Book Review: The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly he knows: Miguel, his cousin and best friend, is dead.

Everyone in Jaime’s small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a powerful gang that’s known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed—like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There’s only one choice: Accompanied by his cousin Ángela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother in the United States.

Inspired by true incidents, The Only Road tells an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better life. It is a story of fear and bravery, love and loss, strangers becoming family, and one boy’s treacherous and life-changing journey.

MY TWO CENTS: A recipient of a Pura Belpré honor, Alexandra Diaz’s The Only Road is chilling and heart-wrenching in the best possible way. From the moment that Jaime’s beloved cousin Miguel is killed by a local gang, the Alphas, it is evident that this book is going to take its reader on a perilous journey, tagging along with Jaime as he flees his small town in Guatemala for the United States.

As the novel opens, gang members—angered by Miguel and Jaime’s refusal to submit to the capricious whims of the Alphas—brutally beat Miguel to death in a park that the boys had once considered safe. Jaime, spared a similar fate because he’d stayed home sick that day, soon discovers that Miguel’s murder is just the beginning of the Alphas’ reign of terror. Not only do they intend to force Ángela, Miguel’s sister, to be the ‘girlfriend’ of one of the gang members, but they also plan to make Jaime one of their thugs. The nightmare of such a desolate future under the rule of the Alphas spurs Jaime and Ángela to travel north—and as is true for many undocumented children, the promise of a better future on the other side of the border far outweighs the terrible risks of the journey.

Marketed as a middle-grade novel, this story may lead some to question whether Diaz went too far in portraying the dangers of undocumented immigration and whether such knowledge is appropriate for pre-teen readers. To those concerned, I argue that Diaz’s book is a must-read because of its grittiness. Considering how divided our country is over issues of immigration, seeing undocumented immigrants as humans and understanding the horrible realities that they are escaping seems vital for readers of all ages. As undocumented minors, Ángela and Jaime face unique trials and tribulations along their journey, and Diaz strives to make their story as realistic as possible. She explains in her Author’s Note that though “Jaime and Ángela are fictitious characters, their story is similar to millions of real immigrants,” since “in recent years there has been a huge wave of children traveling alone from Central America” (280). In support of this, Diaz includes a bibliography of the sources that informed her book. This bibliography includes multiple articles about the rise of undocumented and unaccompanied minors crossing the border.

Jamie and Ángela’s experiences may be unapologetically realistic, but they also demonstrate the resiliency of the human spirit. Ultimately, these cousins and the other adolescent border-crossers they meet along the way “‘want the freedom to make [their] own choices and to be in control of [their] future’” (92). As informed readers, we recognize that that future is tenuous; even if these characters successfully enter the U.S., there is no guarantee that they will elude detection and manage to thrive in such a new and foreign environment.

Though much of this story may be new terrain for its readers, Diaz tempers this foreignness with familiar stylistic choices and tropes of children’s and middle-grade texts. From its large print and short chapters, to the straightforward, albeit lyrical language, this text remains easily accessible to young readers. Moreover, Diaz plays upon the trope of an animal helper/guide by including a dog, Vida, who accompanies Jaime and Ángela on their journey. After rescuing her from a fighting ring, Jaime and Ángela nurse the aptly named Vida back to health, and Vida repays their devotion by saving them on multiple occasions. After they get separated from their group of traveling companions, it’s Vida who finds them. Later, she alerts them to the presence of la migra, and even distracts an ICE helicopter while Jaime and Ángela attempt the dangerous swim across the Rio Bravo. The inclusion of Vida often serves as a relief to Jaime and Ángela’s tragic circumstances. The vivaciousness and tenacity that this dog demonstrates act as a beacon of hope for Jaime and Ángela, who emulate her will to survive.

After Jaime and Ángela cross the Rio Bravo, Diaz leaves her ending relatively ambiguous, which left me conflicted. I wanted to know what happens to Jaime and Ángela after their journey, yet felt overall pleased with the open-endedness of this narrative and the hope that it represents. I recognized that we do not need all of the answers—and Diaz’s narrative is better because she does not artificially create some great happily-ever-after for Jaime and Ángela.

Regardless, perhaps the most captivating motif of The Only Road was Jaime’s artistic abilities. Initially, Jaime regards his craft and beloved sketchbook as a connection to home, but as the novel unfolds, they become so much more. Containing images of Miguel, his parents and abuela, and other scenes from Guatemala, the sketchbook acts as Jaime’s catharsis and savior. During a confrontation with la migra, the sketchbook is seized by an intimidating officer. Jaime fears that his art will identify him as an undesirable Guatemalan immigrant, but the officer is too preoccupied with the wonder of Jaime’s skill to question his nation of origin, and merely rips out a sketch of a lizard before walking away. In moments like these, the sketchbook becomes Jaime’s social currency; and when he and Ángela need more money to pay a coyote to get them across the Rio Bravo and into Texas, Jaime sells sketches to white tourists. Art is such a strong analogy for freedom and self-representation; but, most importantly, art becomes integral to Jaime’s very existence. When he almost loses his sketchbook during the crossing of the Rio Bravo, Ángela scolds him; but he explains, “‘It’s not just a book. It’s my life’” (259). In writing the experiences of these children, Diaz explores ways in which art becomes integral to defining the worth of one’s life, and by elevating the journey of these characters, Diaz makes clear that their lives–and the lives of those like them—truly matter.

To put it simply, The Only Road is a must-read. It is beautiful and heartbreaking and so timely. Diaz’s characters are tremendously dynamic and sympathetic; watching them grow as the story progresses made this book difficult to put down, and I found myself staying up way past my bedtime to finish it. Fair warning: if you are a crier, like me, you might want to keep tissues handy while reading! Though the story ends on a bright note, it bears the weight of so many undocumented immigrants whose journeys were less successful—a weight that will leave you breathless even long after the book is finished.

TEACHING TIPS: The Only Road contains multiple supplemental materials that could be used as teaching tools. Diaz includes a glossary of Spanish terms (along with definitions and connotations for “the language enthusiasts”); a list of “Further Reading for All Ages,” which includes children’s and young adult book recommendations about undocumented border crossings and the Latinx experience; as well as a bibliography of her resources, which she cautions some “may not be suitable for young readers” (283, 309). However, these materials could be useful to parents, teachers, and librarians in helping young readers understand the complex issues faced by undocumented immigrants—primarily, those coming from Central and South American countries. Incidentally, Diaz’s research model for this text may be a good way to introduce students to in-depth research for larger projects.

Cultural contexts portrayed in The Only Road could also prove useful toward enhancing appreciation for the ethnic richness that exists across Central America. As this novel shows, Central Americans are not monolithic, and The Only Road does a good job of illuminating distinctions between mestizo and indigenous Central Americans, as well as other variables that mark the countries of this region. For advanced Spanish classes, The Only Road could be used to illustrate variances in Spanish as it is spoken throughout Central and South America, particularly by paying close attention to colloquialisms. Teachers of Spanish may prefer the Spanish-language version, which is available under the title El Único Destino.

ABOUT THE AUTHORAlexandra Diaz is a Cuban American writer with half a dozen young adult novels to her credit, including the Pura Belpré Honor book reviewed here, as well as Good Girls Don’t Lie, the Roller Girl series, and When We Were. Alexandra has lived in England, New Mexico, and other parts of the U.S. Learn more about her work by visiting her official author site.

 

 

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

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: Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family’s livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck’s unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tia Perla.

MY TWO CENTS: Jennifer Torres doesn’t waste any time introducing the readers to Stef and the people in her life, including Papi and her best friend Arthur in the first scene outside of their Catholic middle school. She notices Papi in his taco truck – known as Tia Perla for the rest of the book – and she gets angry because he had originally promised to let her meet him at a nearby gas station. This is the first of many conflicts Stef has with her parents about maturity at the seventh-grade level. The conflicts are about issues that come up in many houses of middle school students.

One of my favorite scenes of the book is in chapter 3, when Stef reminisces about the early stages of Tia Perla being in her family’s life. From what Torres describes as “kitchen-table whispers” about the kinds of beans and salsa it’ll feature (“nothing from a jar,” insists Mami) to learning the origin of the name (Stef’s pick), the entire scene was sweet and a key part of the story. The chapters in the entire book are short but detailed enough for readers of any age to get a glimpse into Stef’s life.

Despite the joy Tia Perla once brought to Stef, she feels anything but joy about the beloved truck as the book goes on. She tries to be nice to former-friend-turned-popular-girl Julia by offering her a ride home in Tia Perla, but Julia turns around and calls Stef the “Taco Queen” behind her back. This comes after Julia makes a scene before the start of their English class by announcing she has tickets to see local pop sensation Viviana Vega in concert. Torres then takes the readers into more of Stef’s life at Saint Scholastica School – trying to fit in and leave Tia Perla in the dust. Stef’s favorite day of the week is Tuesday, which she realizes is not common, because it’s when she has her art class. “And in art class,” Torres writes, “I never hear Mami’s voice telling me I’m too young, or Papi’s nagging me to be careful. I am in charge of the blank piece of paper in front of me, and I can turn it into something as vivid and adventurous or as quiet and calm as I want.” This part of the story stuck out to me because of the way Torres compares making art with wanting independence.

Stef spends every Saturday helping her Papi and Tia Perla during their busiest day of the week. They travel to farmers markets, parks, and other outdoor common areas in their city to feed the crowds with the scrumptious food they’re known for. Even though Papi seems grateful every time Stef helps him out, she still wants nothing to do with Tia Perla, especially when it gets in the way of her independent life she’s trying to create.

During a stop on one of Tia Perla’s routine Saturdays, Stef visits her other best friend, Amanda, after her soccer game. While the two are cooling off with the help of strawberry soda, they listen to the radio and eventually win concert tickets to see Viviana Vega. Stef is cautiously optimistic about her parents letting the two attend the concert alone – until they say no, despite her papi giving her a cell phone she thinks is to check in with them at the concert.

The book then turns its focus to two more complex and meaningful issues previously introduced before Stef’s blowup with her papi. Stef and her classmates decide to work together in a unique way to get more art supplies (hint: a school-wide event is included). And, in a move that impacts Stef more than she realizes, Papi’s business (and Tia Perla) is threatened by new proposed city rules that would impact all food trucks in the area, specifically the taco trucks. Stef seems more mature than others her age when she mentions translating important notes for her papi and others from English into Spanish.

The book ends with a couple of different twists that I didn’t see coming, but I believe both twists worked really well to help bring the story to a close. Stef learns to love all of the parts that make up her identity – even Tia Perla.

Torres does a wonderful job describing the characters and each place they’re in throughout the book. I felt like I was following Stef and her family and friends through their adventures. The book addresses many important topics that may be tough for some kids and families to discuss, but I believe the issues were written in a way that kids can understand. I felt for Stef during some of the scenes with her parents.

There are some basic Spanish words and sentences in the book, most of which are italicized except for one – Orale! That word appears several times in the book with several different meanings, which I loved. It helped set the tone for each of the different chapters, especially when Stef described each way it was written for each scene.

Overall, Stef Soto, Taco Queen is a wonderful read. It’s recommended for kids in grades 4-7 (ages 9-12), but I would suggest it to anyone looking for a story about a girl trying to find herself in this crazy world.

TEACHING TIPS: This book could be used to discuss the idea of working together to help solve problems, especially in the face of adversity. Stef’s art teacher, Mr. Salazar, helped his class raise money to bring in more art supplies, even though he was skeptical about their idea at first. The book could also be used in a way to discuss local politics for students. Not many middle-school students get involved with politics in such a way that Stef did, but I believe the book would be a good way to teach students how to make a difference in their community.

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book’s back cover): Jennifer Torres was 17-years-old–a senior at Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, California—when the first time a story of hers was published in a newspaper. The story was about making tamales with her family, but it was also about love and tradition and growing up. She went on to study journalism at Northwestern University and the University of Westminster. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and is the author Finding the Music, a picture book from Lee & Low. Jennifer lives with her husband and two little girls in central California. Stef Soto, Taco Queen is her debut novel.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

assertABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

American Stories of Opportunity, Hope, and Ambition: A Guest Post by Author Jennifer Torres

 

By Jennifer Torres

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and be a college math professor.

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and become a college math professor.

Escalon is a Spanish word that means “step” or “stepping stone.” It is also a small town in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley, surrounded by dairies and almond orchards. Just off Main Street there, across from American Legion Post 263, is the library where Melissa, an eighth grader, volunteers to read to younger children, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish.

“I think it’s important to read to kids because they get to know new things when they read a book,” she told me. Melissa’s own favorite books, she said, are mystery and fantasy novels. “It’s like a whole new world.”

Just like Melissa, many of the children who visit the Escalon Library are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants, families who saw, in the United States, a step toward opportunity and who courageously took it.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverThose stories are American stories, and I hope that readers will recognize them in Stef Soto, Taco Queen.

The fictional Stef Soto, like millions of very real children in the United States who have immigrant parents, is a first-generation American.

Just like Melissa, Stef sometimes translates for her mom and dad.

Just like Stef, Melissa has parents whose hearts thunder with hope and ambition for their daughter.

“I want her to remember where she comes from, but her future is here,” Melissa’s mom, Adriana, told me in Spanish as she helped her daughter lead an arts-and-crafts project at the library. (She credits the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s Migrant Education department for encouraging her to become an advocate for Melissa’s learning). “I want her to graduate, to go to college, to have a better quality of life.”

She and her husband have encouraged Melissa to begin investigating colleges, to think about what she wants to study, who she wants to be.

“I’ve decided I want to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Melissa said, braces glinting. “I think that’s a good one for what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is teach math. When I asked her what grade, she hesitated, sheepish about correcting me.

Finally, she shook her head. “No, I want to be a math professor. Like at a university.”

Just like I did—in a family that includes first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans, as well as some who still live in Mexico—Stef is growing up speaking and listening to a vibrant mix of English and Spanish. We both find comfort in friends and family and warm tortillas, smeared with butter.

And just like all of us, I think, she is trying hard to figure out exactly where she belongs. Too often, for too many, it can feel like a here or there question.

But as I have learned, as students like Melissa remind us, and as characters like Stef discover, our stories are so much richer than that.

“I get to have both cultures,” Melissa said. “And I want people to know that immigrants are people—smart people—who want a better future, and so they came to this country. I think it’s really brave of them.”

jtorresFrom the author’s website: Hi there. I’m Jennifer. I live with my family in California’s Central Valley, and I write stories. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, writing stories about real people, whose lives told us something about our world and maybe about ourselves. Now, I write books for young readers—books with make-believe characters whose stories, I hope, are just as full of life and truth as the real ones.

Check out my picture book, Finding the Music, published by Lee & Low Books, and look out for my debut middle-grade novel, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, coming January 2017 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

¡Felicidades! to the 2017 ALA Youth Media Award Winners and Honor Books

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Congratulations to the authors and illustrators who were honored at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference! The Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Award went to Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. It’s a heartfelt and vibrant picture book biography about the childhood and life of Puerto Rican-Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The newest Pura Belpré Awards went to Juana Medina for her book Juana and Lucas and Raúl the Third for his illustrations in Lowriders: to the Center of the Earth.

Click here for an inside look at Juana Medina’s studio.

And click here for more information about Juana, the author-illustrator.

But, wait…there’s more….

Click here for a review of the first Lowriders book.

And click here for a super-cool audio interview of Raúl by author-illustrator Robert Trujillo.

Here are the winners and honor books by/for/about Latinxs. Click on the covers for more information:

The Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children and the Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award went to:

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Pura Belpré Award (Author) honoring Latino authors whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience:

Winner:

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Honor book:

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Pura Belpré Award (Illustrator) honoring a Latino writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience.

Winner:

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Honor Books:

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Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in children’s video

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Stonewall Award Honor Books included:

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Alex Awards for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences. The list included:

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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