Book Review: Who’s Ju? (Seventh Grade Sleuths #1) by Dania Ramos

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Image result for who's ju? book coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.

But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.

Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.

MY TWO CENTS: This book drew me in right away with the title of the first chapter (“DNA Malfunction”) and the first mini-paragraph – “It’s not hard evidence. Just a family photo stuck on our silver fridge with a teapot magnet. Case closed.” It may not be clear to some, but I knew I was in for a good read – and I was right.

As the book begins, Dania Ramos uses a great choice of words to describe the middle school setting and to profile the main character, Justina (pronounced Hoosteenah) Feliciano. She’s just a normal 7th grade girl who’s trying to survive the tumultuous times in middle school while trying to figure out why she doesn’t look like the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With her frizzy blond hair and light eyes, she stands out.

Justina – or Ju (pronounced Hu) for short – has her core group of friends, the Seventh-Grade Sleuths, and she’s not the most popular girl in school, so she’s surprised when former friend Sara asks her for help to solve a very important case. I loved how Ramos wrote the case of the vandalized scenery in a way similar to a decades-old cold case – because to Justina, Ig, and Gunther, it is that big of a deal.

The other conflict in the book involves a genetics assignment in Justina’s health class. Her mother is immediately against the assignment, and she wants to know why – so she finds out. Ramos’ writing compared Justina to Sherlock Holmes and other detectives, which I got a kick out of. I also loved how Justina was so determined to find answers, even when her parents weren’t okay with it.

Another aspect of the book that hit home for me was when Ju decided to change her identity – new clothes, new (blond) hairdo, and a new name. I tried a similar method in middle school myself, which I’m ashamed of now. But on the other hand, when you feel out of place in a way Justina does in the book, it’s an understandable move.

After a runaway scare (and reconciling with best friend Ig), Justina eventually finds out the truth – she doesn’t look like the rest of her family because she’s adopted. She’s heartbroken but is understanding, and even agrees to meet her birth father. Ramos wrote this part of the story in a way that was endearing and welcoming, which I enjoyed.

Overall, Who’s Ju? is a lovely read. I would say the question in the title is certainly answered, but I hope to see more from Ramos about Ju and her friends and family in the future.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be a great way for middle-grade students, especially girls, to learn about something that isn’t taught in many classes before high school – social sciences. It’s important for kids to learn that you are not defined by your skin color and that, like Justina, you can identify a certain way no matter how you look. The book would also help kids learn about adoption and solving crimes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Dania is an author, playwright, and teaching artist. Her middle grade novel Who’s Ju? won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Best YA eBook and was a finalist for the ILBA Mariposa Award for Best First Book.

Dania’s stage writing credits include Mi Casa Tu Casa (Luna Stage, Dreamcatcher Rep, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival) and Hielo (developed through the Women Playwrights Project at Writers Theatre of New Jersey). Her plays have also been featured in the New Jersey Women Playwrights Series (co-presented by Writers Theatre of New Jersey and Speranza Theatre Company), Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Reading Series, Writers Theatre of New Jersey’s FORUM and Soundings Reading Series, Luna Stage’s Short Play Festival, and the Maslow Salon Reading Series at Wilkes University. She’s been a finalist in the MetLife Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition and the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.

Dania is a creative writing instructor and a theatre teaching artist. She has led arts residencies and workshops for organizations including New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Writers Theatre of New Jersey, Writopia Lab, and the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts.

Dania is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, and Actors Equity Association. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from Montclair State University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

Book Review: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Reviewed by Sujei Lugo and Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork that echoes Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean—and definitely not inside the lines—to be beautiful.

OUR TWO CENTS:

Radiant Child is a heartfelt and vibrant picture book about the childhood and life of Puerto Rican-Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Written for young children, it celebrates Basquiat’s art and traces the early steps of his artistic formation, as he makes his way toward the pinnacle of fame. From boyhood, he begins developing his own “messy” style of art-making, one that evokes powerful personal emotions, while addressing the sound and fury of social and cultural politics. Javaka Steptoe received the 2017 Caldecott Medal for his work as the book’s illustrator, a fitting recognition of the dynamic and engaging art seen in these pages.

The story in Radiant Child shifts through various New York City settings, including interiors of the Basquiat family home in Brooklyn, the exhibit spaces of an art museum, the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the artist’s studio. As a boy, Basquiat sees art everywhere he looks, not just in the museums he visits with his mother or in the poetry books she reads to him, but also in everyday objects that he encounters around the city. Early on, while other children in the neighborhood skip rope, young Basquiat “dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” You can tell how seriously he has devoted himself to this dream by the pencils, papers, and drawings scattered all over his bedroom.

Throughout childhood, the primary influencer on Basquiat’s art is his mother, Matilde, a Puerto Rican woman who “designs and sews,” and sometimes even joins her child in the act of drawing. Her artistic influence on him is not always intentional. After a car accident leaves Jean-Michel injured, Malide introduces him to Gray’s Anatomy. Her hope is to teach the young boy how the human body is knit together. Little does she anticipate that the diagrams from this book will seep into his catalog of artistic imagery and emerge as motifs in his mature work. In addition to taking Jean-Michel to museums, Matilde also conveys the message that art can be found in ordinary things, including the “messy patchwork of the city.” This sets up an interesting parallel, in which Basquiat, an Afro-Latino child of humble beginnings with no formal education in the arts, is shaped by the traditional, elitist, and largely white institutions of the New York art world, yet simultaneously absorbs the powerful visual elements inherent in his own cultural milieu. In the book’s museum scene, it is fascinating to note that his favorite work of art is Picasso’s “Guernica,” an immense painting that depicts the horrors of the Nazi bombing of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it is before this very painting that the boy begins to develop ideas about artistic self-expression as a major force in the world.

Tragically, when Basquiat’s mother suffers debilitating mental illness and is hospitalized, this shatters the circle of love that fed the young boy’s artistic growth. He continues living with his father, Gerard, but “things are not the same,” and as a teenager, Jean-Michel runs off to live on his own in the “concrete jungle where only the tough survive.” There, he begins his career as a graffiti artist. Signing his work with SAMO©, Basquiat creates street art that captivates the city and propels him from the streets to the galleries. Fame follows, just as the young boy dreamed, and this is where the story portion of Radiant Child ends. The book’s back matter, however, includes a substantial section that acknowledges Basquiat’s drug addiction and untimely death at 27.

How does a children’s illustrator depict the life and oeuvre of such a celebrated artist? As explained in an author’s note, Javaka Steptoe answers this challenge not by reproducing, but by reinterpreting Basquiat’s work. The result is original and memorable, yet strongly evocative of Basquiat’s signature style. Steptoe achieves this by employing the graffiti and collage methods that his subject used, in combination with traditional painting techniques, and by incorporating symbols and motifs associated with Basquiat, such as stylized human skulls and femurs.

Each page spread in Radiant Child is a small construction consisting of a scene painted over a textured background. For his background materials, Steptoe relies heavily on found objects, primarily throwaways. Due to their worn condition, these objects call to mind the crumbling cityscape of 1980s Lower East Side—one of Basquiat’s stomping grounds. The repurposed materials include wooden slats salvaged from dumpsters, and Steptoe glorifies the raw condition of these slats by assembling them into rough jigsaw-puzzle surfaces, in which each nail hole and splintered edge contributes to the painted illustration’s lively texture. Steptoe enhances the textured effect by collaging photographs over select areas, presenting pockets of visual intrigue for readers to explore.

Although this is a picture book, the rich inspiration it offers should not be denied to older kids. Native children and children of color stand to benefit the most from such exposure. In witnessing Basquiat’s artistic journey, we also arrive at a greater appreciation of the soothing power of art. We see that artistic creativity can act as a therapeutic exercise in the face of pain, fear, separation, and insecurity. Radiant Child also delivers the unmistakable and essential message that messiness and art-making go hand in hand, and that although the results may be “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, [it’s] somehow still beautiful.” Indeed, this message is joyously inscribed on every page, in every scribble, and through every splintered and splattered collage.

THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR

As the son of award-winning illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe grew up surrounded by art and children’s books, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. In his own career, the younger Steptoe has captured many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as recognition from the NAACP Image Awards, and the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Read more about him at his official website.

 

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING

In its final pages, Radiant Child appends information on portions of Basquiat’s life not covered in the story, including a section detailing motifs and symbols that appear in his work.

The publisher Little Brown provides an informative page on Radiant Child. There, you can view a book chat with Javaka Steptoe and watch an embedded video of a live art demo he shared on New York Times’s Facebook page.

Here is an additional interview with Steptoe, conducted by Travis Jonker, of School Library Journal, for the series “The Yarn,” which looks closely at how kids’ books are made.

For anyone interested in further exploration of Basquiats’s world, abundant online and print resources exist, although they are primarily aimed at adult readers. Here is a sampling.

Basquiat’s friend and one-time roommate Alexis Adler talks on video about photos she took of him. See it here.

Read an illuminating conversation with Basquiat, published in Interview Magazine in 1983.

The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat maintains a website devoted to his life and work. Visit it here.

 

 

Book Review: One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo written by Laurin Mayeno, illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo

 

Reviewed by Maria Ramos-ChertokUnico_00-Rob Liu-Trujillo_72 dpi

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Tomorrow is the school parade, and Danny knows exactly what he will be: a princess. Mommy supports him 100%, and they race to the thrift store to find his costume. It’s almost closing time. Will Danny find the costume of his dreams in time? One of A Kind, Like Me / Unico como yo is a sweet story about unconditional love and the beauty of individuality. It’s a unique book that lifts up children who don’t fit gender stereotypes, and reflects the power of a loving and supportive community. The book is written by Laurin Mayeno, illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo, and translated by Teresa Mlawer.

MY TWO CENTS: One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo is a book every elementary school should own. It takes the subject of gender identity out of the public discourse, where morality and religion weigh heavily in the debate, and puts it into the personal realm of a young boy named Danny/Danielito. Teaching readers about gender expression from a child’s point of view does exactly what children do best – cut right to the heart of the matter. Danny is clear about wanting to dress as a princess for the school parade. His determination and creativity were inspiring to me as an adult reader, yet the book offers a beautiful lesson about the importance of listening to yourself and following your dreams to young and old readers alike. Beyond the gift of the story itself, the book is written in both Spanish and English, providing entry to ideas about gender expression that I have not often encountered in traditional bilingual books. Finally, the ultimate confrontation that Danny/Danielito has with his friends offers a promising way for readers to consider how to react to someone who expresses them self in a way that challenges notions of binary gender roles. While the book is written for children, I’d recommend it as a gift to anyone who might expand their thinking on gender expression.

TEACHING TIPS: One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo can be used in any elementary school class to begin a discussion on self-expression. A discussion question like: What are the different ways we express to the outside world who we are inside? might be an interesting entree. I’d also strongly recommend it to discuss bullying. For example, What did the kids at school do to make Danny/Danielito cross his arms? How did he deal with it? This could also be a way to get children to talk about experiences they’ve had with bullying, both as perpetrators and victims. That conversation can easily lead to having children brainstorm ideas of how to respond effectively to bullies. For older children in fourth and fifth grade, this book can be used to discuss gender identity and gender expression and how peer groups influence choices about what we share about ourselves and how we share it. It connects well with a talk about peer pressure and how to get in touch with our own sense of what is right for us and what isn’t. Finally, there is an excellent note at the back of the book to parents, caregivers and educators that provides an additional resource where one can access videos, books, guides, organizations, and other services that can be of assistance to anyone wanting to learn more about gender diversity.

photo credit: Scott Hoag of @rockwellcreative

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: For more than 17 years, Laurin Mayeno has provided consulting services to numerous organizations, resulting in greater diversity, more inclusive and equitable work environments, and improved effectiveness working with diverse populations. Laurin’s experiences as a mixed race woman growing up during the social movements of the 1960s, led her to work that fosters inclusion, equity and full appreciation for cultural diversity. Her experience as the mother of a gender-expansive, gay son, also gave her a deep appreciation for importance of responding to gender diversity, which is now a central focus of her work. Her Proud Mom videos and her bilingual children’s book One of a Kind, Like Me/Único como yo are among the resources she has developed to spark dialogue and understanding.

Robert Trujillo by Tiffany Eng

Photo by Tiffany Eng

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (From his website): My name is Robert Liu-Trujillo. I am the author and illustrator of Furqan’s First Flat Top. I was born in Oakland, California and raised all across the Bay Area. I’m a visual artist, father, and a husband who employs the use of illustration, public art, and storytelling to tell tales. These tales manifest in a variety of forms and they reflect my cultural background, dreams, and political / personal beliefs. My motivation to do what I do is to unearth beautiful and un-told stories, to be a positive and nurturing influence on my son, and to honor my ancestors and family who worked so hard for me to be here. I love music, nerdy things, and can get along well with most people. I seek fun, ice cream, and justice. I’m also a co-founder of The Trust Your Struggle Collective, a contributor to Rad Dad,  and the founder of Come Bien Books.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer who lives in Mill Valley, CA. She is the founder and facilitator of The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey. Her work, most recently, has appeared in San Francisco’s 2016 Listen to Your Mother show (www.listentoyourmothershow.com) and in the Apogee Journal of Colombia University. Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s anthology All the Women in my Family Sing  (2017) and she will be reading in San Francisco’s LitCrawl in October 2016.  For more information please visit www.mariaramoschertok.com

April 2017 Latinx Book Deals

 

Compiled by Cecilia Cackley

This is a monthly series keeping track of the book deals announced by Latinx writers and illustrators. The purpose of this series is to celebrate book deals by authors and illustrators in our community and to advocate for more of them. If you are an agent and you have a Latinx client who just announced a deal, you can let me know on Twitter, @citymousedc. If you are a Latinx author or illustrator writing for children or young adults, and you just got a book deal, send me a message and we will celebrate with you! Here’s to many more wonderful books in the years to come.

April 27

Anne Hoppe at Clarion Books has bought world rights to The Sky’s the Limit, a middle grade memoir by rocket scientist and interim CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA Sylvia Acevedo. The book is a personal account of how Acevedo overcame childhood poverty through her involvement with the Girl Scouts and Head Start, to become one of the first Hispanics to receive a post-graduate degree in engineering from Stanford University. The book will be simultaneously published in English and Spanish, in fall 2018.

Author agent:  Adriana Dominguez at Full Circle Literary.

Andrea Welch at S&S/Beach Lane has acquired world rights to mother-son team Surishtha Sehgal (l.) and Kabir Sehgal‘s Thread of Love, to be illustrated by Zara Gonzalez Hoang. The picture book is a sibling-love and Indian-holiday story told to the tune of the classic song “Frére Jacques.” Publication is scheduled for fall 2018.

Illustrator agent:  Andrea Morrison at Writers House.

Jenna Pocius at Little Bee has acquired world rights to Coyote Moon author Maria Gianferrari‘s (l.) Operation Rescue Dog, a story told from two points of view: that of a girl on her way to meet her new rescue puppy, and the puppy itself as she approaches their meeting place. Luisa Uribe will illustrate; publication is slated for summer 2018.

Illustrator agent: Alli Brydon at Bright USA.

April 25

The first three books from Disney-Hyperion’s new imprint Rick Riordan Presents were announced, and one is Storm Runner by Jennifer Cervantes, a book about a 13-year-old boy who must save the world by unraveling an ancient Mayan prophecy. It will publish in September 2018.

April 20

Carol Hinz at Lerner/Millbrook Press has acquired world rights to The Vast Wonder of the World, a picture book by Mélina Mangal (l.), illustrated by Luisa Uribe, about the life and accomplishments of Ernest Everett Just, an African-American research biologist. The book is slated for fall 2018.

Illustrator agent: Alli Brydon at Bright USA

April 18

Victoria Rock at Chronicle Books has bought world rights to Rosie’s Sword by Jacqueline Veissid (l.), to be illustrated by Paola Zakimi, in which a girl, always feeling left out of her older brothers’ play, uses a stick and a big imagination to transform the world around her. Publication is slated for spring 2019.

Illustrator agent: Emily van Beek at Folio Jr. / Folio Literary Management.

April 13

None.

April 11

None.

April 5

Kat Brzozowski at Feiwel and Friends has bought 2017 Stonewall Honor recipient Anna-Marie McLemore‘s Blanca & Roja, a magical realist Snow-White & Rose-Red meets Swan Lake, in which two sisters become rivals in a game that will turn the losing girl into a swan. Publication is scheduled for fall 2018.

Author agent: Taylor Martindale Kean at Full Circle Literary.

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: Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre Written by Rene Colato Laínez, Illustrated by Laura Lacámara

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez

Main_mama_the_alien_fc_hi_res_finalDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Sofía has discovered a BIG secret. Mamá is an alien–una extraterrestre! At least, that’s what it says on the card that fell out of her purse. But Papá doesn’t have an alien card. Does that mean that Sofía is half alien?

Sofía heads to the library to do some research. She finds out that aliens can be small, or tall. Some have four fingers on each hand, and some have big round eyes. Their skin can be gray or blue or green. But she and Mamá look like human people. Could Mamá really be an alien from another planet?

Filled with imagination and humor, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre is a sweet and timely immigration story, and a tender celebration of family, no matter which country (or planet) you are from.

MY TWO CENTS: In this bilingual book, Sofía is bouncing a ball when she knocks her mother’s purse to the floor. In the purse, Sofia discovers a card with the word “ALIEN” at the top. Sofía begins to think that her mother is, indeed, an alien. She even thinks she must be half alien, “I started to put the puzzle together. Mamá was an alien. Papá didn’t have a card, so he was not an alien. That mean I was half alien.”

Sofia researches aliens and wonders how her mother has hidden the fact that she is an alien from her. As Mamá gets ready for her citizenship ceremony, Sofía sees a shadow of her mom with rollers in her hair and tells her parents her suspicion about Mamá being an alien. Sofía learns that the word alien can have different meanings.

Her mother explains, “Sofía, I’m not from outer space. What you saw was my old Resident Alien card. That card allowed me to live and work here in the United States.” The story comes to an end when Sofía’s mom becomes a citizen. This book provides a glimpse into one way a girl makes sense of a complicated immigration process. Few books allow the reader to understand the complexity of the immigration system in the United States through the eyes of a child. This book is an entrance into discussion of the complex process that families must go through to become American citizens.

The illustrations are large and beautiful. In particular, the illustrator, Laura Lacámara, provides vivid pictures of the imagined aliens with humans. It is through the illustrations that we learn that Sofía’s mother is from El Salvador. A picture shows Mamá standing on an outline of El Salvador on a map. The illustrations provided in the thought bubbles add to the story and help the reader understand what Sofía is thinking about.

The author’s note at the end of the book details his own story of coming to the United States and receiving his Resident Alien Card. The author ends the note with the following, “I want readers to know that immigrants may be referred to as aliens, but this only means that they come from other countries. We are all citizens on planet Earth.”

TEACHING TIPS: Author René Colato Laínez wrote a blog post for Lee and Low books titled “No More Illegal Aliens.” In this post, Laínez discusses the use of the term “illegal aliens” and why he advocates for the use of the term “undocumented immigrants. This blog entry could be used as a paired text with the book Mamá the Alien/ Mamá La Exraterrestre.

Also, Lee and Low has developed an extensive teacher’s guide for Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre. This guide includes vocabulary, discussion questions, specific activities for English Language Learners, and interdisciplinary activities.

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: René Colato Laínez is an award-winning Salvadoran author of many multicultural books. He is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. Rene is a bilingual elementary teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School, where he is known by the students as “the teacher full of stories.”

 

 

Here are other posts we’ve done about the author:

A Conversation with René Colato Laínez

Book Review: The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez


Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Laura Lacámara is a Cuban-born children’s books author and illustrator. Lacámara holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drawing and Painting from California State University, Long Beach and studied printmaking at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. Her love for writing and illustrating children’s books grew when she signed up for a children’s book illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of Floating on Mama’s Song/Flotando en la Canción de Mamá (Junior Library Guild Selection, Fall 2010 & Tejas Star Book Award finalist 2011-12) and illustrator of The Runaway Piggy/El Cochinito Fugitivo (winner of 2012 Tejas Star Book Award) and Alicia’s Fruity Drinks/Las Aguas Frescas de Alicia.

Here are other posts we’ve done about the illustrator:

Book Review: Dalia’s Wondrous Hair/El Cabello Maravilloso de Dalia

Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 2: Juana Martinez-Neal, Maya Christina González & Laura Lacámara

 

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