An Interview with Author Anna-Marie McLemore about Wild Beauty

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Anna-Marie McLemore‘s lush, sensory YA fiction has been a finalist for the William C. Morris Award and won a Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association. Her new book Wild Beauty (releases tomorrow!) takes place in a magical, predatory garden tended by the women of the Nomeolvides family, so it seemed fitting to have our interview about the book take place in a garden. I met up with McLemore at the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. to look at the various themed rooms (tropical, desert, poisonous plants etc.) and discuss the plants, characters, and world of Wild Beauty. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Anna-Marie McLemore

Q: Can you talk a little about your inspiration for the character Fel and his story?

Anna-Marie McLemore: Without giving too much away, I’ll say this: I started with his history, where he comes from, his family. And the fact that we sometimes don’t hear the stories of what happens when the farms fail, when the harvest dies, what you do when you’re trying to take care of your loved ones. So that’s one side of it. Another is that there’s a brutal history of child immigrants doing dangerous jobs, jobs that are already dangerous if you’re a grown man, and either the people doing the hiring don’t care or they look the other way. But amid that kind of brutality, there’s also family; I wanted to write characters who were looking out for each other even in a place that doesn’t really want them.

Q: It’s a feature of stories categorized as magical realism that the characters accept magic as simply part of regular life. In what way do the characters in Wild Beauty, both from the family that lives in La Pradera and the surrounding town accept magic as part of their world?

AMM: The way the Nomeolvides women tend these gardens, the ways that they and their loves are cursed, that’s accepted as part of the lore of this town. But this book is also about what you get made into by rumor; there’s so much talk about these women, everybody else trying to decide what the truth of them is. In response to all that, the Nomeolvides women become their own community. They make their own space. And I think that’s threatening to many watching them from the outside. But it’s how the women push back against the way people see them as a sideshow attraction, how visitors expect them to perform, to entertain.

Q: And we see that a lot in the real world.

AMM: We do.

Anna-Marie and Cecilia at a poisonous plants exhibit at the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

Q: That people who are from marginalized populations—that happens to them more, that if you are not the majority you’re accepted but only in as much as you provide entertainment or only in as much as you can be exploited.

AMM: Exactly, you have a role that you’re expected to play.

Q: How did you choose the flower names for each of the girls?

AMM:  I chose the flowers based on how I pictured these women. Maybe it would have been easier to go for the flower names first and then build the character but I started the other way around. I imagined each girl and then thought, “What is her flower? What is she growing?”

Q: Does the family ever repeat flower names?

AMM: They probably can have the same flower as a relative, but I think, unfortunately, things go so badly for so many of these women that they’re reluctant to repeat names. In this family, repeating a name is, in a sense, to pass on that woman’s legacy.

Q: La Pradera, the magical garden setting is so vivid and distinct. If it had a soundtrack, what sort of music would be on it?

AMM: Because the women living on La Pradera are so different, the gardens’ soundtrack would cover a range—some Lila Downs, Iron & Wine, Poe, Madi Diaz, Wailin Jennys, and some contemporary classical like Einaudi.

Q: If you had a flower name like the characters in this book, which would you choose?

AMM: I love the name Rosa, but in a family of women who grow flowers, I’m not sure I’d want the pressure of being the one who grows roses! I also love lilacs, so I might choose Lila. Then again, after our trip through the dangerous plants exhibit, maybe something like Belladona…

Q: What kind of flower books did you use in your research? Are there books that you would recommend (fiction or non-fiction) to readers who also love flowers?

AMM: Though La Pradera is very much fictional, I based the botany of the estate on a botanical garden in western Canada, so my go-to books were twin volumes called Annuals of British Columbia and Perennials of British Columbia. Both were invaluable references. To readers who love flowers, I recommend checking out a book about the botany of where you live. If you live in a place that has drought, you can learn which plants survive, which are drought-resistant. If you live somewhere with heavy rain, you learn which plants anchor into hillsides so they’re not washed away. Having that kind of interaction with your own landscape, learning the incredible things that are happening under the ground, there’s magic in that.

Q: I know you’ve talked about how you love to visit botanical gardens, which inspired La Pradera. Which gardens would you recommend people try and visit?

AMM: Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia was a huge inspiration, both in its scope and its beautiful detail. Huntington Library in Los Angeles, in addition to being a museum of books and paintings, has spectacular gardens based on different landscapes. For something closer to home, I recommend local parks, which often have gardens ranging from small and meticulous to wide and sprawling. And the grounds around capitol buildings. The capitol in California, for instance, I think has one of every tree that grows in the state.

I also really like this one [National Botanic Garden in DC] because it’s part garden and part museum; the plants are carefully labeled and there’s so much information posted. And I loved getting to meet up with you here! Thanks for taking me through the orchids and desert gardens and all the gorgeous plants here!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and grew up in a Mexican-American family. She attended University of Southern California on a Trustee Scholarship. A Lambda Literary Fellow, she has had work featured by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, CRATE Literary Magazine’s cratelitCamera Obscura’s Bridge the Gap Series, and The Portland Review. She is the author of The Weight of Featherswhich was a Morris Award finalist, When the Moon was Oursa 2017 Stonewall Honor book, and Wild Beauty, which has earned starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal.

 

Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 2: Celia C. Pérez

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

Today, we highlight Celia C. Pérez.

Inspired by punk and her love of writing, Celia C. Pérez has been making zines for longer than some of you have been alive. Her favorite zine supplies are her long-arm stapler, glue sticks, animal clip art (to which she likes adding speech bubbles), and watercolor pencils. She still listens to punk music, and she’ll never stop picking cilantro out of her food at restaurants. Her zines and writing have been featured in The Horn Book MagazineLatinaEl AndarVenus Zine, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation and Along for the Ride. Celia is the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father. Originally from Miami, Florida, she now lives in Chicago with her family and works as a community college librarian. She owns two sets of worry dolls because you can never have too many. The First Rule of Punk is her first book for young readers.

Celia C. Pérez

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

A. I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I think for me it just went hand in hand with being a reader. The earliest memory I have of writing something and realizing writing might be something I was good at was when I was in the third grade. All the third graders had to write an essay about what our school meant to us. One essay would be picked and that student would get to read it at our graduation. Mine was chosen. I don’t have the essay anymore and it’s been so long that I can’t remember what Comstock meant to me, but I do remember that it was the first time I felt like perhaps my writing held some power. And as someone who grew up a quiet, shy child of immigrant parents, it really was that sense of power it gave me that kept me writing throughout my life.

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

A. I love middle grade books above all others! My fondest memories of my life as a reader start in the later years of elementary school so I have a soft spot for middle grade. I think that age range that middle grade covers (eight or nine to twelve) is such a vibrant and varied period of life. It’s this time of life when kids are teetering between childhood and adolescence and all the contrasts and clashing emotions that are part of those stages. They’re often still full of wonder and curiosity and innocence but also full of difficult questions and realizations about the world around them that aren’t always pleasant. There’s just so much to discover and explore there.

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

A. I love the Pacy Lin books by Grace Lin (Year of the RatYear of the Dog, and Dumpling Days); When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead; Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle; Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Oldies that are dear to my heart are Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg. I love Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (and will always associate dumbwaiters and egg creams with her), but I remember especially enjoying Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change. Although, to be honest, I feel like that’s a book I would probably have to reread because she’s a white woman writing an African American family. I also have a soft spot for my earliest favorites like Witch’s Sister by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, and the Anastasia Krupnik books by Lois Lowry. I’m always afraid I’m leaving something out, and I likely am.

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

A. Oh, boy. I have a lot of advice for my middle grade self but let’s start with these:

Keep everything you write even if you think it’s terrible. You’ll be happy you did.

Your voice is worth listening to. Don’t be afraid to express yourself.

You’re a good athlete. Stop reading during P.E. and play!

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because more than any other type of book I believe they give young readers the keys to discovering their place in the world.

 

Come back on Thursday to see our review of THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK!

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 1: Margarita Engle

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

Today, we highlight Margarita Engle, a Cuban-American author who is one of the most prolific and decorated writers in Kid Lit.

Margarita Engle

Margarita Headshot

Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 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 recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist. She lives in central California with her husband.

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

A. I have been writing poetry since I was a small child, so I think my passion for composing verses grew naturally from loving to read. It was not something I consciously decided to try, just something I did the way I ate, slept, and breathed. As a teenager, I did make a conscious decision to try writing fiction, and I began to dream of someday writing a book about the history of Cuba. That finally happened, but not until I was in my 50s. The Poet Slave of Cuba was published in 2006, and The Surrender Tree in 2008, launching a long series of verse novels about Cuban history. By then, I had already published a great deal of poetry, technical botanical and agricultural articles, and a couple of adult novels about modern Cuba, but I have never been happier than when I write for children.

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

A. Most of my middle grade novels tend toward the tween end of the age range, perhaps because I was eleven in 1962, at the time of the Missile Crisis. Losing the right to travel to Cuba was a traumatic, surrealistic experience. I believe that a part of myself was frozen at that age, and did not thaw until 1991, when I was finally able to start visiting again. Now, I love to write for children who crave adventure, and still believe in the wonder of nature, children who are not yet embarrassed to love their families, even though they dream of independence.

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

A. There are so many! How can I choose? I’ll try, with apologies to all the fantastic authors I’m leaving out. Some of my favorite middle grade books are actually memoirs, rather than fiction. I love Alma Flor Ada’s Island Treasures, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry. For fiction, most of my favorite middle grade novels are written in verse: Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, Under the Mesquite, by Guadalupe García McCall, and Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes. I love books that travel to other countries, so I’ll sneak in Solo by Kwame Alexander and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, even though they lean toward YA. If I had to choose one middle grade prose novel, it would be the very poetic Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

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

A. Don’t be so self-critical. It’s okay to be a bookworm. Stop trying to please everyone else. Just be yourself.

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because that is the age when children are imaginative, wonder-filled, curious, and open to learning about the whole world.

 

Margarita’s newest verse novel about Cuba is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots.

                                                                                                        

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

photo by
Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

On Fearlessness, and Writing to Change the World: A Guest Post by Author Marie Marquardt

 

By Marie Marquardt

“I am fearless, except when I’m not.”

This is how I describe myself, each time that I gather in a classroom of ESOL students to run writing workshops. It’s part of an exercise developed by Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy, in their fabulous resource Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Each person makes a statement about who they understand themselves to be, or maybe just about how they feel at that particular moment. The statements build together to create poetry – simple, beautiful, honest poetry.

This exercise was first introduced to me by Meg Medina, who has inspired me immensely with her practice of “literary citizenship.” One way that I strive to live into the identity of a literary citizen is by gathering with nascent speakers of English – teenagers full of ideas and energy, with incredible and often heart-wrenching stories to tell, yet struggling to put them into words that are not their first language – and, in some cases, not their second or third, either. I try to be fearless as I read to them from my own stories, but sometimes I’m not.

I worry about how they will evaluate me – the middle-aged white lady whose recent book features characters like many of them – kids who have run away from some of the most dangerous communities in the world, looking for a safe place to live and maybe – just maybe – to one day call “home”.

Group shots and selfies from a recent workshop with ESOL students in a Gwinnett County, Georgia High School.

My very best days as an author are these days, when eager students come rushing up to me after our workshop, asking for selfies; when they tell me about their favorite character; when they marvel at how I learned to cuss like a Salvadoran, or how much I know about making pupusas. I want so much for my books to resonate with them — Their stories inspire me to write young adult novels in the first place.

Because of how profoundly these young adults’ experiences have shaped me, every one of my books has at least one point-of-view character who is an immigrant from Mexico or Central America. For twenty years, as an academic researcher, advocate, and service provider in Latinx immigrant communities in the South, I’ve listened to teen immigrants’ stories, and I’ve seen them unfold. I consider it an honor to create characters inspired by the teens I have had the great privilege to know. They have trusted me with their stories and I feel a great responsibility to convey their truth onto each page.

This is not a process that I take lightly, so I don’t do it alone. I rely on consultants who identify with the cultural traditions and national-origin groups I am representing. They teach me about the nuances of the culture and language, and they help me get a deeper understanding so I can build more robust and honest characters on the page (in other words, they teach me such important skills as cussing like a Salvadoran!).  I also rely on sensitivity readers, and I take their feedback very seriously.

Equally important, I consider it my responsibility to support the work of #ownvoices authors by  mentoring young authors from marginalized communities. I have worked for two years as a volunteer with We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Dean Myers Grant committee, and this year, I’ve pledged to work with ESOL students, facilitating workshops that help them build their own authorial voices and tell their own powerful stories.

I recently read a short interview with Jacqueline Woodson, when she was honored with the Lambda Literary Visionary Award. She said something that I think is damn near perfect: “Write specifically and furiously. Write to change the world.”

I aim to write specifically.

The Radius of Us CoverI can only tell the stories that I know. In the case of The Radius of Us, I felt compelled to write the story of a young asylum seeker from El Salvador because of the relationships I have built with real young adults in similar situations. It has been one of my greatest honors to help run a non-profit called El Refugio, which works with detained immigrants and their families. As part of that work, I have experienced the heartbreak of building friendships with dozens of young asylum seekers from the northern triangle of Central America. I have spent countless hours visiting with these young men in detention, sitting across the glass from them, telephones pressed to our ears. Unlike my story’s protagonist, most of these young men never have the chance to leave detention, until they are deported.

I aim to write furiously.

I am desperate for more people to know and understand the stories of these young men, and I also am, indeed, furious. I have followed some of them back to El Salvador, to see how they are faring after deportation. I have seen the dire circumstances into which our courts return them. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that, in the immigration court that determines the fate of these young men, only 5% are granted asylum. I can’t bear the thought that, like our friend Moises, some of these young people are being sent back to die.

I write to change the world.

On good days (fearless days), I remind myself that writing these stories is an act of compassion. When I allow myself to dive into the experience of Phoenix – an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, or Gretchen – a white suburban girl who was the victim of assault – I practice compassion. I hope that by telling these stories, I can model compassionate action, and I also fervently hope that, once they are out in the world, my stories will open safe, compassionate spaces. I hope that they create opportunities for teen readers to speak honestly with one another, to recognize those insidious systems (like racism and xenophobia) that aim to keep us apart, and also to affirm the beautiful, fragile humanity that we share in common.

I believe that, with more compassion, our world would be a radically different place. Compassion compels us to walk alongside people in crisis, and not to turn away. Compassion drives us to seek mutual understanding, to find those human qualities and dispositions that we share in common, while also not dismissing the profound differences that shape our experiences. Compassion changes the world.

This is what drives me to be fearless (except when I’m not).

Marie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

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.

Book Review: Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World Edited by Kelly Jensen

 

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

25226116DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Let’s get the feminist party started!

Here We Are is a scrapbook-style teen guide to understanding what it really means to be a feminist. It’s packed with essays, lists, poems, comics, and illustrations from a diverse range of voices, including TV, film, and pop-culture celebrities and public figures such as ballet dancer Michaela DePrince and her sister Mia, politician Wendy Davis, as well as popular YA authors like Nova Ren Suma, Malinda Lo, Brandy Colbert, Courtney Summers, and many more. Altogether, the book features more than forty-four pieces, with an eight-page insert of full-color illustrations.

Here We Are is a response to lively discussions about the true meaning of feminism on social media and across popular culture and is an invitation to one of the most important, life-changing, and exciting parties around.

MY TWO CENTS: This is an excellent, comprehensive look at feminism from many different perspectives. For the purposes of this book talk, I will be focusing on three essays in particular, but the whole book is a great balance of voices. By turns funny, serious, personal, or historical, it includes comics, lists, poetry, song lyrics, and interviews. This collection is the perfect book to hand to a teen who strongly identifies as a feminist, as well as the teen who is trying to figure out what it’s all about. In short, there is something for everyone here.

Three essays in particular are of interest to us here at Latinxs in Kid Lit (full disclosure, one is by my fellow blogger Ashley Hope Pérez) and they couldn’t be more different. “Pretty Enough” by Alida Nugent, is a personal story about growing up feeling out of place because of her Puerto Rican features and the change in her self-image after a trip to Puerto Rico. ‘The “Nice Girl” Feminist” by Ashley Hope Pérez is an amusing but incisive list of unspoken commandments for being a “nice girl” that really should be broken. And “Many Stories, Many Roads” by Daniel José Older is a stirring call to action and a testament to the truth that there are many different journeys to being a feminist.

Nugent’s description of her hometown in Westchester is amusing. “Antique shops, cider festivals and designer purses” are some points she includes on the list, along with high school friends who questioned her background (“Where are you from again?”) and pointed out her physical differences. It was a trip to Puerto Rico and her mother’s hometown that helped Nugent figure out that it wasn’t that she didn’t like her looks, but that she was tired of being the one person who stuck out. For teens growing up in similar situations where they feel out of place, Nugent holds out the promise that we can find somewhere to belong and be ourselves–whatever that looks like.

I laughed when I saw the title of Pérez’s piece. “Nice girl” is not a label I would have applied to myself as a teen. And yet, although I grew up in a much more liberal environment than Pérez, I was also one of those girls who didn’t understand the big deal about orgasms (like Pérez, I eventually figured it out). Not all teens are comfortable speaking loudly and challenging authority. One of the best things about Pérez’s piece is that she demonstrates how big injustices have their roots in small, everyday attitudes toward women and girls—attitudes that teens can absolutely challenge in small ways. In the end, Pérez writes, realizing you don’t have to conform to someone else’s expectations is a feminist act all by itself.

Older sets his essay in Barcelona and builds a strong setting, taking the reader along as he wanders through the city to the harbor. As he walks, he meditates both on the past he is processing (history, personal relationships, career experiences) and the future he is trying to figure out. Older makes clear that he considers art (specifically storytelling) to be essential to his activism and that being a feminist is a process, one that requires constant learning, unlearning and relearning. His prose is both reassuring and energizing at the same time, so that by the end of the essay, I felt ready to move forward, try again, and do better. You can’t ask for more from a book for young people.

TEACHING TIPS: Many of the selections here would be great to assign and discuss in a high school class on history, sociology, or psychology. My 16-year-old brother is currently in the middle of a gender inequality unit in his AP English class, and he is using this book to fulfill an independent reading assignment. Nova Ren Suma’s piece about gender inequality in school reading lists is a great choice to start a discussion about curriculum, canon, and the choices made by teachers and professors.

The short length of the selections and incorporation of lists, photos, and questionnaires make this a great book to recommend to teens who are interested in the subject, but not ready to tackle something lengthy by bell hooks or Simone de Beauvoir. Many of the contributors, such as Kody Keplinger, Brandy Colbert, Malinda Lo, Nova Ren Suma and Erika Wurth have other published work that readers can seek out and read as well. The piece by Wendy Davis would be an excellent choice for a government or civics class when talking about women in politics and schools reading Michaela DePrince’s autobiography can use her essay to further their knowledge about her life and art.

ABOUT THE EDITORKelly Jensen is a former teen librarian who worked in several public libraries before pursuing a full-time career in writing and editing. Her current position is with Book Riot, the largest independent book website in North America, where she focuses on talking about young adult literature in all of its manifestations. Her writing has been featured on The Huffington Post, at Rookie Magazine, The Horn Book, BlogHer, School Library Journal. She contributed an essay and a guide to teen sexuality in pop culture for Amber J. Keyser’s The V-Word: True Stories of First-Time Sex and is the author of the book It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader from VOYA Press.

OTHER LINKS:

Interview with Daniel José Older:

http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2017/01/feminism-is-for-everyone-here-we-are-editor-kelly-jensen-interviews-contributor-daniel-jose-older/

Interview with Alida Nugent:

http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2017/01/here-we-are-feminism-for-the-real-world-kelly-jensen-talks-with-contributor-alida-nugent-about-social-justice-feminism-finding-and-using-your-voice/

 

Cackley_headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.