Book Review: Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez & Monica Brown, illus. by Christine Almeda

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Fourth grader Sarai Gonzalez can do anything. She can bake, dance, and run her own cupcake business. But when Sarai’s grandparents are forced to move, even Sarai’s not sure what to do. So she hatches a super awesome plan with her younger sisters and cousin to buy back the house. But houses are more expensive than she ever thought, her sisters won’t listen, and she’s running out of time. Will Sarai find a way to save the day?

Inspired by the life of viral video sensation and social activist Sarai Gonzalez with the help of award-winning children’s book author Monica Brown.

MY TWO CENTS: Like many, I was enchanted by the star of Bomba Estéreo’s 2013 viral hit “Soy Yo.” Sarai Gonzalez, with her glasses, funky hair, and can-do attitude was instantly memorable for her message of self-acceptance. Gonzalez’s quirky persona resonated, in part, because she represents a Latinidad not often proliferated in contemporary media. Sarai’s unique brand of relentless optimism, captured so artfully in the “Soy Yo” music video, is magnified in the early reader Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome, written by Gonzalez and award-winning author Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is lovely in a multitude of ways. From Gonzalez and Brown’s conversational and jovial tone to Almeda’s illustrations (both in the margins and via two-page spreads throughout the text). And, albeit brief, this book is captivating.

 

 

For a young readership, Sarai’s opening affirmation “YOU ARE AWESOME” is as much a declaration for Sarai as it is for the readers she invites along with her as she embarks on an entrepreneurial mission to save her grandparents’ house (2). Bolstered by her endless supply of creative problem-solving, Sarai recruits her sisters to help make cupcakes and sell lemonade (limonada) and “delicious purple-corn-ade” (chica morada) to raise money when her grandparents’ rental home goes up for sale (78). Young readers will be captivated by Sarai’s agency and her ability to think quickly and take charge. Even so, her contributions to her family are fully within her capabilities as a ten-year-old and, as such, are completely believable. The ultimate result of her efforts is equally realistic and conveys to young readers that even in failure, success and growth can be found.

Gonzalez and Brown ultimately weave a tale that shares its abundance of hope with a readership who needs it. In a time when Latinx children are victimized by current political ideologies, seeing Sarai take charge and resist provides a necessary counterstory. What’s more, Sarai’s story of perseverance and hope is universal. In many places throughout this book, being Latinx is incidental to the plot. It’s a great joy to read a book like this. So often, being Latinx (though Sarai is careful to explain her family history, her mother is Peruvian and father is Costa Rican, while she and her sisters are from the U.S.—meaning that she and her family “are really, truly Americans—North, South and Central!” [7]), is the catalyst for problems. But Sarai’s grandparents’ ethnic and cultural identities are unrelated to their rental house being sold. As such, this text doesn’t paint one’s Latinidad as something to overcome, but rather something to be embraced, as Sarai uses her bilingualism to sell her baked goods and other treats to a wider customer base.

For young readers who need an extra boost of confidence, Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome delivers. Mingled with Almeda’s illustrations, which add just the right amount of pizzazz to an already bright narrative, Gonzalez and Brown’s prose is engaging while also being accessible to young readers just beginning to look for chaptered books. Sarai’s story will captivate readers, just as Sarai’s dance moves and bespectacled gaze did in “Soy Yo.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sarai GonzalezThirteen-year-old, Sarai Gonzalez became an overnight sensation after appearing in Bomba Estereo’s “Soy Yo,” a music video about embracing yourself and loving your flaws. The video has garnered over 50 million views and the New York Times called Sarai a Latina icon. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is the first book in the new chapter book series inspired by her life. Sarai lives in New Jersey with her family.

 

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Monica Brown, Ph.D., is the award-winning author of Waiting for the Biblioburro/Esperando al BiblioburroMarisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, and the Lola Levine chapter book series, including Lola Levine is Not MeanLola Levine, Drama Queen, and Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme. Her books have garnered starred reviews, the Americas Award, two Pura Belpré Author Honors, and the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship on Chicano Cultural Literacy. She lives in Arizona with her family and teaches at Northern Arizona University. Find out more at www.monicabrown.net.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATORChristine 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.

Click here for an introduction to illustrator Christine Almeda, which includes a look inside Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 8: Mary Louise Sanchez

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the eighth 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 Mary Louise Sanchez.

Mary Louise Sanchez was born and raised in Rawlins, Wyoming. Family history on both sides of her family fuels her passion to tell the stories of her Hispanic gente who colonized present day New Mexico in 1598.

The Wind Called My Name is her debut novel. Here is the publisher’s description:

Some days, ten-year-old Margaríta Sandoval feels as if the wind might blow her away. The country has been gripped by the Great Depression, so times are hard everywhere. Then she has to leave her família in New Mexico — especially her beloved Abuelita — to move to Fort Steele, Wyoming, where her father has taken a job on the railroad.

When Margaríta meets Evangeline, she’s excited to have a friend her own age in Wyoming. But it often seems like Evangeline, and everyone else in town, doesn’t understand or appreciate the Sandovals’ Hispanic heritage. At the same time, the Sandovals discover they might lose Abuelita’s land and their ancestral home unless they can pay off her tax bill. Can Margaríta keep her friend, help her family in New Mexico, and find a place in Fort Steele for good?

The Wind Called My Name was one of three inaugural 2012 On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Awards from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was awarded the New Visions Award from Tu Books in 2016. This debut book is based on the author’s colonial Hispanic heritage and family history in New Mexico and Wyoming. The author is a retired teacher/librarian and lives in Thornton, Colorado with her husband. They have four grown children and eight grandchildren.

 

761DMary Louise Sanchez

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

A. Ever since I read the Newbery Award book . . . And Now MiguelI’ve been on a quest to read more fictional stories about my unique northern New Mexican culture. I’ve found some adult titles, but children’s novels have been elusive, so I decided to try and write one that I wanted to read. I believe everyone has stories to share–including me.

 

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

A. I tend to identify with my ten and eleven-year-old self more than my teen self; and thus, enjoy the middle grade books because the characters are becoming aware of their big wide world and yet, they are also learning how to navigate their own emotions and way in the world.

 

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

A. Stories that touch my soul and linger there are favorites, like Wish, by Barbara O’Connor. A current favorite is Where the Watermelons Grow by a debut author, Cindy Baldwin. Another recent debut middle grade author, Kelly Yang, wowed me with her book, Front Desk. I also enjoyed living a vicarious Pakistani life in Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. Please see my growing list of middle grade books I’ve enjoyed on my Goodreads page.

 

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

A. Mary Louise, listen attentively to the details in the stories your grandparents and older relatives share. Their memories and yours will play an important part in your storytelling.

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they are a way for readers to vicariously live many lives. The stories can also illuminate ways to interact in this world where you are leaving childhood behind and becoming more independent.

 

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 (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

 

Review by Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama, with Frederick Luis Aldama

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:  In a racially polarized classroom in 1970 Alabama, Lu’s talent for running track makes her a new best friend — and tests her mettle as she navigates the school’s social cliques.

Miss Garrett’s classroom is like every other at our school. White kids sit on one side and black kids on the other. I’m one of the few middle-rowers who split the difference.

Sixth-grader Lu Olivera just wants to keep her head down and get along with everyone in her class. Trouble is, Lu’s old friends have been changing lately — acting boy crazy and making snide remarks about Lu’s newfound talent for running track. Lu’s secret hope for a new friend is fellow runner Belinda Gresham, but in 1970 Red Grove, Alabama, blacks and whites don’t mix. As segregationist ex-governor George Wallace ramps up his campaign against the current governor, Albert Brewer, growing tensions in the state — and in the classroom — mean that Lu can’t stay neutral about the racial divide at school. Will she find the gumption to stand up for what’s right and to choose friends who do the same?

MY TWO CENTS: Lila Quintero Weaver’s My Year in the Middle (2018) might be set in 1970 and in an Alabama where racial lines continue to be drawn—and resisted and fought—but there’s much that speaks to a 12-year-old like myself. There’s the hallway chatter; catching those competitive sideways looks in gym; feeling those butterflies in the tummy when completing a math sum or a free write, knowing that your fave teacher will be grading it; avoiding those kids—the ones that push others around with looks and words—and occasionally with shoves; seeing in the cafeteria a sea that divides 6th from 7th and 7th from 8th graders; being the target of darting eyes of jealousy; getting caught sneaking a text—today’s way for us to pass notes.

Lila illustrated each chapter heading with a piece of emblematic spot art. Here’s a preparatory sketch for Chapter 46, used by permission of the author.

Quintero Weaver has a real ear and eye for description: the rotating sound of dialing an old phone as well as hand-drawn art of newspapers from the day. She breathes life into the main character Lu during this ‘70s period and southern region of the US. Quintero Weaver has an equally sharp ear for turns of phrases from this time and place, also adding to the realism of the story: “I don’t say a dadgum word”; “pretend not to give a plug nickel”; “boocoodles of people.”  Quintero Weaver is so good at conveying just how it feels for a middle-schooler like me to have someone come along and crush your hopes and dreams: “There I was, believing I was somebody, but now all kinds of darts are zigzagging back and forth inside my head” (24). And, Quintero Weaver really knows how to write about how someone like me struggles with being different. We see this with the food that Lu’s parents prepare (empanadas, for instance), the way her hair stands like “porcupine quills” (37), and the deep feeling of not wanting to stick out as a Latina in a world filled with hate. At one point in the novel, we learn that Lu’s mamá warns the older sister to be quiet about her progressive political views during a time of terrible racism and racial segregation. There are many times when those of us who are made to feel different—whether in the way we speak or look—are afraid to shout too loud.

A preparatory sketch for the spot art that appears in Chapter 26. Used by permission of the author.

As a middle-schooler in 2018, I can say that Lila Quintero Weaver has her work cut out for her. Why? Like many of my friends, we tend to reach for those high-octane novels like Divergent or fantasy novels like the Red Queen. When I first saw the novel with its stark black and white cover, I didn’t think I’d like it. It seemed like it might be boring. Once I began reading, I couldn’t put it down—and I understood why the cover had to be made up of those two big blocks: white and black, with a little girl caught in the middle. I can say that in the end, Lila Quintero Weaver pulls it off. She weaves together a story that I connected to. I can’t tell you how different I feel growing up in Columbus and attending a school where I am the only brown Mexipina kid. Much like other authors who choose not to go the action-suspense way (some of my faves include The War that Saved My Life and Red Umbrella), Quintero Weaver creates an engaging story that really shows what it feels like to grow up different—and this still applies to today. My Year in the Middle keeps you glued all the way till the end.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORLila Quintero Weaver is the author of My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel published in 2018 by Candlewick Press. She’s also the writer-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & WhiteDarkroom recounts Lila’s experiences as a child immigrant from Argentina to Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. The Spanish edition is now available, under the title Cuarto oscuro: Recuerdos en blanco y negro. Learn more about Lila on her website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads. To see background and educational material related to My Year in the Middle, visit this page.

 

 

IMG_7640ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama is a 7th grader at Jones Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, who likes to write and read fiction, watch movies, and do back handsprings. When it’s nice weather she likes to walk her two Shih-Tzus, bike to the local library, or swim at the local pool.

 

 

 

 

Cover Reveal: The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, by Adam Gidwitz & David Bowles

We are pleased to host the exciting cover reveal for The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande

The Chupacabras of the Río Grande is the fourth book in the fully illustrated, globe-trotting middle grade fantasy-adventure series about mythical creatures and their cultures of origin, from the Newbery Honor-winning author of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Elliot and Uchennna have only just returned from their most recent Unicorn Rescue Society mission when they (along with Jersey!) are whisked away on their next exciting adventure with Professor Fauna. This time, they’re headed to the Mexican border to help another mythical creature in need: the chupacabras!

Teaming up with local kids Lupita and Mateo Cervantes–plus their brilliant mother, Dr. Alejandra Cervantes and her curandero husband Israel–the URS struggle to not only keep the chupacabras safe, but also to bring a divided community together once more.

All in time for dinner!

The Chupacabras of the Río Grande is co-written with David Bowles, author of the Pura Belpré Honor-winning book,The Smoking Mirror. It will be published April 16, 2019.

And now, for the cover reveal!

 

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Follow @AdamGidwitz and @DavidOBowles on Twitter to get more information about their upcoming novel!

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 7: Hilda Eunice Burgos

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the seventh 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 Hilda Eunice Burgos.

Her debut middle grade novel, Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, released October 2, 2018! Here’s a description of it:

Her last name may mean “kings,” but Ana María Reyes REALLY does not live in a castle. Rather, she’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two parents (way too lovey-dovey), three sisters (way too dramatic), everyone’s friends (way too often), and a piano (which she never gets to practice). And when her parents announce a new baby is coming, that means they’ll have even less time for Ana María.

Then she hears about the Eleanor School, New York City’s best private academy. If Ana María can win a scholarship, she’ll be able to get out of her Washington Heights neighborhood school and achieve the education she’s longed for. To stand out, she’ll need to nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase, which means she has to practice through her sisters’ hijinks, the neighbors’ visits, a family trip to the Dominican Republic . . . right up until the baby’s birth! But some new friends and honest conversations help her figure out what truly matters, and know that she can succeed no matter what. Ana María Reyes may not be royal, but she’s certain to come out on top.

And now more about Hilda: Hilda’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born, and she grew up in Washington Heights, New York City, as the third of four sisters. Hilda received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in French and Spanish literatures, and her J.D from Harvard Law School. She now lives and practices law in the Philadelphia area. Hilda and her husband have two grown children and an adorable little dog. Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle is her first book.

Hilda is also a member of Las Musas, the first collective of women and non binary Latinx MG and YA authors to come together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature.

 

Hilda Eunice Burgos

hilda9573Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. Books and my love of language. I wanted to be a writer as soon as I learned how to read, but I never thought it could be my “real job.” I took creative writing classes for fun in college and law school, but it was after law school, when I took a night course on writing for children, that I felt I had found my writing niche.

 

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

A. I choose to write middle grade novels because I enjoy reading them. Middle grade books can include thought-provoking themes that expand our hearts and minds, while also providing a hopeful and encouraging message. It’s great to see that middle grade books are more diverse and inclusive now than they were when I was a child (a LONG time ago), but we still have a long way to go before every reading child feels represented. I hope to do my part by adding my traditionally underrepresented voice to the mix.

 

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

A. That is a very tough question to answer. I love so many middle grade novels! I especially enjoy realistic fiction that tugs at the heart, like Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo; Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes; When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin; Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan; One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia … I could go on and on. I also enjoy humorous books and novels in verse, both of which are so difficult to write, yet authors like Susan Tan (creator of the very funny Cilla Lee-Jenkins books), Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Kwame Alexander, and Margarita Engle make them seem effortless. As you can see, I can’t really pick one or even a few favorites.

 

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

A. Have fun and enjoy being a kid!

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because middle grade children are ready and eager to explore the world outside of themselves, and novels are a great and safe way to do that.One of my favorite authors, Julia Alvarez, has said that “we come out of a great book as a different person from the person we were when we began reading it.” This is certainly true of good middle grade books, which can teach children that tough circumstances are out there, but we can deal with them, and we will emerge different and stronger on the other side.

 

 

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.

Book Review: Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

MY TWO CENTS: There are few authors writing at the level of poetic brilliance and crushing emotional complexity as Anna-Marie McLemore does with each novel. I’m a huge fan of Wild Beauty and When The Moon Was Ours, so I was eager to fall into another lush, layered world. McLemore writes in the tradition of magical realism, but manages to make each of her stories feel so vastly different from one another. Weaving together four distinct points of view, she captures the challenge the del Cisne sisters face: at some point in their life, one of them will be claimed by the swans and become them. Blanca, who has fairer skin and yellow hair, is expected to survive the curse, and Roja, who is darker-skinned with red hair, believes that she’s bound for an inevitable fate. But this thrilling element provides a chance for McLemore to delve deep into themes teenagers will find compelling: Love. Acceptance. Colorism. The terror of changing bodies, the fear of isolation. The del Cisne sisters love one another so much that they vow to save the other, no matter the cost to themselves.

Yet each new chapter builds the complexity of this novel, which borrows from a number of traditional fairy tales and myths, such as Snow White and Swan Lake. Two mysterious boys—Paige and Barclay—become wrapped up in the del Cisne’s attempts to outwit and manipulate the swans, and they are both fully-realized, unique characters. I love a book where I am eager to read every character’s POV, and McLemore accomplishes this with ease. It helps that this book is so effortlessly diverse, in skin color and culture, in gender identity and fluidity, in showing us just how many different ways you can love another person. It is one of the most outwardly queer books I’ve ever read.

And the writing is just stunning. This novel manages to balance realistic, modern dialogue with a hypnotic and lyrical prose that is overflowing with sentences and scenes that broke my heart. Made me laugh. Made me yearn for more words, more chapters, more of every bit of this gorgeous book. I thought I knew what I was in for because it was a retelling of stories I’m familiar with, but Blanca & Roja establishes an entirely different kind of tale, one that is distinctly from the mind of McLemore. I expect this book will appear on a lot of lists by the end of the year, and it deserves to be. The young adult world needs more books that are challenging, odd, and imaginative, and you can tell from reading this one that the author deeply respects her readers.

Embark on this journey. It’s worth it.

TEACHING TIPS: Blanca & Roja is the perfect novel to analyze for a lesson on metaphors, as there are so many fantastic ones utilized by McLemore to explore issues surrounding sexuality, gender, colorism, and familial ties. It would also serve as a fantastic chance to talk about retellings and how an author goes about making a story feel like their own, even if some of the pieces are taken from something else. But more than anything else, I was drawn to the story of Page, who alternates between using he and she pronouns throughout the book based on what they feel most comfortable with at the time. It’s a fantastic example of gender fluidity, and I highly recommend reading the Author’s Note upon finishing.

Anna-Marie McLemoreABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is the author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award, 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, WILD BEAUTY, a Fall 2017 Junior Library Guild selection, and BLANCA & ROJA, which released October 9, 2018.

 

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his acclaimed debut YA contemporary fiction novel, and his follow-up, planned for 2019, is a magical realism/fantasy novel about self-discovery.