very complex, just like the reality of the United States is complex. If I were to show only the good side of Mexico, or a simplistic view of Mexico, I would be doing a disservice to Mexicans, to the reader, and to myself. The best antidote to stereotype is complexity. Hatred reduces the person or the object hated to a caricature. The beauty of good literature is that it can destroy hatred by taking us to a place where caricature doesn’t work because it doesn’t keep our interest, it doesn’t keep afloat that “suspension of disbelief” that is needed to keep on reading. It’s wonderful how the literary and the moral join forces in a good book.

  

LiKL: You have made a big mark through your explorations of intersections between varied Latinx experiences and the difficult terrain of depression and other mental health challenges and cognitive differences. This is evident in Marcelo in the Real World, whose main character is on the autism spectrum, and in The Memory of Light, which is about a girl fighting the demons of suicidal depression. You are also one of the contributors to Life Inside My Mind: 31 Authors Share Their Struggles, an anthology of personal stories about mental health issues. Why is it important to you to write about mental health issues, and how do you as a creator stay focused on your projects, all the while managing the challenges of depression?

FXS: I decided to write about things like cognitive disorders and depression and suicide attempts only after I felt that I could do this in a hopeful way—in a way that would give me, if I were reading the book, the courage to keep on living. All my books are deeply personal, not necessarily in an autobiographical sense, but in the existential sense that through them I grapple with my own ultimate concerns about what it means to be a human being. I’ve always treasured the experience of finding the soul of the author behind the story that is being told—that sense of here is someone I can trust because she has felt what I am feeling. So that is what I hope the reader finds in the books that deal with mental illness. I am fortunate to have found, with the help of a doctor, the right medication and the right dosage that allows me to work and to try to be useful to others. Also, I have had many years to work on the right perspective on my illness, one that is a balance of acceptance and fight, of being kind to myself and challenging myself with realistic goals and ideals. A difficult balance that takes constant effort even if never fully attained.

LiKL: At Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, your editor was Cheryl Klein. It’s obvious that Cheryl loved working with you, because she often writes and speaks about the satisfying process of editing your novels. Check the index for her recently published The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults and you’ll see that Marcelo in the Real World is referenced 23 times! We would love to hear a bit from your side of the writer-editor equation. And for the writers among us, please throw in some tips regarding the writing life and the process of taking a book to the finish line.

FXS: Finding Cheryl Klein was either a blessing or very fortunate depending on your world view. Writing is both solitary and communal and on the communal side my writing got exactly what it needed when it got Cheryl. Her editorial genius complemented all my writing lacks while allowing me to remain true to my writing voice and my writing vision (and reminding me of that voice and vision when I strayed). Yes, there were many times when the editing process was very hard and even at times discouraging but I never lost faith that Cheryl wanted what was best for the book and for the future reader and that kept me going. What I would like to convey to young writers is that they do all they can to enjoy the actual process of writing, of being alone with the work, and have patience with regards to the results they hope to attain. Those results may or may not come, but the process of creating a work that is beautiful and true is still worth the effort. Most of all, find a way to tell your story that is unique to you. Finding that uniqueness takes a lot of honesty and it takes a lot of practice and all the mistakes and rejections that you get will only make you a better writer and a better person if you see writing not as the publication of a book or the recognition that comes with it but as a way of life you are called to live.

LiKL: What are you reading right now (YA or otherwise)? What YA books would you recommend to a writer who wants to write books for that age group?

FXS: I’m re-reading Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Ultima. Rudolfo Anaya is in many ways the father of Mexican-American literature and there is so much to learn from him about the presentation of the Mexican-American experience in a novel. One of my favorite books I always recommend to YA writers is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak because, well, there’s an author who found a way to tell an interesting story about a serious situation in a unique way. But I would also encourage YA writers to read all kinds of books, not just YA. Read fiction and non-fiction works that have nothing to do with what you are writing and you will be surprised by how they ultimately do. Read especially those books where the author’s soul touches yours.

LiKL: Lastly, we can’t let you go without asking what you’re working on next and when we can expect to see it in print.

FXS: I didn’t intend to do this when I was writing Disappeared, but I am interested in following Sara and Emiliano as they make their way in the current United States. I’m not sure when you will see it in print. I want to get it right and give the book all the time it needs.

Francisco X. Stork is the author of Marcelo in the Real World, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens and the Once Upon a World Award; The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which was named to the YALSA Best Fiction for Teens list and won the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award; Irises; and The Memory of Light, which received four starred reviews. He lives near Boston with his wife. You can find him online at franciscostork.com and @StorkFrancisco.

For more on Francisco’s books and writing life, check out the following interviews:

“One Thing Leads to Another,” YALSA 

An audio chat on Publishers Weekly KidCast