Book Review: All the Way to Havana written by Margarita Engle, illus. by Mike Curato

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Together, a boy and his parents drive to the city of Havana, Cuba, in their old family car. Along the way, they experience the sights and sounds of the streets–neighbors talking, musicians performing, and beautiful, colorful cars putt-putting and bumpety-bumping along. In the end, though, it’s their old car, Cara Cara, that the boy loves best.

MY TWO CENTS: I really enjoyed the trip this picture book takes through the Cuban countryside and into the city of Havana. It is easy to identify with the narrator, as he gets squashed in the backseat by all the passengers! Engle makes the question of whether or not the narrator and his father can get the car to work a suspenseful one, but as the journey gets underway, we don’t feel pity for the family for having an old car, but rather excitement for everything they see along the road to Havana. The bright colors of the cars alongside the blue of the sky and ocean make the pictures very attractive and illustrator Mike Curato adds plenty of detail to the vehicles and the scenery in Havana. The figures in the pictures can sometimes look a little flat, but it was nice to see an Afro-Latinx family featured—an unfortunate rarity in a lot of picture books. Both the author and illustrator include notes at the end talking a little about the background of the story and the process of researching the illustrations.

TEACHING TIPS: As might be expected, this is a perfect story time book, especially for kids around ages 2-4 who are usually VERY into cars, trucks, and trains (so much that many bookstores have a separate section just for those books). The sounds the car makes invite call and response with story time or classroom listeners. The way the narrator talks about how Cara-Cara looks compared to all of the other cars might be a good lead in to having students draw their own imaginary car, including what it would look like and what sounds it would make. The context of traveling to a family celebration is also a good discussion point, where children can talk about their own trips to visit relatives and various family celebrations.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find All the Way to Havana, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Margarita Headshot

ABOUT THE AUTHORMargarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots. Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist as well as a poet and novelist. She lives in central California with her husband.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Mike Curato loves drawing and writing almost as much as he loves cupcakes and ice cream (and that’s a LOT!). He is the author and illustrator of everyone’s favorite polka-dotted elephant, Little Elliot. His debut title, Little Elliot, Big City (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Macmillan), released in 2014 to critical acclaim, has won several awards, and is being translated into over ten languages. There are now four books in the Little Elliot series: Little Elliot, Big City; Little Elliot, Big FamilyLittle Elliot, Big Fun; and the latest addition, Little Elliot, Fall Friends. Meanwhile, Mike had the pleasure of illustrating Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, and contributed to What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends. He is working on several other projects, including What If… by Samantha Berger and his first graphic novel. Publishers Weekly named Mike a “Fall 2014 Flying Start.” In the same year he won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder’s Award.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Alma and How She Got Her Name/ Alma y come obtuvo su nombre, by Juana Martinez Neal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming to a shelf near you on April 10, 2018!

Reviewed by Dora Guzman

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: If you ask her, Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela has way too many names: six! How did such a small person wind up with such a large name? Alma turns to Daddy for an answer and learns of Sofia, the grandmother who loved books and flowers; Esperanza, the great-grandmother who longed to travel; José, the grandfather who was an artist; and other namesakes, too. As she hears the story of her name, Alma starts to think it might be a perfect fit after all — and realizes that she will one day have her own story to tell. In her author-illustrator debut, Juana Martinez-Neal opens a treasure box of discovery for children who may be curious about their own origin stories or names.

MY TWO CENTS: What is in a name? A name is a gift given to you at birth and you carry it through all your stages of life. Parents and guardians spend months deciding on their baby’s name, sometimes even long before a baby is in the picture. But what if your name doesn’t fit on your paper because of its length?

In a world where we tend to question our differences, this story does quite the opposite. Growing up in the United States, one tends to have a single first name, maybe a middle name, and just one last name. However, this differs in certain other countries, including in Latin American, where it is not out of the ordinary to have more than one name.

Meet Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela, the main character of this story. Yes, her name is long. However, wondering about the length is what leads Alma on the journey to discover the story behind her name. Throughout the book, we learn the rich history and origins of each of Alma’s names. Many of her names were inspired by her ancestors and their humble traits and contributions to the world. The people behind her names influence Alma’s passions and character, even as she embraces each person and the love they gave her as a baby. She quickly learns that those same traits are present in her everyday life, and she rightfully claims that name through her affirmation of “I am____”. Alma soon learns that with claiming her name comes a lot of love and culture. She will now be able to contribute those gifts to the world. As Alma declares, “I am Alma, and I have a story to tell.”

This story wonderfully illustrates how to embrace YOU and the name you carry throughout life. In this story, Juana demonstrates that our name is a spotlight on not only our ancestors and the imprints they left on our lives, but also a forever part of us and what we can give to this world.

This picture book illuminates an essential connection to ancestors. Inspired by her own name, Juana reminds readers that our names are not just our own, but a reflection of our culture as well.

I am always amazed at Juana’s illustrations, especially in this picture book. The beauty of the main character connecting to her past is captured in colors and soft shades that will delight the reader’s eye. Juana also brings attention to each name through the addition of colorful accents and font styles. In page after page, the illustrations offer a collective reflection of everything that Alma’s ancestors represent, forming a visual reminder that who we are is a collection of everyone who came before us.

TEACHING TIPS: Teachers of all grade levels can use this picture book to illustrate our Latinx identity. This book is a perfect addition to an identity unit, where readers can delve into their own names and family trees. Teachers can also use this book as a reading mentor text around the main character’s learning process, as well as understanding the author’s message. The Spanish version is authentic to the Spanish language and perfect for bilingual/dual language classroom settings. Alma and How She Got Her Name/Alma y como obtuvo su nombre is a definite must add to all libraries in classrooms and homes!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Juana Martinez Neal is an award-winning illustrator and artist. Her passion for art started as a child and led her to study at one of the best schools in fine arts in Peru. Her journey as an illustrator led her to the United States, where she continues to illustrate a variety of children’s books. For updates on her art, follow her on Instagram @juanamartinezn. Juana’s official website can be found at http://juanamartinezneal.com/

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches college courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is currently a doctoral student with a major in Reading and Language. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never ending “to read” pile!

Artist Jose Pimienta Gives Advice and Talks About Tools & Techniques

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Joe Pi’s almost full name is Jose Pimienta. He was born in the Imperial Valley and raised as a Cachanilla in Mexicali, BC. During his upbringing, he was heavily influenced by animation, music and short stories. He’s been drawing as long as he can remember and loved analyzing everything on the TV screen.

After high school, he left his garage band and ventured toward Savannah, Georgia, where he studied Sequential Art and discovered the wonders of Storyboarding. He also discovered a wider variety of music, traveled more and made friends. By the age of 24, he ran into a good suggestion, which was to move to SoCal and pursue a career in storyboarding. In 2009, he packed his belonging and drove to Los Angeles, with a friend. Nowadays, he resides in Tujunga where he takes walks every morning along with a big cup of coffee. He draws comics, storyboards, and sketches for visual development.

Joe’s latest book is the YA graphic novel Soupy Leaves Home, a historical fiction story by Cecil Castellucci set during the Great Depression. He was kind enough to talk to us about his background and work as an artist.

Did you read comics as a kid? What were your inspirations for becoming an artist? 

Unfortunately, I didn’t read many comics as a kid. I tried getting into superheroes several times, but they never really hit a chord with me. It wasn’t until my teens that I discovered other graphic novels, manga, and slice-of-life stories in comics that rocked my world. I did, however, read a lot of newspaper strips, but I also felt that wasn’t my fit for the type of stories I wanted to tell.

As a kid, my inspirations tended to come from animated movies, books with illustrations and music videos. As long as I can remember, I’ve always liked all those “making of-” featurettes and interviews with film makers and artists. They tended to reveal parts of the process and how a piece of art (whether it was a cartoon, a movie, or a song) was made. So, I guess I was inspired to be an artist by learning more about the arts I liked. The thought seemed logical: I like this Art and this is how they’ve done it and I want to do that because when I try it, I love it. Conclusion: learn more how to do it and keep going.

Please tell us a little bit about the tools you used to draw Soupy Leaves Home.

For Soupy Leaves Home, I drew it the way I prefer to draw comics, which is:

On regular type paper, 8.5 by 11 and a mechanical pencil (0.5, to be precise). I draw 1″ by 1.5″ rectangles and that is the thumbnail for a comic page. I draw my thumbnails small while reading the script, so it helps me to plan out the pace and what the beats of the story are. That way I know if I want to build up to a big scene or if I want to keep a steady pace for a few pages.

After that, I draw on 9×12 2-ply bristol board. Personally, I like the Smooth surface better than the Vellum, but sometimes, Vellum is all the store has, so… ANYWAYS, I draw the page with a blue-lead 0.5 mechanical pencil. I keep my pencils a bit loose, but knowing that I can tighten up later with the inks.

Once the pages are approved, I ink on top of the original pencils with micron pit pens, brush pens, India ink and brush, liquid paper white-out, and sometimes a few fountain pens. After that, I scan the pages and color them digitally with Photoshop. In this stage, I also do some more specific edits, such as deleting certain pencil marks that I couldn’t erase, or making sure the white out looks cohesive on the page. If the blacks look a bit too strokey, or if I just want a solid black instead of having visible brush marks, this is the stage to fix that. After that, my editor takes my files and has a letterer do that which I cannot: letter the book. Those are all my tools: papers, 0.5 mechanical pencils, brush pens, India ink and brush pens, AND Photoshop.

Soupy Leaves Home joins a growing field of comics of all genres, aimed at a teen audience. Are there other titles you recommend to people looking to read more YA comics?

Oh, absolutely:

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Surfside Girls by Kim Dwinell

Chiggers by Hope Larson

Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castelucci

The Leg by Van Jensen and… me, hehe.

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While comics for kids and young adults has been exploding as a publishing field, there have been comparatively few Latinx authors and artists getting attention, with the exception of the Giants Beware and Lowriders series. What advice do you have for young Latinx artists looking to break into comics? 

Dear Latinx who want to break into comics: Be bold, fearless, humble, and optimistic. Bold, because it reflects confidence and strength. Fearless, not just because of the current atmosphere, but also because that’s how we fight fear mongering, which is used to keep us quiet and divided. Humble, because, it reminds us that there is a bigger picture in our society, and that which benefits our community, automatically helps us grow to be better individuals living together. And optimistic, because as artists, our spirit is essential, so it’s important to keep it bright.

About breaking into comics? We can post and share. Ask everyone for support, launch Kickstarters, look at companies that you’re interested in, and see their submission guidelines and follow directions, while showing why your stories matter and why they’d be a great fit for their company. Go to conventions near you, small or big (of course they can be expensive, but plan for that. See how many you can make it to), make minis to hand out to show what you’re interested in doing. Go to conventions of what you like (for example, if you like baking, wrestling, cars or music; go to those conventions) get a small vendor table and sell your comic (about baking, wrestling, cars or music.) Starting a Patreon account, I hear, is a popular avenue these days. Most importantly: KEEP GOING. Do not stop making art and telling others about it. I’ve heard several quotes, and the one that still fits best is: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Do not give up sharing your stories.

On a last note, see if I can end well here: When I first became interested in comics, I wished I had known more Latinx cartoonists (which there were, but I didn’t know about that many). To those who see my work, I hope I can make a positive impression, but furthermore, I hope that they go on to make art that inspires even more people.

 

 

 

Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

From the book’s back cover:

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

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

My two cents

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

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

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

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

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

Each time I look through the viewfinder I see myself…

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

And I with eyes to fly.  

Always midflight.

I look to the skies.

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

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

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

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

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

Teaching ideas

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 5: Angela Cervantes

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the fifth 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 Angela Cervantes.

Her latest middle grade novel, Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring releases tomorrow!! Go get this book with the beautiful cover and awesome premise. Here’s a little more about it:

A room locked for fifty years.
A valuable peacock ring.
A mysterious brother-sister duo.
Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together.
While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belonged to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward — and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist. But the brother and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?

And now more about Angela: She is the beloved and award-winning author of several middle grade fiction novels. Her first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found, was named Best Youth Chapter book by the International Latino Book Awards and a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of 2014. Angela’s second middle grade novel, Allie, First At Last, received a starred-review from Kirkus and was a finalist for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers Award. Angela’s next middle-grade novel is the junior novelization of Disney Pixar’s animated film, Coco, was released in October 2017. Angela’s fourth novel, Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, will be released by Scholastic on March 27, 2018.

Angela Cervantes

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

A. My love for books inspired me to be a writer. Books were my first friends, and I relied on them to get me through some tough times, like my parents’ divorce, the loss of my abuelos, and issues around poverty. At an early age, I decided that I wanted to tell stories about girls like me. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to be in my life.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. It was my agent, Adriana Domínguez at Full Circle Literary who diagnosed me with a promising voice for middle grade fiction. Once I let that soak in, I knew she was right. I dived head-first, and I’m so happy I did, because I love middle grade novels and writing for middle grade students.

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

A. How much time do you have? There are so many! Growing up, I was obsessed with the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. They are still my all-time favorite books. More recently, I’m a big fan of Rita Williams-Garcia. Her books, One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven are amazing. Other faves that I’ve read recently include Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan; The Smoking Mirror (Book One) by David Bowles; Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper; Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai; Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson and The First Rule of Punk by Celia Pérez. I also love, love, love Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe García McCall.

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

A. Don’t throw away your stories. They’re not stupid. Someday, you’ll wish you could read them again. 🙂

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because young people need a safe place to let their dreams, curiosities and imagination play.

 

   

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy 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, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Marcos Rivas yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood, away from his indifferent mom and her abusive boyfriend—which seems impossible.

When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program, he meets Zach and Amy, whose friendship inspires Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself. The Closest I’ve Come is a story about traversing real and imagined boundaries, about discovering new things in the world, and about discovering yourself, too.

MY TWO CENTS: As a seasoned reader of Latinx young adult literature, I expect books that centralize male protagonists to fit within a particular, if unfortunate, macho framework; but I hoped that The Closest I’ve Come would buck tradition. While some parts of the book surprised me (like protagonist Marcos Rivas and his pals having a heart-to-heart at the end of the book), others conformed to the stereotypes I’ve grown used to—absent or abusive fathers, drug trafficking, and gratuitous violence.

Based on the book’s description, I anticipated The Closest I’ve Come would deliver a stereotype-busting journey of self-acceptance; but it’s not until the final fifty pages or so of this book that I was able to see this narrative coalesce. In the condensed space of this young adult novel, Aceves juggles quite a bit, sometimes to the detriment of his overarching goal of revealing how Marcos overcomes his circumstances and comes to accept himself. The plot is sprawling. It follows Marcos as he navigates the complex racial hierarchies of his poor, urban neighborhood, Maesta; through the hallways of his high school; into Future Success, the special program he finds himself enrolled in; and inside the four walls of his home, where he battles a tense relationship with his mother and abuse at the hands of her racist boyfriend. Though I had some difficulty keeping track of the plot, as well as the multiple characters corresponding to each subplot, each reveals a new facet of Marcos’s identity—his tenderness, his concern, and his desire to please.

Yet, whereas Marcos—via Aceves’s first-person narration—is fairly open about his feelings of inadequacy and his hopes for the future, he only shares these thoughts with the reader. Marcos longs for the love of his distant mother. He also vies for the attention of his non-traditional crush– Amy, a punk white girl. But he cannot share his feelings with either of the women in his life, nor can he truly connect with his other friends. It is clear from Aceves’s honest and lyrical prose that Marcos is bright and caring, but he is stunted by the cultural milieu of Maesta.

Though I found the book engaging and Marcos to be a sympathetic narrator, I was a little disappointed that The Closest I’ve Come proliferates the narrative that Latinxs (and other minoritized peoples, as the other residents of Maesta are African-American) are poor, destitute, and violence-prone. Eventually, Aceves undercuts this dominant paradigm by having Marcos reveal his true feelings to his mother, Amy, and his friends, but I worry that it comes too late to dispel the single story of tragedy that the rest of the book is situated within.

Nevertheless, in the end, Marcos realizes that to be truly happy, he must be honest, not just with himself, but with his friends and relatives. This message is so important, particularly within the scope of the emotion-suppressing machismo that pervades representations of Latinos in media and culture. The closeness Marcos and his friends share when they reveal their secrets to each other fosters a sense of community and family that had been missing from Marcos’s life. Aceves succinctly explains, “How lucky that I been tight with these guys all my life. With friends like these, who needs family?” (304). In emphasizing the family that Marcos chooses, rather than the terrible one he is born into, Aceves finally delivers on promise implied in the book’s description: to reveal how Marcos remakes himself.

While I am still unsure if this ending sufficiently subverts the other, more stereotypical traits of The Closest I’ve Come, I do think this book could serve as an important mirror for readers whose circumstances are similar to Marcos’s. In other words, though this book does perpetuate some stereotypes and questionable tropes relating to Latinxs, it may reach readers who, like Marcos and his time with Future Success, simply need the right experiences to turn their lives around.

TEACHING TIPS: Because of my reservations about the book, I might be hesitant to teach it as the central focus of a literature class, but for a language arts unit focused on linguistics, The Closest I’ve Come offers several possibilities. It could provide some examples of vernacular English, as Marcos often drops auxiliary verbs or uses double negatives. Students might also discuss Marcos’s disuse of Spanish (he barely speaks it at home and has trouble understanding it when it is spoken to him), which is particularly important within the context of official language debates.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fred Aceves was born in New York but spent most of his youth in Southern California and Tampa, Florida, where he lived in a poor, working class neighborhood like the one described in The Closest I’ve Come. At the age of 21, he started traveling around the world, living in Chicago, New York, the Czech Republic, France, Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico, his father’s native land. Among other jobs, he has worked as a delivery driver, server, cook, car salesman, freelance editor, and teacher of English as a second language. The Closest I’ve Come is his first novel.

 

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