Review: The Fresh New Face of Griselda by Jennifer Torres

 

Review by Clarissa Hadge

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Griselda “Geez” Zaragoza has a love for beautiful things, like her collection of vintage teacups and the flower garden she and her dad planted in the front yard. But when his business fails, Griselda loses not just her home, but also her confidence and her trust in her unflappable parents.

Tagging along with big sister Maribel, who postponed college for a job selling Alma Cosmetics, Geez dreams up a way to reclaim the life she thinks she lost. If she can sell enough tubes of glistening, glittery Alma lip gloss, she’ll win a cash prize that could help jump start her dad’s business.

With ups and downs along the way, Geez will discover that beauty isn’t just lost or found, but made and re-made.

MY TWO CENTS: Griselda “Geez” Zaragoza and her family have fallen on hard times. Her dad has lost his landscaping business, forcing the family to move from their home to Griselda’s Nana’s house. Her mom, a former TV reporter from before Griselda was born, picks up hours as an assistant at Griselda’s Tia Carla’s salon. Griselda’s big sister Maribel has postponed going off to college to stay home and help the family by selling cosmetics door-to-door as a saleswoman for Alma Cosmetics. Griselda spends the summer before starting sixth grade following Maribel through her rounds.

After one of these sales calls, Griselda sees an ad in her sister’s cosmetic brochure that reads, “Are you between the ages of 12 and 19? Join Alma Cosmetics as a Junior Associate.” The ad promises Junior Associates who sell 500 tubes of Alma’s new Fairytale Collection lip gloss a chance to win $5,000, and the opportunity to be the “Fresh New Face” of the cosmetics line.

In the moment, Griselda tosses the brochure away, her mind heavy with thoughts about her family’s finances. The only thing that seems to bring her happiness anymore are her collection of First Lady teacups, found at various yard sales through the years, searching long and hard with her Nana. Maribel gives Griselda a lip gloss, for helping with their last sale.

A fashion forward classmate notices Griselda holding the lip gloss at lunch on the first day of school, and realizes that it’s a color that is from a new line. Griselda initially offers to give it away, but then she realizes that she could instead sell it to the classmate. The classmate eagerly buys the new gloss, and other girls notice, asking Griselda if she has other colors. An idea starts formulating in Griselda’s mind – that she could maybe become a Junior Associate with Alma Cosmetics, and potentially win the $5,000 prize. Griselda knows that $5,000 isn’t going to get her house back, or her dad’s job, but she knows that it can help her family in some way. After a starting boost from Maribel, she gains traction in her cosmetic sales. With more and more classmates excited about the new colors and styles, and their eager willingness to pay, Griselda’s popularity grows.

But though she is on her way to winning the cash prize, and maybe becoming the “Fresh New Face” of Alma, Griselda’s rise is not without its obstacles. She might be able to sell lip gloss and nail polish, but at what expense? Her friends? Her relationship with her family? Though her intentions are honorable, Griselda will learn a valuable lesson in what it takes to be at the top.

Jennifer Torres’s middle grade novel is a sweet tale of one girl trying to help her family. I appreciated the way that the novel dealt with class differences, Griselda’s introspection about her family’s situation, and what she could do to make things easier for all of them. Though the Zaragozas are not without a physical roof over their heads, and have the privilege of never going without food, Torres captures the turmoil a tween might undergo, of wanting to help, but not being quite old enough to make a significant difference. Griselda’s relationship with her Nana was one of my favorite parts of the novel, and with seamless Latinx references throughout the text – Griselda eating pan dulce with her Nana before school in the morning, the breezy inflections of her Nana calling her mija – I was reminded of my own childhood moments with my Granny.

The secondary character of Griselda’s best friend Sophia was fleshed out without being stereotypical. My heart broke as Griselda has less and less time with Sophia and have an inevitable falling out at the mall. The scene is supposed to be celebratory, as they are there to spend their birthdays together, but it ends in disaster. Griselda’s worry over money comes to a head when she internalizes all of her anger and sadness as she sees Sophia spending money, without having to care about how much everything costs, as Griselda does. The scene is poignant, both girls angry at each other for all the wrong reasons, but not realizing no one is really to blame in the moment.

I especially loved the details about Griselda’s First Lady tea cups, with each chapter starting with a quote from a First Lady. This characteristic of Griselda felt unique. I have to admit I searched online to see if these existed, and while it doesn’t appear as though a matching set exists in our world, I’d like to think that Griselda eventually finds all of the cups to make a full set.

 

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Torres is the author of Flor and Miranda Steal the Show, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, and Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música. A graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Westminster, London, her background is in journalism. She has worked for The Record newspaper in Stockton and now lives with her husband and two little girls in Southern California.

 

 

 

CH headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Clarissa Hadge is a Chicanx transplant from sunny Southern California who now lives in the less-than-sunny Northeast. A graduate of Simmons University, her background is in writing for children. An advocate for more inclusive literature for children and young adults, she is the bookstore manager and children’s book buyer at an independent bookstore in Boston and the current co-chair of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council (NECBA).

Review: The Sarai Books by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illus. by Christine Almeda

 

Review by Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez

In the past year I have been immersed in numerous early readers and transitional chapter books as part of a research project that examines representations of Latinx characters in these kinds of texts. The Sarai book series has been one of my favorites to read!

While the short format of early readers and chapter books can sometimes limit how much character development and details authors can offer, the Sarai books don’t fall short on these aspects. Sarai is free spirited, caring, creative, confident, and as a reader I got to know her personality (and her sisters’ personalities as well) through her interactions with others and her many ventures.

The following are reviews for books 2, 3, and 4 of the series. Read our review of Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome (Sarai Book #1). All books in the series are now available in Spanish as Saraí #1: Saraí y el Significado de lo Genial, Saraí #2: Saraí en Primer Plano, Saraí #3: Saraí Salva la música, and Saraí #4: Saraí y la Feria Alrededor del Mundo.

 

Sarai in the Spotlight (Sarai Book #2)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Sarai’s best friend suddenly moves away, Sarai has to navigate school – and the unfriendly girls in the cafeteria – all by herself. Then, new girl Christina moves to town and the teacher volunteers Sarai to show her around. But Sarai thinks Christina is not at all like her–she never wants to play at recess, she’s always got her head in a notebook, and she’s so shy! But when Christina writes Sarai a spoken-word poem for her to recite at the class talent show, Sarai learns that sometimes winning teams are made from unlikely pairs!

MY TWO CENTS: Sarai’s awesomeness continues in this second installment of the series. Her affirmation of being awesome continues in this book, especially when she shares with her family that some of the girls in her class bother her during recess (38). This demonstration of confidence continues when she stands up for herself during an incident with the same group of girls, doing so without putting anyone down. And that is the beauty of Sarai’s proclamations of confidence: they highlight how awesome she is and feels without making anyone else feel bad about themselves. Further, she also shows a little bit of self-doubt, which is to be expected of a child growing up. She is finding herself and becoming her own person.

This book focuses on how Sarai deals with her best friend moving away and then how she slowly befriends the new girl, Christina. They don’t have many things in common yet, which makes Sarai miss her friend Isa. However, Sarai is respectful about their differences and open to learning more about her new friend. As a result, they collaborate for the school’s talent show, creating together a wonderful performance.

Sarai’s blossoming friendship with Christina is as delightful to witness as her relationship with her sisters, Josie and Lucía. As she explains, they might sometimes fight and disagree, but they all stick up for each other. Each sister has a distinct personality, and we learn little bits about them throughout the story. For example, we learn that Lucía has a little bit of a temper, (11), and is also very empathetic: “Lucía used to have her own cafeteria card, but she kept buying food for everyone who she thought didn’t have enough money to eat…” (16). We also continue to learn about Josie, who attends a different school from her sisters, wears cochlear implants, and communicates through a combination of signs and words. The sisters — along with their cousins Juju, Javier, and Jade — are part of the Super Awesome Sister-Cousin Fun Club, where they come up with awesome ideas.

With so many fun activities happening in Sarai in the Spotlight (like the kids’ game of Rainbow Art Paint Tag) and all the relatable experiences Sarai goes through, readers will definitely enjoy this second book in the series.

TEACHING TIPS: Because this book introduces a new character, there is a good use of descriptions that help readers get to know her. In addition, readers learn more about Sarai, her sister, and her friend Isa. Teachers, then, can use the book to teach about character development through descriptions. Students can create profiles for the different characters in the book and then they could create and develop their own characters.

 

Sarai Saves the Music (Sarai Book #3)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: They’re cutting funding at Sarai’s school and her band program is the first to go. That is totally not okay with Sarai. She decides to organize a benefit concert to raise money! When she and her bandmates promote the concert on their video channel, it catches the attention of Sarai’s favorite singer, Sparkles Sanchez! Can Sarai save the music?

MY TWO CENTS: I have to admit that, while I enjoyed all four books in the Sarai series,  this one is my absolute favorite! In the third installment of the series, we witness how Sarai and Christina’s friendship continues to grow, as they support and empower one another. When some of the girls at school keep teasing Sarai, Christina suggests that they are jealous because Sarai is “so smart, and because you’re you!” (11).  Equally helpful are Sarai’s neighbors and family, who continue to support the kids’ many ventures. This is particularly evident when everyone bands together to help Sarai help save her school’s music program.

It is this aspect that makes this book especially poignant. For one, it depicts the precarious state of the U.S. education system, where programs are being cut and teachers are losing their jobs. When Ms. Cruz — Sarai’s music teacher– shares the news with the class that the school district is cutting the funds for elementary music programs, students are understandably upset. More so, they are worried about what this means for their teacher. When Sarai asks Ms. Cruz if she will lose her job, the teacher can’t help but cry. This takes Sarai and the students aback, as they have “never seen a teacher cry before” and they “feel worried” (36). I truly appreciate the honesty from both Ms. Cruz and the students that is depicted here. Often, teachers are not encouraged to show vulnerability, even when their livelihood might be in danger, so Ms. Cruz’s moment of honesty with her students allows them to understand her situation better– and in turn, readers can better understand the realities many of their own schools and their own educators might be facing.

“Isn’t there anything we can do? Fundraise? Protest? Sign petitions?” Sarai asks, as the students try to figure out what they can do to save the music program and Ms. Cruz’s job (36). Sarai, always having something up her sleeve, mobilizes her classmates, her family, and her community to effect some change. Through her new venture, Sarai’s Garage Chat, a TV show she records with her sisters and cousins from their own garage, Sarai and her classmates are able to spread the word about the benefit concert they are organizing. It is important to note that Sarai takes action and mobilizes, but she creates a community and involves them. It is not a solo project. Everything is motivated and planned by the kids, and the adults are there to support them. One of the most moving moments in this book takes place when students are recording their plea to the community to attend their benefit and donate to the music program: each child made an argument about why music programs are so crucial.

In addition to its depiction of activism and empathy, this book continues showing readers all the awesome personalities in Sarai’s group of friends and family. There is something with which readers can connect– whether it is the games and fun ideas Sarai and her family come up with or her obsession with Stephanie Sparkles Sanchez (who gave me major Selena Quintanilla vibes and I loved it!). Through her contagious upbeat personality, Sarai is following her musical idol’s advice to “Spread the Sparkle!”

TEACHING TIPS: Teachers can use this early chapter book to discuss how the students in Sarai’s school worked together to try to solve a problem and could ask students to identify an issue in their school or community they would like to address. They could propose ideas and consider what steps they would need to take toward making improvements. Teachers can also use this book to focus on argument writing; as each student in Sarai’s class makes an argument for saving the music program, they put into practice appeals to logic and emotion.

 

Sarai and the Around the World Fair (Sarai Book #4)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Sarai outgrows her bike, she worries she’ll never get to travel anywhere. But when Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary hosts their first Around the World Fair, Sarai learns that with a little imagination you can go anywhere you want!

MY TWO CENTS: In this fourth installment there is no “big problem” that Sarai needs to or wants to solve. Rather, we continue to see her character development, getting to know her and her family. Mainly, Sarai’s empathy and understanding of her family’s needs come through again. This time, she has been eyeing a bicycle, yet Sarai understands her parents’ financial struggles and doesn’t ask for expensive things, including the new bike she really wants. Her inventive and resourceful Tata — her grandfather — however, decides to fix an old bike for Sarai. And though she is reluctant at first, not sure what the end product would be, Sarai ultimately enjoys helping her Tata fix the old bike and appreciates how great it turns out to be.

I found her reluctance to be relatable and so important to include. She is such a positive and upbeat character, and a wonderful role model for children, but I also appreciated that we get to see Sarai upset. Seeing a range of emotions (like frustrations and being upset) can be helpful for young readers, and it is especially important to show them that it is okay to feel upset and then demonstrate how they can deal with their different emotions. After Sarai has some time to work through her frustrations with Tata and the old bike he is trying to fix, she apologizes to him, and Tata apologizes to her as well.  This exchange not only shows that she is human– experiencing and expressing a range of emotions– but it also shows that adults need to understand what children are experiencing and show them they matter.

At school, Sarai must decide what country to research and present at the Around the World Fair. Embracing her parents’ two countries — Peru and Costa Rica — she would love to feature both. She decides to do some “research to make an informed decision” (42). Funny as she is, Sarai, after doing some research, tells her friend Christina that one day, when they are “really old, like twenty” they could travel to Ireland, Peru, and Costa Rica, where their families are from. In the end, Sarai is able to present on her chosen country (I won’t tell you which one). At the end of the book, readers will find a recipe and a step-by-step guide for making empanadas, like the ones she shares at the fair.

This fourth, and hopefully not the last, book in the series is truly delightful!

 

Sarai GonzalezABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sarai Gonzalez became an overnight sensation after appearing in Bomba Estero’s, “Soy Yo,” a music video about embracing yourself and loving your flaws. The video garnered over 75million views and The New York Times called Sarai a Latina icon. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is the first book in her new chapter book series inspired by her life. Sarai is now 13 years old and lives in New Jersey with her family.

 

monica6Monica Brown is the award-winning author of super awesome books for children, including the Lola Levine chapter book series, Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, and Waiting for the Biblioburro. She is a professor of English at Northern Arizona University, specializing in Latinx and African American Literature. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, with her husband and her dogs, Lola and Finn. Visit her at www.monicabrown.net.

 

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Christine Almeda is a Filipino-American freelance illustrator from NJ / NYC. She graduated from Montclair State University, earning a BFA and an Award for Excellence in Animation & Illustration, focusing on children’s media. She believes in the power of storytelling and that art has the ability to make life a little more beautiful. You can learn more about her work at https://www.christinealmeda.com/about.

 

 

 

headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

 

 

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

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it important for you to tell your story?

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

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

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

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

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

RESOURCES: 

Teachers can visit the website below for information about the book

https://myshoesandi.weebly.com

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

By Sujei Lugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sujei: Your favorite Latinx children’s books? 

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

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

María F. Estrella, Cleveland Public Library

Angie Manfredi, Los Alamos County Public Library

Crystal Brunelle, Northern Hills Elementary School, Onalaska, Wisconsin 

Patricia Toney, San Francisco Public Library

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

 

 

Of Myths and Monsters: A Conversation with Author Ryan Calejo

   

In 2018, Aladdin Books published Ryan Calejo’s Charlie Hernández and The League of Shadows. Fantastical and adventure-packed, this middle-grade novel introduces us to Charlie, a regular kid with some highly irregular experiences, plus a large cast of mythical figures from across Latin American and Spanish folklore.

(Learn more from our review by Jessica Walsh.)

Just released, Charlie Hernández and The Castle of Bones promises yet another heart-pounding ride with Charlie and his sidekick, Violet Rey, as they navigate an underworld teeming with witches, monsters, humanoids, and other wild and woolly creatures!

We are brimming with questions, and Ryan Calejo warmly accepted our invitation to field a few.

LiKL: Ryan, welcome to Latinxs in Kid Lit. We’re always excited to come across superbly crafted, high-adventure fiction starring Latinx characters. As you know, this combination is still too rare, leaving young Latinx readers hungry for compelling stories that mirror their experiences. As a kid, did you feel a similar disconnection?  In the Charlie Hernández series, were you consciously thinking of filling that void?

Ryan: I’ll admit, growing up, I did feel a similar disconnect. I fell in love with reading at a very early age, but back then there just wasn’t a whole lot of MG fiction featuring Latinx protagonists. I remember wondering why none of the characters in any of the books I read ever spoke Spanish, or even a little Spanglish, which, by the way, is the official language down here in South Florida—just kidding . . . sort of.

But, yes, it was definitely a goal of mine to fill that void. I believe that it’s incredibly important for kids to be able to read about characters that look and sound like them and have similar backgrounds. Every child should be able to see themselves in the books they read. Every child should be afforded the opportunity to see their inner hero. Also, with the changing demographics in our country, by not producing enough fiction featuring Latinx characters we run the risk of alienating a huge portion of our young readers and depriving them not only of the joys of reading but also of all its many benefits—which would be quite a shame, not to mention extremely unfair to those children. With so much technology out there to distract today’s youth, we need to be focusing on ways to get them excited about books and one of the easiest ways to accomplish that is by writing characters they can identify with. But thanks to wonderful organizations like Latinxs in Kid Lit I believe we are going to see a lot more diverse fiction in the years to come. And that’s a wonderful thing indeed!

LiKL: Your Charlie Hernández novels feature mythical figures drawn from the ancient folk tales of South and Central America, as well as Spain. Please share more about finding inspiration in myth and how you decided to build your stories around these tales.

Ryan: Myths have always fascinated me. Growing up I wasn’t exactly the best-behaved kid on the planet, so to keep me from running amok my abuelitas would entertain me by telling me stories—all the wonderful myths and legends they’d heard as children. Some were heartwarming, others funny, and quite a few were actually pretty terrifying! For some reason I remember the scary ones the most. Probably because my grandmothers used those to try to frighten me into behaving! I can’t tell you how many times I heard: “¡Comete toda la comida, si no La Cuca se enoja!” Or, “¡No te levante del sofa que La Mano Peluda te va a cojer!” (A line which my grandmothers loved to tell me right before lunchtime, when one of my favorite moves was to wait for them to become distracted, then jailbreak my little cousins from their high chairs!)

But the truth is, every single one of those stories, from the terrifying to the hilarious, became ingrained in me. They became a huge part of my everyday life, and as a result it was easy to imagine them existing in the real world because, in my young imagination, that was where they’d always existed. As a little kid listening to those stories and growing up in such an ecologically diverse place like South Florida, I always felt as if the supernatural was lurking just around the corner, hiding under my bed or somewhere deep in the Everglades, so building a novel around these myths felt quite natural, almost like an extension of my childhood. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of fun writing the books. But it’s also been a deeply personal experience because my goal was to pass these myths and legends down to the next generation just like my grandmothers passed them down to me. As funny and entertaining as most of them are, these tales are actually cultural time capsules wrapped up in story; they give us incredible insight into what our ancestors believed, what concerns they had, what knowledge they felt was vital to pass on to their children. And it’s this richness of culture that has always inspired me to dig deeper into these myths—and even write stories about them!

LiKL: We’d love to hear about your path to publication, as well as your writing practices.

Ryan: Writing became a thing for me in elementary school. And that’s thanks to my wonderful fifth grade teacher—Hi, Mrs. Homans! She assigned us a writing project with the only requirement being the length: One page, front and back. I remember coming home and brainstorming ideas with my mom. It was a blast! And I’ve been scribbling down stories ever since! As far as writing practices, I do try to hit a daily word count—about twelve hundred words—but I don’t make it a huge deal. For me, writing has always been fun and that’s exactly how I want to keep it. My advice for aspiring writers would be just that: have fun! Don’t make writing a stressful process. Write because you love to write. And remember: even the unruliest of chapters can be tamed with the mighty backspace button!

LiKL: So what is Ryan Calejo working on next?

RyanI’m currently working on the third book in the series, which I’m super excited about. A slew of new myths will be joining the cast and, of course, there will be plenty of laughs and adventure! I think readers are really going to enjoy it—fingers crossed! For sneak peeks and cover reveals, follow me on Twitter @thebookglutton and on Instagram @ryancalejo!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ryan Calejo was born and raised in south Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami with a BA. He teaches swimming to elementary school students, chess to middle school students, and writing to high school students. Having been born into a family of immigrants and growing up in the so-called “Capital of Latin America,” Ryan knows the importance of diversity in our communities and is passionate about writing books that children of all ethnicities can relate to.

 

Book Review: Barely Missing Everything by Matt Mendez

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Simon & Schuster): Juan has plans. He’s going to get out of El Paso, Texas, on a basketball scholarship and make something of himself—or at least find something better than his mom Fabi’s cruddy apartment, her string of loser boyfriends, and a dead dad. Basketball is going to be his ticket out, his ticket up. He just needs to make it happen.

His best friend JD has plans, too. He’s going to be a filmmaker one day, like Quinten Tarantino or Guillermo del Toro (NOT Steven Spielberg). He’s got a camera and he’s got passion—what else could he need?

Fabi doesn’t have a plan anymore. When you get pregnant at sixteen and have been stuck bartending to make ends meet for the past seventeen years, you realize plans don’t always pan out, and that there some things you just can’t plan for…

Like Juan’s run-in with the police, like a sprained ankle, and a tanking math grade that will likely ruin his chance at a scholarship. Like JD causing the implosion of his family. Like letters from a man named Mando on death row. Like finding out this man could be the father your mother said was dead.

Soon Juan and JD are embarking on a Thelma and Louise­–like road trip to visit Mando. Juan will finally meet his dad, JD has a perfect subject for his documentary, and Fabi is desperate to stop them. But, as we already know, there are some things you just can’t plan for…

MY TWO CENTS: This book felt so real to me for a number of different reasons. First, as a native El Pasoan, it’s hard to not immediately feel pulled to any novel which takes place there. Though likely not recognizable by the average reader, Mendez does an incredible job of capturing the city’s personality, and displays the city’s many characteristics through descriptions of the neighborhoods and characters.

I appreciated that Mendez wrote with such authenticity. He explains that the experiences in the book are similar to those that he went through as a youth in El Paso, which makes the authenticity reasonable, but it’s more than that. Mendez writes Juan’s and JD’s characters in an incredibly life-like manner. They have genuine teen personas and voices. They make realistic teen decisions: they’re emotional, impulsive, and reactionary, but the reader can also see the calculated thought processes that happen in their heads. The characters develop in nuanced and genuine ways, becoming deeper, more advanced versions of themselves as the plot advances and they confront new situations.

Like many youth who grow up in the city, Juan wants to leave as soon as possible to achieve lofty goals elsewhere; whether his goals are in any way realistic or attainable is a conversation that adults often have with teens (again, authenticity!). JD is coming from a household in the midst of tumult, and, as expected, his easygoing persona is his crutch. He tries to be the best person that he can be, even in the midst of cynicism and negativity from his family. But even though both JD and Juan struggle to keep their heads straight while their family lives become chaotic and challenging, their ability to pursue their dreams despite the chaos is so genuine and, to me, exemplifies exactly what teens everywhere struggle to do every day.

The icing on the cake of this book was Fabi’s character. It was so refreshing for a YA novel to portray an adult who was trying as best they could to help their family succeed, but who was very much struggling in the process. Fabi’s character was, to me, very unlikable initially. I assumed she was going to be the sort of parent who had checked out of their teenage child’s life and never looked back. As the book continues, though, the reader can see her hidden depths, much in the same way that we see Juan’s and JD’s multiple layers shine through as we get to know them. Mendez does a phenomenal job of creating characters that are complex, intricate, and very well-developed.

The plot of this book, particularly the ending, is a fast-paced, interesting, and very realistic portrayal of the lives and experiences of a couple of families living in an area of the country that is currently a political, social, and humanitarian hotbed.

TEACHING TIPS: The point of view: Mendez’s use of three narrators makes the storyline feel varied and interesting throughout the book. This novel offers a great opportunity to speak about how using these varied points of view make the story feel fuller and more complete, as well as helping to give further perspective about the characters themselves.

Representation: The book also offers an opportunity to speak on a number of issues involving representation. First, these characters come from low socioeconomic communities, and their experiences are contrasted a number of times with those of people in higher socioeconomic groups. Readers can see how belonging to the group that Juan, JD, and Fabi do often have to navigate around the world, how their class can affect the decisions that they make, and how they interact with people in other classes.

image20ABOUT THE AUTHOR (From Simon & Schuster): Like his characters, Matt Mendez grew up in central El Paso, Texas. He received an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of the short story collection Twitching Heart. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tucson, Arizona. Barely Missing Everything is his debut young adult novel. You can visit him at MattMendez.com.

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the manager of the New York Public Library’s College and Career Pathways program. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.