Book Review: Stella Diaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez

 

Reviewed by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Stella Diaz loves marine animals, especially her betta fish, Pancho. But Stella Diaz is not a betta fish. Betta fish like to be alone, while Stella loves spending time with her mom and brother and her best friend Jenny. Trouble is, Jenny is in another class this year, and Stella feels very lonely. When a new boy arrives in Stella’s class, she really wants to be his friend, but sometimes Stella accidentally speaks Spanish instead of English and pronounces words wrong, which makes her turn roja. Plus, she has to speak in front of her whole class for a big presentation at school! But she better get over her fears soon, because Stella Díaz has something to say!

MY TWO CENTS: The narrative of the “shy kid” is not rare in children’s literature. There are countless tales about boys and girls alike who struggle to express themselves and would rather be overlooked than have to speak in front of their class, a school assembly, or otherwise step outside their comfort zones. Growing up as a shy kid myself, I think about this experience a lot and have realized that “shy” is often misleading or represented one dimensionally in literature and pop culture. In Angela Dominguez’s quietly poignant middle grade debut, Stella Diaz Has Something to Say, the “shy kid” narrative is enriched by a unique but deeply relatable character, with an active internal life, and explored through the lens of language itself.

For someone who is shy, language is a fickle friend–not necessarily because you may not know words in a given language, but because simply pulling them together in a coherent order while in front of someone unfamiliar or in an overwhelming situation can be quite the burden. Stella Diaz is no stranger to this scenario. At home playing cards with her older brother, Nick, dancing salsa with her Mom, or in the lunchroom sitting with her best friend, Jenny, she is easily able to express herself, but many other social settings quickly flip her discomfort switch, leaving her “stomach in knots.” Through a charming and direct first-person narrative, Dominguez brings Stella to life, treating readers to her thoughts, concerns, passions, and moments of joy, making Stella’s story much more than just a-shy-kid-trying-to-get-over-their-shyness plot. Stella faces many common childhood challenges, like learning to ride a bike, bullying, and a project presentation, alongside other weightier concerns, like realizing her status as a green card holder (“Did you know we’re aliens?,” she asks her brother). But Stella, an astute observer of the world (a super power, if you ask me), is able to, in spite of some creeping, self-conscious worries, confidently cope with minor failures and push herself to take on challenges. An inspiration to many, and a validation for readers who may recognize that same quiet fortitude in themselves.

Despite her shyness, Stella longs to connect with others, including the new kid joining her third grade class, who she hopes “speaks Spanish.” Stella’s simple wish for a Spanish speaking friend reveals the significance of the language in her life, it’s representation of her culture, and how intrinsic it is to her identity. At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because “here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.” Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as “code switching” or speaking “Spanglish,” Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.

But still, Stella loves Spanish. How it “feels nice to my ears,” how so many of the words “sound better…than in English,” and singing the lyrics to “El Corrido de Chihuahua,” as Abuelo plays it on his guitar. Stella’s hope for a Spanish-speaking friend can be read as a desire to have someone tacitly understand the nuances of navigating these identities and the part language plays in feeling connected and forming a sense of self. Ultimately, language is just that, a way to be understood by the world. Stella herself notes how she appreciates that despite speaking in a low voice she never “had to repeat anything” to Jenny, and the laughs she shares with her family don’t need to be translated.

As Dominguez relates in the “Author’s Note,” many of Stella’s experiences and struggles mirror the author’s own, including migrating from Mexico, having a Vietnamese best friend, and taking speech classes. Not surprisingly, Dominguez’s spot art is featured throughout the chapters, a device that makes this title accessible and appealing for younger readers, while simultaneously making the book a realistic and personal document. Readers can imagine that Stella herself doodled the images on the pages chronicling her experiences and observations. Stella Diaz is Dominguez’s first middle grade novel, and it is simply unforgettable.

 

Angela DominguezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela Dominguez was born in Mexico City, grew up in the great state of Texas, and now resides on the east coast. She is the author and illustrator of several books for children including Maria Had a Little Llama, which received the American Library Association Pura Belpré Illustration Honor. In 2016, she received her second Pura Belpré Honor for her illustrations in Mango, Abuela, and Me (written by Meg Medina). Her debut middle grade novel, Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, was published January 2018. When Angela is not in her studio, she teaches at the Academy of Art University, which honored her with their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.

Angela is a proud member of SCBWI, PEN America, and represented by Wernick and Pratt Literary Agency. As a child, she loved reading books and making a mess creating pictures. She’s delighted to still be doing both.

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual 100 Best Books for Kids list, most recently as a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews for School Library Journal of English and Spanish language books for children and teens, and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children, Young Adult Library Services Association, and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and born and raised in Queens, NY.

 

Book Review: The Hidden City (Garza Twins Book 3) by David Bowles

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Carol and Johnny learn of the Ollamat, an ancient stone that can channel savage magic, they convince their parents to take them to the cloud forests of Oaxaca. With Pingo’s help, they search for the legendary city where it has been protected for a thousand years. But the twins aren’t the only ones hunting for the Ollamat. After it is stolen, they must travel through an emerald mirror into the beautiful yet dangerous Tlalocan: the paradise of the rain god. To retrieve the stone, they must face talking apes and forest elementals, rock worms and vicious elves, demons of lightning, and something even more unexpected: the souls of people they have watched die. As always, they are aided by allies old and new, though nothing can quite prepare them for the biggest foe of all – a member of their very family.

MY TWO CENTS: As with the first two books in the Garza Twins series, The Hidden City follows a similar structure: Carol and Johnny Garza, twin shapeshifters, learn more about their heritage and powers, uncovering a dire plot that must be foiled. This time, Carol and Johnny go in search of the Ollamat, a stone created from the heart of one of the ancestors, another in a set of twins who could wield savage magic. Along the way, however, Carol and Johnny learn that their uncle is a member of a militaristic force bent on eradicating naguales, or shapeshifters like Carol, Johnny, and their mother. Their lives are further thrown into turmoil when their hunt for the Ollamat requires that they once more travel into mythical lands, navigating a series of planes inhabited by the dead. The plot takes Carol and Johnny on another magical journey and sets the stage for future entries into the series.

As Carol and Johnny face new foes and meet new friends, The Hidden City adds more dimension to this series by revealing Carol’s crush on her friend, Nikki. Carol’s sexuality isn’t treated as a novelty or a token, but an extension of herself. Carol is aware of the heteronormative bounds within which she and Nikki live, and so her trepidation to reveal those feelings to Nikki feels natural. She questions her sexuality and attraction like many young people do—is this love? Is this just friendship? She’s confused, but not because of any internalized homophobia, rather she’s young and this feeling is so new. What’s more, Carol’s sexuality is normalized when Johnny reveals to her that he’s known about her bisexuality for a while and, of course, he’s accepting of it because both of their parents are bi. Thus, not only do we have a young, Latinx, bisexual protagonist, but we also have queer parents—this is radical for Latinx youth literature, and, frankly, all youth literature. Carol’s sexuality is implied and hinted to in the previous books, but that this text names it—and names it bisexuality in a world where media is so often guilty of bisexual erasure—is significant and changemaking.

Carol’s sexuality, juxtaposed against the search for the Ollamat, produces a dynamic and intriguing plot, one that will doubtless captivate young readers. As with all of the other books in this series, Bowles has a particular magic in making his worlds believable even as he adds more and more fantastic elements. For readers familiar with Latinx youth literature, it is easy to recognize that Bowles’s Garza Twins series not only fills in a gap as far as queer representation within the genre, but it also provides some much-needed fantasy. Latinx children’s literature is a relatively young genre, but contributions like Bowles’s mean that we’re getting more and more texts that move away from the racialized problem novel and instead offer fun, engaging, and challenging texts for young readers, Latinx and non-Latinx alike.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

 

 

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

 

Book Review: A Kingdom Beneath the Waves (Garza Twins Book 2) by David Bowles

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The Garza family’s Christmas vacation in Mexico is cut short by the appearance of Pingo, one of the tzapame – Little People. The news is grim – a rogue prince from an ancient undersea kingdom is seeking the Shadow Stone, a device he will use to flood the world and wipe out humanity. Now Carol and Johnny must join a group of merfolk and travel into the deepest chasms of the Pacific Ocean to stop him and his monstrous army with their savage magic.

MY TWO CENTS: Picking up about six months after the first book, The Smoking Mirror, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves does a good job of re-immersing the reader into Carol and Johnny Garza’s world without overshadowing its own plot with too much background. One does need to have read the first book in the series for this second book to make sense, given that The Smoking Mirror provides much-needed background on the Mesoamerican mythological roots of this series’ worldbuilding. We start A Kingdom Beneath the Waves with the understanding that Carol and Johnny, the series’ twin protagonists, wield xoxal or savage magic, and that they are naguales, meaning they can shift into alternate forms: Their tonal—their animal spirit—being a wolf and a jaguar, respectively. Utilizing these powers, Carol and Johnny are enlisted into helping the underwater kingdom of Tapachco as it is being threatened by the fugitive prince, Maxaltic.

Carol and Johnny’s involvement in saving Tapachoc—and, by extension, the world—is complicated by their previous run-ins with the mythical world. Indeed, what makes this series so fascinating is that Carol and Johnny are not straightforward heroes, they grapple with tough subjects and their own faults as they learn to wield their burgeoning powers. Their choices have big consequences, but those choices still feel within the realm of these young protagonists, which makes this series relatable despite its fantasy elements.

Further, one of the things I find most intriguing about this series is how integral being Latinx is to the series and, yet, it’s not a series about race/racism or xenophobia (though those things are present)—rather, these are stories about young people demonstrating resilience and making tough decisions. Carol and Johnny’s struggles for good translate well for young readers, especially young Latinxs or other historically marginalized readers. What’s more, this book furthers representation by not only establishing Carol and Johnny’s own Indigenous heritages (by drawing a line between them and other twin naguales), but also introducing characters who are coded as Polynesian. This increase in representation in this series further reflects the diversity of our world and would resonate with young readers of all backgrounds.

As with the previous book, Bowles’s mastery of myth and history is impressive. While reading these books, I do have some trouble keeping track of character names, place names, and mythical creature names. While this doesn’t pull me out of the narrative, it may some readers. As with the first book in the series, Bowles provides an index at the end of the text that helps to briefly remind readers of characters’ names and so on.

All in all, I found A Kingdom Beneath the Waves to be a great addition to this series. It added more complexity to the world established in The Smoking Mirror and made me intrigued to keep reading the rest of the series. For readers who loved Percy Jackson or other fantasy series, The Garza Twin series is a must-read.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

 

 

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

 

Book Review: The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

 

Review by Cris Rhodes & Mimi Rankin

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

The Moon Within releases tomorrow, February 26, 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 9: Aida Salazar

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the ninth in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Aida Salazar.

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

The Moon Within is her debut novel, which releases on Tuesday!! Here is the publisher’s description:

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

 

 

 

 

Aida Salazar

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

A. I began to write when I was thirteen years old after the suicide of my seventeen-year-old sister. Poetry was my first refuge. It was the place where I began to express and unravel the pain I felt in my grief over losing my beautiful sister in such an incomprehensible way. Poetry, too, was how I made sense of the simultaneous changes happening to my body, to my mind, inside my community and life. That creative connection was special and it quietly flowed through me and accompanied me while I navigated high school and began college and tried to discover what I wanted to be and do with my life. It remained tucked away in my journals until I was 18 when, for the first time, I read the work of other Latinx writers while in a Latinx literature course. That class not only saved me from academic probation (because I got an A to balance out my terrible grades) but it revolutionized my existence as a Xicana and my own writing that had been hidden in those journals. It was as if the work of Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, among others, gave me permission to share my own writing with a very Xicana perspective with the world. I could dare call myself a writer because I had their great example.

 

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

A. Middle grade is a tremendously fertile space from which to write because there is a unique tension between two worlds. Middle grade readers, I think, possess the innocence, rich sense of wonder and play inherent in childhood, while at the same time, they are discovering deeper feelings and learning about things beyond their immediate lives that push against childhood. There are so many questions that beg to be answered, so many stories that beg to explore those questions and a new, almost magical, awareness that enfolds as they bloom into wiser beings.

 

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

A. There are so many! I am especially drawn to stories from people of diverse backgrounds, those that break from the white, heteronormative literary cannon. I loved Bird in a Box and The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney – it was actually after reading the latter that I was inspired to write The Moon Within in verse; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a masterpiece (as is just about anything she writes); As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds; Margarita Engle’s Hurricane Dancers; See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson, Front Desk by Kelly Yang; A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park; and Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai; George by Alex Gino; some older titles that are evergreen for me – Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Locomotion by Jaqueline Woodson, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. However, the middle grade novels emerging from Las Musas (the first kidlit debut group of Latinx writers) have me most excited because they are opening the cannon wider than we have ever seen. Look for great middle grade stories by Anna Meriano, Emma Otheguy, Jennifer Cervantes, Yamile Saied Mendez, Hilda Solis, Mary Louise Sanchez and Claribel Ortega!

 

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

A. Don’t be afraid to believe in your poems though they may seem awful and as if they could help no one. Believe in their pain and in their heart because one day that very vulnerability will touch someone else’s life in ways you least expect. And when that magical moment comes, you will realize the meaning in the risk you took in believing.

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they can be the source of inquiry, of discovery, of refuge, of delight, and inspiration while on the tight rope between childhood and adolescence.

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Celebrating the Love Sugar Magic series by Anna Meriano

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Words by Anna Meriano, Art by Cecilia Cackley

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

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

LOVE SUGAR MAGIC A SPRINKLE OF SPIRITS JACKET

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

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

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

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

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

Now, here are the character profiles:

 

IMG_9046Isabel:

Age: 18

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

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

HP House: Ravenclaw

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

 

 

IMG_9045Marisol:

Age: 16

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

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

HP House: Gryffindor

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

 

 

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Alma & Belén:

Ages: 15 (Alma is one hour older)

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

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

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

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

 

 

IMG_9047Leo:

Age: 11

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

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

HP House: Gryffindor

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

 

 

IMG_9044Caroline:

Age: 11

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

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

HP House: Hufflepuff

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

 

 

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

 

 

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