Book Review: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders by René Colato Laínez, illus by Fabricio Vanden Broeck

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Young René’s mother has sent him a new pair of shoes from the United States. He loves his new shoes. “They walk everywhere I walk. They jump every time I jump. They run as fast as me. We always cross the finish line at the same time.”

René—with his new shoes—and his father set off on the long journey to meet his mother in the United States. He says goodbye to his friends in El Salvador, and “Uno, dos, tres, my shoes and I are ready to go.” The trip is difficult. They take buses and walk across El Salvador, into Guatemala and then into Mexico. His brand-new shoes lose their shine, turning dirty and gray. They become elephants, pushing against the wind; race cars, fleeing hungry dogs; swim shoes, escaping floods; and submarines, navigating through sticky mud. When holes appear on the soles of his shoes, his father won’t let him give up. “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá.”

Sharing his own experiences, René Colato Laínez’s moving bilingual picture book brings to life the experiences of many young children who make the arduous journey from Central America to the United States in search of a better life.

MY TWO CENTS: This picture book was inspired by the author’s own journey as a child. This book is very similar to his book My Shoes and I (2010), but different in that it is a bilingual book and is the author’s journey as he crossed borders as a child. The English text in this book has been modified, and the Spanish version has been added. The text is simpler and intended for young readers. The book begins when, for Christmas, René receives a pair of shoes from his mother, who lives in the U.S. The book details the journey that René and his father take by focusing on what the shoes go through in traveling across three countries.

The book does not overtly describe the dangers in crossing borders, but there are some instances where hardships are described. One example of this is when René describes having to live in a dark trailer because his father loses his wallet in Mexico City. Another example is when they are crossing the Mexico/U.S. border and René states that the water comes up to this stomach and then to his shoulders. René and his father travel through El Salvador, Mexico, and finally cross the border into the U.S. where his mother is waiting.

The focus on the shoes throughout the book allows the author to tell about the journey, but not go into the arduous, dangerous details. The resiliency of the young boy is shown throughout the book as he continues his journey to be with his mother. In one case, Papá encourages him, “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá. We won’t give up” (n.p.).

This book would be a great addition to a classroom unit about immigration. It specifically focuses on the border crossings and the long journey that families embark on to search for a new life. The book also addresses the desire that families have to be together and the dangers that families endure in search of a better life. The reprint of this book is timely as immigration, border crossings, and the journeys that children embark on continue to be scarce in children’s literature.

The author’s note at the end of the book tells the reader that this story is actually based on his life. René Colato Laínez shares some of the details that inspired him to write the book, such as the fact that this mother sent him a pair of shoes for his journey. The author also shares that, along with his father, they had to leave El Salvador due to the civil war in that country. At the end, René shares that he wrote this book to “tell readers about the hard journey that immigrant children and families face. They are escaping from violence and crime. Their journey is not a choice but a necessity to look for a better place, where they can accomplish their dreams”

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR: I reached out to the author via social media to see if he would answer some questions about the book. Here are René’s responses to my questions:

This book is very similar to your wonderful book My Shoes and I. How is this one different?

René: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders/ Mis zapatos y yo: Cruzando tres fronteras is a new edition of My Shoes and I. For this edition, the English text has been modified to have a bilingual version. The original text was longer, and, in order to have the English and the Spanish text on the same page, I did some edits. In My Shoes and I, the name of the boy is Mario. In this bilingual edition, I could use my name. The name of the protagonist is René.

Why is it important for you to tell your story?

René: Many children cross borders around the world everyday. They are escaping war, crime, or violence. It is hard to leave a country and your loved ones. As an author who had to cross borders, I want to give voice to the voiceless. I also want to tell readers that their journey is not a choice, but a necessity.

Many teachers shy away from having discussions focused on what are perceived as “difficult” topics. Why is it important for teachers to discuss issues such as immigration in the classroom?

René: In the news, children watch about numbers and politics, but they also need to know about real experiences. I think that children’s books are great for children to see what is beyond their windows and horizons. By telling children about immigration and other hard topics, we can build empathy in our children.

Please share anything else that you would like others to know about your new book?

René: I am so happy that this book is back in print and now it is bilingual. I hope that this book can touch the hearts of many readers.

RESOURCES: 

Teachers can visit the website below for information about the book

https://myshoesandi.weebly.com

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website): I am René Colato Laínez, the Salvadoran award winning author of many bilingual/ multicultural children’s books. I have  a master’s degree from  Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for  Children & Young  Adults.

My goal as a writer is to produce good multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States. Do you want to know more about me? Please read my long biography.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

Book Review: My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illus by Zeke Peña

 

Review by Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Daisy Ramona zooms around her neighborhood with Papi on his motorcycle, she sees the people and places she’s always known: the tortillería!, Abuelita’s church!, Franky, the barking Labradoodle! She also sees a community that is changing around her. But as Daisy and her papi reach the homestretch, the purple, blue, and gold sky glowing behind them, she knows that some things, like the love from her papi and family, will never change. With vivid illustrations and text bursting with heart, My Papi Has a Motorcycle is a young girl’s love letter to her hardworking dad and to the feeling of home we always carry with us.

The book is also available in Spanish as Mi papi tiene una moto.

MY TWO CENTS: Through this book, Quintero writes a love letter to her father “who showed [her] different ways of experiencing home” and a love letter to Corona, California, “a city that will always be a part of [her]” (Author’s note). The book begins with Daisy reading a book as she waits for her father to come home and take her on a ride around the city on his motorcycle. A wonderful feast to the eyes on this first page is the intertextuality that illustrator Zeke Peña provides: the book Daisy is reading is Lowriders to the Center of the Earth (written by Cathy Camper and illustrated by Raul the Third). It is a small, yet delightful, nod for readers who are familiar with the book series.

As the duo sets off on their journey, they pass many sights that are staples of Daisy’s city. There’s her Abuela’s church, Joy’s Market – where Mami buys Daisy’s gummy bears –, Rocket Repair, and Don Rudy’s Raspados – Daisy’s favorite place for shaved ice, which seems to have closed down. This is a point of concern for Daisy, who notices how disappointed her father is and affirms that she will not be the only one who misses the place. It comes as a happy surprise for her, then, when at the end of her journey that evening Don Rudy comes by with shaved ice, now in a small and portable cart.

Not only does the reader go on a tour of these places that Daisy enjoys, but we also get a glimpse into her life, her family’s life, her neighborhood, and some of the important history about the city. Passing by the murals painted around, Daisy explains their importance: “We roar past murals that tell our history – of citrus groves and immigrants who worked them, and of the famous road race that took place on Grand Boulevard a hundred years ago.”

As they race their way through Grand Boulevard, Daisy imagines being part of the races, the crowd cheering her on. The way Quintero weaves some of the history with Daisy’s daily life and imagination is brilliant, as readers are able to see the city through her eyes – lovingly and full of admiration – and at the same time they learn some of its history, as Daisy learns it, too.

In her author’s note, Quintero explains how the story was inspired by her own childhood in Corona, California. Through her words and Peña’s illustrations, she wanted to honor the immigrant workers, like her grandfather, who did the majority of the hard labor that helped establish the city, and a lot of the U.S. She explains that while the murals [Zeke Peña] created were imagined, the history they depicted was real.” These details, such as the city holding the road race on what is now known as Grand Boulevard, or the fact that Corona was known as the “Lemon Capital of the World” because of all the citrus that was cultivated there, were all present in the journey Daisy takes the reader.

There is so much heart in this book! It is clear how much Daisy loves and admires her papi, whose voice – she says – touches everything, even when everything around them is noisy. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, her father is central in her life. She admires his work as a carpenter, a job that he has had since he first arrived to the country, showing the reader not only his hard work, but how much she appreciates him for spending this sacred time with her even when he comes home really tired.

The language is very literary and the descriptions are vivid. One of my favorite combinations of vivid descriptions in the text and detailed imagery in the illustrations comes from a spread where Daisy describes how she and her dad take off on the motorcycle. She says the shiny blue metal up the motorcycle glows in the sun, making the sky blue and purple and gold. This rich imagery is further enhanced by Peña’s mix of colors and his placement of the duo at the center of a pool of gold, as if they were riding right into the sun. Peña’s use of comics elements like speech bubbles or onomatopoeic graphics like “VROOOOOOOM” when the motorcycle is revving up are a perfect fit for Quintero’s words.

Daisy and her papi’s motorcycle ride around the city is more than just a ride; it is really her life. And no matter how far she goes from the city or how many changes it undergoes, it will always be a part of her. This really shows how important this place is for her and how much of her identity is tied to it. Quintero closes the narrative with Daisy enjoying her shaved ice, sitting with her papi. Lovingly, Daisy thinks about her town and “all the changes it’s been through,” and finds comfort in knowing that in her little house with her family “there are things that will always stay the same.” “Mañana we fly again,” her dad assures her.

TEACHING TIPS: This book makes for a wonderful read aloud for all ages. It would be a strong mentor text for writing, and teachers could focus on:

  • The use of vivid descriptions
  • The importance of setting(s) in a story
  • Characterization

In addition, the book’s detailed illustrations can be great for teaching or developing visual literacy, asking students to explore how the illustrations support the text.

For older readers, the questions Quintero poses in her author’s note can be used for teaching this book. Who are the people who build our cities and form our communities? Who are the people who get streets named after them, and who are the people who lay the asphalt? These could become the basis of individual or collective research projects for students to learn more about their communities.

IsabelQABOUT THE AUTHOR: (from the dust jacket) Isabel Quintero is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She lives and writes in the Inland Empire of Southern California. Isabel is the author of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, which received the Morris Award, the Ugly Cat & Pablo chapter book series, and was commissioned to write Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, which was awarded the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. One of her favorite memories is riding on the back of her papi’s motorcycle as a little girl.

 

Zeke PenaABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: (from the dust jacket) Zeke Peña is a cartoonist and illustrator working on the United States/Mexico frontera in El Paso, Texas. He makes comics to remix history and reclaim stories using satire and humor; resistencia one cartoon at a time. Zeke studied Art History at the University of Texas Austin and is self-taught in digital illustration. The graphic biography he illustrated titled Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide received the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.

 

 

 

headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

 

 

Book Reviews: ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market by Raúl the Third and Babymoon by Hayley Barrett, illus by Juana Martinez-Neal

 

Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Richard Scarry’s Busytown gets a Mexican-American makeover in the marketplace of a buzzing border town from Pura Belpré Medal-winning illustrator Raúl the Third.

Bilingual in a new way, this paper over board book teaches readers simple words in Spanish as they experience the bustling life of a border town. Follow Little Lobo and his dog Bernabe as they deliver supplies to a variety of vendors, selling everything from sweets to sombreros, portraits to piñatas, carved masks to comic books!

MY TWO CENTS: Where to begin?! Raúl the Third’s illustrations are unique and like no other. If you’ve read Lowriders in Space then you know what I am referring to. His attention to detail, and similar to a graphic novel format, adds another dimension of following Little Lobo to the market in a town in Mexico.

I learned so much about the daily ins-and-outs of this community through the text, but most of all, its illustrations. The number of illustrations and words reflect a life of the hustle and bustle of the town, while also showing the love of la comunidad. Overall, it’s a fun and rich graphic picture book addition to add to your library. I highly recommend this book as a read-aloud at school and home, and an interactive text to use for students to learn about communities and the different pieces and people that make it thrive!

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a grades K-5 setting.

  • Use as a writing mentor text
    • for describing a small moment in time (a day at the market, shopping with family) or
    • writing about what makes their community a community
    • How the placement and use of illustrations enhance an author’s writing and storytelling
  • Focus on cultural artifacts and items that represent their own culture or are similar to their culture

 

RaulThirdABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Raúl the Third was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up going back and forth between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. He is the Pura Belpré Award-winning illustrator of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth. Raúl lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Elaine Bay, and son, Raúl the Fourth. Learn more about his work here!

 

 


Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: In a perfect gift for new and expectant parents (and siblings), a gentle story pays tribute to the wonder and emotion of a family’s first quiet days with a newborn.

The house is hushed. The lights are low.
We’re basking in a newborn glow.

Inside the cozy house, a baby has arrived! The world is eager to meet the newcomer, but there will be time enough for that later. Right now, the family is on its babymoon: cocooning, connecting, learning, and muddling through each new concern. While the term “babymoon” is often used to refer to a parents’ getaway before the birth of a child, it was originally coined by midwives to describe days like these: at home with a newborn, with the world held at bay and the wonder of a new family constellation unfolding. Paired with warm and winsome illustrations by Juana Martinez-Neal, Hayley Barrett’s lyrical ode to these tender first days will resonate with new families everywhere.

MY TWO CENTS: A touching story to share with all about the blessing of a baby. The story begins from the outside where a sign is hanging on the door, “See you soon”. The ambiguous message leaves readers to wonder if they are expecting someone soon, if the family is out of town, or if it is a message for visitors. A great moment to stop and give readers an option to infer from the title and the message on the door. The next page reveals a full spread of a family surrounding their new family member–a newborn. Words are weaved in and out of this new world that consists of long embraces, collaborative games, and peaceful smiles.

Juana Martinez-Neal does it again! The way she utilizes her strokes and warm palette adds a softness to all the images that leave readers with a peaceful feeling–the feeling of home. Many readers describe this feeling of a “warm hug” as we journey with this family’s new life, and boy they are not wrong! The family’s pet is also part of this new life, as the reader notices facial expressions and adds a comical and realistic experience for all animal lovers who welcome new babies (we all know that “look”!).

Overall, this is an amazing addition to your school and home library that represents the love that is multiplied in the family. I highly recommend this book as gifts for families expecting babies and a read-aloud for students who are expecting new siblings!

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a grades K-5 setting, with a focus on the primary grades.

  • Teaching descriptive vocabulary words and phrases
  • Lesson on phonemic awareness such as focusing on rhyming words
  • Focus on the illustrator’s purpose of using certain colors or placement of illustrations to convey meaning and book themes
  • Great addition to any family unit in a reading curriculum
  • Mentor text for writing about family life, changes, or life moments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hayley Barrett is the author of three upcoming picture books, Babymoon (Candlewick 2019), What Miss Mitchell Saw (S&S/Beach Lane, 2019), and Girl Vs. Squirrel  (Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House, 2020). She lives outside of Boston with her husband John. Their two terrific kids have flown the coop.

 

 

Photo of author-illustrator Juana Martinez-NealABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Juana Martinez-Neal is the recipient of the 2018 Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration for La Princesa and the Pea (Putnam/Penguin 2017). Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick 2018), her debut picture book as author-illustrator, was awarded the 2019 Caldecott Honor.

She was named to the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Honor list in 2014, and was awarded the SCBWI Portfolio Showcase Grand Prize in 2012. She was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband and three children.

 

 

img_0160ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is also a current doctoral student in NLU’s EDD Teaching and Learning Program with an emphasis on Reading, Language, and Literacy. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!

 

Book Review: Luca’s Bridge/El puente de Luca by Mariana Llanos, illus by Anna López Real

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Luca has never lived outside the U.S., but when his parents receive a letter in the mail, the family must pack up and leave home for a strange land. Together in their car, Luca, his brother Paco, and their parents head across the border to Mexico, where his parents were born. Luca doesn’t understand why he must leave the only home he’s ever known, his friends, and his school. He struggles through lonely and disorienting times–reflected both in Real’s delicate, symbolic illustrations and through Llanos’ description of his dreams–and leans on music, memory, and familial love for support. Luca’s Bridge / El puente de Luca is a story for everyone about immigration, deportation, home, and identity.

MY TWO CENTS: Luca lives in the United States with his parents. One day his parents receive a letter in the mail letting them know that they must leave the U.S. The entire family chooses to stay together and they leave the U.S. to go live in Mexico. Luca has a difficult time understanding why they must leave and he thinks about his friends, his school, and how he doesn’t speak Spanish. When he arrives in Mexico, he sees the small house where they will live and he has a difficult time imagining a life there. Luca uses music to help him cope with his new reality. He plays the trumpet and the entire family dances to the music reminding the readers that there is hope in what may appear to be a hopeless situation.

This bilingual picture books is timely considering the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States and the realities for many families experiencing family separation due to immigration status. It is particularly important because it addresses the situation of many families who are considered to have mixed-family status, meaning that some in the family are authorized to live in the U.S. (typcially children who are U.S. citizens) and others are not (typcially the parent or parents).

The story begins with the family leaving together and the father telling his sons the following: “Mami and I don’t have the papers we need to stay here… we have to go back to Mexico if we want to stay together.” In the picture book, Luca fears what it means to return to a country that he does not know. He thinks about his friends and even wonders what will happen when he returns to his country since he does not speak Spanish. What makes this books particularly special is that allows the reader to have some insight into the emotional toll that immigration takes on children. The illustrations includes hues of gray and speak to the emotions that Luca is feeling. At one point, when Luca is thinking about how he doesn’t speak Spanish, the books states that “Luca sobbed quietly until he ran out of tears.” Another instance of a strong emotion is when Paco, Luca’s older brother, yells, “They don’t want us here,” when their parents received the letter.

This books sheds a light on the decisions that families must make in situations where the parents are not allowed to stay in the U.S. In the case of Luca’s family, the parents decide that they must stay together. This decision allows the family to stay together, but the sadness of leaving the only home that Luca knows is heartbreaking. This is one of the few picture books that addresses the issue of deportation and the strong sentiments that families experience when forced to make decisions that impact the entire family. The books also sheds light on the emotions that children experience when faced with realities of immigration.

The backmatter includes the author’s note that discusses the difficulties of immigration, describes the process of deportation, and the realities of family separation. The author discloses that she is an immigrant and discusses the need to address immigration in a humane way.

RESOURCES:

Toolkit for Educators from Teaching Tolearnce on supporting immigrant families

https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/toolkit-for-this-is-not-a-drill

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Lima, Peru, to two journalists, Mariana Llanos developed an early passion for writing and studied theater in the prestigious CuatroTablas school in Lima. She has lived in Oklahoma since 2002, where she worked as a teacher in a preschool center. In 2013, Mariana self-published her first book, Tristan Wolf, which won a Finalist in the 2013 Readers’ Favorite Book Award. Since then, she has published seven books independently in English and Spanish and through virtual technology has chatted with students from more than 150 schools around the world to promote literacy.

 

Anna Lopez photo 2ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Anna López Real is a freelance illustrator born in Guadalajara, Mexico. She spent her early years in a small town with a big lake, in a
bilingual home full of books, movies, diverse music and art. She has a degree Graphic Design from Universidad de Guadalajara. Since she was young, she has needed to feel colors, shadows, textures, and shapes with her own hands, which inspired her to use
traditional techniques. She is also the co-founder of a local stationary company. Her favorite place is the beach, and she loves to read and hang out with her family and her cats and dogs. She is passionate about human rights, animal rights and has a great
love for nature.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

 

Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez

 

Reviewed by Romy Natalia Goldberg

Description of the book:

“Where are you from? they ask.” A young girl’s confidence is shaken after increasingly persistent questioning from her peers, teachers and friends’ parents. She turns to Abuelo, her loving grandfather, for answers. “Where am I from?” she asks, knowing he has faced these questions before. Abuelo answers by describing with lyrical beauty her parents’ places of origin. As he speaks, the landscapes around them morph, from the Pampas and Andean peaks of Argentina to the coastline and rainforests of Puerto Rico. But this immersive journey is not powerful enough to quell the doubts instilled by her peers. Echoing their questioning, she insists, “where am I really from?” At this, Abuelo points to his heart. She comes from her family’s love. As he continues, they are joined by a large, joyful family. The sun begins to set as her doubts settle. Surrounded by their unquestioning love, bathed in the light of the afterglow, she is newly confident.

Released simultaneously in English and Spanish, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? joins a slate of high quality Latinx books dealing with identity and belonging. Additionally, it is one of very few picture books depicting Latinx characters from the Southern Cone.

My two cents:

“Where are you from?” The question implies a progression – where did you begin and where are you going? Though often asked out of sheer curiosity, many times it is a loaded question, one whose answer can be used to justify exclusion and discrimination. The girl’s declaration that she is “from here, from today, same as everyone else” is a request to be treated as an equal, as someone who belongs. Once this request is ignored, she retreats to the family that created her, that asks her to justify nothing. The luminous landscapes with skies full of birds and stars suggest the limitless possibilities Abuelo wants for his granddaughter. Though the soaring landscapes could have felt overwhelming, they exude warmth and reassurance. As educators and parents, is this not how we want our kids to feel?

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? could easily have opened with a scene of overt bullying. Instead, the author and illustrator create a more nuanced scenario. The girl is being questioned by a diverse group of kids and adults, all with facial expressions that range from neutral to kind.

By eliminating a stereotypical “villain,” WHERE ARE YOU FROM offers a more realistic depiction of microaggressions endured by children of color (and children with other noticeable differences, such as accented speech).

One of the things I appreciate the most about this book is that we never circle back to the people who questioned the main character at the start. This is an excellent example of what happens when an “own voices” author is allowed to write from their experience. As adult readers, we know the girl will be asked “where are you from?” countless times and ways throughout her life due to the color of her skin. We know that, for some people, her answers will never be right or good enough. By allowing the girl to find an emotional resolution entirely within the context of her support system, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? sends young readers a powerful message: you do not have to justify your existence to others.

For children of mixed heritage, the question “where are you from?” has the power to generate an additional level of self-doubt. A few spreads into the girl’s journey with Abuelo, readers are lulled into the sense that they know where she is from. When Abuelo takes us from Argentina to Puerto Rico we are challenged to open our minds. Like many children, she is not “from” a single place.  Rather than simplify (or flatten, or erase) her heritage, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? invites readers to accept the main character’s complex heritage as something that is beautiful to behold.

Teaching Tips

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? can be used as a prompt for students to explore their heritage. This could be done exclusively as a writing exercise or could incorporate art in the form of illustrations or collage/printed images. Additionally, students could choose who they would like to go on their journey with – would they want to travel through space and time with a family member, as the girl in this book does? Or would they rather choose a historical figure as their guide?

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? naturally lends itself to a nuanced discussion of microaggressions. Students could be prompted to discuss whether they believe the main character’s peers are questioning her out of curiosity or malice. Does that change the effect their constant questioning has on the girl? Do they even have the right to ask this question? And what does it mean that no one was willing to accept the girl’s original answer? However, educators should take care to ensure class discussions do not put undue burden on students of color to share personal experiences of mistreatment.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? can be a starting point for learning about two very different parts of the Americas. Lessons for younger students could focus on the eco-systems of both regions. Older students can tackle heavier subjects alluded to in the final spreads for each location: the history of colonialism and slavery in Puerto Rico and the human rights abuses of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Lessons on Puerto Rico should also touch on the territory’s relationship to the rest of the United States and Latin America. Like the protagonist, Puerto Rico has a multifaceted background.

Additionally, the vivid verbs featured in WHERE ARE YOU FROM? could be incorporated into a lesson on synonyms and/or creative writing.

About the author: Yamile Saied Méndez is an Argentine-American who lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adult program. In this blog post from 2017, she shares with our readers what it was like to study for her MFA. Much has happened since then. Yamille is now a PB, MG, and YA author, and is also part of Las Musas, the first collective of women and nonbinary Latinx MG and YA authors. To learn more, visit Yamile’s website.

 

About the reviewer: Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, OTHER PLACES TRAVEL GUIDE TO PARAGUAY, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators.

A Studio Visit with Illustrator Zara Gonzalez Hoang

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Zara Gonzalez Hoang is an illustrator who is just beginning her career in children’s literature. She created the art for the picture book Thread of Love by Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal and recently sold her book A New Kind of Wild which is inspired by her father’s experience moving from Puerto Rico to the United States as a child. We met at her studio in Falls Church, VA to talk about her journey to becoming an illustrator.

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Cecilia Cackley: Tell me a little about your path to becoming an artist

Zara Gonzalez Hoang: When I was little my dad was really artistic and he used to draw with us. Some of my favorite memories are of me and my dad just laying on the floor in the porch or something and just drawing horses. My mom was a teacher so we always had paper and pens and I just always drew as a kid. And I think, too, everybody has things in their growing up that are probably not all that fantastically awesome and for me drawing was my escape. I would go hide in my room and draw and make up all these different worlds. I really liked to combine animals into new animals. My favorite was the “horseger”—it was a horse and a tiger which were my two favorite animals.

I’ve always been doing art, but I never considered doing it seriously. I went to college and took art classes but I also studied computer science and that was the practical side of me. There’s always been these two parts of me, the very logical side and the creative side. I’ve always been drawn to computers, and I’ve always been drawn to art. I majored in art, but then I worked doing network administration and web design—merging art and computers in a way. I didn’t start seriously drawing until the iPhone came out and I started a company with some friends making apps for kids and I illustrated them.

I never wanted to do kids books, it’s so weird! And it’s because I was afraid. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be consistent, that it was too much work, that I just wasn’t good enough. After I had my son, and I was reading all these picture books, I came back to this place I really loved that I thought I couldn’t have anymore. I always looked at picture books and wanted to buy them, but I always thought, I don’t have any kids, I can’t buy them, which is such a silly thing. There’s no reason why you can’t have these things you want just because you’re not a child. It doesn’t mean they’re any less beautiful or valid. I’ve always been someone who hid that part of me. I always hid my sketchbooks. It was such a personal part of myself that I felt I couldn’t flaunt it.

It wasn’t until I had my son that I felt like I really had permission to do this. I was looking for something to do with more meaning, and I realized–or my sister realized for me–that I have this gift for art and for writing. So I started putting together my portfolio for children’s books, and then I started going to SCBWI conferences, and I realized that everyone there was just like me: super nerdy about books and picture books! My friends talked me into submitting my work to agents, and I got a super awesome agent who I love. When I queried agents, I queried them as an illustrator who wanted to write, and I sent my portfolio but not any writing. The reason I knew she was the right agent for me was that she read my story A New Kind of Wild, and she told me how to make it better, and we spent the next year working on it to get it to a place where we could send it out. I feel like I finally came back to where I was supposed to be.

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CC: You started out working digitally, but in your studio, you showed me more traditional media like pen, ink, and watercolor. How has that process gone?

ZGH: When I did Thread of Love, I didn’t think I’d want to do anything the traditional way. I didn’t think I was any good at it. I liked digital, I liked the control of it. So when I got the manuscript of Thread of Love, that was how I was going to do it. I could see the color palette as soon as I read the manuscript. I don’t know if it’s my background in graphic design or what, but I saw the color palette first. It wasn’t until after that project that I started moving into more traditional media. Two things happened. One, I started thinking about the things that I liked and the illustrators and artists who I love the most work traditionally. There seemed to be a disconnect for me between what I did and what I liked, and I wanted to bring that closer.

When I started writing A New Kind of Wild, it had originally been digital to me, and that’s how I submitted my dummy, but I wanted to do it traditionally because in my mind that’s how it was. So I was doing all these studies of my characters traditionally and posting them on Instagram. My editor was creeping on me, and she saw them and she asked me if I would consider doing it traditionally. It was like she was seeing into my mind or my heart because that’s what I wanted, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to say what I wanted. I’m not at the point of making the art yet, so it may end up being digital, but it may end up being a hybrid mix. And that’s fine because I have a lot of comfort with the ability to erase mistakes digitally.

I’m a perfectionist in some ways. I don’t like the mistakes and even when I’m working traditionally because I’m using watercolor and colored pencil and ink, the things I love about watercolor I also hate. If you have a big swatch of color, you’re going to see the way the water moves in that swatch of color and those imperfections are the things that make it interesting.  I’m constantly fighting with myself to be okay with the imperfect, but I want to try and embrace it because the reality is, life isn’t perfect. I think there’s more emotion and interest in things that are loose rather than tight.

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CC: Thread of Love is about a very specific Indian holiday, Rashka Bandhan. What was the research process like for that?

ZGH: I am not Indian, so I had to do a lot of research to make sure I got things right. It’s something that was constantly on my mind while I was working on the book. Since I’m not of that culture, I worked really had to get it right. I checked out all the books I could from the library about the holiday, and I relied a lot on the authors telling me that I was portraying things correctly.  I also talked to friends who are Indian and who celebrate Rashka Bandhan. I wanted to make sure my illustrations depicted Raksha Bandhan accurately, especially since it is a holiday that is not one that I celebrate.

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CC: A New Kind of Wild is inspired by your own family history, so what has the research process been like for that?

ZGH: I wrote this book without thinking that it was about my dad’s story—it wasn’t until I was reworking the book that I realized that was the story I was telling. My dad passed away, and he’s not here for me to ask him, so a lot of the stuff I’m relying on is memories of the stories he told me about him growing up. My dad grew up in Puerto Rico with his grandmother until he was ten or twelve, when his mom was in New York. So, in the book, there’s a page where he’s leaving his grandmother. Pieces of my dad’s story are woven through like that. When we went back to Puerto Rico, we went to my dad’s house that he grew up in, so there will probably be some of that place in the book.

CC: What are some goals you have for where you want your career to go as a writer and illustrator?

ZGH: I think where I want to go does involve being a writer, so it means telling my own stories, and that’s both on the Latinx side and also on my other side because I’m half Puerto Rican and half Russian/Polish/Belaruski because my mom’s family came from a place where the borders kept shifting. I want to tell stories about people who are mixed. I have all these ideas for stories about things that are interesting about being from two cultures. I’m also Jewish and I think I’m the only Jewish person I know who had a big pork roast on Hanukkah sometimes because Hanukkah and Christmas fell on the same day and we always had a big pernil and arroz con gandules. I want to write more about that experience. There aren’t really a lot of stories that talk about what it’s like to be part of a family where you eat pho and also matzo balls. It can be confusing to be in the middle of everything. I want to start telling stories about my reality and the reality of kids that are mixed growing up. I don’t really feel that there are books out there that are telling those stories in a way that shows all the fantastic things about having multiple cultures.

CC: What advice do you have for other Latinx artists who are just starting out?

ZGH: The only real advice I have is to find other people that are doing it and try to make friends. One of the best things I ever did was meet someone who created a critique group that let me in. Having people to talk to who understand what you’re going through is priceless; even if nobody’s published, just having somebody to say keep going. It’s hard to talk to people who aren’t trying to be in publishing because they don’t understand how weird this industry is. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just persistence and luck. The advice is keep going and find people to share the experience with.

 

 

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