MG Latinx Characters & Their (Sometimes) Complicated Relationships with Spanish

 

by Lila Quintero Weaver, with Cris Rhodes, Ph.D.

According to the Pew Research Center, broken Spanish (or no Spanish at all) is a reality lived by a growing number of Latinx, especially youth.

Although many Latinx children and teens tackle Spanish confidently and with smooth results, others are not so lucky. As speakers, they fumble for the right words and grammatical constructions. As listeners, they miss out on idioms, inside jokes, and culturally buried subtexts. Often these scenarios take place within family settings, where older members may speak limited English or no English at all.

How do such language gaps affect a young person’s connection to family and community? What is the impact on their sense of cultural belonging or ethnic identity, and on the pride they feel in claiming Latinidad?

Connection, belonging, knowing who you are and where you come from: These things deeply matter, which is why the Spanish-language journey of Latinx youth deserves authentic representation in children’s literature.

Fortunately, middle-grade fiction is addressing the many shades of Spanish proficiency that exist out there, and the most compelling examples come from Latinx authors, whose personal experiences and finely-tuned observations collectively yield a rich and varied picture of how young people in the Latinx community navigate the language gaps they encounter.

Below is a list of recently published middle-grade novels featuring Latinx characters whose Spanish is less than perfect. 

*Note: Although this post addresses the role of Spanish in Latinx youth literature, it’s critical to acknowledge that many people connected to the Latinx community speak indigenous languages, whether exclusively or in addition to Spanish. Furthermore, Latinx youth of Brazilian origin are likely to face similar issues with Portuguese.

Recommended Reading

Listed Alphabetically by Author

The Epic Fall of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya  

This is the story of how 13-year-old Arturo’s world is set ablaze by love and activism. It happens during a summer in Miami, when a real-estate developer threatens the future of the restaurant run by Arturo’s grandmother, simultaneously affecting the neighborhood’s other businesses and residents. These are the people who become Arturo’s extended “family.” During this momentous summer, he also navigates a heavy crush on Carmen, a girl who brings poetry into his life. With respect to Arturo’s command of Spanish, our reviewer writes: “Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he ‘sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.’” Read the full review by Jessica Agudelo here.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya

Marcus Vega’s at-school hustle using his towering height and bulk to protect smaller kids from bullies comes to screeching halt when Marcus punches a bully for calling his little brother, Charlie, a derogatory term related to Charlie’s Down syndrome. Fearing that Marcus needs a break, Marcus’s mother resolves to take Charlie and Marcus to Puerto Rico–the home of their absent father. To Marcus, Puerto Rico is a land of mystery, paralleling the mystery of the father whom he doesn’t know. Marcus’s inability to speak Spanish doesn’t prove so much a barrier on the island, where he’s pleased to learn many of his relatives speak English in addition to Spanish, but he is shocked upon arrival on the island that his mother is fluent, having studied Spanish in college. This revelation spurs Marcus to realize his own Spanish isn’t as bad as he’d first thought, as he reads signs and listens to conversations, pleased that he understands even a little of the language. Even as his father’s continued absence makes Marcus feel disjointed, the trip to Puerto Rico helps him realize a connection to his heritage, his paternal language, and his familia. –Summary by Dr. Cris Rhodes

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

When 7th-grader Paloma Marquez heads to Mexico City to spend a month, it’s not exactly by choice. Tagging along on her mom’s business trip, Paloma arrives knowing little Spanish. Although she packs a Spanish phrase book, she resists the idea that she should learn more. Almost immediately, she’s caught up in a mystery at La Casa Azul, the former home of the famous painter Frida Kahlo, which has been converted to a museum. Also hanging out at the museum are local twins Gael and Lizzie. They become Paloma’s intercambio partners. In exchange for tutoring Paloma in Spanish, the twins refine their grasp of colloquial English, with Paloma’s help. Soon the three kids are swept into the story’s central quest involving a missing peacock ring and some sketchy characters with dangerous schemes. Learn more about this rollicking adventure from our review by Jessica Agudelo.

Stella Díaz Has Something to Say by Adriana Dominguez

Stella is shy. When she and her best friend, Jenny, are assigned different teachers, Stella loses the built-in comfort of a ready ally. Forced to make new friends, Stella hopes to find someone who speaks Spanish. How interesting that she specifies this preference, because Stella’s hold on Spanish isn’t solid. In her review, Jessica Agudelo writes: “At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because ‘here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.’ Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although it is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as ‘code switching’ or speaking ‘Spanglish,’ Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.” Read Jessica’s full review of Stella Díaz here.

Lucky Luna by Diana López

Luna Ramos is an endearing character with a mischievous bent. She’s part of a huge and loving Mexican-American family based in Corpus Christi, Texas. At school, Luna is flunking fifth-grade Spanish. How can this be when her last name is Ramos, she asks herself? But growing up in a home where Spanish isn’t spoken, Luna doesn’t have ready access to the in’s and out’s of Spanish. Teachers and family members keep insisting that the person best suited to tutor her is cousin Claudia, a fluent speaker. Trouble is, Claudia is pushy, meddlesome, prone to tattling, and often a thorn in Luna’s side. Initially, Luna figures she’d be better off getting help from a different cousin. Hm, maybe not! Young readers will get a kick out of the hilarious miscommunications that ensue along the cousin grapevine. Will Luna manage to make peace with Spanish? 

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

Talk about feeling left out! Unlike her older sisters, 11-year-old Leo Logroño doesn’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. The oldest two Logroño girls learned at Abuela’s knee, while the middle two have enrolled in Spanish courses at school and are far ahead of Leo. The family owns a bakery, the Amor y Azucar Panadería, famous for its Day of the Dead pastries and for hosting an annual festival celebrating that holiday. In the lead-up to the festival, mysterious events at the bakery put Leo on high alert. Just what are her mom and sisters up to, she asks herself?  Leo’s eavesdropping could’ve yielded better results, if only she’d learned more Spanish. For further insights, check out Cecilia Cackley’s review of the novel here. I also recommend this interview with the author, which includes personal reflections on the role of Spanish.

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez

María Luisa, better known as Malú, is an aficionado of punk rock, thanks to her dad’s influence. When Malú moves with her mom from north Florida to Chicago, her exposure to Spanish intensifies. But although her mom is a scholar of Mexican culture, Malú does not feel competent or comfortable in speaking Spanish. At school, she’s surprised to be admitted into the class section designated for fluent speakers. One of the students in that class sneers at Malú’s Spanish and labels her a “coconut,” a derogatory term that implies Malú is brown only on the outside. Malú’s emotional journey finds expression in punk music and zines, and both lead her to embrace Spanish more fully. See our full review by Lettycia Terrones.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

Echoing my own immigrant experience in small-town Alabama, this novel takes place in 1970 and features 12-year-old Lu Olivera. Lu’s challenges include becoming a better runner. She also faces unfolding conflicts related to school desegregation, as well as a gubernatorial election that turns racist and nasty. Lu’s state of Spanish is rusty, but passable. She manages to interpret Spanish conversations for English-only speakers, and even helps a Cuban neighbor conduct a banking errand, although not without trepidation over unfamiliar terms. On the school bus, a bully delights in teasing Lu about her South American origins, calling her native language “spinach.” Here’s what teen reviewer Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama wrote on our blog about My Year in the Middle.

Readers, this list is far from comprehensive! I hope to add more titles as I learn about them, and I welcome your feedback.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR TEACHERS

Here are some points to ponder regarding Latinx characters and their encounters with Spanish:  

  • Within a single story, characters’ experiences may reflect multiple levels of Spanish-language literacy, comprehension, and verbal fluency.
  • Some characters are raised in homes where no Spanish is spoken or where only one parental figure is fluent enough to speak it. This includes families in which one partner is Latinx, while the other is not.
  • Although around 70% of Latinx parents encourage their kids to speak Spanish at home, there are also those who discourage it, perhaps fearing their children will not master English. Such parents are often anxious to shelter their children from racism, while some calculate that limiting Spanish will ease their way in an English-dominant world.
  • Parents, grandparents, teachers, and neighbors vary widely in how supportive, coercive, or judgmental they are regarding a character’s level of Spanish.
  • In some settings, such as schools and communities, Spanish is prevalent; in others, it’s less common or even rare.
  • Characters express a broad range of positive-to-negative feelings about using Spanish or improving the Spanish skills they possess.
  • The immigration histories of characters’ families vary widely.
  • Some characters also struggle with defining their ethnic identity, and sometimes this is tied to their Spanish-language skills.
  • Further complicating the language struggle, narratives sometimes engage with representations of colorism, internal oppression, white supremacy, and racist bullying.
  • Spanish words, sentences, and expressions often appear in these stories. Translations are rarely provided within the text–a rapidly fading practice we are happy to see go. Even so, English-only readers will be able to intuit meanings through context.

Relevant articles to explore:

Consider these findings by the Pew Research Center: “Overall, about 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, making it the country’s second-most spoken language. At the same time, growth in the number of Spanish-speaking Hispanics has slowed, according to the Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. As a result, the share of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home has declined, while the share that speaks only English at home has increased, especially among children.” [Emphasis mine]

From the Center for Applied Linguistics, this FAQ addresses the subject of heritage speakers and language-learning programs designed specifically to help them.

Reprinted in TIME magazine, Daniel José Older’s “I Rejected Spanish as a Kid. Now I Wish We’d Embrace Our Native Languages” is an essay that originally appeared in the anthology The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America.

Here’s a poignant reflection by Kevin Garcia on the NPR website, entitled “Can You Lose a Language You Never Knew?”

12 Reasons People Are Told They’re Not Latino Enough” is a fascinating exploration of Latinx community metrics by Tanisha Love Ramirez. Reason No. 2 is all about imperfect Spanish.  

Don’t miss these videos:

 

Do You Have to Speak Spanish to Be Latino?

 

“When You’re Latino and You Suck at Spanish.” Humorous–and lightly profane!

 

A Writer Belongs Everywhere: Stories from a Writing Workshop for Middle School Girls

 

By Tracey T. Flores, Ph.D.

On a hot evening in June, four Latina girls, Rocky, Reyna, Blanca and Elizabeth, entering ninth and tenth grade, and their parents, Valente, Samuel, Alma and Rose, gather at the local university for an evening of drawing, writing and sharing. In the small meeting room, sitting side-by-side at tables, girls and their parents busily sketch, in pencil and crayon, a drawing in response to the question: “Where are you from? / ¿De dónde eres?”

Walking around the room, I notice many different sketches. Rocky sketches a self-portrait of herself with wavy brown hair and blonde highlights. With a blue crayon, her father, Valente, sketches the flag of Honduras. Alma shows her daughter a sketch of the world with México at the center, as Blanca sketches a large brick house with two small girls with braids smiling in front of it. Rose colors the hair on her stick figure black, while her daughter, Elizabeth, draws a girl looking into a small mirror while putting makeup on her face. Samuel finishes his sketch of the U.S. flag and the flag of México, intersecting the shape of a heart between them, while his daughter, Reyna, colors the red tongue of the small dog she has sketched.

Rocky’s self-portrait

As families finish their sketches and begin sharing, the room becomes alive with stories. They share stories of family camping adventures, cherished memories of times spent with abuelitos, inside jokes shared between hermanas and of childhoods growing up in México y Honduras. Listening to each other, they nod in agreement, ask questions and connect through the collective telling and sharing of stories and histories.

Tonight is the first night that these Latina girls and their parents have come together to write and draw stories from their lived experiences. Over the next six weeks, as they participate in Somos Escritores/We are Writers, we will read and discuss a variety of bilingual (English/Spanish) print and digital texts, explore our experiences and histories, and use drawing, writing and oral storytelling as tools for self-expression and self-reflection. Somos Escritores is a writing workshop that brings Latina girls (grades 6-12) and their parents together for the intergenerational exchange of stories and knowledge through drawing, writing and oral storytelling.

After sharing our sketches, we read and discuss two poems, Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon and De Donde Yo Soy by Levi Romero. In these poems, poets explore their histories and describe through vivid language and detail all the people, places, moments and memories that shape who they are and how they walk in the world. These poems serve as an invitation for girls and their parents to further explore their lives while considering the ways their familial, cultural and linguistic histories shape who they are and who they are becoming. Finally, girls and their parents take their drawing to writing, using these poems as inspiration for crafting their own Where I’m From / De Donde Soy Yo poems.

Reyna wrote, “I’m from the family of whom love me very much. I’m from the land of the proud and brave. I’m from who I made myself to be.”

Samuel reads, “I am from a humble family, who lived poor but was rich in love.”

Blanca wrote, “I am from a not so perfect family, but from a family who is perfect in its own way.”

Holding her picture up, Alma shares, “Yo soy de un lugar cerca de la tierra y el amor de la galaxia.”

Alma’s sketch

As a facilitator and writer alongside girls and their parents in Somos Escritores, I have the honor and privilege of bearing witness to their lived experiences through our collective sharing of stories. Their stories welcome me into their lives, allowing me to learn about their experiences and realities in their own words. Through their stories, I learn about who they truly are, as Latinx girls, women and men, what matters most to them and what they envision for their futures.

I learn that Rocky, Reyna, Blanca and Elizabeth are fighting to be seen and heard. They are socially conscious girls who are aware of the negative stereotypes that society places upon them, as Latina girls. Through their actions and words, they are speaking to society in powerfully loud ways by excelling in school, cultivating their many passions and setting goals for their future selves. These girls refuse to be defined by society’s narrow definitions and views of who they are and what they are capable of achieving. Collectively they are working to be the change, the voice that our world needs.

I learn that Valente, Samuel, Alma and Rose are courageous, supportive and loving mothers and fathers. These parents provide their daughters with a solid foundation to pursue their passions and accomplish their goals. They work tirelessly, both on the job and at home, to meet their daughters’ personal, social, and academic needs.

At the close of our first workshop, I ask girls and parents to reflect upon why we must write and share our stories. Each girl and parent writes and shares their reflection, speaking to the importance of hearing different perspectives, realizing they are not alone and learning valuable life lessons. Finally, Valente is the last to share his reflection with the group. He reads, “I have to write because I want to be an example for my daughter and let her know my story and that I’m here.”

Note: Somos Escritores/We Are Writers was imagined from my work alongside my 2nd grade students in family writing workshops. This project is part of my dissertation work and has evolved into a writing workshop for Latina girls (grades 6-12). Twitter: @Las_Escritoras

Tracey T. Flores is an assistant professor of language and literacy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a former English Language Development (ELD) and English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, working for eight years alongside culturally and linguistically diverse students and families in schools throughout Glendale and Phoenix Arizona. Her research interests include Latina girls’ language and literacy practices, family and community literacies and the writing instruction and development of Latinx youth. Tracey can be reached at: tflores@austin.utexas.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book review: Por ahí viene el huracán: Una aventura de Isa y Mau

 

We don’t often publish reviews or articles exclusively in Spanish, but since the picture book reviewed below is not yet available in English, it seems sensible to direct this post to readers of Spanish. To be clear, we do hope for an eventual English edition. After all, Por ahí viene el huracán is an authentic depiction of a child’s experience of Hurricane María, written and illustrated by Puerto Ricans with close knowledge of what the storm did to their island and their people. We hope it will find expression in multiple languages!

Readers on the mainland may order copies of this edition at Libros787.com. 

Reseña por Sujei Lugo y Lila Quintero Weaver

POR AHÍ VIENE EL HURACÁN: Una aventura de Isa y Mau es escrito por Laura Rexach Olivencia e ilustrado por Mya Pagán. (Editorial Destellos, 2018)

El impacto del Huracán María el pasado septiembre de 2017, marcó fuertemente la vida y experiencias de diversas comunidades en Puerto Rico y la diáspora. Lxs niñxs no estuvieron exentos del impacto psicológico, físico, natural, y social del fenómeno atmosférico y sus vidas y experiencias son igual de válidas. Varias personas se han dado la tarea de documentar y representar el paso e impacto del huracán a través de las letras, la música y el arte. Entre estos tenemos varios libros de literatura infantil y juvenil. Uno de ellos lo es Por ahí viene el huracán escrito por Laura Rexach Olivencia e ilustrado por Mya Pagán.

Aunque el nombre del huracán no es mencionado, detalles dentro de la historia y la fecha de publicación nos pueden indicar que se trata del Huracán María. “El último no vino. Pero dicen que este sí que viene.” Frase que se repetía luego del Huracán Irma y a la llegada del Huracán María.

La historia es contada desde la perspectiva de una niña llamada Isa y sus conversaciones con su gato Mau. Isa espera con ansias la hora de salida ya que al otro día no habría clase debido al posible paso de un huracán. Al llegar a la casa, Isa conversa como su gato Mau sobre la necesidad de prepararse ante el posible impacto del huracán. Toda la familia está trabajando para preparar la casa, sus pertenencias y organizar los suplidos necesarios. Isa observa cómo los vecinos y la comunidad anda de lado a lado comprando materiales, alimentos, artículos de primera necesidad y como todos cargan las mismas cosas, baterías, agua, latas, velas y linternas. La abuela también los acompaña en la casa y todos se quedarán en el mismo cuarto, algo que le emociona a Isa porque cree que es un “pijama party”, sensación que muchos también sentimos durante nuestra niñez.

Tan pronto comienzan los vientos, se va la luz, lo que causa que muchos en la casa despierten por el calor, el ruido del viento o simplemente, ansiedad. Su abuela Lela, como cariñosamente la llama Isa, intenta calmar a la niña pero Isa no logra recuperar el sueño. La familia de Isa tuvo que levantarse para reforzar los paneles en las ventanas debido a los fuertes vientos y lluvia. Los ruidos que se escuchaban eran aterradores, que hasta los adultos del hogar siente miedo, algo que Isa nunca había visto a su padre sentir. ¡Qué eternidad!, expresan. Sentimiento que fue expresado constantemente al describir el huracán. Recuerdo mensajes recibidos y leídos de lo “eterno que se sentía”, “esto no para”, “esto es el día más largo de mi vida”.   

Al otro día el sonido del viento fue disminuyendo y la calma fue regresando. Isa ayuda en la casa secando y controlando el agua que está entrando a la misma. El barrio y los caminos están clausurados por troncos de árboles, postes caídos, puentes derrumbados y pasan seis días atrapados, muy cercano a la realidad vivida en Puerto Rico. Una imagen presenta un camión de la Guardia Nacional o Fuerzas Armadas, y el texto narra cómo un grupo de soldados llegaron a su vecindario a ayudar, algo que no muchas personas vivieron post Huracán María.

El libro ilustrado es bastante certero en plasmar lo que se vivió luego de María, las filas interminables para agua, gasolina, alimentos. El desespero que se vivió y que algunos aún viven. Muchas personas perdieron sus hogares, familiares, trabajos y cotidianidad, que fueron desplazados y se trasladaron a vivir a los Estados Unidos. Isa observa que su amigo Nico, es uno de los miles de niños que tuvieron que mudarse e Isa siente una tristeza sobre algunas de las consecuencias del impacto del huracán.

“Llega el mes de noviembre y la escuela del pueblo sigue cerrada porque aún no llega la electricidad”. Las escuelas fueron unos de los lugares más impactados por María, algunos aún funcionaban como refugio, otros como cocinas y espacios comunitarios, otras sufrieron daños en la infraestructura y otras fueron eventualmente cerradas. Al igual que Isa, muchas familias y comunidades crearon “una nueva rutina diaria.” Isa reflexiona sobre su amigo Nico que tuvo que irse, sobre el cierre de su escuela y como está deseosa que tanto Nico y la escuela vuelvan a su vida. Entre preocupación y esperanza, Isa vuelve a sentir vida en su barrio.

El texto es simple, honesto y captura la esencia de los personajes, el ambiente que reina antes, durante y luego de un fenómeno atmosférico sin ser condescendiente con los lectores. Se puede sentir la voz y experiencia de las personas que realmente pasaron por este desastre natural y proveen una visión auténtica de la historia. Los detalles, el vocabulario, la vestimenta y otras imágenes capturan algunas de las experiencias y realidades puertorriqueñas.

La autora incorpora el uso de onomatopeyas de diversos sonidos como el desagüe en la bañera, la vieja mecedora, el silencio, los martillazos en la pared, los zapatos caminando, el sonido aterrador del viento, los ladridos del perro, los cuchillos para cortar vegetales, el suave cantar de la brisa y el cantar del coquí. A través de las onomatopeyas y las expresiones faciales de los personas, se captura el progreso gradual de las emociones y labores antes, durante y después del paso de un huracán.

El diseño del libro y yuxtaposición del texto, las ilustraciones y los espacios en blanco proveen una cierta calma dentro una historia que puede hacer recordar a algunos lectores los malos recuerdos, emociones y experiencias vividas.  El libro incluye un glosario de palabras que pueden ser nuevas para los pequeños lectores y que están resaltadas en negrillas (bold) dentro del texto a lo largo de la historia.

El arte consiste de ilustraciones sencillas presentadas con aire de inocencia. Pintados de acuarela, los dibujos resaltan, gracias a una gama amplia de colores y tonos. Además se utilizan bordes bien definidos, semejantes en estilo a los de los comics. Aunque se nota que los paisajes naturales suelen inclinarse a lo sobresimplificado, la mayoría de las ilustraciones emparejan a la historia perfectamente.

Más que nada, la ilustradora brilla en sus representaciones de los personajes. Las caras son distintas, como también son los detalles de la ropa, los zapatos, los sombreros, los peinados, las gafas de sol, y otros artículos. Es una fiesta para los ojos. El efecto visual es encantador y sirve bien para entretener a los lectores de cualquier edad.

Una nota de la autora y/o la ilustradora hubiera ayudado a brindar un poco de contexto a la historia y para los lectores no familiarizados con huracanes o el Huracán María. Pero también puede verse como una historia que puede plasmarse y presentarse en relación a otros huracanes, desastres naturales y experiencias.

 

Laura Rexach Olivencia es consultora en filantropía estratégica y combina su perspectiva de madre puertorriqueña con su experiencia en negocios y pasión por la educación para ayuda a adelantar proyectos que inspiran. Vive en San Juan, Puerto Rico con su esposo y tres hijos pequeños.

 

 

 

Mya Pagán es una ilustradora puertorriqueña. Completó un Bachillerato en Lenguas Extranjeras de la UPR de Río Piedras con concentración en francés e italiano. Además de su pasión por los idiomas, siempre le ha encantado dibujar y traducir lo que la rodea y lo que siente a papel. Actualmente trabaja como ilustradora a tiempo completo y ha trabajado con varias agencias.

Book Review: Lowriders Blast from the Past, written by Cathy Camper, Illustrated by Raúl the Third

Reviewed by David Bowles

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When new friends Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio are each bullied by Los Matamoscas, they know they’re going to like one another. When they find out they all love lowrider cars, they know they’ll be friends for life. But the bullies won’t leave the Lowriders alone—and they don’t let any girls or babies into car clubs. Can these three determined outcasts prove they deserve to be in the car show? Humor, Spanish words, and lowrider culture come together in this heartwarming graphic novel of three friends navigating the bumpy terrain of friendship, bullying, and standing up for what you believe in.

MY TWO CENTS: The third book in Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third’s wonderful Lowriders graphic novel series may seem at first to break with the genre of the previous installments by giving us an origin story, but the series has already established itself as genre-bending, going from sci-fi to mythological adventure. A bit of historical fiction seems to fit nicely in the creators’ wide-ranging work. It’s lots of fun and uplifting to see young versions of our heroes push back against the sexism of Los Matamoscas, a group of bullies who have been making the kids’ lives difficult. It happens that these overly macho men also dictate the ad-hoc rules of a popular car show so they can bar women from competing. As the women in question are furthermore queer (Mamá Impala and Mamá Gazelle, Lupe’s two mothers), the affirmation and representation of marginalized, intersectional identity is particularly poignant.

Just as in life, the hurdles male bullies set for the women are ridiculous (cross speed bumps without scraping the bottom of car, make sure a 5-gallon jar of agua fresca doesn’t spill during a full lap, paint car with no visible brush strokes). But the three new friends (united as allies of the women and victims of Los Matamoscas’ bullying) use their individual skill sets to beat the gang at their own game. Along the way, they earn the respect (and possibly friendship) of some of the macho dudes.

Along with Raúl’s amazing ball-point art (he brings green in this time!) and the linguistic exploration of Spanish and indigenous languages, Lowriders Blast from the Past takes advantage of its historical setting to introduce young readers (and old) to Chicano art of the 70s and 80s, specifically the work of ASCO (great name, heh), an East Los Angeles art collective that was active between 1972 and 1987. Raúl’s recreations of some of their signature pieces was a highlight for me, showcasing just how diverse his talents are. (Full disclosure: he and I have been working on a graphic novel together.)

Camper deftly defies the stylistic patterns that a middle-grade book might normally default to, and if the storyline itself is comfortably predictable, the execution (with its edifying digressions and code-switching) is one-of-a-kind and culturally spot-on.

I loved this volume, and can’t wait to see what adventures Lupe, Flapjack, and Elirio go on next!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth and Lowriders Blast from the Past, with a fourth volume in the works, all from Chronicle Books. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow (Dial/Penguin), and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives (Simon & Schuster). Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12. Cathy is represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. For insights on the creative originas of the Lowriders series, read Cathy’s Camper’s guest post.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Raúl the Third is an award-winning illustrator, author, and artist living in Boston. His work centers on the contemporary Mexican-American experience and his memories of growing up in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Lowriders in Space was nominated for a Texas BlueBonnet award in 2016-2017 and Raúl was awarded the prestigious Pura Belpré Award for Illustration by the American Library Association for Lowriders to the Center of the Earth. He was also a contributor to the SpongeBob Comics series. Raúl wrote and illustrated the picture book ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to The Market!, which Versify will publish on April 2. For a fun and lively conversation about art, comics, growing up in El Paso and more, check out this one-of-a-kind audio interview with Raúl, conducted by illustrator Roberto Trujillo.

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

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

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 2

 

This is part 2 in a roundtable discussion with members of our reviewing team. We are immensely grateful for their work. Most of them lead busy professional lives that center around literacy and literature. It only figures that they would have more to say about Latinx kid lit than can fit into a single review. Let’s hear them out.

LiKL: Tell us about yourself as a child reader. How do those experiences color your impressions of the books you read now?

Jessica Agudelo is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. Like many librarians, I was a dedicated reader throughout my childhood. I loved stories and even the physical books themselves. One of my greatest pleasures was when the Scholastic Book Fair would come to my elementary school.  I felt such joy browsing the glossy covers, then selecting just the right one to bring home and add to my own cupboard library. My treasured stash. I adored books like Amber Brown and the Wayside School series, and later the Caroline B. Cooney mysteries. I was an adult before I started realizing that my reading life was devoid of authors and characters of color. I didn’t know I needed it. But once I realized it was missing, I made a point to read all I could by and about Latinxs, and other non-white cultures and people. Nowadays, when I read titles like Pablo Cartaya’s The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, or Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk, I feel like I am 11 again, because these authors have so beautifully and honestly depicted the experiences of second-generation Latinx youth, reflecting many of my own struggles and joys. I am also grateful to be in the position to share diverse stories with kids, who can recognize themselves in these books or get a glimpse into the life of someone. In this way, I make up for lost time.

Jessica Walsh in her best-reader glory days! (She’s the smallest child pictured.)

Jessica Walsh is the K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist in an Illinois school district.  In kindergarten, I won a prize for having read the most books in my grade. We didn’t have many books at home back then – we couldn’t afford them–so I relied on my school and public libraries. Later I got books from the Scholastic Book Order and read titles like Beezus and Ramona and the Peanut Butter and Jelly series. Moving on to middle school, I consumed a steady diet of Sweet Valley High and everything by Christopher Pike. I remember staring long and hard at the covers, imagining what it would be like to live those lives. Looking back, I was searching to discover who I was. As the only kid of Mexican descent, I looked different than my peers and my hair wouldn’t do what the other girls’ hair did. (It was the 80s though…so I rocked that perm!) We had little money and I never had the right clothes or accessories. What the books I read had in common, though, were the universal struggles of growing up: conflicts with friends, parents. As I read and consider which books to put in kids’ hands, I think about the books I loved and that instilled in me a joy of reading.

Elena Foulis, Ph.D., leads a digital oral-history program to document the stories of Latinxs in Ohio. As a child, I liked reading, but lacked someone in my life who could point me to good books, appropriate for my age or identity. When I started college, I was in the U.S. and I devoured books that connected me to my roots and reminded me where I came from. I mostly read in Spanish, and later on, multi-ethnic literature in English. I have a graduate degree in comparative literature, so reading from different groups allowed me to learn from different cultures, linguistic backgrounds and histories.

LiKL: What is your reviewing process like? Do you take notes throughout your reading time? Are there sticky flags involved? Are there sticky fingers involved (because: sugary snacks)?

Elena: I am a slow reader! I like to take my time with each book. I pause to imagine the landscape, the characters and the sound of their voices. I write on the margins and highlight important passages. Coffee is always involved, so occasionally, my books have coffee stains. 🙂

Jessica Agudelo

Jessica A: My reviewing process varies, depending on what I’m reading. For picture books, I read once through for an initial reaction to the story and art. Then I read a few more times (at least once, aloud) to note specifics, such as the relationship between the text and illustrations, or narrative strength and nuance. For fiction, sticky notes are a necessity! I don’t like writing in books and hate dog ears (although I sometimes use this technique on the train, when sticky notes aren’t available). I make notes about recurring themes, characters and their notable traits, plot specifics, and stand-out quotes that I might want to include in the review. I also jot down any similar books that come to mind, to offer that additional frame of reference.

LiKL: Your work as an educator, youth librarian, scholar of children’s literature is bound to affect your work as a reviewer. Help us understand the professional perspective you bring to the evaluation of texts.

Elena:  In my studies, I read literature of the Spanish-speaking world and U.S. literature. Although this included canonical works, I was always attracted to writers who spoke from the margins. I liked to understand the perspective of those on the peripheries, those who challenged mainstream culture. I devoured books written by women! I think this experience is valuable to reviewing Latinx books, and as a Latina who has two teen girls, I look for how each author approaches culture, identity and language, and how young women might be empowered by books that tell a familiar story, one that connects to their own experiences.

LiKL: Let’s draw up a wish list for authors and publishers. Which genres, storylines, locations, representations, or other considerations do you pine for in books for children or teens?

Jessica A: More ordinary stories! Latinxs are joyful and resilient, we are not always struggling and suffering. There is beauty in the mundane. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Meg Medina speak a number of times. On one occasion, she mentioned the need for our community to elevate our heroes. I couldn’t agree more. We have an admirable list of icons, but there are so many more Latinx artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, and activists that have influenced American and world history. They should be represented in the books our kids and teens are reading.

Elena Foulis

Elena: I am still hoping to write a book myself! After living in the Midwest for many years, I would love to read about growing up Latinx in that region. We have The House on Mango Street, but we also need the perspective of Latinx growing up in rural areas or smaller cities, and from Central American backgrounds. It’s also important to address current topics that some consider taboo, like mental health.

Jessica W: I would love to see the books I needed when I was younger, such as books about kids with a desire to claim their Latinx culture, because their parents intentionally kept that part of their identity hidden. Growing up, my mother, who remarried, kept me away from my Mexican-American family. We moved thousands of miles away and rarely visited, partly due to the cost of travel. Not until later did she reclaim her heritage, so this meant I never heard family stories, although my father did enrich my life with the traditions of his heritage. I hope that young readers in similar experiences will have someone in their lives–a librarian, a teacher, a mentor–who can place an amazing Latinx story in their hands, which celebrate their culture. If I’d had that, I wouldn’t have continued to struggle with my Mexicanidad, even into adulthood.

LiKL: Now let’s flip the coin. What are your reading pet peeves? Specify the tired tropes, stereotypes, or overused plot machinations that cause you to roll your eyes—or to slam a book shut.

Elena: I think there are too many coming-of-age stories in Latinx books. While these storylines are important, perhaps there can be different ways to tell them.

LiKL: What is your current hot read and which books are at the top of your to-be-read list?

Jessica W: Meg Medina’s middle-grade title Merci Suárez Changes Gears is dominating my thoughts right now. It’s such a powerful, yet humorous, look at intergenerational relationships and the inescapable bonds of family ties. A must-read! Also, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya, Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh, and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico by David Bowles, are all fighting for my attention right now!

Jessica A: Most of my time is spent reading children’s books. Most recently I’ve checked out some wonderful picture books, including a wordless debut by Cynthia Alonso called Aquarium; the beautifully illustrated Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal; and the hilarious (and bilingual) take on the famous cryptid, El Chupacabras, by Adam Rex. I also recently read Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, a fantastic young adult/adult collection of myths from Mexico retold by David Bowles. Usually I wait until the end of the year to read adult books, and on my to-read list is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Those are just a few titles. The full list is much, much longer!

Elena: Anything by Chimamanda Adichie! On my to-be-read- list: Tell Me How it Ends: and Essay in 40 questions, by Valeria Luiselli, and  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika L. Sánchez.