Book Review: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Reviewed by Sujei Lugo and Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork that echoes Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean—and definitely not inside the lines—to be beautiful.

OUR TWO CENTS:

Radiant Child is a heartfelt and vibrant picture book about the childhood and life of Puerto Rican-Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Written for young children, it celebrates Basquiat’s art and traces the early steps of his artistic formation, as he makes his way toward the pinnacle of fame. From boyhood, he begins developing his own “messy” style of art-making, one that evokes powerful personal emotions, while addressing the sound and fury of social and cultural politics. Javaka Steptoe received the 2017 Caldecott Medal for his work as the book’s illustrator, a fitting recognition of the dynamic and engaging art seen in these pages.

The story in Radiant Child shifts through various New York City settings, including interiors of the Basquiat family home in Brooklyn, the exhibit spaces of an art museum, the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the artist’s studio. As a boy, Basquiat sees art everywhere he looks, not just in the museums he visits with his mother or in the poetry books she reads to him, but also in everyday objects that he encounters around the city. Early on, while other children in the neighborhood skip rope, young Basquiat “dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” You can tell how seriously he has devoted himself to this dream by the pencils, papers, and drawings scattered all over his bedroom.

Throughout childhood, the primary influencer on Basquiat’s art is his mother, Matilde, a Puerto Rican woman who “designs and sews,” and sometimes even joins her child in the act of drawing. Her artistic influence on him is not always intentional. After a car accident leaves Jean-Michel injured, Malide introduces him to Gray’s Anatomy. Her hope is to teach the young boy how the human body is knit together. Little does she anticipate that the diagrams from this book will seep into his catalog of artistic imagery and emerge as motifs in his mature work. In addition to taking Jean-Michel to museums, Matilde also conveys the message that art can be found in ordinary things, including the “messy patchwork of the city.” This sets up an interesting parallel, in which Basquiat, an Afro-Latino child of humble beginnings with no formal education in the arts, is shaped by the traditional, elitist, and largely white institutions of the New York art world, yet simultaneously absorbs the powerful visual elements inherent in his own cultural milieu. In the book’s museum scene, it is fascinating to note that his favorite work of art is Picasso’s “Guernica,” an immense painting that depicts the horrors of the Nazi bombing of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it is before this very painting that the boy begins to develop ideas about artistic self-expression as a major force in the world.

Tragically, when Basquiat’s mother suffers debilitating mental illness and is hospitalized, this shatters the circle of love that fed the young boy’s artistic growth. He continues living with his father, Gerard, but “things are not the same,” and as a teenager, Jean-Michel runs off to live on his own in the “concrete jungle where only the tough survive.” There, he begins his career as a graffiti artist. Signing his work with SAMO©, Basquiat creates street art that captivates the city and propels him from the streets to the galleries. Fame follows, just as the young boy dreamed, and this is where the story portion of Radiant Child ends. The book’s back matter, however, includes a substantial section that acknowledges Basquiat’s drug addiction and untimely death at 27.

How does a children’s illustrator depict the life and oeuvre of such a celebrated artist? As explained in an author’s note, Javaka Steptoe answers this challenge not by reproducing, but by reinterpreting Basquiat’s work. The result is original and memorable, yet strongly evocative of Basquiat’s signature style. Steptoe achieves this by employing the graffiti and collage methods that his subject used, in combination with traditional painting techniques, and by incorporating symbols and motifs associated with Basquiat, such as stylized human skulls and femurs.

Each page spread in Radiant Child is a small construction consisting of a scene painted over a textured background. For his background materials, Steptoe relies heavily on found objects, primarily throwaways. Due to their worn condition, these objects call to mind the crumbling cityscape of 1980s Lower East Side—one of Basquiat’s stomping grounds. The repurposed materials include wooden slats salvaged from dumpsters, and Steptoe glorifies the raw condition of these slats by assembling them into rough jigsaw-puzzle surfaces, in which each nail hole and splintered edge contributes to the painted illustration’s lively texture. Steptoe enhances the textured effect by collaging photographs over select areas, presenting pockets of visual intrigue for readers to explore.

Although this is a picture book, the rich inspiration it offers should not be denied to older kids. Native children and children of color stand to benefit the most from such exposure. In witnessing Basquiat’s artistic journey, we also arrive at a greater appreciation of the soothing power of art. We see that artistic creativity can act as a therapeutic exercise in the face of pain, fear, separation, and insecurity. Radiant Child also delivers the unmistakable and essential message that messiness and art-making go hand in hand, and that although the results may be “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, [it’s] somehow still beautiful.” Indeed, this message is joyously inscribed on every page, in every scribble, and through every splintered and splattered collage.

THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR

As the son of award-winning illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe grew up surrounded by art and children’s books, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. In his own career, the younger Steptoe has captured many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as recognition from the NAACP Image Awards, and the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Read more about him at his official website.

 

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING

In its final pages, Radiant Child appends information on portions of Basquiat’s life not covered in the story, including a section detailing motifs and symbols that appear in his work.

The publisher Little Brown provides an informative page on Radiant Child. There, you can view a book chat with Javaka Steptoe and watch an embedded video of a live art demo he shared on New York Times’s Facebook page.

Here is an additional interview with Steptoe, conducted by Travis Jonker, of School Library Journal, for the series “The Yarn,” which looks closely at how kids’ books are made.

For anyone interested in further exploration of Basquiats’s world, abundant online and print resources exist, although they are primarily aimed at adult readers. Here is a sampling.

Basquiat’s friend and one-time roommate Alexis Adler talks on video about photos she took of him. See it here.

Read an illuminating conversation with Basquiat, published in Interview Magazine in 1983.

The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat maintains a website devoted to his life and work. Visit it here.

 

 

Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This review is by Lila Quintero Weaver and is based on an advanced reading copy.

From the publisher:

The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief. Sal discovers that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

My two cents:

The 2012 multiple prize-winning YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, delivered a spellbinding story of remarkable teen characters on the brink of self-discovery. Among its achievements, the novel provided positive and authentic representations of gay teens and Latinx families. Sáenz follows that feat with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, which subtly echoes themes in Aristotle and Dante and reaffirms the author’s virtuosity.

Seventeen-year-old Sal (Salvatore) lives in El Paso, Texas, with his adoptive father, a gay Mexican-American art professor named Vicente Silva. Vicente assumed responsibility for Sal after his mother died, when Sal was just three years old. (The connections between Sal’s mother and Vicente don’t become clear until late in the book, when Sal finally opens a letter his dying mother wrote and left in Vicente’s care.) Although Sal is white, the adoption secures his place in the heart of a loving Mexican-American family, which is headed by the matriarch Sal comes to know as Mima. As his adoptive grandmother, Mima refers to Sal as her “hijito de mi vida,” and the adoration is mutual.

The warmth of the Silva family magnetically pulls in two other teen characters. Sal’s best friend, Sam (Samantha), is locked in raging conflict with her mom. Another friend, Fito, suffers the effects of a drug-addicted mother and an absentee dad. In order to survive, Fito must hold down two after-school jobs.

Compared to the home lives of his friends, Sal’s family is golden. But for all the advantages he enjoys, Sal is a complex character, who on the surface, feels secure in his identity as a peaceful, self-confessed straight edger. He eschews cigarettes and alcohol (well, mostly), and is still a virgin. But he harbors a reactionary side. When a classmate utters a homophobic slur against Vicente, Sal resorts to violence that lands him in Principal Cisneros’s office. This impulse to lash out physically catches Sal by surprise, and it won’t be the last time.

Other big questions disrupt Sal’s world. His beloved Mima is diagnosed with late-stage bone cancer. Vicente’s one-time boyfriend, Marcos, reappears on the scene, bringing heartache and mistrust to the Silva house. There’s still that matter of the unopened letter from Sal’s mother, and then, major crises hit Sam’s and Fito’s families, radiating tremors in all directions. How fortunate for everyone that Vicente possesses finely tuned paternal instincts and the willingness to open the family circle even wider. Even so, don’t mistake this for a sentimental story. The struggles these young characters wrestle with are real and not easily resolved.

Although compelling plot developments push the story along, this novel also distinguishes itself through skillful characterization and crisp, realistic dialogue. The dialogue especially stands out during volleys between the teen characters. Sal and Sam, who’ve known each other since early childhood, share a platonic friendship that’s built on love and mutual respect, but that doesn’t keep them from ribbing one another mercilessly and butting into each other’s business. As Fito becomes a larger part of their lives, his comi-tragic flavor gets added to the mix. The verbal conversations and text messages these three engage in are, by turns, hilarious, poignant, revealing, laced with profanity, and true to the way teens speak in 2017. These exchanges reveal the intricate give-and-take of teen friendships, where mutual support is often coded as deprecatory banter.

The novel also takes on complex racial and ethnic dynamics, but it’s done with a subtle touch. In writing Sal as a white child adopted by a Mexican family, Sáenz makes a daring choice that reverses typical scripts of interracial or interethnic adoption. Much of Sal’s identity stems from Vicente, the man he considers his true father. In the Silva family, Mexican heritage is freely offered as a gift—one Sal knows he’s lucky to receive and absorb into his cultural makeup. But acceptance at home doesn’t extend to every corner of Sal’s world, and elements of race appear mostly around his role as a rare white kid in a setting dominated by Mexican and Latinx culture. At one point, a classmate drops the slur “pinche gringo” on him, leading to one of several bursts of violence on Sal’s part. On the flip side, Mexican American Sam teasingly refers to Sal as “white boy,” all the while fully aware that by virtue of his upbringing, Sal is more deeply ensconced in Mexican tradition than she is. Sal appreciates the irony and won’t let Sam get away with drawing false distinctions. This is a tricky point, but Sáenz successfully plays it with humor.

The question that persists almost to the end of the book is why Sal puts off reading his mother’s letter. He doesn’t understand his own reluctance, and this is part of the “inexplicable logic” referred to in the title. Could it be that Sal fears losing the rock-solid foundation offered by the family that raised him? Many writers would’ve dangled such a compelling object as catnip before their readers. But Sáenz uses uncommon restraint, allowing mentions of the sealed letter to bubble up in conversation or in Sal’s interior monologue sparingly, as if he’s holding that question just inside our peripheral vision while the characters occupy themselves with more urgent concerns.

In the writing itself, the author demonstrates other forms of restraint that recall his poetic side. He clips sentences and keeps chapters unusually short, suggesting the poetic habit of brevity. While his prose enthralls the ear, Sáenz’s mastery goes beyond the level of the sentence. He’s an accomplished storyteller who works magic with dialogue, gives characters muscle and breath, and creates intrigue through the subtle layering of reveals and building questions. Another satisfying aspect of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is the treatment of intergenerational relationships. We’re reminded that healthy family connections help us thrive, while their absence leaves us yearning. Above all, Sáenz crafts a narrative around things that deeply matter to teen readers: identity, belonging, and finding one’s place in the world—and he charges his characters with the drive to pursue these prizes.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a scholar, a teacher of creative writing, and a prize-winning poet and novelist. Along with other distinctions, his 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won the Pura Belpré Award, the Stonewall Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Our review is here. In 2013, National Public Radio featured Sáenz in a fascinating interview. Long based in El Paso, Texas, Sáenz retired from teaching in 2016. Keep up with him via Twitter.

Latinxs and the MFA: A Chat with Emerging Writer Yamile Saied Méndez

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Writer Yamile Saied Méndez, surrounded by her family

Many aspiring writers look to MFA programs as the surest path to refining their writing skills. Yamile Saied Méndez, a native of Argentina who resides in Utah, is a recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program (VCFA). We were delighted to chat with her about her experiences.

LKL: Let’s get some background. When and how did you catch the writing bug?

Yamile: I’ve always loved stories and books. It wasn’t until my grandfather died, when I was six years old, that I wanted to tell my own stories. True to my writing process (which I recognized much later in life), the story simmered in my mind for a couple of years. I finally put my experiences and feelings on paper when the story had taken total possession of me, and I couldn’t go one more day without telling it.

So I wrote about a princess named Joanna who went out to find a cure for her grandfather’s cancer.

From my beginnings, my writing has been a tool to explore what’s happening in my life and the world around me, although my stories aren’t technically autobiographical. I write about third-culture children, sports, my beloved city of Rosario, life in small-town Utah, spirituality, etc.

Writing has always been a part of my life, but I never thought I could one day be a writer. I left Argentina at age nineteen to attend Brigham Young University, where I majored in International Economy. But during those years, I learned Portuguese and eventually became a translator. I devoured books from the library. When my children were born, I savored the books I didn’t have in my childhood (like Where the Wild Things Are, Ferdinand, and Good Night Moon, among others).

When my own stories started taking full possession of me, and I couldn’t go another day without telling them, I started writing. After the birth of my fourth child, I decided that I wanted to share my writing with the world. I rolled up my literal sleeves and started my writing apprenticeship.

LKL: Before VCFA, what types of self-directed activities or writing classes did you utilize to develop your craft?

Yamile: NaNoWriMo was the catalyst that sent the proverbial writing stone rolling for me. I was very active in the blogging community, and on November 6th, 2007, I read a casual comment about a novel-writing challenge. I headed over to the NaNoWriMo website, signed up, and started writing a story that had been germinating in my mind for a while and I hadn’t even noticed. The euphoria of typing The End is addictive, and after the first time, I couldn’t stop.

I wrote every day and learned there was much more to writing than pouring words on the page. I found books on self-editing, story structure, character development, and eventually, the publishing industry. With the help of my critique group (the Sharks and Pebbles, whose name originated from this spoof), finished a manuscript and queried it without apparent success. Some agents who rejected my piece were very encouraging, and that was all I needed to stay motivated.

I attended my first writers conference, LDS Storymakers, which is the largest writing conference in Utah, and entered the first-chapter contest. My entry won the first place in the Young Adult category, which told me I was on the right track.

I also attended the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference and workshop, organized and directed by VCFA alumna and award-winning author Carol Lynch Williams, and my life changed forever. At WIFYR I workshopped with Ann Dee Ellis, Martine Leavitt, and Cynthia Leitich-Smith. After savoring this yearly feast on craft and art, I wanted more. I knew Martine and Cynthia taught at VCFA, and when my fifth child was one-year-old (and in my mind, capable of surviving without me during the ten-day residency periods), I applied to the program.

LKL: Please share about your experiences with your MFA, starting with the decision to apply. How did you choose VCFA? What are some of the factors you would recommend for other writers to consider?

Yamile: I had looked into VCFA for years, but my four children were very young, my husband had (and still has) a very demanding job, and I didn’t think I had the skills required for such an intensive program. I perused the website nightly, and when I turned to the Acknowledgements page of a favorite book and read the author’s dedication and/or gratitude to VCFA, and its faculty and student body, my desire to apply intensified.

One day I realized that time kept going, and that my children were growing up quickly. If I wanted to pursue advanced education, now was the time. Fortunately, my husband was very encouraging. After all, I had supported him when he pursued his MBA degree and as he advanced in his career. Armed with my family’s support, I applied. When the acceptance letter arrived, I was thrilled.

LKL: Take us into the world of an MFA student. What were some of the turning points or eureka moments for you as a writer?

Yamile: In my first semester, I learned to be a flexible writer. I’d already written two MG novels before VCFA, and I was determined to write YA during my two years as a student. With my first advisor, I wrote YA, but I also wrote poetry, picture books, early readers, and my favorite surprise: short stories. Exploring with the format allowed me to study plot and story structure. It taught me to make my words count. Two of my YA projects were born of short stories. The experience was illuminating in regards to my own writing process. Another thing I valued from the beginning was being open to critique, but also trusting my writerly instincts. In our graduation ceremony, VCFA Thomas Christopher Greene told us graduates that we had earned a Master’s degree over our own writing. To trust this authority. I remind myself of this lesson daily.

yamile-daughterLKL: During your enrollment, you were also busy with family life. Could you share some tips for getting the most from classwork while also meeting everyday demands?

Yamile: As I flew back home from my first residency, I considered the work load for each of the five packets ahead of me that semester (40 pages of creative writing, 2 critical essays, an annotated bibliography of ten to fifteen books, and a detailed letter to my advisor), and I was overwhelmed.

How in the world was I ever going to do it all?

I learned to prioritize. I put myself on a schedule that started much earlier than my children’s so I could have uninterrupted writing time. With my kids in school, I had almost three hours of sacred morning writing time (I still do most of my writing during the morning when the kids are at school). Still, my obligations didn’t fit into 24 hours.

I learned to say no. I didn’t volunteer at the kids’ schools as much (or at all during my third semester). I gave up TV.

I also had obligations to my agent, my freelance writing job, and my church. I reached a point in which I put my writing, my family, my obligations ahead of my health. I started learning (I’m still learning this) to maximize my time so I could sleep a full night. I learned simple recipes, and my children helped with household chores. When they saw my dedication to my school work, my family teamed up to help me meet my deadlines. We read my “homework” before bedtime. We listened to audiobooks in the car. The kids brought me books from their school libraries to help with essays or research. Again, I also learned how to be a flexible writer. I wrote or read during halftime at soccer matches or long dance competitions. I did “character studies” during carpool (15 year-old boys will say the funniest things when they believe the driver can’t hear them). I learned to let go of things I couldn’t control, like the sea of Legos in the playroom. These habits prepared me for the writing life after the MFA. Nowadays, although I don’t have an advisor waiting for my packet, I have an agent waiting for my revision. A VCFA friend and I became accountability partners. It helps to have someone cheering for me and celebrating accomplishments at the end of a busy week.

The MFA was a family affair, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of so many friends and family.

LKL: A few years ago, Junot Díaz wrote a stinging essay about the experiences of people of color at various MFA programs. On its website, VCFA makes a strong commitment to diversity. In your view, how well do they honor this promise?

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Yamile with fellow Latinas at VCFA

Yamile: I’m embarrassed to confess I didn’t know Junot Díaz until my first semester advisor assigned me one of his short stories. The beauty, honesty, and clarity of Junot’s words stunned me. My perception of my world, my writing, my country, and myself changed dramatically. I measured all I learned against my new perception of what it means to be a POC in a graduate program.

At VCFA, the student body is still not diverse enough. The staggering price of tuition and room/board is a deterrent to many POC applicants. VCFA is trying to mitigate the financial burden by granting scholarships (The Angela Johnson Scholarship for New Students of Color or Ethnic Minority established by literary agent Barry Goldblatt).

As far as the faculty goes, VCFA boasts an incredible roll of award-winning stars with ties to diverse communities: Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Uma Krishnaswami, An Na, Will Alexander, Daniel José Older, Kekla Magoon, and Shelley Tanaka, among others.

The rest of the faculty is invested in diversity and the promotion of writers from marginalized communities. Workshops and lectures are sensitive to the importance of inclusion and supporting marginalized voices. Alumni POC are wonderful role models and mentors. In the admissions department, prospective, current, and past students have a super champion in Ann Cardinal, a self-declared Gringa-Rican.

To summarize my answer, yes, VCFA honors their commitment to diversity, and they continue to strive to better serve the interests of all students, especially writers of color.

LKL: What advice would you give to aspiring Latinx writers about considering a creative writing program or preparing to enroll in one?

Yamile: I’m a strong advocate for education. However, I’d advise people to consider the motivations for pursuing a MFA.

Is it to take a shortcut on publication or success?

Keep in mind that there aren’t any promises for either publication or success even for VCFA MFA holders.

Is it to teach?

An MFA will provide the writer with better opportunities to teach at a university level, since it’s a terminal degree.

Is it to improve their craft?

You could also acquire these tools on your own, or by attending conferences and workshops. But during a structured program, you will be committed to do your work every day, no matter what.

Is it for the community?

At VCFA, I made personal connections with fellow students, faculty, and alumni, some of whom graduated years before I even started. The VCFA family is a tight-knit group, and I’m honored to be part of it.

Also, consider your financial situation.

Lastly, look into your heart. I always wanted to be a writer, but I felt I needed to study something practical, and that’s how I ended up studying economics. My love for writing and reading never waned though, so when I had the chance, I chose VCFA. I wonder how my story would have been different if I’d gone with my heart years ago.

If a writing program is what you want to do, then go for it.

LKL: Now that you’re an MFA grad, what’s next? What are you working on?

Yamile: I finished VCFA with a portfolio of exciting material. I’m revising an MG story about a girl, the star of an all-boy fútbol team. When she gets her period and gets kicked off the team, she goes on to earn a spot in a girls’ team, and to fight for the National Championship. For my critical thesis, I wrote on the importance of portraying girls’ puberty in middle grade, and following on the heels of that, this story has been fun and empowering to write. Eleven-year-old me would have loved it.

I’m also working on a story I call it my gender-bender Hamilton meets Joan D’Arc–my love letter to refugees and immigrants everywhere.

Next spring, I’m teaching a diversity class at Storymakers, and I applied to Junot Díaz’s VONA workshop, because education never ends.

LKL: Finally, permit us to show off a little on your behalf. You had an amazing 2015: You were named a finalist in Lee and Low’s New Voices Award. You secured a literary agent. You enrolled at VCFA. At some point, We Need Diverse Books named you a recipient of its inaugural Walter Deans Myers Grant. Wow! What has the Walter Dean Myers grant meant to your writing career? Tell us how 2015 fits into the story of where you’ve come from—and where you see yourself going—as a writer.

Yamile: The validation I felt after winning the New Voices Honor, and being chosen as an inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient was the fuel I needed to keep me motivated and engaged in learning as much as I could at VCFA. To think that I taught myself how to read and write English with a bilingual dictionary! I’m inspired to keep working towards publication, to tell the stories that I wanted to read as a child and that also reflect the reality of a large portion of the population of our country. My dream is to visit schools to tell children like my own that their voices matter. I’m excited for the future generation and the stories they’ll produce.

Keep up with Yamile on her website, where she blogs about the writing life, or on Twitter: @yamilesmendez. 

 

 

Book Review: Even if the Sky Falls by Mia García

 

Review by Troi Genders

24218983DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: One midsummer night. Two strangers. Three rules: No real names. No baggage. No phones. A whirlwind twenty-four-hour romance about discovering what it means to feel alive in the face of one of life’s greatest dangers: love.

Who would you be if you had one night to be anyone you want?

Volunteering in New Orleans was supposed to be a change, an escape from the total mess Julie left at home and from her brother’s losing battle with PTSD. But building houses surrounded by her super-clingy team leader and her way-too-chipper companions has Julie feeling more trapped than ever. And she’s had enough.

In a moment of daring, Julie runs away, straight into the glitter, costumes, and chaos of the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade—and instantly connects with Miles, an utterly irresistible musician with a captivating smile and a complicated story of his own. And for once, Julie isn’t looking back. Together Julie and Miles decide to forget their problems and live this one night in the here and now. Wandering the night, they dance on roofs, indulge in beignets, share secrets and ghost stories under the stars, and fall in love. But when a Category Two hurricane changes course and heads straight for NOLA, their adventure takes an unexpected turn. And, suddenly, pretending everything is fine is no longer an option.

MY TWO CENTS: Mia García’s debut novel, Even if the Sky Falls is a colorful, emotional book that grabbed me from the first page. Set in New Orleans, the reader feels transported to the French Quarter and Jackson Square as you follow Julie and Miles on their night of throwing caution to the wind. Both characters have intriguing backstories that I wanted more of. I found myself caring not only for Julie but also for her brother Adam, who you learn more about through the course of the novel. Miles seemed at first to be a Don Juan–slick, handsome, and a massive flirt, but throughout the novel, you discover he is much more complex.

Julie is a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl who travels to New Orleans as part of a youth group trip to rebuild homes in New Orleans. She is doing so to get away from her family issues at home; her brother Adam recently returned from a tour of service and is not quite the same person he was before he left. While rebuilding homes, she sees a van filled with loud, happy people and decides that she is going to leave “Old Julie” behind and explore the city. She finds herself in the middle of Mid-Summer Mardi Gras, where she meets Miles, who is part of the Mid-Summer Boys band, whose music keeps Julie captivated. A New Orleans native, Miles knows the city and its history, so throughout the night, he shows Julie, who he calls Sunshine or Lila, the ins and outs of the “real” New Orleans. They agree to leave all baggage behind, just for one night. What they do not realize, however, is that they are about to fall hard for each other, and their pasts refuse to stay in the past. They also do not realize that a massive storm is heading straight their way, and it will change both of their lives. Both Julie and Miles have issues that they try to suppress, but it is not until the storm is upon them that they finally face what they have been running from.

In the beginning, I thought the storm was cliché, but it matches the character’s developments, especially with Julie and her refusal to share secrets about her past until they fully consume her. There are some religious aspects, mostly with her Abuela Julia, but it did not feel like García was beating me over the head with a Bible. It was also refreshing to have a Puerto Rican character whose heritage is referred to but not the central issue. At several points of the novel, Julie goes back to a time when she was in Puerto Rico on a trip or how her Abuela Julia helped to shape her into the person she is. I was gripping the book as I tried to figure out what the big moments were that both characters were running from, but García did not give them up easily. The big moment for each character hit me like a punch to the gut and made the characters more believable. Overall, the novel has a simple story structure: girl is unhappy with life, girl decides to be reckless, girl meets boy, they fall in love. But, García has given these characters so much depth and so much at stake that it is hard not to feel for them and want to cheer them on as they navigate both New Orleans during a storm and their pasts.

OTHER REVIEW QUOTES:

From School Library Journal: “The plot itself unravels like a hurricane, building and surging along with the storm. The story plateaus and tensions relax during the eye of the storm, but as quickly as the storm returns, so does the building action, which rages on until the final page.”

From Kirkus: “The author’s rich descriptions of New Orleans make the vibrant city come alive, from the music and ghost stories to the vampire lore and delicious beignets…A compelling 24-hour romance that’s as charged as its New Orleans setting.”

From Booklist: “García’s debut is a wrenching, high-stakes exploration of self-discovery. Readers of GayleForman, Sarah Dessen, and E. Lockhart will find themselves engaged by Julie’s quest.”

TEACHING TIPS: I would be somewhat hesitant to teach this in a class, only for some language usage, but I would definitely keep it in a classroom library so that students could check it out! If someone wanted to teach this book, I would definitely front load it with some information about New Orleans, its history, culture, and weather. It is key for the reader to understand the impact of Hurricane Katrina on this city. I was young when Katrina happened, but I know the repercussions are still felt on the city today. Also, I think it would be helpful for students to learn about what happens to soldiers after they come home from war, so they can better connect and sympathize with Adam.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Even if the Sky Falls, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

For a guest post from the author, about the fear and stress of writing about her culture, click here.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
: Mia García was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to New York, where she studied creative writing at the New School, worked in publishing, and now lives under a pile of to-be-read books. She’s a giant geek with comic book and archery addictions. Even if the Sky Falls is her debut novel. Her second novel, The Year of Everything, is expected to release in winter 2018. You can find her at www.mgarciabooks.com @MGarciaWrites on Twitter and Instagram, as well as on Tumblr at MGarciawrites.tumblr.com.

 

 

 

 

 

12119166_10204875618714252_5373585124158767944_nABOUT THE REVIEWER: Troi Genders is a senior at Ball State University studying Secondary English Education. Troi is a self-proclaimed cat-mom, YA and Contemporary enthusiast, and lifelong learner. You can reach her via email at tlgenders@bsu.edu or on twitter at @MissGendersBSU.

 

Del inglés al español: entrevista con Teresa Mlawer

 

Readers, this is a first for us–a complete article in Spanish! We are delighted to present this guest post, an interview with the translator Teresa Mlawer, originally published on the blog Lapl en español, a service of the Los Angeles Public Library. We are reprinting it with their permission. 

blog-post-cover-teresa-mlawerby Patricia Tarango, Multilingual Collections Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

Introduction: A recipient of the nation’s highest honor for library service—the National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Los Angeles Public Library serves the largest and most diverse urban population of any library in the nation. Its Central Library, 72 branch libraries, collection of more than 6 million books, state-of-the-art technology accessible at www.lapl.org, and more than 18,000 public programs a year provide everyone with free and easy access to information and the opportunity for lifelong learning. Lapl en español is the Spanish language blog written by library staff.

Del inglés al español: entrevista con Teresa Mlawer

Desde que tradujo Silvestre y la piedrecita mágica en 1980, Teresa Mlawer ha completado más de 500 traducciones de libros del inglés al español. Muchos de los libros que ha traducido son considerados clásicos universales de la literatura infantil y juvenil. Teresa fue pionera en este campo, y hoy continúa haciendo posible que niños tengan acceso a maravillosas historias en su idioma, el español. Tuvimos la dicha y el honor de conversar con Teresa y de preguntarle sobre su experiencia como traductora, editora y experta en libros infantiles.

1 – ¿Qué tan importante ha sido para usted traducir al español libros clásicos como Silvestre y la piedrecita mágicaBuenas noches luna y Donde viven los monstruos?

En 1975 comencé a distribuir libros en español. En aquel entonces, la mayoría de los libros infantiles venían de España, y unos pocos de México y Argentina. Muchos eran libros de autores de esos países o traducciones de otros idiomas, pero no necesariamente de libros publicados en Estados Unidos. Como vendíamos principalmente los libros infantiles a las escuelas, los maestros empezaron a pedir traducciones de libros en inglés como Silvestre y la piedrecita mágicaDonde viven los monstruos y Buenas noches luna. Entonces empezamos a publicar algunos libros bajo el sello de Lectorum y a recomendarles a las editoriales americanas que publicaran ediciones en español de sus clásicos. Fue así como muchas editoriales americanas me contrataron para que yo hiciera estas traducciones.

Por ejemplo, traducciones como Buenas noches lunaHarold y el lápiz color morado y Donde viven los monstruos, las hice para HarperCollins. Cuando no lograba que las editoriales de Estados Unidos publicaran ediciones en español de sus libros, le recomendaba los libros a las editoriales españolas con miras a vender en este mercado y muchas empezaron a aceptar mis sugerencias, ya que era importante que los niños hispanohablantes pudieran leer traducciones al español de algunos de estos magníficos libros que sus compañeros de clase podían leer y disfrutar de su lectura en inglés. Esto tuvo una gran aceptación en los años 80 cuando la educación bilingüe tuvo un gran auge, especialmente en California.

De hecho, casi todos los libros en español que yo le recomendé a HarperCollins siguen en prensa después de más de 25 años. Son clásicos que nunca mueren.

2 – ¿Cuál es su proceso para traducir un libro en español? ¿Cómo decide cuál es el vocabulario indicado?

Cuando yo traduzco para editoriales norteamericanas o para una editorial mexicana, uso un vocabulario neutral, del español de Latinoamérica. Un vocabulario neutral que lo entienda todo el mundo. Sin embargo, si traduzco una historia que tiene lugar, por ejemplo, en la República Dominicana o que tiene lugar en Puerto Rico, y hay alguna palabra que es indígena de ese país, la utilizo porque considero que es importante respetar la voz del autor y el vocablo de ese país.

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3 – Yo leí uno de los blogs de Meg Medina y ella dijo como le gustó que usted fuera la traductora de su libro Mango, abuela y yo, porque usted le puso el sabor indicado al dialecto de Cuba.

Exactamente. A eso es lo que me refería anteriormente. Lo mismo sucedió cuando hice la traducción de Yaqui Delgado quiere darte una paliza porque en esta historia hay varias voces. Voces cubanas, puertorriqueñas, voces dominicanas. A Meg Medina le gustó mucho, por ejemplo, que en el libro de Mango, abuela y yo en lugar de usar la palabra cajones (común en México), elegí la palabra gavetas (común en Cuba) para traducir la palabra “drawers”. La voz de Meg, aunque universal es cubana, y especialmente en esta historia. Por encima de todo, yo siempre respecto la voz del autor/autora en mis traducciones.

Acabo de traducir el libro que ganó el premio Newbery este año, Última parada de la calle Market (Last Stop on Market Street), publicado por Corimbo, en España. Soy muy cuidadosa y tuve un par de dudas al traducir unas partes del libro. Como conozco a Matt de la Peña le escribí y le pregunté: Matt, tengo un problema. No estoy segura si interpreto bien lo que tú tratas de decir. ¿Me puedes ayudar? Era una cosa muy sencilla y todavía me pregunto ¿cómo pude haber sido tan tonta? En una de las páginas, el niño se sube al autobús con la abuela. Entonces, la abuela le dice al niño: “Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire”. Y yo me preguntaba ¿cómo yo voy a traducir eso? ¿Cómo que el autobús echa fuego?

last-stop-on-market-street-interior2Llamé a Matt y él me dijo: “abre el libro y mira las ilustraciones con cuidado”. Abro el libro y miro el dibujo de la página y no veo que el autobús eche fuego. Entonces le dije: Lo siento Matt, pero no veo nada y Matt me contestó: “Teresa, mira al dragón que echa fuego”. Caigo en cuenta y le pregunto: Matt ¿crees que debo especificar que el autobús tiene un dragón pintado en un costado? Pero él me dijo: “No, no Teresa, los niños ven las cosas que no vemos los adultos y se darán cuenta de que se refiere al dibujo del dragón, y verán el fuego que sale de su boca.”

Para mí fue un libro muy especial de traducir porque es muy sencillo pero muy poético. Con pocas palabras Matt descubre todo un mundo en este libro.

Una traducción que me dio mucho trabajo fue la de Yaqui Delgado quiere darte una paliza porque Meg Medina tiene el don de la palabra y expresar sus palabras en otro idioma y a la vez mantener la fuerza que encierran sus palabras fue definitivamente un reto para mí. Meg me envió una carta que una profesora de una universidad que enseña un curso de traducción le escribió. En la carta, la profesora decía que había encontrado la traducción tan buena que la iba a usar en clase para que sus estudiantes examinaran este trabajo de traducción a fondo. Eso fue muy halagador.

Otra traducción que nos dio bastante trabajo fue la traducción de El Gato ensombrerado (The Cat in the Hat) de Dr. Seuss, que hice en colaboración con Georgina Lázaro. En este libro mantuvimos no solo la rima sino la métrica que es muy importante especialmente en las obras de Dr. Seuss. Traducir los libros con rima no es nada fácil. Hay quien traduce los libros con rima y no le presta atención a la métrica, o sea, el número de sílabas de cada estrofa, lo cual es muy importante en la rima. Esto es algo que aprendí de mi buena amiga y colega Georgina Lázaro. Ambas estamos muy orgullosas del resultado de nuestra colaboración.

Debo hacer hincapié que toda persona que escribe o traduce necesita la ayuda de un buen editor y corrector de pruebas. Yo personalmente nunca he publicado un libro o una traducción que no haya sido revisada antes. En España tengo una editora que tiene un gran dominio de la gramática, y ella revisa todas mis traducciones.

 4 – ¿Qué tan importante es la diversidad cultural en los libros para niños?

Esa respuesta la conoces tú mejor que nadie. Yo creo que es muy importante que los niños se vean reflejados en los libros. Todavía queda mucho camino por recorrer, pero creo que hemos avanzado un poco y que honestamente las editoriales norteamericanas están poniendo de su parte para que haya más diversidad en los libros que publican. Pero también tenemos que pensar, que con tantos millones de hispanos en este país, es un número reducido de escritores que escriben literatura infantil y juvenil. Necesitamos que más autores latinos escriban para niños.

5 – En su opinión ¿qué importancia tienen los libros bilingües en Estados Unidos y especialmente en una ciudad como Los Ángeles?

Existen muchas opiniones al respecto, pero yo te voy a dar mi opinión personal, basada en lo que yo he podido observar en el mercado durante todos estos años. Hay mucho interés por parte de los editores, de los bibliotecarios y de las librerías porque se publiquen más libros bilingües. Ahora, cuando yo hago una traducción de un libro que es bilingüe, de alguna forma, al tratar de seguir el texto lo más fielmente posible, uno de los dos idiomas no fluye natural. Por eso yo personalmente prefiero dos ediciones separadas: una en inglés y otra en español. Aunque no dejo de ver las ventajas de algunos libros, como poco texto, en ambos idiomas.

Es importante que cualquier libro bilingüe sea escrito por un autor que domine ambos idiomas. Si esto no es posible, se debe contratar a un traductor para el español o el inglés cuya lengua materna sea a la que va a traducir. Hay que respetar ambos idiomas: el inglés y el español y que ambos sean totalmente correctos y que fluyan bien.

6 – ¿Está trabajando en algunas traducciones ahora?

Traduje hace poco la historia Esperando (Waiting) de Kevin Henkes. También acabo de terminar la traducción al español de Ladder to the Moon (Escalera a la Luna) que escribió hace ya algún tiempo la hermana de Barack Obama y que fue ilustrado por la increíble ilustradora Yuyi Morales.

También recientemente traduje un libro que me encantó. Un libro que tiene rima, métrica y un mensaje muy especial, El pez pucheros (The Pout-Pout Fish). Traducir este ingenioso libro, lograr la rima, la métrica y el mensaje de la autora, me tomó mucho tiempo, pero quedé muy complacida con el resultado final.

7 – ¿Hay algún libro (o libros) que le recuerde su infancia o que a usted le haya impactado?

Un libro que me impactó mucho y que traduje hace 25 años fue Los cien vestidos (The Hundred Dresses). Cada vez que pienso en la historia o la leo, me entran ganas de llorar. Otro libro que también me impacto mucho fue Sadako y las mil grullas de papel (Sadako and The Thousand Paper Cranes).

8- ¿Qué le diría usted a los padres, maestros y tutores para motivarlos a inculcar en los niños el amor por la lectura y la importancia de que mantengan el idioma suyo o de sus padres mediante la lectura de buenos libros en español?

Yo creo que los maestros y los bibliotecarios son los mejores promotores de la literatura infantil y de que los niños lean. Sé que es importante que los niños aprendan inglés y que lean en inglés, pero también es importante que no pierdan su idioma, o el de sus padres o abuelos. Es importante que los niños se sientan orgullosos de sus raíces. Yo llevo 56 años en Estados Unidos y aprendí inglés, pero cada vez mi español es mejor porque hago uso del español constantemente.

Yo creo que el trabajo comienza desde el hogar. Cuando yo era pequeña, mis padres siempre el Día de Reyes me dejaban juguetes, pero también me dejaban libros, dejando bien claro la importancia que para ellos tenían los libros en casa. Mi madre trabajó en una librería antes de casarse y el amor por los libros y la lectura nos lo inculcó desde pequeñas a mi hermana y a mí. Los padres son los primeros maestros de sus hijos y de ellos los niños aprenden con el ejemplo. Hay que darle a los libros y a la lectura la importancia que merecen en el hogar.

Lista de librosDel inglés al español: libros traducidos por Teresa Mlawer

Book Review: The Smoking Mirror by David Bowles

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

the-smoking-mirror DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.

MY TWO CENTS: David Bowles’s Pura Belpré honor book, The Smoking Mirror, is a fast-paced, masterful journey through Aztec mythology and pre-Columbian Mexican history. Bowles, who was inspired to create a fantasy novel in the tradition of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson that featured a Latinx protagonist, weaves a captivating story of epic proportions, all framed by familial love. (For more from Bowles, see his guest post.) Moreover, though this is a diverse book with two Latinx protagonists, their Mexican heritage is important insofar as it provides the ethos for the setting of the text, but this is not a story about race or ethnicity and it is all the better for that. Bowles instead focuses on the supernatural elements of his source material and the hero journeys of his twin protagonists. The book is a quick read, full of page-turning action, which will intrigue even the most reluctant reader. Additionally, because it has both a male and female protagonist in twins Johnny and Carol, it should appeal to boys and girls. The Smoking Mirror, like many middle-grade books, has shorter chapters that maintain the pace of the narrative and keep readers constantly engaged without seeming overwhelming.

While Johnny and Carol’s journey through Mictlan is riveting, I was most captivated by Bowles’s exploration of their relationship, particularly of their twin connection. As a twin myself, I am always uncertain if an author will be able to capture the unique bond we feel, and Bowles does so in spades. This is not the tired good-twin/bad-twin nonsense that pervades literature and media. Bowles is sure to individualize both Johnny and Carol, and they are depicted as complex characters with strengths and flaws that set them apart from each other; in fact, their differences improve their relationship as the text unfolds. Johnny and Carol begin the story having grown apart following their mother’s mysterious disappearance. But when their father sends them to stay with their family in Monterrey, México, they must rely on each other in a new environment. When they both discover that they are naguales, or shapeshifters with special magic, their bond is cemented and they begin their journey to Mictlan to rescue their mother from Texcatlipoca, the god of destruction. Likewise, as naguales, Johnny and Carol share an intimate psychic connection, which they use to communicate telepathically. Their internal connection comes in handy as they journey through Mictlan, where they must constantly save each other. In these moments, they realize that their differences do not separate them, rather that they are complementary, and by the end of the text, Johnny even tells Carol, “‘you are my balance’” (198).

The backdrop for Johnny and Carol’s quest to save their mother is a richly populated mythological world full of terrifying creatures and powerful deities. By his own admission, Bowles mixes Aztec and Mayan mythologies to create his Mictlan. The result is an expansive, multilayered underworld that rivals Dante’s Inferno. Bowles, a scholar and professor at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, has also done translation work from multiple languages, including Nahuatl, the language spoken by many Mesoamerican indigenous peoples. It is obvious, then, that Bowles knows his source material. However, my only complaint with this text is the difficulty involved in keeping track of all of the Aztec- and Mayan-inspired beings that Johnny and Carol encounter, due to the similarity and/or complexity of their names. Because I’ve studied pre-Columbian, Central American literature (though certainly not as extensively as Bowles), I consider myself to be familiar with Aztec mythology/history; yet, I was confused in multiple places throughout the text. Bowles does include a thorough glossary and pronunciation guide, which I frequently needed to consult, but for a book that is so fast-paced, this disrupted the reading process. For the uninitiated reader, this could be a barrier to feeling fully immersed in the text.

Ultimately, I was riveted by Johnny and Carol’s impassioned search for their mother. Even when I was confused by the terminology, this book continued to be un-put-down-able. Bowles makes his characters feel real, and I became deeply invested in their story. From the snappy dialogue, infused with Spanish words and phrases, to the intricate world-building, Bowles keeps his reader’s attention from beginning to end. Now I’m itching to get my hands on A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, which was published in 2016, as well as the other three books in the series, forthcoming in 2017, 2019, and 2021.

TEACHING TIPS: Bowles’s website  has a fairly extensive teaching guide for The Smoking Mirror, including information on his Aztec and Mayan source material. This information would be particularly relevant to a social studies or literature unit on mythology, as it broadens the scope of ancient mythologies beyond Greco-Roman perspectives. This book would also suit language arts lessons that explore the hero’s journey or other themes and images in canonical texts like The Odyssey. Students could compare the trajectory of the journey in both texts or examine the character types—hero, mentor, guardian, etc. This question becomes further complicated by Bowles’s twin protagonists: could both Johnny and Carol be the “hero” of the text? Why or why not? Or, for a more creative lesson, students familiar with mythology might be encouraged to create their own mythological world, drawing on preexisting myths and legends, just as Bowles does. Regardless, The Smoking Mirror is a valuable addition to any classroom or school library.

David BowlesABOUT THE AUTHOR: A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas. A recipient of awards from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas Associated Press, he has written several books, most notably the Pura Belpré Honoree The Smoking Mirror. His work has also been published in venues such as BorderSenses, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Asymptote, Translation Review, Huizache, Metamorphoses and Rattle.

 

CrisRhodesABOUT 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.