COVER REVEAL! Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

 

Dear readers, don’t you love cover reveals? We do! They’re like sneak peeks at gorgeously wrapped gifts we’re not allowed to open until the special day arrives.

Today, we’re thrilled to share the magnificent cover of Angela Cervantes’s upcoming middle-grade novel, Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring.

But first, a bit about the story:

Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring is a middle-grade mystery about twelve-year old Paloma Marquez, who accompanies her mother on a research fellowship to her father’s birth country of Mexico, only to become entangled in a mystery involving an artifact that once belonged to the artist Frida Kahlo.

Publication is slated for Spring 2018 by Scholastic. The book cover design was created by the award-winning illustrator Rafael López. 

Enticed? So are we! Keep up with the book’s release date and other important details on Angela’s website. Also, check out the latest guest post she contributed to this blog, as well as our review of one of her best known books.

Finally, don’t miss this write-up about the incomparable Rafael López, illustrator of the cover.

Now for the cover reveal!

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About the author: Angela Cervantes was born and raised in Kansas. Most of her childhood was spent in Topeka, Kansas living in the Mexican-American community of Oakland. Her family also spent a lot of time in El Dorado and Wichita visiting a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins on weekends.

Angela graduated from the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) with a degree in English. After KU, she moved to Brownsville, Texas. In Brownsville, Angela was introduced to the music of Selena, ceviche, and learned to two-step. After Brownsville, Angela moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, where for two years she taught High School English and literature. In 2003, Angela returned to Kansas City, completed an MBA, co-founded Las Poetas, an all-female poetry group, and began working at an international children’s organization.

In 2005, Angela’s short story, “Pork Chop Sandwiches” was published in Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul. In 2007, she won third place for Creative Nonfiction in the Missouri Review’s audio competition for her story “House of Women” and Kansas City Voices’ Best of Prose Award (Whispering Prairie Press) for her short story, “Ten Hail Marys”. In 2008, she was recognized as one of Kansas City’s Emerging Writers by the Kansas City Star Magazine. In 2014, she was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.Com.

Angela’s first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found [Scholastic Press; 2013], won Best Youth Chapter Fiction Book in the International Latino Book Awards. Angela’s second middle-grade novel, Allie, First At Last, was released Spring 2016. See FAQs about the author.

About the illustrator: Raised in Mexico City, Rafael López makes his home part of the year in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as well as in San Diego, California. He credits Mexican surrealism as a major artistic influence. Besides his Pura Belpré medals and honors, Rafael is also a double recipient of the Américas Award. For more about his work, including poster illustrations and a mural project in San Diego that is the subject of a new picture book, Maybe Something Beautiful, visit his official website.

Book Review: Who’s Ju? (Seventh Grade Sleuths #1) by Dania Ramos

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Image result for who's ju? book coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.

But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.

Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.

MY TWO CENTS: This book drew me in right away with the title of the first chapter (“DNA Malfunction”) and the first mini-paragraph – “It’s not hard evidence. Just a family photo stuck on our silver fridge with a teapot magnet. Case closed.” It may not be clear to some, but I knew I was in for a good read – and I was right.

As the book begins, Dania Ramos uses a great choice of words to describe the middle school setting and to profile the main character, Justina (pronounced Hoosteenah) Feliciano. She’s just a normal 7th grade girl who’s trying to survive the tumultuous times in middle school while trying to figure out why she doesn’t look like the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With her frizzy blond hair and light eyes, she stands out.

Justina – or Ju (pronounced Hu) for short – has her core group of friends, the Seventh-Grade Sleuths, and she’s not the most popular girl in school, so she’s surprised when former friend Sara asks her for help to solve a very important case. I loved how Ramos wrote the case of the vandalized scenery in a way similar to a decades-old cold case – because to Justina, Ig, and Gunther, it is that big of a deal.

The other conflict in the book involves a genetics assignment in Justina’s health class. Her mother is immediately against the assignment, and she wants to know why – so she finds out. Ramos’ writing compared Justina to Sherlock Holmes and other detectives, which I got a kick out of. I also loved how Justina was so determined to find answers, even when her parents weren’t okay with it.

Another aspect of the book that hit home for me was when Ju decided to change her identity – new clothes, new (blond) hairdo, and a new name. I tried a similar method in middle school myself, which I’m ashamed of now. But on the other hand, when you feel out of place in a way Justina does in the book, it’s an understandable move.

After a runaway scare (and reconciling with best friend Ig), Justina eventually finds out the truth – she doesn’t look like the rest of her family because she’s adopted. She’s heartbroken but is understanding, and even agrees to meet her birth father. Ramos wrote this part of the story in a way that was endearing and welcoming, which I enjoyed.

Overall, Who’s Ju? is a lovely read. I would say the question in the title is certainly answered, but I hope to see more from Ramos about Ju and her friends and family in the future.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be a great way for middle-grade students, especially girls, to learn about something that isn’t taught in many classes before high school – social sciences. It’s important for kids to learn that you are not defined by your skin color and that, like Justina, you can identify a certain way no matter how you look. The book would also help kids learn about adoption and solving crimes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Dania is an author, playwright, and teaching artist. Her middle grade novel Who’s Ju? won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Best YA eBook and was a finalist for the ILBA Mariposa Award for Best First Book.

Dania’s stage writing credits include Mi Casa Tu Casa (Luna Stage, Dreamcatcher Rep, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival) and Hielo (developed through the Women Playwrights Project at Writers Theatre of New Jersey). Her plays have also been featured in the New Jersey Women Playwrights Series (co-presented by Writers Theatre of New Jersey and Speranza Theatre Company), Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Reading Series, Writers Theatre of New Jersey’s FORUM and Soundings Reading Series, Luna Stage’s Short Play Festival, and the Maslow Salon Reading Series at Wilkes University. She’s been a finalist in the MetLife Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition and the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.

Dania is a creative writing instructor and a theatre teaching artist. She has led arts residencies and workshops for organizations including New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Writers Theatre of New Jersey, Writopia Lab, and the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts.

Dania is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, and Actors Equity Association. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from Montclair State University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

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

 

ABOUT 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.

Book Review: Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

 

Reviewed by Maria Ramos-Chertok

Lucky Broken Girl CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERS: Ruthie Mizrahi and her family recently emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to New York City. Just when she’s finally beginning to gain confidence in her mastery of English—and enjoying her reign as her neighborhood’s hopscotch queen—a horrific car accident leaves her in a body cast and confined her to her bed for a long recovery. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grow larger and she comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.

MY TWO CENTS:  I read this book and couldn’t put it down and then gave it to my 11-year-old son to read and he couldn’t put it down. His review was, “It’s really good,” and while I wholeheartedly agree with him, I’ll elaborate. Ruth Behar does a great job capturing the voice and thoughts of a young girl immigrating to the United States from Cuba. Ruti, the young protagonist, shares her insights about what it is like to be smart, yet treated as if she were “dumb” because she can’t speak English.

As a reader, I found myself joyfully cheering for her to succeed and then devastated when she is injured in an accident, only to find myself re-engaged in rooting for her as she embarks on a journey to regain to her childhood body and the ease of movement she once had. I fell in love with her bohemian neighbor whose child-like appreciation for fun and non-traditional ways of living made me want to copy his interior design tips and decorate my house with piñatas. Behar doesn’t sugar coat the immense challenges of immigrant life, including financial troubles, family tensions and jealousies. Nor does she hide the emotional complexity of love, sacrifice and resentment that Ruti’s mother experiences when she finds herself in the role of 24-hour caretaker for her bed-bound daughter. Behar is also able to capture the volatility of friendships and did a great job bringing me along as Ruti first adores a girlfriend, then feels betrayed by her, and ultimately understands her motivations. The added texture to the story is that Ruti is a Cuban-Jew, which adds another dimension to her arrival in the United States as she encounters friends from different religious (and cultural) backgrounds. As she experiences the beauty of multicultural friendship, she also learns about the boundaries such friendships can have.

In writing with such honesty, Behar allows the reader to examine his/her own assumptions, biases and prejudices and pushes us to consider what is gained by the immigrant experience, but also what is lost in that transition.  This book would have automatic appeal to an immigrant child, but clearly a much wider appeal given that both my son and I are U.S. born and we were immediately captivated by the story Behar has to tell.

TEACHING TIPS:  This book is a wonderful companion to courses related to English, U.S History, Social Studies, Civics/Civic Engagement, Religious Studies, Economics and Health. I’d recommend assigning a few chapters at a time and bringing students along the various stages of Ruti’s arrival in the United States. It is a particularly compelling story to use for any discussion of immigration into the United States and what life is like from the perspective of a young immigrant.  There are rich conversations to be had related to assumptions, biases and prejudices. It is also a great way to teach empathy, as readers get a sense of what it is like to be in need of care taking and to be the care taker as they are learning about life from the perspective of a newcomer.

From an economic standpoint, there are many layers of lessons and conversations that can be facilitated about the role of consumerism and “wanting” something. What are the actual costs of the thing and what are the hidden costs and the opportunity costs? In this regard, I’m thinking, in particular, about the role that the family automobile played in Ruti’s life.

There are also discussions about the impact of making choices:  the choices to drink, how much to drink, whether to drive when drinking and what the consequences of various choices can be.

There are also some very rich conversations to have about friendship:

  • How do you know when someone is your friend?
  • What’s the difference between a friend and an acquaintance?
  • What role do friends play during hard times?
  • What happens if something happens to a friend that is hard for you to deal with?

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Lucky Broken Girl, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ruth-bioporchABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): As a storyteller, traveler, memoirist, poet, teacher, and public speaker, Ruth Behar is acclaimed for the compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. She now makes her fiction debut with Lucky Broken Girl, a novel for young readers about how the worst of wounds can teach a child a lesson about the fragile, precious beauty of life. Born in Havana, Cuba, she grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. Her recent memoirs for adults, An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy, explore her return journeys to Cuba and her search for home as an immigrant and a traveler. She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and her honors also include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University, and an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer who lives in Mill Valley, CA. She is the founder and facilitator of The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey. Her work, most recently, has appeared in San Francisco’s 2016 Listen to Your Mother show (www.listentoyourmothershow.com) and in the Apogee Journal of Colombia University. Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s anthology All the Women in my Family Sing  (2017) and she will be reading in San Francisco’s LitCrawl in October 2016.  For more information please visit www.mariaramoschertok.com

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?

fellowlatinas

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.