Our Latin@s in Kid Lit Favorite Titles of 2015

 

As the year draws to a close, we want to celebrate by highlighting current Latin@ children’s and YA books that captured our hearts.

2015 has been a good year, one that’s brought greater visibility to works by Latin@ authors and illustrators, as well as books by non-Latin@ creators that feature themes and characters with Latin@ connections. Make no mistake, the number of published titles originating in our community still remains at proportionately dismal levels, but this blog aims to promote, discuss, and amplify the voices that do exist. We also want to share our recommendations so that librarians, teachers, booksellers and parents will know about the best books out there.

Please note that this is a favorites list, and as such isn’t as comprehensive as a “best of” list. We’ve reviewed many of the 73 Latin@ titles published this year, but not all of them, including many we hear are worthy of acclaim. We hope you’ll share your own favorites in the comments! And rest assured, we’ll keep striving to give well-crafted, Latin@-leaning books their due in our Libros Latin@s book talks and other features.

Here’s what we focused on in compiling the list:

  • Children’s and young-adult books about Latin@s or by Latin@s, published in 2015
  • Respectful representations of Latin@s and their experiences
  • Rich stories with intersectionality of race, ethnicity, class, gender, generations, and/or languages
  • Titles for a range of age levels and genres
  • High literary quality and (when relevant) strong visuals
  • Books with heart!

So now that you know the backstory of our list, here are our Latin@s in Kid Lit Favorite Titles of 2015, presented in sections by reading level and alphabetized by title. Click on the links to read full reviews. 

Picture Books

22749711Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle and Rafael López. This is the inspiring true story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese Afro Cuban girl enamored with drums. Because tradition in 1930s Cuba prohibits girls from taking up drumming, what Millo achieves by breaking this taboo is even greater than the music she makes. Through their combined art, Engle and López enchantingly encapsulate Millo’s dreams. For our full review, click here.

 

20786680Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música by Jennifer Torres & Renato Alarcão. Before Reyna was born, her abuelito played in a mariachi band. His specialty was the vihuela, a small guitar-like instrument that has since fallen into disrepair. Reyna takes up the quest to get the repairs made. The vihuela becomes a powerful artifact that jump-starts the memory of the past, the important history of the community that tends to be invisible but is so essential to understanding the present. Here’s our review.

 

24795948Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh. Nineteenth-century Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada created now-famous engravings of calaveras, skeletons engaged in everyday activities that have become synonymous with the Day of the Dead. In this picture book, author-illustrator Tonatiuh presents Posada’s life story, complete with background information on contextual events, such as the Mexican Revolution. Read our full review.

 

22747814Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It From the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues by Matt Tavares. Dominican baseball star Pedro Martinez, who helped lead the Boston Red Sox to a World Series win, got his start with plenty of help from his big brother Ramón. This is a story of brotherhood and of dreaming big and achieving bigger, powerfully illustrated by the author. Here’s our review.

 

22521973Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. Young CJ would rather just go home after church than join his grandmother for their weekly bus ride to volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Will he change his mind? With simple yet poetic text and sumptuous “sunset colors,” Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson explore the concept of community in this inviting story. Check out this review.

 

24727082Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina & Angela Dominguez. Can a grandmother and granddaughter develop a close relationship when one speaks Spanish and the other speaks English? Of course! In Meg Medina’s warm tale of love, patience, and language, Mia and her abuela – along with a parrot named Mango – teach each other more than just words. Angela Dominguez’s rich, clean illustrations amplify this beautiful book. Check out this review.

 

22750413Salsa: Un Poema Para Cocinar/A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta, Duncan Tonatiuh & Elisa Amado. Argueta has created several bilingual poetry books that celebrate traditional Latin American dishes–including Guacamole, Sopa de frijoles / Bean Soup, and Arroz con leche / Rice Pudding – and Salsa is just as mouth-watering. This story poem creates playful connections between salsa’s vegetable ingredients and the musical instruments that they resemble. Tonatiuh’s signature illustrations bring extra flavor to the mix. Don’t miss our review.

 

cover-remembering-dayThe Remembering Day/ El Día de los Muertos by Pat Mora and Robert Casilla. This is a beautiful story about remembering our ancestors and their customs. Mora creates a loving relationship between a granddaughter and her grandmother that grows stronger as they practice their indigenous traditions together. For the grandmother, remembering is a significant aspect of everyday life but as the “leaves turn golden and fall from the trees” remembering becomes a celebration of those that have passed. After grandmother’s death it becomes the granddaughter’s responsibility to remember and honor her grandmother. Mora and Casilla’s story emphasizes that El Día de los Muertos is more about remembering than it is about calaveras and flowers. Here’s a review by La Bloga.

 

24694189Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago & Rafael Yockteng. A timely and moving picture book, originally published in Spanish, about a father and daughter traveling north towards the U.S. border. From counting what’s around her to meeting people and a “coyote”, this story, told from the child’s point of view, portrays migrant refugees journeys with deep empathy. Check out this review.

 

Vamonos Let's GoVámonos/Let’s Go by René Colato Laínez & Joe Cepeda does more than simply render the English and Spanish versions of “The Wheels on the Bus” side by side. Instead, it extends the songs to explore the sounds of all kinds of vehicles—and to track the lively journey of two children on the bus as they make their way to the park. Classroom activities available from Holiday House.

Early Readers/ Chapter Books

Lola Levine is Not MeanLola Levine is Not Mean! by Monica Brown & Angela Dominguez. In this delightful short chapter book, second grader Lola tackles soccer balls, annoying little brothers and runaway guinea pigs. Perfect for fans of school stories, family stories and all-around awesome characters! Check out the starred review Kirkus gave it.

 

 

SofiaMartinezFamilyAdventureSofía Martinez: My Family Adventure by Jacqueline Jules. This series is a lovely addition to the world of early chapter books. Lively main character Sofia keeps herself in the middle of the action in her loving, playful extended family, and her adventures are light and joyful with a touch of mischief. The charming illustrations by Kim Smith will bring giggles to young readers. We reviewed it here.

 

Middle Grade

22749539Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Breaking from traditional narrative, this novel traces the connected stories behind a magical harmonica. Using diverse characters that live in far-flung geographical locations, the story introduces less familiar aspects of well-known historical events: laws regarding children with birth ‘defects’ in 1930’s Germany, conditions for orphans during the Depression in the US, and the segregation of schools in California for children of Mexican descent during World War II. Here’s our review.

 

24612558Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez is a middle-grade fantasy thriller starring Cassie Arroyo, a Cuban-American expatriate living in Italy. After Cassie’s father is struck by a hail of bullets, whisked off to surgery, and then vanishes, she discovers that she, not her father, is the main target of the assassins. She then teams up with Asher and Simone to recapture the Spear of Destiny, a medieval artifact mysteriously linked to Cassie’s family line and the reason that her formerly blasé life at a private school is shattered overnight. Here’s our review.

 

22504701Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. In this highly engaging graphic novel, 12-year-old Astrid Vasquez finds her calling on a roller-derby track. Never mind that she brings no skating abilities to her first day of practice, or that her best friend would rather be at ballet camp. With the help of a savvy coach and teammates, and inspiration from a star jammer on the Rose City Rollers pro team, Astrid locates her derby groove. Check out this review.

 

22639675Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. Moving from Los Angeles to a farm, Sophie gets quite a surprise when she encounters a cranky chicken with supernatural abilities. It’s easy to love Sophie, the half-Latina main character in this middle grade novel that upgrades the “new girl in town” idea by adding cool, magical chickens and letters from the beyond. Yes, we reviewed it.

 

Young Adult

22609281Barefoot Dogs: Stories* by Antonio Ruiz Camacho, a debut collection of interconnected stories, captures the flawed but fascinating humanity of the extended Arteaga family as they flee Mexico City after the kidnapping of the family patriarch. Even in exile, theirs is a relatively charmed existence. Unlike Latino immigrants driven north by more quotidian hardships, these scattering family members have no difficulty obtaining legal access to Palo Alto, Madrid, Austin, and New York City. They are not, however, wholly unsympathetic, and the particulars of the stories offer a counterweight to assumptions about Mexican immigrant experiences. Several stories, including “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” and “Okie,” take the perspective of grandchildren in the family. For a full review, click here.

 

24612544Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano. Sonia Manzano is an actor widely recognized for her role as Maria on Sesame Street. This memoir provides generations of readers with an opportunity to experience Sonia’s evolution from a young Latina, a puertorriqueña, in the Bronx into a promising performer. She powerfully reveals struggles to reconcile the love and abuse she witnessed in her family life. Don’t miss our review.

 

23309551Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, by Margarita Engle. In this personal and deep mirror of her childhood, Engle showcases historical and emotional stories of life between two countries and two cultures. A memoir-in-verse that softly intertwines a love letter to Cuba and life, family, and memories attached to the island. Young readers will get a solid coming-of-age tale of growing up bicultural and the joys and pains found through that journey. Check out this review.

 

19542841More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. Growing up in the Bronx with rough memories of his father’s suicide, Aaron Soto gets by with the help of a supportive girlfriend and a hardworking mom. But the promise of relief from the memories lures him into considering a radical procedure, and there are other self-discoveries to come. This debut novel offers a unique confrontation of race, class and sexuality. The main character is easy to root for in this ever-so-slightly sci-fi story. Read our full review here.

 

25256386Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez. The 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—serves as the backdrop for this riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and destructive forces beyond the control of its teen characters. The novel opens with the explosion, and then flashes back to show how the characters’ lives intersect before the event. Check out our full review.

 

25364635Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism* by Uriel Quesada, Letitia Gomez & Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, interweaves the traditions of testimonio and institutional history in a collection of 14 personal essays and oral histories that demonstrate how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Latina/o activists helped shape the LGBT movements of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. This collection corrects the tendency to overlook the many Latinas/os who were fighting for LGBT causes well before more widely known white leaders, like Harvey Milk, became active. For a full review, click here.

 

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older. Sierra Santiago’s expectations of a normal fun summer in Brooklyn flip upside down when supernatural events intrude: zombies, weeping graffiti murals, Caribbean magic. But Sierra is the kind of heroine who makes plans and follows through, is clear-eyed about the shortcomings of people she loves, and takes charge with attitude. Read more of our review.

 

23395349Show and Prove by Sofia Quintero. The year is 1983. Blend together teenagers, hip-hop, urban plight, and racial tension; mix in summer camp trips and hanging out with friends, and you arrive at Show and Prove. This is a book about negotiating feelings and mistakes and tragedy. It’s a political book, examining identity and racism and bias in a way that never feels forced. For our full review, go here.

 

22609306Signal to Noise* by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This literary fantasy about coming–of-age romance, mixtapes and sorcery is set against the background of Mexico City in two time frames. It relates the intimate story of teenage Meche in 1988 and how she has grown up – and not – in the intervening 20 years. The universal themes of alienation and parental discord are emotions that anyone of any age can relate to. Modern teens may find themselves fascinated by the description of life in Mexico City nearly 30 years ago and discover it’s not so different from their lives today. Yes, we reviewed it.

 

23013839Surviving Santiago by Lyn Miller-Lachman is the continuing story of the Aguilar family from Miller-Lachman’s novel Gringolandia. In this novel, Tina returns to Chile, which continues to be ruled by the Pinochet dictatorship in 1989. Tina falls in love with a local boy named Frankie, who has dangerous political connections and is a threat to her and her father, Marcelo, an important, targeted voice in the democracy movement. Here’s our review.

 

20734002The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore is a 2016 William C. Morris Award finalist for good reason. McLemore’s lyrical prose centers on two traveling performance families, the Corbeaus and Palomas, hated rivals for generations who violently clash whenever they perform in the same town. A dangerous, forbidden romance develops between Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau that leads to family secrets revealed and a stunning climax filled with gorgeous magical realism. We will be reviewing the book in February and Anna-Marie will be writing a guest post for us. Check back then! In the meantime, check out this review.

 

22032788When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez. On the surface, Emily and Elizabeth share little in common besides 10th-grade lit class and the study of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. But they’re both hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice and one of them will attempt suicide. Set in New England, this captivating novel delivers a strong portrayal of Latin@s and a cast of satisfyingly complex characters from diverse backgrounds. Check out our full review here.

*Not technically classified as YA, these are adult books which may be of interest to teens.

Life-Changing Teachers: On Juan Felipe Herrera’s Reading in Chicago

 

By Sonia Alejandra RodriguezJFH_1

The notes from his harmonica carried us from poem to poem as he recounted stories of his childhood and brought us to the present and the tragic realities of Ayotzinapa and Sandy Hook. On October 7th, 2015 Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino US Poet Laureate, read from his most recent book of poems, Notes on the Assemblage, at the historical Herald Washington Library in Chicago.  The event hosted by the Poetry Foundation, and cosponsored with the Library of Congress and the Chicago Public Library, created an intimate setting from which to enjoy Herrera’s humble and quirky personality. I sat front row center with his newest book in one hand and a notebook in another ready to soak up his brilliance. I was invited to the event as a guest of Irasema Gonzalez, Development & Communications Director at ElevArte Community Studio[1] in Pilsen Chicago. ElevArte partnered with the Poetry Foundation to bring, create, and share poetry with at-promise youth[2] in Chicago, and I am currently their poetry Teaching Artist. I had met Herrera once before when he taught at the University of California Riverside and am familiar with his work because I wrote about his children’s illustrated books in my dissertation. Nevertheless, I was excited to meet him as the US Poet Laureate. Herrera walked onto the stage in a yellow button up shirt and was greeted with a standing ovation. He brought his harmonica to his mouth and greeted us back.

After briefly speaking about his upbringing as a migrant farm worker, Herrera read “Border Bus,” a poem in Spanish and English about two (im)migrant women being transported to/from a detention center. The poem switches from Spanish to English and back as the women converse about their situation. I found it powerful to hear Herrera recite poetry in Spanish and speak to the perils (im)migrants face when they journey north and those they may experience in detention centers. I was overwhelmed by a great sense of pride at hearing Herrera read this poem in particular. I’ve never been an avid follower of any US Poet Laureate until Herrera. I had a similar feeling when Sonia Sotomayor was appointment to the Supreme Court. When I was younger, I wanted to be judge, and I still want to be a writer. It’s empowering and amazing to see Latinos hold these prestigious positions.

JFH_2After his reading, Herrera answered a few questions about his inspirations for becoming a writer and about his desire to make poetry available to everyone. During the brief Q & A, he mentioned the teachers that pushed him to speak up. He spoke about Mrs. Sampson, whom he also wrote about in his children’s illustrated text The Upside Down Boy, and how she helped him find his voice. Mrs. Sampson was present at Herrera’s US Poet Laureate inauguration ceremony. He also spoke about Mr. Schuster (spelling might be incorrect), his 7th grade music teacher, whom Herrera had lied to about his ethnic identity saying that he was Hawaiian. Herrera explained that he didn’t know what to say when Mr. Schuster asked him what he was anyway; he panicked and responded with a lie. Herrera closed the event by reading and dedicating the poem “Half-Mexican” to Mr. Schuster. “Half-Mexican” captures the complex and rich histories that congregate when using Mexican as a marker of identity: “You are Mexican./ One half Mexican the other half/ Mexican, then the half against itself” (87).

It was truly a great evening with the Poet Laureate. The moments that stuck with me the most, though, are those when he talked about the impact his teachers had on him. Herrera said that teachers like Mrs. Sampson and Mr. Schuster “shook him” and “pushed him” forward.  I think back and teachers like Mrs. Roethke, my Spanish high school teacher, and Dr. Richard T. Rodriguez, my Latina/o studies professor in college, propelled me to pursue higher education and find my voice. Teachers like these are significant not only because of the impact they have on young minds, but also because they challenge dominant narratives that tell young students of color that they do not belong. Herrera mentioned that speaking Spanish was still punishable in classrooms when he was going to school. When I was younger, “undocumented and unafraid” did not have the same momentum it has now. Today, there are several reasons that make it difficult for students of color to feel safe, encouraged, and whole in US classrooms. The discrimination that students of color face in classrooms is another testament to how amazing it is to have someone like Juan Felipe Herrera as the US Poet Laureate.

JFH_3In general, the “life-changing teacher” is a common character in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. Herrera’s own The Upside Down presents Mrs. Sampson as a character that helps little Juanito settle into his new school and encourages him to sing in front of the class. Ms. Diaz, in Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks, has an active role in helping the lead protagonists come to terms with their inner struggles. In René Colato Laínez’s Waiting for Papá, Miss Parrales encourages Beto to share his story of being separated from his father because of existing immigration policies. In Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name, Mr. Aponte teaches América to use poetry as tool for healing. Ms. Abernard, in Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces insists that Gabi keep writing and sharing her poetry. And then you have the characters that serve as a “teacher figure.” The abuelita in Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl and the abuelita in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman teach their granddaughters about the power and strength of plants, herbs, and nature. The abuelita in Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano teaches young Evelyn to have pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. And then there are the adults that serve as mentors like Sonia, the lawyer that the young characters in Gloria Velasquez’s “The Roosevelt High” series often turn to for help.

There are definitely more examples of teachers, in the broad sense of the word, throughout Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. These teacher characters often stand in opposition to dominant narratives that seek to oppress the young characters. Furthermore, these teachers serve as role models and mentors that filter, translate, and transform the world for and with the main characters. In other words, these teacher figures show and remind the main characters that their possibilities are not limited by what society dictates. It is important to note that these teacher characters are not always adults but can be the main characters’ friends, siblings, or it can even be a book or an art form.

I felt a bit like I was a part of some history in the making simply by sitting in that auditorium and listening to Juan Felipe Herrera perform. And by the end of the event after listening to him talk about the teachers that pushed him to find and use his voice, I couldn’t help but think that Herrera is now the nation’s poetry teacher and that he will shake us and push us to write, speak, share, change, and love.

 

[1] ElevArte is a community-based organization which uses the arts as a portal for creative youth development. The organization offers a range of programs including youth led projects like the “We Are Hip-Hop” Festival designed to give young adults an opportunity to be active community leaders and organizers. They also offer in-class programs like “Art of Change” which focuses on teaching science through the arts to elementary and middle grade students. They offer after-school activities like sewing and stitching. They also organize and offer many community events like their annual Pozolada fundraiser. For more information on ElevArte visit their website at www.elevartestudio.org and follow them on twitter @ElevarteStudio.

[2] At-promise youth is a term used by ElevArte as a way to challenge negative language like “at-risk” that sees what youth lack rather than their potential. ElevArte seeks to create a space where youth are encouraged and empowered throughout every aspect of their engagement with one another.

 

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez received her PhD in English from the University of California Riverside. Her research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She is also teaches poetry as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her first children’s picture book.

About that Embargo: Nancy Osa and Margarita Engle

Library Shelves YA

The End of the Cuba “Embargo” in YA Lit

By Nancy Osa

In the late 1990s, I wrote a young-adult novel about a teenager who protests the United States–Cuba trade embargo and sent it out to major publishers. I may have set a record for rejection letters. No children’s publisher dared broach the subject of U.S.-Cuba politics—not even from a humanitarian perspective. I’ll wager that such a reticent attitude is about to die. Soon, all things “Cuba” will be the next hot topics to follow zombies and vampires.

The true theme of my book, though, was not Cuba’s worthiness of respectful neighborly relations but rather Americans’ right to challenge policy through peaceful protest. Which topic were publishers really shying away from? In the 1990s, acts of dissent had been appropriated and/or stigmatized by publicity-hungry groups—Million Man March, anti-WTO factions, abortion clinic terrorists. Exposing teens to international politics, publishing interests seemed to surmise, might only incite high schoolers to riot.

I argued that young American readers should understand their options for agreeing or disagreeing with their homeland’s diplomatic policies. Information, discussion, and even provocation are necessary elements to learning to think critically. Simply ignoring the far-reaching trade and travel restrictions was a disservice to maturing readers, who, by their nature, are quite open to efforts to make the world a better place. When I was 10 years old, for instance, I formed a club and held a fundraiser to buy a trash can for my local park. On the heels of that success, I embraced various causes: women’s rights, resource conservation, humane treatment of animals, etc. When I reached voting age, I voted, marched, petitioned my legislators, and canvassed door-to-door. Not until my thirties did I think deeply about my Cuban heritage, though, and the implications of our national policies to my personal and cultural relationships. I wondered what it would have been like to grow up informed and in touch with my relatives on the island, instead of ignorant and forcibly separated. This was the impetus for writing my book.

When I submitted my novel to publishers, I knew that many young readers would welcome my story about an American girl who joins a protest rally to improve conditions for her family members in Cuba. I couched the topic in typical high-school drama, with a large dose of humor. It wasn’t vitriolic or pointedly critical of any one faction. Still, mainstream publishing houses, librarians, book buyers, and teachers were afraid to raise the hot-button Cuba issue. I suspect they were equally put off by the topic of protest. That book was never published, but another novel about a traditional coming-of-age ceremony—the quinceañero—was. Both Cuba 15books used humor to engage readers in a debate about factionalism: kids vs. parents, traditionalists vs. progressives . . . America vs. Cuba. The book that focused on dresses vs. pants, however, won out over the one that more literally discussed right vs. wrong.

As we face a new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, I’d like to remind readers and thinkers that people like me have been politely protesting the political stand-off for decades. Twenty-fifteen marks the twenty-third year that the group IFCO/Pastors for Peace has practiced civil disobedience by gathering and delivering goods to Cuban people in need. Communist partisanship is not the motivator; charitable sentiment is.

As someone whose birth was sandwiched between the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, I have always felt helpless to influence U.S.-Cuba relations politically. But when I joined a Pastors for Peace “Friendshipment,” I gained the power to positively affect Cubans on a personal level while protesting the trade embargo. Does this type of humanitarian overture influence diplomacy? I hope so; but no one has suggested that it prompted President Obama’s executive decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. Let’s face it: peaceful protest does not make for sexy news stories. First Amendment rights of free speech, assembly, and freedom of the press, though, should be considered fitting fodder in young-adult literature.

Nancy OsaNancy Osa is the author of Cuba 15 (Random House), a Pura Belpré Honor Book and winner of the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Her most recent work, Defenders of the Overworld (Sky Pony Press), is an unofficial Minecraft fiction series for young-adult readers. To learn more, visit her website.

 

 

Enchanted AirThe Magic Realism of Memory

By Margarita Engle

The great Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz wrote a poem called En Mi Verso Soy Libre—In My Poem I Am Free. She spoke of rising up inside the poem, where she is herself. The same is true for me. I reveal my secret self inside the covers of my verse memoir, Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings.

Even though I am my true self on those pages, now that the book has been published and can be read by strangers, I’ve begun to wonder if I will be misunderstood or disbelieved. My childhood seems so unusual, almost surrealistic. I’m neither an exile nor a refugee. Until 1960, my family traveled back and forth between Cuba and the U.S., ignoring the Cold War.

The question arises: is a surrealistic childhood typical for the children of immigrants? Yes, I believe it is, even without the international conflict that separated the two halves of my bicultural family. Visiting relatives in another country can be an incredible joy, but upon returning to the U.S., a child of mixed ancestry can feel disoriented. In that sense, my unusual story is common, because the same could be said for children who move back and forth between two homes within the same country, particularly if their parents live in different cities, or if one lives in an urban area, and the other is rural. Immersed in blended memories, these children may experience the insecurity of feeling uncertain where they belong, but by traveling they also gain insights into more than one way of existing. Perhaps exposing them to verse memoirs will give them a window into their own possibilities. They could write travel memoirs, too. They could write poetry! They could find a safe home-on-the-page for overwhelming emotions.

Telling stories

Margarita and her sister in Cuba

During my teen years, it was easier for a U.S. citizen to walk on the moon than to visit relatives in Cuba. Nothing can ever return those years to me intact. They are fractured. Yet somehow, the act of writing about them in verse felt medicinal. Poetry heals. In the author’s note at the end of Enchanted Air, I came out of the anti-Embargo closet, making a plea for normalization of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, travel, and trade. Then, as if in a dream, President Obama announced the first steps toward improved relations. The announcement came during the same week when advanced review copies of Enchanted Air arrived on my doorstep. Joyfully, I revised the author’s note, transforming my plea into a song of gratitude.

With equally dreamlike timing, the U.S. Embassy in Havana re-opened exactly ten days after the release of Enchanted Air. For me, this feels like an era of miracles. Nevertheless, the process of healing the rift between nations will be complex, just as the process of facing childhood emotions to write a memoir is not simple. In Just Write, Walter Dean Myers advised: “I believe your skills as a writer are not so much defined by intelligence or artistic ability as they are by how much of yourself you are willing to bring to the page. Be brave.”

Yes, be brave. There is no other way to face the wounded child inside one’s own mind—a child who never completely outgrows the magic realism of growing up with a memory that contains two distinct ways of perceiving the world. A memory that can turn into verse, where a divided childhood can be made whole, setting the poet free.

MargaritaMargarita Engle is the author of many books for young readers. Her long list of literary honors includes the Pura Belpré Medal, the Newbery Honor and the 2014 PEN USA. The themes and characters of Margarita’s books often reflect her Cuban heritage, including the titles pictured below. Learn much more on her official website.

Margarita offers an abundant selection of books based in Cuba or featuring Cuban characters, as seen below.

MountainDog.highrescvr  drum dream girl cover  Tropical Secret   The Wild Book  Surrende Tree Notable  Poet Slave  Hurricane dancers notable  Firefly notable  Enchanted Air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alma Flor Ada: Always Cuban

 

Island Treasures FINAL ART“Yo soy un hombre sincero

  de donde crece la palma…”

   –José Martí

During most of my life I have lived outside of Cuba, as part of the Cuban Diaspora, yet my being continues to be rooted in the fertile island where I was born and where I lived as a child, an adolescent, and a young woman.

AFA with braids

Alma Flor

In 1958, during the Batista dictatorship, my father’s dream of helping low-income families own their own homes was thwarted when the soldiers who had bought some of the accessible yet solid houses he had built with such care, refused to make their mortgage payments. Trying to find a solution, my father met with the garrison’s commander. Instead of support, he received a frightening threat that led us to flee to Miami.

At that time, Miami did not have the Latino presence it has today. As I wanted to study Spanish and Latin-American literature, I begged to go study in Mexico City. I was fascinated by the artistic and literary achievements of post-Revolutionary Mexico. However, my parents did not feel comfortable sending me to a country where we knew no one. Instead, they suggested I go to Spain, where my mother had relatives.

Spain became the third country where I lived. While the Franco regime imposed many limitations, I was immensely fortunate to be mentored by some extraordinary professors, Elena Catena, don Alonso Zamora Vicente, and doña María Josefa Canellada, who helped channel my thirst for learning. I will always be grateful for their teaching and their example.

A set of unexpected circumstances led me to Perú, which became the fourth country where I lived. In Cuba, I had delighted in being my parents’ daughter; in Perú I became a mother. In Cuba, I had absorbed my family’s commitment to education; in Perú, I became a teacher. In Cuba, I had learned the key role of education in striving for social justice; in Perú, I studied Paulo Freire’s words and became actively concerned with social issues.

While in Perú, I finished my doctorate degree. The topic of my dissertation led to an appointment as a research scholar at Harvard. There I experienced an exciting cultural milieu comprised of distinguished authors and artists who had left Spain after the Spanish Civil War, including the poet Jorge Guillen. Later, after two years in Lima, I returned to the United States with my children and became involved in several grassroots movements on behalf of social justice and education.

Each of these four countries left a profound imprint on me, as I learned to understand their different worldviews, to enjoy their colors and fragrances, and to love their people. I also learned to rebel against the unjust social conditions suffered by many in each of these places, and also, to admire the resilience, fortitude and creativity of the majority of the people I met, wherever I lived. But always, as the backdrop to all these life experiences, my memories of Cuba continued to nourish my deepest soul.

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Alma Flor in teen years

As a child, some of my best friends were trees. In the large overgrown gardens of the old historical house where I was born, many different kinds of living creatures inspired me to learn to observe and respect nature. Our colonial city was a microcosm of the larger world; there I learned to listen to those around me and reflect on what I heard. From my family, I learned the values of caring and compassion; kindness and generosity; friendship, knowledge, and justice.

The overgrown gardens have expanded and today I consider the whole planet my home. I continue to marvel at its richness and diversity, including the daily miracles of flower petals and bird feathers. I especially attempt to not remain indifferent to any human experience. Yet, no matter how far my circle of interest may expand, I never feel far from my roots; on the contrary, it is through being nurtured by them, that I can open my heart to everything else.

I learned about immigration from my own family. Both of my grandfathers had immigrated to Cuba from Spain. They each made great efforts to contribute to their new homeland and to defend freedom of thought. My maternal grandfather, Medardo Lafuente Rubio, used his talents for self-expression as a poet, public speaker, educator, and journalist to promote universal human values. During the despotic dictatorship of Machado, he was incarcerated for defending freedom in his newspaper. His time in prison greatly damaged his health and he died not long after his eventual release. My paternal grandfather owned a newspaper and also one of the earliest radio stations in Cuba. His words, whether written or spoken, always defended the value of free independent thinking that had been crushed in his county of birth by Franco’s dictatorship.

My grandmother on her graduation as a teacher

AFA’s grandmother at graduation from teaching school.

My maternal grandmother, Dolores Salvador, was the strongest influence in my life. Losing her when I was very young filled me with profound nostalgia. In response to the pain of this loss, I sought to protect and nurture my memories of her, as one would a tender plant. And thus I became a storyteller, sharing my stories again and again, sometimes orally, other times in writing, often in silence.

The feelings arising from my own experiences have inspired much of my writing. Even one of my more recent books, Love, Amalia, co-authored with my son Gabriel Zubizarreta, is rooted in the memory of losing my grandmother. Another source of inspiration has been the desire to continue to savor my own children’s childhood.

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AFA’s grandmother, surrounded by her children

 

 

 

I often remind teachers to encourage children to write, as each child has a unique perspective to share. I am very grateful to an editor of The Hungry Mind who many years ago, asked me to contribute one real-life childhood story for his publication. In response, I wrote my first three real-life stories and submitted them to him. He told me kindly that, while he could only publish one, he wanted to encourage me to write a few more. And thus, Where the Flame Trees Bloom was born.

It took the additional encouragement of my dear friend Antonio Martorell, an inspired artist and illustrator, to continue writing the childhood memoirs that became Under the Royal Palms, and which received the Pura Belpré Medal in 2000. More recently, when Simon & Schuster decided to re-print both of these books under one cover, Emma Ledbetter, my supportive editor, welcomed the idea of also including some new stories from my growing-up years in Cuba. Thus Island Treasures has come to be.

Flame TreesRoyal Palms

Like the mountain springs in Tope de Collantes, in Cuba, whose currents of clear cool water never stop running, all of our memories hold an endless number of sensations, feelings, faces, flavors, aromas, textures, and emotions, if only we are willing to turn inward, to welcome and honor them in some way. It is my hope that as I share my stories with you in Island Treasures, your own awareness of the people who have enriched your life and the moments that have helped shape who you are, will deepen. May you welcome and value your own stories as an intrinsic part of who you are, dear reader, while also rejoicing in who you have become.

 

Alma Flor AdaAlma Flor Ada has written countless books, most of which do not specify Cuban settings or characters, but which nearly always highlight Latino life. She is an author, educator, scholar, and internationally known speaker. Her life’s work includes advocacy for peace and social justice. A Pro­fes­sor Emerita at the Uni­ver­sity of San Fran­cisco, she is also a for­mer Rad­cliffe Scholar at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and Ful­bright Research Scholar.

In the world of children’s books, Alma Flor is known for her poetry, narratives, folk­lore and non-fic­tion. She’s the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Christo­pher Medal, the Pura Bel­pré Medal, the International Latino Book Award, and the Vir­ginia Hamil­ton Award, in recognition of her body of work for children. Learn more at her official website.

 

 

Welcome to Cuba Week!

 

Cuba PearlCuba has been very much on our minds during this year of momentous change and emotional headlines. In a gesture of love and great hope for the Cuban people on both sides of the Straits of Florida, we invited beloved Cuban American children’s writers to speak from their hearts about anything relating to cubanismo. Lucky us: eight authors responded to our invitation with ¡claro que sí!

Guest posts begin tomorrow and continue through next Monday. To whet your appetite, here are some details. You will hear about immigration journeys, life across two cultures, racial identity, remembrances of the Cuba left behind, and the books that sprang from these experiences. Get ready for gorgeous prose from Enrique Flores Galbis; a fresh challenge to publishers from Nancy Osa; nostalgia mixed with humor and biting reality from Guinevere Thomas, Meg Medina, Laura Lacámara, and Christina Díaz González; as well as stirring insights from award-winning poets Alma Flor Ada and Margarita Engle. These authors’ books have enriched young people’s reading lives. For that, and for the perspectives they’ve shared with us, we want to say ¡gracias de todo corazón!

Before we get started on the guest posts, here’s a visual reminder of some glorious children’s books that star Cuban characters and/or settings. Space prevents us from featuring a comprehensive list, but we urge you to add your recommendations in the comments section. To learn more about individual books, click on their cover mages.

Picture Books    

Goodbye Havana Queen of Salsa Martina Mango in Hand

Celia Bossy Gallito Tia Isa  Dalia Cover MANGO_jacket_for_Meg drum dream girl cover floating

Middle-Grade

Island Treasures FINAL ART The Red Umbrella  Oye Celia  Moving Target  My Havana The Wild Book  MountainDog.highrescvr  paperback cover

Young Adult

Cubanita  Tropical Secret    Hurricane dancers notable  Firefly notable  Cuba 15  Down to the Bone   Letters to my mother   Significant Girls  ad6df-yaqui  Surrende Tree Notable  Lightning Dreamer notable  Enchanted Air Poet Slave Dark Dude

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle

By Sujei Lugo

drum dream girl coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongós and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Inspired by a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers, Drum Dream Girl tells an inspiring true story for dreamers everywhere.

MY TWO CENTS: Inspired by the childhood of Chinese Afro Cuban drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, Margarita Engle and Rafael López enchantingly encapsulate through poetic text and dreamy illustrations a girl’s dreams and her desires to play music. By focusing on our girl’s “dreaming” period and the stage when she finally achieves her dream as a child, the author and illustrator furnish a landscape where children should be free to dream, and one they can relate to and which allows them to see themselves as dreamers.

Through the first line of Engle’s poem, “On an island of music, in a city of drumbeats, the drum dream girl dreamed,” we meet our Caribbean dream girl, who dreams about congas, bongós, and moon-bright timbales on a island where everyone believes only boys should play drums. This excluding notion and the exposure to such blatant sexism at such a young age do not prevent our girl from dreaming. She plays her own imaginary music, walks around tapping her feet and plays contagious drum rhythms on tables and chairs. When her big sisters invite her to join their new all-girl dance band, the drum dream girl is excited, but her father reminds her that “only boys should play drums.” She keeps drumming and dreaming, until her father realizes that her talent deserves to be heard. With a compelling illustration of her father “pulling” her drumming and dreaming daughter from the sky to the ground, she perseveres and lands back on her island of music, making her dream a reality.

The text is really descriptive, filled with poetic repetition and acknowledgements of the natural landscape of the island. Rafael López’s trademark of colorful and vibrant illustrations enhances the musical and dreamy experience of our character, providing images where you feel you are listening to the music and the beats. Through two-page layout canvases rich with smiling moons, suns, and birds, huge instruments, and our drum dream girl with closed eyes, he captures the spirit, the breeze, and the rhythm of our little drummer. López also successfully portrays the essence of Cuban city life and its racial and ethnic demographics.

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Drum Dream Girl is the story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a mixed race Cuban girl, who defied gender roles in the 1930’s music scene. The girl and her story show the importance of family, teacher, and music-education support to expose and develop our children’s musical talents. The all-girl dance band she joined was Anacaona, an orchestra founded by Cuchito Castro and her sisters. This forgotten and overshadowed group challenged the male-dominated Cuban music scene and an environment where women were seen as incapable of playing music. For more information about this group, look for the book Anacaona: The Amazing Adventures of Cuba’s First All-Girl Dance Band, written by Alicia Castro, Ingrid Kummels and Manfred Schäfer, or watch this preview of the documentary Anacaona: The Amazing Story of Cuba’s Forgotten Girl Band.

TEACHING TIPS: The picture book will work great as a read-aloud and a rich addition to music-themed library programs, where children could also make their own drums. With older children, teachers can incorporate poetry writing, drawing, and visualizing music as poetry. The text, illustrations, and content make this book perfect to be adapted as a musical play.

Other classroom activities can include historical exploration of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga’s life, Cuban music, and other female musicians. Margarita Engle includes a publisher’s discussion guide on her website.

AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR:

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American author, botanist, and professor who enjoys collaborating with her husband in volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs. Engle is the winner of numerous awards for her children’s and young adult books, including the Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (2008), becoming the first Latina to win that children’s literature award. In addition to her work as a writer, she also contributes to various periodicals such as Atlanta Review, Bilingual Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and Nimrod. Margarita Engle is a member of PEN USA West, Amnesty International, Freedom House of Human Rights and Freedom to Write Committee.

Some of her titles are: The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (2006), Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (2009), The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (2010), Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2011), The Wild Book (2012), The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (2013), Mountain Dog (2013), Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal (2014), Orangutanka: A Story in Poems (2015), The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (2015), and Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings (2015).

Rafael López is a Mexican award-winning illustrator and artist, whose work is influenced by his cultural heritage, colors of Mexican street life, and Mexican surrealism. In addition to children’s books, López has illustrated posters, United States Postal Service stamps such as the Latin Music Legends series, and he has launched street art projects to revitalize urban neighborhoods, such as the Urban Art Trail Project.

He is the recipient of various Pura Belpré Honor for Illustration awards for books such as: My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me Llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz (2006), Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day/ Celebremos El Día de los Niños/El Día de Los Libros (2010), The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred (2012) and Tito Puente: Mambo King/Rey del Mambo. He also received two Américas Awards for Children’s and Young Adult Literature for My Name is Celia (2006) and ¡Yum! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings (2007).

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For more information about Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (2015), visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.org, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and goodreads.com. You can also watch the book trailer below.