Book Review: The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

 

Review by Cris Rhodes & Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid. But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

The Moon Within releases tomorrow, February 26, 2019.

CRIS RHODES’S REVIEW: Aida Salazar’s debut verse novel unfolds through metaphor, captivating poetry, and unabashed discussions of menstruation and maturation. I have never read a book where menstruation has been explored with such openness—and that’s even as Celi does everything in her power to dodge and delay the moon ceremony her Mima wants to throw upon Celi’s first period! Celi’s unease with her body’s changes resonated with me. At the risk of oversharing—I remember that anxiety and the strange sense of loss when starting one’s period well. Salazar adds complexity to this already confusing time by layering Celi’s menstrual journey with her first real crush and the dawning realization that her best friend, Marco, is genderfluid.

Salazar’s choice to utilize Indigenous Mesoamerican terms to explain Marco’s (I’m using this name as Salazar switches to using it nearly exclusively in the latter half of the text, though Marco’s feminine name is still occasionally used) gender identity is intriguing. Salazar writes, “Marco has Ometeotl energy / a person who inhabits two beings / the female and the male at once.” I don’t think I can adequately explain the beauty of this explanation. On the other hand, I want to be clear that, at the same time as it’s a big step to have a genderfluid Latinx character in children’s fiction, this construct could’ve been pushed further. We experience Marco through the filter of Celi. When reading, I found myself having to temper my disappointment that the queered character was not the main character with my admiration for the open and honest way with which Celi’s maturation (both physical and mental) is handled. I cannot be too disappointed though, because, ultimately, The Moon Within does so much to further representation in Latinx children’s literature. Its unapologetic depictions of Afro-Latinx identity, menstruation, gender, sexuality, bullying, colonialism, just to name a few, are invaluable.

One of the most intriguing parts of The Moon Within, for me, was Celi’s mother and Moon Ceremony. When I was reading, I was reminded of one of my favorite slam poems: “The Period Poem” by Dominique Christina. Celi’s mother wants her to be empowered by her period. And there is power in the period. But when you’re a kid, the only power it wields is embarrassment—a power Celi perfectly embodies. I found myself chuckling at Celi’s embarrassment in one line, and in the next, Salazar would sweep me off my feet, and I’d be cringing and hiding alongside Celi. I’d wager many a person who’s had a period can relate to Celi’s impulse to hide from her family and to downplay her maturing body. Nevertheless, Mima’s insistence that Celi have a Moon Ceremony is rooted in not just a desire to ensure her daughter not feel shame at the natural functions of her body, but also in a personal conviction to reclaim her Indigenous Mexican heritage. Celi feels an intimate pull toward the Moon, la Luna, and in her later discussions of the moon as Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec goddess, we see her start to embrace her mother’s mission.

For readers who are torn by their culture, by their bodies, by their friendships, The Moon Within is a must-read. And, honestly, I think it’s a must-read for anyone, anywhere. This verse novel’s melodious language, unapologetic tone, and loving care for its characters and readers is evident and shouldn’t be missed.

MIMI RANKIN’S REVIEW: I discovered this book from the author herself during the USBBY’s Outstanding International Books presentation. Following the committee members’ comments on the themes of the list, Salazar was presented as the keynote speaker. She spoke about the importance of language for Latinx people, particularly children. Latinx children in the United States grow up in between worlds; they are often the very definition of “third culture kids.” Salazar opens up an interesting set of questions regarding this language use for Latinx kids with her novel, The Moon Within, written in verse.

Celi Rivera is a biracial, multicultural preteen girl in Northern California who loves to dance the Puerto Rican Bomba. Celi is on the brink of womanhood, and she certainly does not want to discuss it with her Mima, Papi, or little brother Juju. Mima prepares her Moon Ceremony, an ancient indigenous Mesoamerican celebration of a girl’s first menstruation, while Celi begins developing her first crush on the skateboarding Ivan. After one of Celi’s Bomba performances with her best friend, drummer Magda, Ivan insults Magda’s gender-bending style and appearance.

This coming-of-age story about first heartbreak, identity of both gender and culture, and how to decipher, for the first time, your own beliefs is even more powerful through the use of verse. The style allowed me to more fully connect to Celi’s perspective emotionally and emphasized the universality of what it means to be a young woman regardless of culture. Still, the beauty of this title is not just that Salazar fearlessly and effortlessly discusses the female body and menstruation in a way that has not been done since Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but that she enlightens the world to the Mexica reverence to the woman.

What I love about this book is that it is not only a point of mirroring and relation for Latinx children, but it is a point of education for non-Latinx children. Only occasionally interspersed with Spanish, the story feels both personal and universal; duality is a later theme in the text, so this may have been intentional on the part of Salazar.

Another exciting aspect of Salazar’s book is the perspective on sacred Mesoamerican spiritual beings, particularly the xochihuah. This gender-expansive being was “more often seen through a sacred lens, with respect” as “some evidence shows”. In this claim and the one that follows in the author’s note, this being that was neither exclusively female nor male may very well not have been revered. Still, in this not knowing, Salazar makes a conscious choice to utilize the ancient being from her ancestors and speak to a modern audience on allowing children to wholly be themselves. Continuing with the integration of Mesoamerican cultural practices into this text, Salazar includes an English translation from scholar David Bowles of The Flower Song. According to Salazar, this is the only known piece of literature documenting the Moon Ceremony and it just so happens to be written in verse.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this heartfelt and quick read and expect to see it making a lot of buzz for awards next year.

TEACHING TIPS FROM CRIS RHODESThe Moon Within would prove a lovely addition to any middle school classroom library (or high school, or elementary school—I maintain that anyone could and should read this book, though it does speak more clearly to readers of a similar age to its protagonist). It would be particularly useful in an ELA unit on poetry, but it would also be a great addition to a health class or sex education. It would also be a great way for students to experience traditional cultural practices—like the bomba dancing and drumming Celi and Marco practice.

 

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aida Salazar​ is a writer, arts advocate and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade verse novels, THE MOON WITHIN (Feb. 26, 2019), THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Spring, 2020), the forthcoming bio picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Fall, 2020). All books published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic. Her story, BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

MimiRankinABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin has a Master’s Degree with Distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. She is currently a Marketing Manager for a company working with over 25 publishers worldwide. Her graduate research focused on claims of cultural authenticity in Hispanic Children’s Literature and her dissertation received highest marks.

Celebrating the Love Sugar Magic series by Anna Meriano

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Words by Anna Meriano, Art by Cecilia Cackley

To celebrate the paperback release of Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano and the release of the sequel, Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, please enjoy these profiles of the main characters in the series, along with collage portraits by Cecilia Cackley. Look for the books at your local bookstore or library and try making some of the sweet treats that each of these characters loves! Happy reading and baking!

First, here’s information about the newest book in the series:

LOVE SUGAR MAGIC A SPRINKLE OF SPIRITS JACKET

Leonora Logroño has finally been introduced to her family’s bakery bruja magic—but that doesn’t mean everything is all sugar and spice. Her special power hasn’t shown up yet, her family still won’t let her perform her own spells, and they now act rude every time Caroline comes by to help Leo with her magic training.

She knows that the family magic should be kept secret, but Caroline is her best friend, and she’s been feeling lonely ever since her mom passed away. Why should Leo have to choose between being a good bruja and a good friend?

In the midst of her confusion, Leo wakes up one morning to a startling sight: her dead grandmother, standing in her room, looking as alive as she ever was. Both Leo and her abuela realize this might mean trouble—especially once they discover that Abuela isn’t the only person in town who has been pulled back to life from the other side.

Spirits are popping up all over town, causing all sorts of trouble! Is this Leo’s fault? And can she reverse the spell before it’s too late?

Anna Meriano’s unforgettable family of brujas returns in a new story featuring a heaping helping of amor, azúcar, and magia.

Now, here are the character profiles:

 

IMG_9046Isabel:

Age: 18

Power: Influence. First-born Isabel can manipulate the emotions of people around her, making them artificially happy, calm, or even scared. It’s a dangerous power to have, so she uses it carefully, except sometimes when she gets mad at Marisol.

Personality: Isabel is the oldest sister, and she takes on a lot of responsibilities both at home and at the family bakery. She’s patient with Leo and loves studying magic and adding decorative details to baked goods.

HP House: Ravenclaw

Favorite recipe: Tres Leches cake because it’s fun to make and decorate for different occasions. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8LpO047bXw)

 

 

IMG_9045Marisol:

Age: 16

Power: Manifestation. Second-born Marisol can pull small objects out of thin air, which comes in handy to stock up her makeup and nail polish collection. She can’t summon anything too large or heavy, but she comes up with a lot of creative ways to annoy Isabel or accomplish tasks with her power.

Personality: Cranky teen Marisol would much rather spend time with her friends than work at the bakery, either on everyday chores or on special magical recipes. She may not be the most patient sister, but she’s a strong ally when things go wrong.

HP House: Gryffindor

Favorite recipe: Payaso cookies because they’re easy and you can text while the dough freezes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgKJXDnlZKU)

 

 

IMG_9043.jpg

Alma & Belén:

Ages: 15 (Alma is one hour older)

Powers: Alma and Belén share their third-born power with each other and with their aunt Tía Paloma. All three can see and talk to ghostly spirits from the other side of the veil, and they can summon the spirits so that others can hear or even see them as well. It takes a lot of energy, so it’s good that they each have a partner to work with.

Personalities: Belén and Alma are usually in their own world, whether they’re inventing secret languages, dressing like their favorite fictional characters, or talking to ghosts. Still, they’re dedicated to their family and focused on honing their skills.

HP Houses: Alma: Slytherin (or Ravenclaw) Belén: Ravenclaw (or Slytherin)

Favorite recipe: Pan de muerto because it’s great for contacting spirits! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38Hu6afbEHQ)

 

 

IMG_9047Leo:

Age: 11

Power: Like the rest of her family, Leo can use her baking magic to make cookies that fly, bread that brings luck, and all sorts of pastries with supernatural side effects. But she doesn’t know yet what her special individual power will be. Those powers are usually based on birth order, but Leo’s the first ever fifth-born daughter, so her powers are still a mystery!

Personality: Leo is the baby of the family, which means she sometimes worries about being left out or kept in the dark. She is determined to prove herself as a baker and a bruja, but that determination can lead her to make decisions that aren’t always the best. Like, for example, the time she accidentally put a love spell on her friend and then shrank him!

HP House: Gryffindor

Favorite recipe: Puerquitos (also known as marranitos)! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2UNs9W7YUw)

 

 

IMG_9044Caroline:

Age: 11

Power: Leo’s abuela once told her that magic works in everyone’s life and provides them with a special ability or gift, the thing they’re meant to do. Caroline has a lot of talents, but she hasn’t figured out exactly what her special gift is yet.

Personality: Caroline is Leo’s best friend, a good student and clever plotter. Because of her family in Costa Rica, she can help Leo translate things to and from Spanish. She loves to read and always shows her appreciation for her friends.

HP House: Hufflepuff

Favorite recipe: roles de canela (cinnamon rolls) of all types, from the ones in the vending machine at school to the dry easy to eat ones from the bakery to the gooey delicious ones Leo makes at her house sometimes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgIHugi7TOI)

 

 

ANNA MERIANOABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Meriano is the author of the “Love Sugar Magic” series, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Shelf Awareness. A Houston native, she graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in writing for children from the New School. Anna works as a tutor and part time teacher with Writers in the Schools, a Houston nonprofit that brings creative writing instruction into public schools. In her free time, she likes to knit, study American Sign Language, and play full-contact quidditch.

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 2

 

This is part 2 in a roundtable discussion with members of our reviewing team. We are immensely grateful for their work. Most of them lead busy professional lives that center around literacy and literature. It only figures that they would have more to say about Latinx kid lit than can fit into a single review. Let’s hear them out.

LiKL: Tell us about yourself as a child reader. How do those experiences color your impressions of the books you read now?

Jessica Agudelo is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. Like many librarians, I was a dedicated reader throughout my childhood. I loved stories and even the physical books themselves. One of my greatest pleasures was when the Scholastic Book Fair would come to my elementary school.  I felt such joy browsing the glossy covers, then selecting just the right one to bring home and add to my own cupboard library. My treasured stash. I adored books like Amber Brown and the Wayside School series, and later the Caroline B. Cooney mysteries. I was an adult before I started realizing that my reading life was devoid of authors and characters of color. I didn’t know I needed it. But once I realized it was missing, I made a point to read all I could by and about Latinxs, and other non-white cultures and people. Nowadays, when I read titles like Pablo Cartaya’s The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, or Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk, I feel like I am 11 again, because these authors have so beautifully and honestly depicted the experiences of second-generation Latinx youth, reflecting many of my own struggles and joys. I am also grateful to be in the position to share diverse stories with kids, who can recognize themselves in these books or get a glimpse into the life of someone. In this way, I make up for lost time.

Jessica Walsh in her best-reader glory days! (She’s the smallest child pictured.)

Jessica Walsh is the K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist in an Illinois school district.  In kindergarten, I won a prize for having read the most books in my grade. We didn’t have many books at home back then – we couldn’t afford them–so I relied on my school and public libraries. Later I got books from the Scholastic Book Order and read titles like Beezus and Ramona and the Peanut Butter and Jelly series. Moving on to middle school, I consumed a steady diet of Sweet Valley High and everything by Christopher Pike. I remember staring long and hard at the covers, imagining what it would be like to live those lives. Looking back, I was searching to discover who I was. As the only kid of Mexican descent, I looked different than my peers and my hair wouldn’t do what the other girls’ hair did. (It was the 80s though…so I rocked that perm!) We had little money and I never had the right clothes or accessories. What the books I read had in common, though, were the universal struggles of growing up: conflicts with friends, parents. As I read and consider which books to put in kids’ hands, I think about the books I loved and that instilled in me a joy of reading.

Elena Foulis, Ph.D., leads a digital oral-history program to document the stories of Latinxs in Ohio. As a child, I liked reading, but lacked someone in my life who could point me to good books, appropriate for my age or identity. When I started college, I was in the U.S. and I devoured books that connected me to my roots and reminded me where I came from. I mostly read in Spanish, and later on, multi-ethnic literature in English. I have a graduate degree in comparative literature, so reading from different groups allowed me to learn from different cultures, linguistic backgrounds and histories.

LiKL: What is your reviewing process like? Do you take notes throughout your reading time? Are there sticky flags involved? Are there sticky fingers involved (because: sugary snacks)?

Elena: I am a slow reader! I like to take my time with each book. I pause to imagine the landscape, the characters and the sound of their voices. I write on the margins and highlight important passages. Coffee is always involved, so occasionally, my books have coffee stains. 🙂

Jessica Agudelo

Jessica A: My reviewing process varies, depending on what I’m reading. For picture books, I read once through for an initial reaction to the story and art. Then I read a few more times (at least once, aloud) to note specifics, such as the relationship between the text and illustrations, or narrative strength and nuance. For fiction, sticky notes are a necessity! I don’t like writing in books and hate dog ears (although I sometimes use this technique on the train, when sticky notes aren’t available). I make notes about recurring themes, characters and their notable traits, plot specifics, and stand-out quotes that I might want to include in the review. I also jot down any similar books that come to mind, to offer that additional frame of reference.

LiKL: Your work as an educator, youth librarian, scholar of children’s literature is bound to affect your work as a reviewer. Help us understand the professional perspective you bring to the evaluation of texts.

Elena:  In my studies, I read literature of the Spanish-speaking world and U.S. literature. Although this included canonical works, I was always attracted to writers who spoke from the margins. I liked to understand the perspective of those on the peripheries, those who challenged mainstream culture. I devoured books written by women! I think this experience is valuable to reviewing Latinx books, and as a Latina who has two teen girls, I look for how each author approaches culture, identity and language, and how young women might be empowered by books that tell a familiar story, one that connects to their own experiences.

LiKL: Let’s draw up a wish list for authors and publishers. Which genres, storylines, locations, representations, or other considerations do you pine for in books for children or teens?

Jessica A: More ordinary stories! Latinxs are joyful and resilient, we are not always struggling and suffering. There is beauty in the mundane. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Meg Medina speak a number of times. On one occasion, she mentioned the need for our community to elevate our heroes. I couldn’t agree more. We have an admirable list of icons, but there are so many more Latinx artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, and activists that have influenced American and world history. They should be represented in the books our kids and teens are reading.

Elena Foulis

Elena: I am still hoping to write a book myself! After living in the Midwest for many years, I would love to read about growing up Latinx in that region. We have The House on Mango Street, but we also need the perspective of Latinx growing up in rural areas or smaller cities, and from Central American backgrounds. It’s also important to address current topics that some consider taboo, like mental health.

Jessica W: I would love to see the books I needed when I was younger, such as books about kids with a desire to claim their Latinx culture, because their parents intentionally kept that part of their identity hidden. Growing up, my mother, who remarried, kept me away from my Mexican-American family. We moved thousands of miles away and rarely visited, partly due to the cost of travel. Not until later did she reclaim her heritage, so this meant I never heard family stories, although my father did enrich my life with the traditions of his heritage. I hope that young readers in similar experiences will have someone in their lives–a librarian, a teacher, a mentor–who can place an amazing Latinx story in their hands, which celebrate their culture. If I’d had that, I wouldn’t have continued to struggle with my Mexicanidad, even into adulthood.

LiKL: Now let’s flip the coin. What are your reading pet peeves? Specify the tired tropes, stereotypes, or overused plot machinations that cause you to roll your eyes—or to slam a book shut.

Elena: I think there are too many coming-of-age stories in Latinx books. While these storylines are important, perhaps there can be different ways to tell them.

LiKL: What is your current hot read and which books are at the top of your to-be-read list?

Jessica W: Meg Medina’s middle-grade title Merci Suárez Changes Gears is dominating my thoughts right now. It’s such a powerful, yet humorous, look at intergenerational relationships and the inescapable bonds of family ties. A must-read! Also, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya, Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh, and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico by David Bowles, are all fighting for my attention right now!

Jessica A: Most of my time is spent reading children’s books. Most recently I’ve checked out some wonderful picture books, including a wordless debut by Cynthia Alonso called Aquarium; the beautifully illustrated Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal; and the hilarious (and bilingual) take on the famous cryptid, El Chupacabras, by Adam Rex. I also recently read Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, a fantastic young adult/adult collection of myths from Mexico retold by David Bowles. Usually I wait until the end of the year to read adult books, and on my to-read list is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Those are just a few titles. The full list is much, much longer!

Elena: Anything by Chimamanda Adichie! On my to-be-read- list: Tell Me How it Ends: and Essay in 40 questions, by Valeria Luiselli, and  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika L. Sánchez.

Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 1

Latinxs in Kid Lit owes tremendous thanks to the wonderful contributors who review books for us!  We were curious to learn how they conduct the reviewing process and which books sit atop their TBR lists, along with other topics. This post brings you Part 1 of a roundtable discussion with some of our current team members. Stay tuned—there’s more to come! 

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Tell us about yourself as a child reader. How do those experiences color your impressions of the books you read now?

Sanjuana Rodriguez

Sanjuana Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department of Kennesaw State University.  I attended kindergarten through second grade in Mexico, where I was born. Since most of my reading there was in workbooks, my first memories of actual books was after we moved to the United States, where I read as a way to learn English. I vividly remember searching the library for books that included Latinx characters. There were only a handful, including a biography of Gloria Estefan, which I read about 100 times. This is partly why I developed an interest in books by and about Latinx. My own background taught me the importance of kids seeing their experiences reflected in texts.

Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in English, who recently completed her doctorate in literature. My mom was an elementary school teacher, so she knew the importance of reading to my twin sister and me. Because of this, I became an avid reader. I read and reread the Josefina American Girl series. She was the first character I encountered who looked like me, and I used to put on traditional dresses to pretend I was her. As an adult, I’ve revisited those books and am sad to say they’re pretty awful, as far as representation goes. Now, when I do research on representation, I keep my child-reader self in the back of my mind. That little girl deserved better, so I let that inform how I read and advocate for the many excellent Latinx children’s books available today.

Mark Oshiro, the author of Anger is a Gift, is also the driving force behind the website Mark Does StuffI started reading at a very young age, and after reading almost everything in my school library, I moved on to my local branch. But few books had characters like me. Prior to high school, I recall only Bless Me, Ultima, which I have not revisited in a long time. Reading The House on Mango Street, at 14, is what made me realize that people like me could be in a novel. It’s one of the most important books in my life.

Katrina Ortega is the young adult librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. As a child, I was just as avid a reader as I am today. My first experience with Latinx characters didn’t come until high school, when I was assigned to read Bless Me, Ultima. Before that, I was only exposed to Latinx characters through books published in Mexico, read to me by my mom. I was never exposed to characters who came from similar situations as my own—Mexican-Americans whose families had lived in the U.S. for generations— and my view of “normal” book characters was very different from what I saw in my own life. Looking at some of the books currently available, I cannot imagine how much more I might’ve related to characters who looked like me or lived in environments like the one in which I grew up.

LiKL: What is your reviewing process like? Do you take notes throughout your reading time? Are there sticky flags involved? Are there sticky fingers involved (because: sugary snacks)?

Mark Oshiro

Mark: For my Mark Does Stuff reviews, I record myself while reading, so no note-taking there! But for publications like Latinxs in KidLit, I do take notes. What stands out? Which parts do I want to comment on? I keep track of my thoughts and how they develop as I experience the text. Those transitions can often be the coolest part of reading.

Sanjuana: My first step is to read the book just for fun! As I reread, I begin to think about my impressions of the text. My last step is to see what resources already exist online that teachers or librarians may find helpful.

Katrina: I read through the book first, then write down my initial thoughts about characters, setting, plot-lines, and go back through certain parts to read them more closely. My style of reading is such that I sometimes get completely consumed by the story and forget to stop and write things down. 

Cris: I bookmark important moments and quotations with sticky flags as I go, but I also tend to have a document open on my computer or phone where I type out some rough sentences and thoughts that may make it into the final review. I end up Frankensteining these notes together after finishing the book.

LiKL: Your work as an educator, youth librarian, scholar of children’s literature, or author of books for young readers is bound to affect your work as a reviewer. Help us understand the professional perspective you bring to the evaluation of texts.

Cris Rhodes

Cris: It’s really hard to turn off my scholarly training when I’m reading, so whatever I consume is filtered through that lens. I always have questions running through the back of my mind: How might this book be approached from a critical standpoint? Does feminist theory apply? Queer theory? Trauma studies? Sometimes those questions don’t make it into a review. Regardless, they’re always present, even if on the periphery, and they generate other modes of analysis that do come out in the reviews.

Katrina: The area I live and work in is a predominantly Latinx community. One of my main responsibilities as a teen/young-adult librarian is making sure the youth I work with find content to which they can relate. This doesn’t mean characters have to be from Harlem or the Bronx, although that definitely is a huge selling point. Instead,  the books I suggest must have genuine and honest characters, situations, and conversations. When I review a book, I ask myself, “Is this believable? Would a teen say something like that or behave in that way?” Authenticity in the representation of characters and situations is super important. 

Sanjuana: My work as an elementary teacher shapes the work I do as a reviewer. I am always thinking about how texts could be used in the classroom and how those books can facilitate conversations, particularly around difficult or controversial issues, such as immigration. In my current role, working with pre-service teachers, one of my goals is introducing them to books they’re unlikely to encounter in their field-experience classrooms. I want them to see the value of diverse characters and experiences in books, which they will hopefully include in their own future classroom libraries.

Toni Margarita Plummer is an award-winning writer of short stories, who has also worked in publishing. I was an acquiring editor for many years, meaning I was the one always hoping for good reviews for my titles, for those one or two golden lines I could put up online or on the paperback. I think the best reviews accurately describe what the book is about, place it in context, and highlight the successes and shortcomings of the work, all toward the end of helping readers to discover books they will enjoy. That is what I try to give in my reviews, along with those few golden lines of praise someone can pluck.

LiKL: Let’s draw up a wish list for authors and publishers. Which genres, storylines, locations, representations, or other considerations do you pine for in books for children or teens?

Katrina Ortega

Katrina: I love reading stories about the border. It’s where I grew up, and writers like Guadalupe Garcia McCall and Benjamin Alíre Saenz take me back to the desert and open skies of West Texas. I also love reading fantasy that is Latinx-character centric. The Brooklyn Brujas series by Zoraida Córdova is by far my favorite. In addition, I’d love to read more about Latinx families that have been living in the United States for generations, like mine has—families that have sprawled across the country, and their stories of traversing back and forth.

Mark: More Afro-Latinx rep is super important to me. I’m always on the lookout for more rep of queer Latinx, LGBT Latinx, and ace Latinx!!! The tradition I write in deals with the difficulties Latinx people face, historically and in our present time. But these days, I am also super into fluffy beach reads. I want some big Latinx rom-com YAs. Soon. I may be writing one myself!

Cris: As a Latina who grew up in a rural area with no other Latinxs besides those I was related to, I want more stories like that–more diverse Latinx experiences represented. We need more queer Latinx stories, more Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish, more Latinxs living outside of big cities, more Latinxs who don’t have large, extended families. We also need to make being Latinx not a plot point—I love books where being Latinx is incidental to what’s going on.

Sanjuana: I see a need for more books that represent diversity in the immigration experience, as well as more bilingual texts that reflect the growing number of multilingual students in schools.

LiKL: Now let’s flip the coin. What are your reading pet peeves? Specify the tired tropes, stereotypes, or overused plot machinations that cause you to roll your eyes—or to slam a book shut.

Cris: In continuation of my previous answer, I’m tired of books that homogenize the Latinx experience, even if they don’t mean to do so. Not all Latinxs act, live, and think the same way.  I encounter certain plot lines over and over: barrio life, single-parent homes, racism and xenophobia. That’s not to say these things aren’t valid experiences or necessary for a certain readership.

Mark: My reading pet peeves? Writers using a very easily solved misunderstanding to fuel their plot. Plots that could be solved by people just TALKING to one another. Also, Latinx drug lords. I’ll roll my eyes at the inevitable ICE or US border story written by a white person, with an attitude of “how can this possibly happen in our country?” Spoiler alert: it’s been happening for far, far longer than this past year.

Sanjuana: I don’t like to read books that paint a perfect picture of the world. I believe that literature should represent current realities and issues that children and teens are grappling with.

Katrina: My biggest pet peeve? When authors use Spanish in their characters’ dialogue, but then repeat the dialogue in English. It drives me up the wall to have to read the same thing twice! 

LiKL: What is your current hot read and which books are at the top of your to-be-read list?

Toni Margarita Plummer

Toni: I am reading Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, from the new Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney. Naturally, I am eager to read the imprint’s forthcoming Latinx titles by J.C. Cervantes and Carlos Hernandez. I think it’s so exciting that children will be invited to explore Latinx mythology through these books! I also still need to read I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L Sánchez and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Sanjuana: This a list of books currently on my desk ready to be read: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez ( I know that I’m late reading this one!). Picture books I can’t wait to read and share with kids: The Day you Begin by Jacquline Woodson, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, and Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera.

Mark: Just read Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath and it was just as stunning as I’d thought it would be. I’m about to read and review the newest Anna-Marie McLemore, and then am eager to start The Resolutions by Mia García!

Cris: My current “hot read” is any book I’m using for my dissertation, but I’m particularly enjoying digging into Celia C. Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk. My current TBR is anything I’m not using for my dissertation! I’m very excited to dive into Zoraida Cordova’s Brooklyn Brujas series. I recently began Lila Quintero Weaver’s My Year in the Middle, and there are some rad looking anthologies that have been recently released!

Katrina: I just finished Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, a semi-autobiographical (or so it seems) account of the journey north from Central America, written in verse. It’s heartbreaking and redemptive and beautifully put together. 

Our warmest thanks to the reviewers who participated in this roundtable discussion! We’ll continue the conversation in the next installment. 

 

Book Review: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

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This review by Lila Quintero Weaver is based on an advance uncorrected galley.

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Bryan has a good idea of what’s tight to him—reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But “no drama” doesn’t come with the territory of where he’s from, so he’s feeling wound up tight. While his mom encourages his calm, thoughtful nature, his quick-tempered dad says he needs to be tough because it’s better for a guy to be feared than liked.

And now Bryan’s new friend Mike is putting the pressure on—all of a sudden, his ideas of fun are crazy risky. When Bryan’s dad ends up back in jail, something in Bryan snaps and he allows Mike to take the lead. At first it’s a rush as Bryan starts cutting school and subway surfing. But Bryan never feels quite right when he’s acting wrong, and Mike ends up pushing him too far.

Fortunately, if there’s anything Bryan has learned from his favorite superheroes, it’s that he has the power to stand up for what he believes.

MY TWO CENTS: Starring an Afro-Puerto Rican character from Brooklyn, NY, this entertaining middle-grade novel is a brilliant read layered with emotional richness and nuance. Along with its primary selling point as a solid and strongly voiced story, Tight delivers an important but subtly threaded message on self-respect and moral courage. Bryan’s internal wrestling match, one brought on by a questionable friendship, lies at the crux of the story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story line could have easily devolved into a morality play. But Maldonado avoids such cardboard cutouts in favor of a skillfully crafted portrait of a relatable middle-grader facing down his vulnerabilities and learning how to choose the higher road.

Sharply drawn from head to toe, Bryan is a sympathetic character with a mounting dilemma that begins as soon as a boy named Mike makes his appearance. Initially, Bryan feels suspicious of the new boy, but lets go of those reservations when Mike reveals a kindred love of superhero comic books. Still, subtle things about Mike continue to nag at Bryan, setting up an undercurrent of mistrust. As Mike works his charisma on Bryan, gradually opening doors to dangerous and alluring pastimes, Bryan begins to rationalize his original misgivings. To complicate matters, things on the home front are going south, too. Bryan’s father, who’s recently gotten out of jail, seems to be courting trouble again, putting the whole family in a state of tension.

Although at times Bryan succumbs to risky behavior, he seems most like himself when the drama is dialed way down. He actually relishes the peace and quiet of his “office,” an unused desk at his mother’s workplace, where he spreads out his homework. In this vein, we also witness him happily chatting on a park bench with his mom, who he endearingly refers to as “my heart.”

You cannot help but love Bryan. He reads as a real boy, with a real life, and a rings-true voice that expresses rich interiority. But as if to test his tender side, Bryan’s world is complicated by the code of machismo. At his school and in his neighborhood, the message telegraphed at boys is don’t be soft. This refrain of warped masculinity features in many a Latinx treatment. Fortunately, Maldonado lifts the story above such tropes by enlivening Bryan with contradictory currents and introducing fresh possibilities that will keep readers on their toes.

Other elements of Latinx life include food (chicharrones, alcapurrias) and observations on ethnic identity. In an early scene, Bryan reveals that he purchased the new Miles Morales Spider-Man comic because “he’s my age and looks like me. He’s half black and half Puerto Rican. I’m full Rican but heads rarely guess right.”

It’s obvious that Bryan has a lot on his plate. Here he is at the corner bodega presenting a note from his mom, in which she appeals for store credit.

When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.

I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.

Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”

Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous-smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.

What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.

Does it need pointing out that Maldonado nails the art of voice?

In addition, he commands a spare approach to description, choosing a handful of small details for the sizzle they bring. One of my favorite examples of colorful scene-setting occurs when Bryan and Mike pass through a crowded train station. “Mike ducks under a turnstile and races up the steps. ‘PAY YOUR FARE!’ the teller’s voice yells through the microphone in the MetroCard booth. It sounds extra scary because it’s all metallic, like Darth Vader’s voice.”

This is a novel that kid readers across the board will go for, and that readers hungry for Afro-Latinx representation will cheer on. In Bryan, Maldonado has created a vivid, relatable character with a lot going on between his ears. He has also built a fascinating and realistic world for this character to occupy, and spun a story that packs punch, enclosing within it hidden, but never preachy, lessons about life and love and healthy self-respect.

IMG_5888ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

Click here to see our recent Q&A with Torrey Maldonado.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and a novel for kids, My Year in the Middle. Connect with her on Twitter, where her handle is @LilaQWeaver.

 

 

 

 

Happy Book Birthday to My Year in the Middle!

Happy book birthday to My Year in the Middle! What you are gazing at is my debut children’s book. It’s a middle-grade novel featuring a 12-year-old Latina character named Lu Olivera— a story of friendship, self-discovery, athletic challenges, and the courage to stand up to racism. 

Here is what Shelf Awareness wrote about My Year in the Middle: “Weaver, who previously published a graphic memoir called Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, writes vividly about the spaces in the middle, between black and white. Any reader who has struggled to find a safe and happy place between polarities will appreciate Weaver’s deep understanding of just how difficult–and rewarding–this can be.” (You can read the whole review here.)

And now, for a quick rundown of the story’s major points, follow this picture essay, complete with sticky notes and chalk dust.  

NOTE: Each chapter starts off with a pencil drawing that I created. I hope young readers enjoy the vintage touches these images bring.

 

And did I mention there’s running? One day in PE class, it hits Lu that she can run like the blue blazes! Field Day is around the corner—and with it comes the chance to race against a fierce and accomplished competitor.

Racial and political drama is everywhere—in the headlines, at the breakfast table, in the classroom. Based on historical events that I remember from my own youth, the gubernatorial primary playing out in the story’s background serves as a textbook case for nasty elections. Somehow Lu gets caught in this tangle.

Is there romance? Oh yes!

Also: MUSIC. Lots of timeless rock & roll and delicious soul music, just the way Lu and her friends dig it!

Okay, this is only a blitz tour! If you’d like to learn more about the novel itself and the story behind the story, please visit my website. There, you will find extensive information, including a downloadable discussion guide developed by education specialists at Candlewick Press, as well as links to early reviews—plus some My Year in the Middle extras for young readers!

Please ask your librarian to acquire My Year in the Middle for your community or school library! It’s also available for sale at many independent bookstores and all major national booksellers. It’s listed here in Candlewick’s catalog. 

One more thing: I wrote a from-the-heart guest post for Nerdy Book Club. Please check it out by clicking HERE—and while you’re there, enter their giveaway (time sensitive). Each of four winners will receive a copy of My Year in the Middle, plus one of the original art pieces I created for the book. Here’s an advance peek of what winners will receive.