Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo


Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.

With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

MY TWO CENTS: I had a difficult childhood. I was queer and Latinx and stuck in a home with parents who did not understand either identity and certainly not the intersection of them. (I was adopted.) It meant that I felt that I existed in constant friction with them. That friction manifested in a deep, existential desire in me: I wanted acceptance. I wanted to live.

I found that same desire within the pages of The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo’s masterful and gut-wrenching debut. Told in verse, I devoured this book in one sitting, only taking a break to wipe at the tears that welled in my eyes. Acevedo has crafted a living, breathing world in Xiomara, and you can tell that from the very first page. Her unique voice, coupled with an engaging story about acceptance, rebellion, and identity in this Dominican-American teen, makes The Poet X a powerful read.

There’s nothing here I could nitpick, even if I tried. The pacing is brilliant, and my heart was racing as I approached the climax. Acevedo’s prose, which is informed by her years of work in slam poetry, is vivid, lyrical, captivating. There were countless sentences or lines that knocked me flat on my ass, and you’re certain to find one of your own. But it’s the characterization that gripped me the most. I related so intensely to Xiomara’s desire to live beyond the prescriptions of her mother’s religion that at times, I felt that Acevedo had reached deep down into a well within me, extracting the pain, terror, and—ultimately—vindication I experienced when I clashed with my own parents about my sexuality, my body, and my need to be my own person. The supporting cast is well-rounded and memorable (particularly Xiomara’s twin brother, Xavier, since I am also a twin), and they each affect the story in meaningful ways.

This is an astounding accomplishment, and I’m so thrilled that Dominican-Americans (and those who identify as Afro-Latinx) have a book that so brilliantly represents them. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Sandra Cisneros (particularly The House on Mango Street), and Liara Tamani’s Calling My Name.

TEACHING TIPS: Another reason I admired The Poet X is because Acevedo so seamlessly addresses weighty topics with ease and care, and the book never feels like it’s teaching you a lesson. The novel addresses issues such as sizeism, street harassment, homophobia, misogyny, sexual shame, and abuse, particularly when that abuse is paired with religion. Because the book is composed in verse that work like vignettes, it will be easy to assign essays or discussions based on specific poems. Acevedo’s language is modern and youthful, so I expect teens will connect with it quicker than most other works.

WHERE TO GET IT: The Poet X released on Tuesday. To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

                        Photo: Bethany Thomas

Photo: Bethany Thomas

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with Dominican bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit.

She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over twelve years of performance experience, Acevedo has been a featured performer on BET and Mun2, as well as delivered several TED Talks. She has graced stages nationally and internationally including renowned venues such as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, and South Africa’s State Theatre, The Bozar in Brussels, and the National Library of Kosovo; she is also well known for  poetry videos, which have gone viral and been picked up by PBS, Latina Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Upworthy.

Acevedo is a National Slam Champion, Beltway Grand Slam Champion, and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C, where she lives and works.

Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Puerto Del Sol, Callaloo, Poet Lore, The Notre Dame Review, and others. Acevedo is a Cave Canem Fellow, Cantomundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. She is the author of the chapbook, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016)  and the forthcoming novel, The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018).



Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors and is usually busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal to pet every dog in the world. His YA Contemporary debut, Anger is a Gift, is out May 22, 2018 with Tor Teen.


Book Review: Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López


Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Hispanics featured in this collection come from many different backgrounds and from many different countries. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!

Poems spotlight Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez Wright, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Tomás Rivera, and Ynés Mexia.

MY TWO CENTS: This beautiful and memorable picture book once again showcases the partnership of creative luminaries Margarita Engle and Rafael López, following their award-winning collaboration on Drum Dream Girl. In Bravo!, Engle’s eighteen poems and López’s accompanying illustrations highlight notable Hispanics with strong connections to the United States. Some subjects are Puerto Ricans, while many are Latinx notables from the U.S. mainland. Quite a few came to its shores as immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A few are world-famous, like Tito Puente, César Chávez, and Roberto Clemente, but most are not. In fact, some individuals whose thrilling achievements should have earned them a prominent place in history have yet to receive their due, such as Cuban American Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot. (I eagerly anticipate the March 2018 release entitled The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book by Margarita Engle illustrated by Sara Palacios, which should go a long way toward filling that gap.)

The profiles are arranged chronologically, and each featured individual receives a double-page treatment consisting of a brief poem and a portrait illustration. The first spot belongs to Juan de Miralles (1713-1780), a Cuban supporter of the American Revolution, whose intervention helped save George Washington’s troops from scurvy. The final selection is Tomás Rivera (1935-1984), an influential teacher, poet, and University of California chancellor, who was also one of Margarita Engle’s creative-writing professors.

As with her novels in verse, Engle presents the stories of the characters through first-person-voiced poems that draw attention not only to that individual’s contributions to society, but also to the passions that drove them to action.

As mentioned earlier, most of these historical figures are not widely recognized. For example, how many readers in the U.S. are familiar with poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who advocated for her native Puerto Rico’s independence? In “My River of Dreams,” we learn of her poverty-stricken childhood and the natural world that she loved, as well as the heart of her advocacy:

I struggled to become a teacher

and a poet, so I could use words

to fight for equal rights for women,

and work toward meeting

the needs of poor children,

and speak of independence

for Puerto Rico.

Another selection, “Wild Exploration,” profiles Ynés Mexia (1870-1938), highlighting Mexía’s botanical studies in Mexico and South America, but also bringing out her bicultural origins, the anguish she suffered as the child of warring parents, and the fact that she discovered her true calling later in life than most:

But when I’m all grown up and really quite old,

I finally figure out how to feel useful,

Enjoying the adventure of a two-country life.

As with all eighteen of the profiled subjects, we can learn more about Ynés Mexía in the supplement “Notes About the Lives,” which explains that her career as a botanist began at age fifty-five and led to the discovery of five hundred new species.

In his bold, graphic portraits, Rafael López signals each person’s setting and historical period through carefully selected details in their apparel, the background scenery, and through visual symbolism that enriches the poetic text. One noteworthy example is in the profile of Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest whose ministry in New York focused on newly arrived Irish immigrants. In his portrait, Varela wears a clerical collar and holds an olive branch in his right hand, signifying the pacifism that set him at odds with his countrymen in Cuba. On the opposite page, a smaller and simply rendered three-leaf clover pays homage to Varela’s Irish parishioners.

Readers familiar with Margarita Engle, whose poetry often elevates the work of unsung Latinas, will not be surprised that the collection includes seven noteworthy women. In addition, a generous proportion of those featured are of African or indigenous ancestry, and this diversity is satisfyingly represented in López’s stunning portrait work. By showcasing extraordinary, yet under-represented achievers, Bravo! enhances their visibility and sends an affirming message to girls and children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. With that said, this collection would have felt more complete if it offered a wider representation of ancestral lands. Among the eighteen profiles, there are no Dominicans, and only one of each from Central America and South America. (Editors, please take note that Latinx people represent a broad sweep of nations and cultures.) Perhaps in recognition of the impossible task of selecting just eighteen subjects, a supplement at the back of the book entitled “More and More Amazing Latinos” provides a list of over twenty more Latinx achievers. These include Tony Meléndez, a Nicaraguan American guitarist; Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian American planetary geologist for NASA; and Jaime Escalante, a teacher of mathematics from Bolivia.

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics is jewel of a picture book. It offers children an introductory glimpse of important historical figures they may never otherwise hear about. And let’s face it: adults will learn a great deal from these pages, too. As members of the Latinx community, these history-makers represent a rich variety of educational and economic backgrounds, an impressive array of careers and causes, as well as a diverse range of racial and ethnic legacies. Taken together, the tributes in this beautiful book point to the depth, complexity, and durability of Hispanic contribution to culture, innovation, civic advances, and many other components of life in the United States.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. For more information, visit Margarita’s website.


ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City, is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. A children’s book illustrator, he won the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2012, he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival poster. He has been awarded the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, three Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards. The illustrations created by López bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Learn more on his website.



ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Book Review: Martí’s Song for Freedom/ Martí y sus versos por la libertad written by Emma Otheguy, illus. by Beatriz Vidal


Reviewed by Chantel Acevedo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As a young boy, Jose Martí traveled to the countryside of Cuba and fell in love with the natural beauty of the land. During this trip he also witnessed the cruelties of slavery on sugar plantations. From that moment, Martí began to fight for the abolishment of slavery and for Cuban independence from Spain through his writing. By age seventeen, he was declared an enemy of Spain and was forced to leave his beloved island. Martí traveled the world and eventually settled in New York City. But the longer he stayed away from his homeland, the sicker and weaker he became. On doctor’s orders he traveled to the Catskill Mountains, where nature inspired him once again to fight for freedom. Here is a beautiful tribute to Jose Martí, written in verse with excerpts from his seminal work, Versos sencillos. He will always be remembered as a courageous fighter for freedom and peace among all men and women.

MY TWO CENTS: Nineteenth century Cuba and New York come alive in the pages of Emma Otheguy‘s Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad. Otheguy tells the story of José Martí, Cuban poet and patriot of Cuba’s independence, in prose that feels like verse, in both English and Spanish.

Interspersed throughout are excerpts from Martí’s Versos sencillos, and the effect is a powerful one. Martí himself speaks his story in these moments, affirming with his lyricism what Otheguy has told us–stories of the poet’s childhood, of watching slaves cutting sugar cane, which makes José “shake with rage,” of finding himself in exile in the Catskill Mountains that made him homesick for Cuba, and of his return to Cuba, “like an eagle healed, to join in a new war for independence.”

Otheguy does a wonderful job of capturing the act of writing, which can be difficult to describe. We see Martí’s evolution from pamphleteer to journalist, speechwriter, to poet. The word “inspiration” comes up often, and the sources of that inspiration range from people and their suffering, to people’s excitement, to trees, birds, and of course, swaying palmas reales.

Growing up Cuban-American in Miami, José Martí’s poems were the first I committed to memory. My abuela would “test” me, and I would recite. In Martí’s poems for children, both beauty and soul resided. “Los zapaticos de rosa,” a favorite in my house, was a lesson in humility and generosity, the injustice of poverty, and the innocence of childhood. Would that all children, everywhere, in every language, could learn it! In the bilingual school I attended, we memorized “Cultivo una rosa blanca…” and said it together as a class, like a prayer. When students fought, the teachers would remind us that we were all supposed to be “amigo(s) sincero(s).” So I was delighted to have the opportunity to read Otheguy’s book and share it with my daughters. The language, both in English and Spanish, is accessible. My five year old had no trouble listening to the story. The illustrations by Beatriz Vidal are rich with detail–from the colorful mantillas on the shoulders of women to Cuban tiles on the floor of rooms, to the birds that seem to alight on the text of each page.

Though I’ve heard of Martí all my life, I was surprised to learn of Martí’s time in the Catskills and the grueling work he did in a quarry while in prison, and so the book can be illuminating to readers beyond the elementary school level. Indeed, the battles Martí fought, both rhetorically and physically, and the forces of injustice that worked against him, are conflicts that resonate today across the globe. Reading the book to a child might be followed up by discussions of injustice today, and how the places where we live might resemble Cuba in the nineteenth century. Perhaps more importantly, a discussion of how we might be more like Martí could be a wonderful take-away.

The back cover features an actual portrait of José Martí, and a quote: “And let us never forget that the greater the suffering, the greater the right to justice, and that the prejudices of men and social inequalities cannot prevail over the equality which nature has created.” It is hard to imagine a Cuban childhood sans Martí, or a description of Cuba that does include reference to his influence. But beyond Cuba, Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad comes at an important time when even young readers are thinking about how we might make the world a more just place.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at Emma’s guest post for this blog provided a fascinating look at her Cuban heritage and her childhood development as a reader.

Photo of Beatriz VidalABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Beatriz Vidal was born in Argentina and attended the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of Cordoba University. In New York, she studied painting and design with Ilonka Karasz for several years. During that time, her career as an illustrator began with designs for Unicef cards and record covers. She has illustrated many children’s books, including The Legend of El Dorado, A Library for Juana, Federico and the Magi’s Gift, and A Gift of Gracias. She divides her time between Buenos Aires and New York City.




ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Chantel Acevedo’s novels include Love and Ghost Letters (St. Martin’s Press), which won the Latino International Book Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book of the Year, Song of the Red Cloak, a historical novel for young adults, A Falling Star (Carolina Wren Press), winner of the Doris Bakwin Award, and National Bronze Medal IPPY Award, and The Distant Marvels, (Europa Editions), a Carnegie Medal finalist and an Indie Next Pick. Her latest novel, The Living Infinite (Europa Editions), is forthcoming. She is also the author of En Otro Oz (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook of poems. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, North American Review, and Ecotone, among many others. She earned her MFA at the University of Miami, where she is currently an Associate Professor of English, and advises Sinking City, the MFA program’s literary journal.

Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This review is by Lila Quintero Weaver and is based on an advanced reading copy.

From the publisher:

The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief. Sal discovers that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

My two cents:

The 2012 multiple prize-winning YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, delivered a spellbinding story of remarkable teen characters on the brink of self-discovery. Among its achievements, the novel provided positive and authentic representations of gay teens and Latinx families. Sáenz follows that feat with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, which subtly echoes themes in Aristotle and Dante and reaffirms the author’s virtuosity.

Seventeen-year-old Sal (Salvatore) lives in El Paso, Texas, with his adoptive father, a gay Mexican-American art professor named Vicente Silva. Vicente assumed responsibility for Sal after his mother died, when Sal was just three years old. (The connections between Sal’s mother and Vicente don’t become clear until late in the book, when Sal finally opens a letter his dying mother wrote and left in Vicente’s care.) Although Sal is white, the adoption secures his place in the heart of a loving Mexican-American family, which is headed by the matriarch Sal comes to know as Mima. As his adoptive grandmother, Mima refers to Sal as her “hijito de mi vida,” and the adoration is mutual.

The warmth of the Silva family magnetically pulls in two other teen characters. Sal’s best friend, Sam (Samantha), is locked in raging conflict with her mom. Another friend, Fito, suffers the effects of a drug-addicted mother and an absentee dad. In order to survive, Fito must hold down two after-school jobs.

Compared to the home lives of his friends, Sal’s family is golden. But for all the advantages he enjoys, Sal is a complex character, who on the surface, feels secure in his identity as a peaceful, self-confessed straight edger. He eschews cigarettes and alcohol (well, mostly), and is still a virgin. But he harbors a reactionary side. When a classmate utters a homophobic slur against Vicente, Sal resorts to violence that lands him in Principal Cisneros’s office. This impulse to lash out physically catches Sal by surprise, and it won’t be the last time.

Other big questions disrupt Sal’s world. His beloved Mima is diagnosed with late-stage bone cancer. Vicente’s one-time boyfriend, Marcos, reappears on the scene, bringing heartache and mistrust to the Silva house. There’s still that matter of the unopened letter from Sal’s mother, and then, major crises hit Sam’s and Fito’s families, radiating tremors in all directions. How fortunate for everyone that Vicente possesses finely tuned paternal instincts and the willingness to open the family circle even wider. Even so, don’t mistake this for a sentimental story. The struggles these young characters wrestle with are real and not easily resolved.

Although compelling plot developments push the story along, this novel also distinguishes itself through skillful characterization and crisp, realistic dialogue. The dialogue especially stands out during volleys between the teen characters. Sal and Sam, who’ve known each other since early childhood, share a platonic friendship that’s built on love and mutual respect, but that doesn’t keep them from ribbing one another mercilessly and butting into each other’s business. As Fito becomes a larger part of their lives, his comi-tragic flavor gets added to the mix. The verbal conversations and text messages these three engage in are, by turns, hilarious, poignant, revealing, laced with profanity, and true to the way teens speak in 2017. These exchanges reveal the intricate give-and-take of teen friendships, where mutual support is often coded as deprecatory banter.

The novel also takes on complex racial and ethnic dynamics, but it’s done with a subtle touch. In writing Sal as a white child adopted by a Mexican family, Sáenz makes a daring choice that reverses typical scripts of interracial or interethnic adoption. Much of Sal’s identity stems from Vicente, the man he considers his true father. In the Silva family, Mexican heritage is freely offered as a gift—one Sal knows he’s lucky to receive and absorb into his cultural makeup. But acceptance at home doesn’t extend to every corner of Sal’s world, and elements of race appear mostly around his role as a rare white kid in a setting dominated by Mexican and Latinx culture. At one point, a classmate drops the slur “pinche gringo” on him, leading to one of several bursts of violence on Sal’s part. On the flip side, Mexican American Sam teasingly refers to Sal as “white boy,” all the while fully aware that by virtue of his upbringing, Sal is more deeply ensconced in Mexican tradition than she is. Sal appreciates the irony and won’t let Sam get away with drawing false distinctions. This is a tricky point, but Sáenz successfully plays it with humor.

The question that persists almost to the end of the book is why Sal puts off reading his mother’s letter. He doesn’t understand his own reluctance, and this is part of the “inexplicable logic” referred to in the title. Could it be that Sal fears losing the rock-solid foundation offered by the family that raised him? Many writers would’ve dangled such a compelling object as catnip before their readers. But Sáenz uses uncommon restraint, allowing mentions of the sealed letter to bubble up in conversation or in Sal’s interior monologue sparingly, as if he’s holding that question just inside our peripheral vision while the characters occupy themselves with more urgent concerns.

In the writing itself, the author demonstrates other forms of restraint that recall his poetic side. He clips sentences and keeps chapters unusually short, suggesting the poetic habit of brevity. While his prose enthralls the ear, Sáenz’s mastery goes beyond the level of the sentence. He’s an accomplished storyteller who works magic with dialogue, gives characters muscle and breath, and creates intrigue through the subtle layering of reveals and building questions. Another satisfying aspect of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is the treatment of intergenerational relationships. We’re reminded that healthy family connections help us thrive, while their absence leaves us yearning. Above all, Sáenz crafts a narrative around things that deeply matter to teen readers: identity, belonging, and finding one’s place in the world—and he charges his characters with the drive to pursue these prizes.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a scholar, a teacher of creative writing, and a prize-winning poet and novelist. Along with other distinctions, his 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won the Pura Belpré Award, the Stonewall Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Our review is here. In 2013, National Public Radio featured Sáenz in a fascinating interview. Long based in El Paso, Texas, Sáenz retired from teaching in 2016. Keep up with him via Twitter.

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.


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 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.