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.

Review: Color Me In by Natasha Díaz

 

Review by Maria Ramos-Chertok

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, sixteen-year-old Nevaeh Levitz never thought much about her biracial roots. When her Black mom and Jewish dad split up, she relocates to her mom’s family home in Harlem and is forced to confront her identity for the first time.

Nevaeh wants to get to know her extended family, but because she inadvertently passes as white, her cousin thinks she’s too privileged, pampered, and selfish to relate to the injustices African Americans face on a daily basis. In the meantime, Nevaeh’s dad decides that she should have a belated bat mitzvah instead of a sweet sixteen, which guarantees social humiliation at her posh private school. But rather than take a stand, Nevaeh does what she’s always done when life gets complicated: she stays silent.

Only when Nevaeh stumbles upon a secret from her mom’s past, finds herself falling in love, and sees firsthand the prejudice her family faces that she begins to realize she has her own voice. And choices. Will she continue to let circumstances dictate her path? Or will she decide once for all who and where she is meant to be?

MY TWO CENTS: In Color Me In, Nevaeh Levitz shares her adolescent journey as a bi-racial girl trying to find herself in the races and cultures that make up her ancestry.  Daughter of a Jewish father and a Black mother, Nevaeh is caught between two worlds when her parents get divorced. I was very excited to read this book because I identified with many of the themes:  parents getting divorced, Jewish heritage, multicultural family, and trying to find myself in the two distinct cultures that make up my background. What I was reminded by reading this book is that despite the many levels on which I could relate to the themes, every journey is unique. This is particularly the case when dealing with the reality of what it means to have black skin in a country founded on racism and white supremacy.

The book exposes how skin color plays out not only in Nevaeh’s family, but when she’s out in her community trying to live life. It also exposes the implications of how the class divide operates to create different realities in education and access to material goods.

The book does a wonderful job of grappling with the challenges and gifts of a dual identity (and in some instances dueling identities). Nevaeh is looking to find herself in places that don’t have a blueprint for her existence. I wish this book had been available for me forty years ago.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the letter from the author at the end where she talks about what this book means to her and why she wrote it. That is where the entire book came together for me at a deeper level.

TEACHING TIPS: While the primary audience for this book is adolescents, I think anyone of any age with a bi-racial identity could relate to the themes.

Nevaeh’s grandmother is portrayed as overbearing, controlling, and unloving, so if this is a class’s first introduction or discussion of Jewish people, it might leave a negative impression, especially given that the Jewish father is a philanderer and not a very sympathetic character either. Nevaeh is able to find a foothold in Judaism despite them, but not because of their full support or acceptance. I’d encourage teachers to provide a larger context for understanding Jewish people.

The theme of bullying and racist language used against Nevaeh by her classmate and former friend Ally allows for an opportunity to discuss how words hurt and can be used as weapons. This could lead to an interesting discussion about hate speech, how the Supreme Court defines and classifies hate speech, and how the legal standard doesn’t necessarily help someone being bullied at school. Identifying strategies to respond to bullies and bystander intervention role plays could be fruitful.

There is an opportunity to discuss the role of ritual in developing and maintaining cultural identity. Students could be asked to examine the rituals in their life and how they offer (or don’t offer) them a way to deepen their understanding of who they are.

Given Nevaeh’s friendship with Stevie, I could imagine a meaningful discussion about what it means to be a good friend, how friendship makes a difference in one’s life, and what Nevaeh learned about friendship over the course of the story.

The topic of police brutality and misuse of power also stands out in two scenes where racial profiling occurs. Both of these situations help open Nevaeh’s eyes to the reality of racism and could lead to a discussion of how folks walk in the world with or without white skin privilege.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Natasha Díaz is a born and raised New Yorker, currently residing in Brooklyn, NY with her tall husband. She spends most of her days writing with no pants on and alternating between E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy binges. Natasha is both an author and screenwriter. Her scripts have placed as a quarterfinalist in the Austin Film Festival and a finalist for both the NALIP Diverse Women in Media Fellowship and the Sundance Episodic Story Lab. Her essays can be found in The Establishment and Huffington Post. Her first novel, Color Me In, was published by Delacorte Press/Random House August, 20 2019.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey.  In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost.  Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.   Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018) http://nothingbutthetruth.com/all-the-women-in-my-family-sing/. She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.organd a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas. For more information, visit her website at www.mariaramoschertok.com

 

Finding a Home in Stories: A Guest Post by Middle-Grade Author Adrianna Cuevas

By Adrianna Cuevas

In my debut middle grade novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Publication date: 5/12/20, FSG/Macmillan), military kid Nestor Lopez moves houses so much, he loses his sense of place. He finds a home trading books with his deployed dad, father and son writing notes and questions in the page margins while artistic Nestor adds illustrations. Stories connect him to his dad stationed thousands of miles away.

When Nestor reads a book with his father, he’s able to explore his dad’s military experiences in a new way and the book enables conversations service members are often reluctant to engage in. As Nestor explains:

“I flip through the pages of this book, Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, and stop the first time I see Dad’s handwriting. I press my fingers over his words, closing my eyes and imagining him sitting in his rack, reading. I flip through each page, looking for his handwriting, scanning for evidence of the life he lives when he’s away from us.”

Stories connect Nestor to those around him and deepen his relationships—particularly important for a boy who feels that home is something impermanent and unreliable.

Not all young readers will relate to Nestor’s constant moves. Not all will connect with the concept of a parent who is far away. But regardless of their current situation, readers can see books as a home. A place to retreat. A place to feel seen and accepted.

Growing up, that’s what books were to me.

My teenage social life summed up in one photo

As a child, I devoured any story I could get my hands on. With parents and a sister who were all avid readers, trips to the library to fill up bags of books and evenings spent browsing bookstore shelves were as expected as pastelitos for Nochebuena and Celia Cruz on the radio. I knew the bookstore and library at the University of Miami, where my dad was a professor, as well as my own house.

The books of my childhood transported me to places I’d never been. As a Florida girl, I was obsessed with the snowy wilderness in Jack London short stories. A solitary introvert, I marveled at the friendships in the Babysitters Club series. My early thirst for the gruesome and grim was satisfied by an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. I didn’t think I needed books with Cuban-American main characters because my culture was all around me in Miami—in the food, the language, the music.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I realized what a haven books can be for readers. I’d never lived anywhere so homogenous, both culturally and ideologically. In Miami, I was allowed to be a book-obsessed hockey fan who was bad at sports and loved to travel. In my new surroundings, I was Latina, nothing more and always less. I was complimented on my mastery of the English language, even though I didn’t speak Spanish fluently until I was in my twenties. Despite receiving an academic college scholarship, I was required to attend seminars about how not to get pregnant and drop out, the expectation for minority students. I was met with confused stares when I confessed that I didn’t like spicy foods because don’t all Mexicans like that? No longer able to see my culture or myself in my environment, I turned once again to my reliable home—books.

I shielded myself from ignorance and microaggressions I had never before experienced by diving into books by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, and Isabel Allende. Their words were familiar, a hand on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t alone. In their stories, I saw loud, boisterous families that mirrored my own. I read mouthwatering descriptions of the food I missed, whose ingredients weren’t even available to me anymore. My language was presented as something beautiful and poetic, not something to be overcome and unlearned. I had never understood the importance of seeing yourself represented in stories until I wasn’t represented in the society around me.

In Total Eclipse, Nestor moves from a place where he is seen and accepted to a place where he is misunderstood and othered. For the first time in his life, he lives off-post and experiences what it’s like to live away from a military base.

“Fort Hood had a Whataburger, a video arcade, and a comic book shop… Most kids at school had parents in the military, so everyone understood if you didn’t want to talk in the middle of science because your dad had flown across an ocean the night before. Now Mom’s moved me to a town where I’m a circus freak. An alien from a distant planet. My only comfort is knowing I might not be here long.”

Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t have the option like I did to dive into stories and see himself in books, as military family representation, especially Latinx families, is incredibly small in children’s literature. How much would it have meant to him to have books like Pablo Cartaya’s Each Tiny Spark to help him while his father is deployed?

Similarly, my choices when I moved to the Midwest were limited and it was difficult to find books that reflected my Cuban-American experience. Twenty years ago, the catalog of stories featuring characters like me was microscopic. How much more at home would I have felt with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos or Laura Taylor Namey’s The Library of Lost Things at my disposal when I was an awkward freshman? I would have taken Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe to college with me, turning to them when I felt othered and isolated.

Children deserve to see themselves in stories, not just as caricatures of their culture, but as representatives of the diversity that exists within a culture and as humans with all their quirks and flaws. Nestor Lopez isn’t just a Cuban-American kid who scarfs down his abuela’s croquetas de jamón and plays dominos with his abuelo. He loves dart gun battles, Pokémon cards, and random animal trivia. He’s quick with a snarky remark and his fingers are constantly smudged with pencil lead from sketching. It is my hope that in Nestor, young readers will find a friend they can relate to who shares their eccentricities and hopes.

In a world increasingly antagonistic toward Latinx people, our words as authors have the opportunity to whisper to children, “You are not alone.” Our books can serve as a blanket that warms them when they’re surrounded by the coldness of indifference and ignorance. Our characters can show them they can be heroes.

Our stories can welcome them home.

 

 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adriana currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food. Learn more about Adrianna on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 11: Rebecca Balcárcel

 

We are back from our summer break with lots of great, new interviews, book reviews, and events planned. We start today with a Q&A with middle grade author Rebecca Balcárcel, who is celebrating the recent release of her debut novel The Other Half of Happy.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 11th in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Rebecca Balcárcel.

Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

The Other Half of Happy is her debut middle grade novel.

It was released August 20, 2019!

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

 

 

Rebecca Balcárcel

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. Storytellers, books, and teachers! My father is an entertaining storyteller, and I absorbed much from his natural sense of drama and comedic timing. He’ll also suddenly quote a poem with misty eyes and point out the beauty of Spanish sounds. All of this gave me a heightened awareness of language’s power. Books served as my dearest friends throughout childhood. From the magic of picture books before bedtime to full novels, I loved being transported to fictional worlds. I always dreamed of creating that experience for others. I still read to apprentice myself to great authors and learn their craft. And a shout out to my third grade teacher, Miss Valentine, who read Where the Red Fern Grows aloud to us chapter by chapter after lunch. I cried in school, but it was worth it! Later teachers encouraged me to write, and their confidence in me helped me take my writing seriously.

Q: Why did you decide to write a middle grade novel?

A: Can you believe that when I started writing, I didn’t know that this book was middle grade, nor that it was a novel?! Trained as a poet, I started writing prose poems in the voice of a bi-cultural twelve-year-old. She had a lot to say, and in one summer, I created about 40 little scenes. I wasn’t sure, though, if this was an adult looking back or a true MG project. It was my agent who said, “I think this would sing as a middle-grade novel.” I decided to go for it! It took two years of revision and rewriting to turn my stack of poems into a novel. It turns out, I love writing middle grade. That age is a time of deepening self-knowledge and broadening world-knowledge, the pivot point between child and adult. So much of who we are emerges in those years. It’s a psychologically rich moment to write about.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. So many! The classics, like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia, still make me cry. But I’m thrilled to be reading many new novels of worth. This year, I’ve especially enjoyed Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn, which has a child with autism like my book does, and the just-released For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama Lockington, whose main character straddles two cultures, as mine does. I’ve sought out Latina writers, and have found an amazing community. Las Musas Books (https://www.lasmusasbooks.com/) is an entire collective of new YA and MG novelists! I’ve also loved Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes and Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres. And let’s not leave out this year’s Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Great books!

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Don’t be embarrassed by what moves you! If a song or an idea touches your heart or blows your mind (in a good way), keep exploring in that direction. That’s the direction in which you will find kindred spirits, true friends, and your own growth. Ignore the people that pooh-pooh your music, your style, or whatever you geek out on. Fly that freak flag and own your joy!

Q. Finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

A.  . . . they inspire us to be our best selves!

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez

 

Reviewed by Romy Natalia Goldberg

Description of the book:

“Where are you from? they ask.” A young girl’s confidence is shaken after increasingly persistent questioning from her peers, teachers and friends’ parents. She turns to Abuelo, her loving grandfather, for answers. “Where am I from?” she asks, knowing he has faced these questions before. Abuelo answers by describing with lyrical beauty her parents’ places of origin. As he speaks, the landscapes around them morph, from the Pampas and Andean peaks of Argentina to the coastline and rainforests of Puerto Rico. But this immersive journey is not powerful enough to quell the doubts instilled by her peers. Echoing their questioning, she insists, “where am I really from?” At this, Abuelo points to his heart. She comes from her family’s love. As he continues, they are joined by a large, joyful family. The sun begins to set as her doubts settle. Surrounded by their unquestioning love, bathed in the light of the afterglow, she is newly confident.

Released simultaneously in English and Spanish, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? joins a slate of high quality Latinx books dealing with identity and belonging. Additionally, it is one of very few picture books depicting Latinx characters from the Southern Cone.

My two cents:

“Where are you from?” The question implies a progression – where did you begin and where are you going? Though often asked out of sheer curiosity, many times it is a loaded question, one whose answer can be used to justify exclusion and discrimination. The girl’s declaration that she is “from here, from today, same as everyone else” is a request to be treated as an equal, as someone who belongs. Once this request is ignored, she retreats to the family that created her, that asks her to justify nothing. The luminous landscapes with skies full of birds and stars suggest the limitless possibilities Abuelo wants for his granddaughter. Though the soaring landscapes could have felt overwhelming, they exude warmth and reassurance. As educators and parents, is this not how we want our kids to feel?

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? could easily have opened with a scene of overt bullying. Instead, the author and illustrator create a more nuanced scenario. The girl is being questioned by a diverse group of kids and adults, all with facial expressions that range from neutral to kind.

By eliminating a stereotypical “villain,” WHERE ARE YOU FROM offers a more realistic depiction of microaggressions endured by children of color (and children with other noticeable differences, such as accented speech).

One of the things I appreciate the most about this book is that we never circle back to the people who questioned the main character at the start. This is an excellent example of what happens when an “own voices” author is allowed to write from their experience. As adult readers, we know the girl will be asked “where are you from?” countless times and ways throughout her life due to the color of her skin. We know that, for some people, her answers will never be right or good enough. By allowing the girl to find an emotional resolution entirely within the context of her support system, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? sends young readers a powerful message: you do not have to justify your existence to others.

For children of mixed heritage, the question “where are you from?” has the power to generate an additional level of self-doubt. A few spreads into the girl’s journey with Abuelo, readers are lulled into the sense that they know where she is from. When Abuelo takes us from Argentina to Puerto Rico we are challenged to open our minds. Like many children, she is not “from” a single place.  Rather than simplify (or flatten, or erase) her heritage, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? invites readers to accept the main character’s complex heritage as something that is beautiful to behold.

Teaching Tips

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? can be used as a prompt for students to explore their heritage. This could be done exclusively as a writing exercise or could incorporate art in the form of illustrations or collage/printed images. Additionally, students could choose who they would like to go on their journey with – would they want to travel through space and time with a family member, as the girl in this book does? Or would they rather choose a historical figure as their guide?

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? naturally lends itself to a nuanced discussion of microaggressions. Students could be prompted to discuss whether they believe the main character’s peers are questioning her out of curiosity or malice. Does that change the effect their constant questioning has on the girl? Do they even have the right to ask this question? And what does it mean that no one was willing to accept the girl’s original answer? However, educators should take care to ensure class discussions do not put undue burden on students of color to share personal experiences of mistreatment.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? can be a starting point for learning about two very different parts of the Americas. Lessons for younger students could focus on the eco-systems of both regions. Older students can tackle heavier subjects alluded to in the final spreads for each location: the history of colonialism and slavery in Puerto Rico and the human rights abuses of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Lessons on Puerto Rico should also touch on the territory’s relationship to the rest of the United States and Latin America. Like the protagonist, Puerto Rico has a multifaceted background.

Additionally, the vivid verbs featured in WHERE ARE YOU FROM? could be incorporated into a lesson on synonyms and/or creative writing.

About the author: Yamile Saied Méndez is an Argentine-American who lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adult program. In this blog post from 2017, she shares with our readers what it was like to study for her MFA. Much has happened since then. Yamille is now a PB, MG, and YA author, and is also part of Las Musas, the first collective of women and nonbinary Latinx MG and YA authors. To learn more, visit Yamile’s website.

 

About the reviewer: Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, OTHER PLACES TRAVEL GUIDE TO PARAGUAY, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators.