Book Review: Telegrams to Heaven / Telegramas al Cielo by René Colato Laínez, illus. by Pixote Hunt

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

Image resultDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Telegrams to Heaven / Telegramas al Cielo recounts the moving childhood of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, who from an early age discovers the candor, light and power of the word, which he uses to pray and to write poetry, sending telegrams to heaven from his heart. René Colato Laínez, the renowned Salvadoran writer, has written a touching story about the great Salvadoran prophet who dreamed from his childhood of being a priest, and became not only a priest, but also a bishop, an archbishop, and the great orator of his country. His word remains, for the Salvadoran people and the world—a prayer, a poem, a sweet telegram that Archbishop Romero continues to send in the name of his people to the heart of heaven. The colorful, modern illustrations of Pixote Hunt make us reflect with deep tenderness, showing us the innocence of the great Archbishop Romero as a young child.

MY TWO CENTS: René Colato Laínez offers a bilingual picture book tribute to the Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, chronicling the icon’s early spiritual development. The Archbishop, then simply known as Oscar, grew up in Ciudad Barrios, in the San Miguel department of El Salvador. Laínez introduces us to Oscar as he works in his family’s home post office and telegram business. Oscar marvels at the telegraph, which can, “like magic” send messages across long distances. He then begins to wonder if he can also use this technology to communicate with heaven. His father clarifies that messages can be sent to God through prayer, prompting Oscar’s dedication to praying “when he woke up, when he milked the cow, after he finished his homework and to give thanks before every meal.” Oscar’s devotion permeates all aspects of his life. Even his artistic talents, like playing the flute and writing poetry and music, serve as expressions of his spirituality and commitment to God.

The story’s sole source of tension arises when Oscar expresses his desire to become a priest. His father is chagrined, and instead sends his son to work at a carpentry shop as a distraction. The text, however, does not specify why Oscar’s parents were not supportive of his wish to become a priest. His father’s admonition, “there are so many things that you can be in this life,” coupled with details in the text about businesses owned by the Romeros and their ability to hire a private teacher for Oscar, hint at a socioeconomic reason. Laínez may have highlighted the moment to demonstrate Oscar’s staunch and early commitment to the Church, but I wanted more clarity.

Indeed, Oscar is not dissuaded from entering the priesthood. When Bishop Dueñas visits Ciudad Barrios, Oscar uses his carpentry shop earnings to buy a crisp white suit to meet the prelate. This encounter is a watershed moment in Oscar’s life, and thus ends the narrative chronicling his childhood. On the following page, we see Oscar as an adolescent, headed to youth seminary in San Miguel and, as the text indicates, later on to Rome, at the behest of Bishop Dueñas, to complete his studies. The final spread is of Oscar, now ordained as Father Arnulfo Romero, palms facing up in front of the church altar, ready to celebrate mass in front of the Ciudad Barrios community, where his journey began.

The accompanying illustrations by Pixote Hunt mainly mirror the information conveyed in the text, but the images lack the warmth of Laínez’s tone. The digital, abstract style leaves characters appearing flat and expressionless, and fail to depict settings distinctly. Many of the spreads are set against surreal or monochromatic backgrounds, such as the telegram and carpentry shops, which appear almost indistinguishable because of the identical color choices. In the few scenes in which a setting is clear, such as the central plaza or the town’s church, details are limited to straight lines, and the people of the community appear as outlined shapes in a solid color with indistinguishable facial features.  Although the story is about The Archbishop, who came to be loved and respected across the world, he will be forever identified with El Salvador. The abstract visual elements used in the illustrations instead create a distance between the subject and his surroundings, an overall disappointing effect.

Laínez’s admiration and respect for the Archbishop is evident and deeply personal, as he relates in the Author’s Note. No doubt Salvadorans and other Latinxs familiar with the Archbishop will be touched and pleased to see his story in print, particularly for young audiences. This title also serves as a reminder of the hope that lives within the Salvadoran community despite many current and past hardships. However, for audiences completely unfamiliar with the Archbishop, or those looking for a comprehensive biography, the story’s narrow focus and static illustrations will fall short. I was left with many additional questions about Oscar’s childhood, his hometown, and his family. Perhaps other readers will, like me, be encouraged to seek more information elsewhere. I do, however, reserve the hope that this will be the first of many titles for young readers that will chronicle that Archbishop’s life and legacy.

 

Image result for rene colato lainezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Known as “the teacher full of stories,” René Colato Laínez is the Salvadoran author of several bilingual picture books including I Am René, the Boy/Soy René, el niño (Piñata Books), Waiting for Papá/Esperando a papá (Piñata Books), Playing Lotería/ El juego de la lotería (Luna Rising). I Am René, the Boy received the Latino Book Award for “Best Bilingual Children’s Book.” Playing Lotería was named a “Best Children’s Book” by Críticas magazine and the New Mexico Book Award “Best Children’s Book.” Playing Lotería and I Am René have both been nominated for the Tejas Star Book Award—the K-6 bilingual counterpart to the Texas Bluebonnet Award.

 

Image result for pixote huntABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (From his website): As a director, art director and designer in the film industry I bring more than 10 years experience in animation to every project. Highly skilled in drawing, painting and musical composition, my creative goal is to bring an innovative insight to every project. Always on the cutting edge, my experience in combining animation with live action began in 1994 when I directed and art directed THE PAGEMASTER, and continued as I designed the 3D opening and interstitials for FANTASIA 2000 that seamlessly weaved the animated sequences together. I feel my unique achievements in film and music have garnered me the honors of being a voting member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the GRAMMYs/Recording Academy.

 

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and was born and raised in Queens, NY.

Book Review: Us, In Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos

 

Review by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Acclaimed author and Pura Belpré Award honoree Lulu Delacre’s beautifully illustrated collection of twelve short stories is a groundbreaking look at the diverse Latinxs who live in the United States.

In this book, you will meet many young Latinxs living in the United States, from a young girl whose day at her father’s burrito truck surprises her to two sisters working together to change the older sister’s immigration status, and more.

Turn the pages to experience life through the eyes of these boys and girls whose families originally hail from many different countries; see their hardships, celebrate their victories, and come away with a better understanding of what it means to be Latino in the U.S. today.

MY TWO CENTS: There are twelve stories in this collection, each a beautiful snapshot of life, family, tragedy, and transformation. Each story is inspired by real events and people, some the author knew personally. Included at the end of the book are links to the original articles that inspired each story. The stories begin with a refrán, a familiar Spanish saying that connects with the paired story. A mixed-media portrait also accompanies each story, further personalizing the characters for the reader. Each portrait is intentionally left unfinished to illustrate the idea that each person is a work in progress.

Here is just a peek at a few of the twelve vibrant stories in the collection.

Emilio and José begin this collection in “The Attack.” Twin brothers, whose emotions are closely tied together, watch as their mother works tirelessly to support their older brother’s epilepsy needs. As the story opens, we find out that the twins’ brother, Tony, has been experiencing more and more frequent seizures, and this becomes the source of the main conflict in “The Attack.” During one violent seizure, Tony — holding a knife for cutting fruit — unintentionally harms himself. Frightened, the twins call 911, and soon, officers arrive on the scene to find a bleeding Tony, knife in hand. Then, through a series of miscommunications, an officer is injured, and Tony is charged with assault on an officer. The family is then faced with the uncertainty of what a lawsuit will mean for their family and their lives in the United States. In this short opener, I was brought into the fabric of this family’s heartaches and struggles and I found myself heartbroken fabout they choices they face.

In “Selfie,” 13-year-old Marla is desperate to avoid the same fate as her mother, dependent on insulin shots to treat her diabetes. Showing signs of pre-diabetes, Marla is self-conscious about the dark patches that develop on her skin. She is particularly sensitive to the dark patches showing up when she and her friends take photos and selfies. She knows that a healthy diet and exercise are key, but healthy food is expensive and can’t often be found at the Food 4 Less, the discount market where Marla’s Mamá shops the sales once a month. So, when an opportunity to work her way toward a bike of her own comes up at the local bike club, Marla tries to convince her mother to let her make the 40-minute bus ride by herself. With the help of a supportive teacher and the hope that her Mamá will give her blessing, Marla begins to see how much strength she has.

If you haven’t fallen in love with the collection yet, you will in “Burrito Man,” the fourth story in the collection. On Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Alex wishes she could be anywhere but with her father, “just a food-cart vendor.” Up at 4 a.m., Alex thinks about her friends enjoying air-conditioned offices instead of melting in the heat and being bombarded by the sounds of traffic all day. But Alex’s disappointment doesn’t get her Papi down; he tells her it is going to be a great day because of her. As the day goes on, and the temperatures rise, Alex is floored as one customer after another not only greets her Papi like family, but seems honored to meet “the famous Alex!” Alex is impressed by the way her father treats his customers, remembering minute details about their lives. She is equally embarrassed to find out that her father gushes about her regularly to these strangers. However, teenage humiliation is transformed into pride by the end of the story for what her father has built on his corner.

In “Band-Aid,” we find Elena, whose world is turned upside down when her Papi is picked up by la migra and deported to Honduras. She not only has to face the devastating loss of her father, but also her home, school, and best friend when her mother is forced to move her family and work long hours to make ends meet. Soon, hope arrives in the form of la gran madre, Doña Sánchez. Elena’s mother knows that her children, US citizens, would be safe under the care of la gran madre if she were to be deported. But safety comes in the form of signing over legal guardianship to Doña Sánchez. Elena agonizes at the thought of her family being further torn apart, but she knows the decision lies with her mother. This important story shines in this collection as a beautiful and tragic reminder of what politics is doing to families living here.

“Pickup Soccer,” written in verse, at first, seems to be just a fun ode to fútbol. The narrator, Hugo, wants to be a famous commentator, and we see his neighborhood through his eyes as he and his cousin Hector make their way to the “old neighborhood field.” But, look closer, and you will see that in Hugo’s fast-paced descriptions are signs of of gentrification in the Mission neighborhood. Soon, the neighborhood kids are faced with being kicked off the field by techie start-up guys, including Hugo’s cousin Hector, brandishing a reservation permit through the new City of San Francisco app. Insults start flying, and Hugo knows he must think on his feet, like a true sports commentator, to help both sides coexist on and off the field.

The collection closes with “90,000 Children,” a transformative story about a young boy, Frank, dreaming of the day when he can follow in his father’s footsteps as a border patrol agent. The story’s title references the statistic shared by Frank’s father, that 90,000 unaccompanied minors would be entering the United States by the end of the year. One day, while out with his father, Frank encounters a young girl by herself outside of a saloon. He is drawn to her and further intrigued by an illustration she shows him of a beautiful landscape, an illustration she gives him to keep. After that day, Frank can’t stop thinking about the girl, and what became of her. He struggles with his complex feelings of prejudice toward immigrants and awe at his impression of the young girl after spending only a few moments with her. Woven throughout this story are the complexities of discrimination not only between Frank and the people his father encounters every day, but the discrimination at play in Frank’s own family, between verdadero Francisco Spanish blood and Mayan “indiecitos,” as Frank’s grandfather says. Frank’s transformation is not only evident in his changing actions and words, but in his perception of the work his father does at the border.

This book in the hands of kids is an exciting prospect. Individually, you could delve into each character’s story, reveling in the rich development of character, place, and voice. As a whole, imagine the conversations around Lulu Delacre’s robust writing. Further, readers will be captivated with the true elements of these works, all found in the “Notes on the Individual Stories” section at the back of the book. But let’s end with the front of the book. The beautiful cover artwork, in combination with the title, sends a message to all of our kids that this book is for all of us.

 Lulu Delacre Media Photo 1 ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Three-time Pura Belpré Award honoree Lulu Delacre has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1980. Born and raised in Puerto Rico to Argentinean parents, Delacre says her Latino heritage and her life experiences inform her work. Her 37 titles include Arroz con Leche: Popular Songs and Rhymes from Latin America, a Horn Book Fanfare Book in print for over 25 years; and Salsa Stories, an IRA Outstanding International Book. Her bilingual picture book ¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! Descubriendo el bosque nublado; Olinguito, from A to Z! Unveiling the Cloud Forest has received 20 awards and honors including an NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor and an ALA Notable for All Ages. Her most recent title, is Us, in Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos. Delacre has lectured internationally and served as a juror for the National Book Awards. She has exhibited at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art; The Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators in New York; the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico and the Museum of Ponce in Puerto Rico among other venues.

Us, In Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos has been recognized as a Kirkus Best Book of 2017, a New York Public Libraries Best Book of 2017 and a Los Angeles Public Libraries Best book of 2017. It has also been awarded a Malka Penn Honor for Human Rights in Children’s Literature.

Book Review: All the Way to Havana written by Margarita Engle, illus. by Mike Curato

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Together, a boy and his parents drive to the city of Havana, Cuba, in their old family car. Along the way, they experience the sights and sounds of the streets–neighbors talking, musicians performing, and beautiful, colorful cars putt-putting and bumpety-bumping along. In the end, though, it’s their old car, Cara Cara, that the boy loves best.

MY TWO CENTS: I really enjoyed the trip this picture book takes through the Cuban countryside and into the city of Havana. It is easy to identify with the narrator, as he gets squashed in the backseat by all the passengers! Engle makes the question of whether or not the narrator and his father can get the car to work a suspenseful one, but as the journey gets underway, we don’t feel pity for the family for having an old car, but rather excitement for everything they see along the road to Havana. The bright colors of the cars alongside the blue of the sky and ocean make the pictures very attractive and illustrator Mike Curato adds plenty of detail to the vehicles and the scenery in Havana. The figures in the pictures can sometimes look a little flat, but it was nice to see an Afro-Latinx family featured—an unfortunate rarity in a lot of picture books. Both the author and illustrator include notes at the end talking a little about the background of the story and the process of researching the illustrations.

TEACHING TIPS: As might be expected, this is a perfect story time book, especially for kids around ages 2-4 who are usually VERY into cars, trucks, and trains (so much that many bookstores have a separate section just for those books). The sounds the car makes invite call and response with story time or classroom listeners. The way the narrator talks about how Cara-Cara looks compared to all of the other cars might be a good lead in to having students draw their own imaginary car, including what it would look like and what sounds it would make. The context of traveling to a family celebration is also a good discussion point, where children can talk about their own trips to visit relatives and various family celebrations.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find All the Way to Havana, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Margarita Headshot

ABOUT THE AUTHORMargarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. Her newest verse novel about the island 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. 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 as well as a poet and novelist. She lives in central California with her husband.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Mike Curato loves drawing and writing almost as much as he loves cupcakes and ice cream (and that’s a LOT!). He is the author and illustrator of everyone’s favorite polka-dotted elephant, Little Elliot. His debut title, Little Elliot, Big City (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Macmillan), released in 2014 to critical acclaim, has won several awards, and is being translated into over ten languages. There are now four books in the Little Elliot series: Little Elliot, Big City; Little Elliot, Big FamilyLittle Elliot, Big Fun; and the latest addition, Little Elliot, Fall Friends. Meanwhile, Mike had the pleasure of illustrating Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, and contributed to What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends. He is working on several other projects, including What If… by Samantha Berger and his first graphic novel. Publishers Weekly named Mike a “Fall 2014 Flying Start.” In the same year he won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder’s Award.

 

 

 

ABOUT 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.

Book Review: The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Marcos Rivas yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood, away from his indifferent mom and her abusive boyfriend—which seems impossible.

When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program, he meets Zach and Amy, whose friendship inspires Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself. The Closest I’ve Come is a story about traversing real and imagined boundaries, about discovering new things in the world, and about discovering yourself, too.

MY TWO CENTS: As a seasoned reader of Latinx young adult literature, I expect books that centralize male protagonists to fit within a particular, if unfortunate, macho framework; but I hoped that The Closest I’ve Come would buck tradition. While some parts of the book surprised me (like protagonist Marcos Rivas and his pals having a heart-to-heart at the end of the book), others conformed to the stereotypes I’ve grown used to—absent or abusive fathers, drug trafficking, and gratuitous violence.

Based on the book’s description, I anticipated The Closest I’ve Come would deliver a stereotype-busting journey of self-acceptance; but it’s not until the final fifty pages or so of this book that I was able to see this narrative coalesce. In the condensed space of this young adult novel, Aceves juggles quite a bit, sometimes to the detriment of his overarching goal of revealing how Marcos overcomes his circumstances and comes to accept himself. The plot is sprawling. It follows Marcos as he navigates the complex racial hierarchies of his poor, urban neighborhood, Maesta; through the hallways of his high school; into Future Success, the special program he finds himself enrolled in; and inside the four walls of his home, where he battles a tense relationship with his mother and abuse at the hands of her racist boyfriend. Though I had some difficulty keeping track of the plot, as well as the multiple characters corresponding to each subplot, each reveals a new facet of Marcos’s identity—his tenderness, his concern, and his desire to please.

Yet, whereas Marcos—via Aceves’s first-person narration—is fairly open about his feelings of inadequacy and his hopes for the future, he only shares these thoughts with the reader. Marcos longs for the love of his distant mother. He also vies for the attention of his non-traditional crush– Amy, a punk white girl. But he cannot share his feelings with either of the women in his life, nor can he truly connect with his other friends. It is clear from Aceves’s honest and lyrical prose that Marcos is bright and caring, but he is stunted by the cultural milieu of Maesta.

Though I found the book engaging and Marcos to be a sympathetic narrator, I was a little disappointed that The Closest I’ve Come proliferates the narrative that Latinxs (and other minoritized peoples, as the other residents of Maesta are African-American) are poor, destitute, and violence-prone. Eventually, Aceves undercuts this dominant paradigm by having Marcos reveal his true feelings to his mother, Amy, and his friends, but I worry that it comes too late to dispel the single story of tragedy that the rest of the book is situated within.

Nevertheless, in the end, Marcos realizes that to be truly happy, he must be honest, not just with himself, but with his friends and relatives. This message is so important, particularly within the scope of the emotion-suppressing machismo that pervades representations of Latinos in media and culture. The closeness Marcos and his friends share when they reveal their secrets to each other fosters a sense of community and family that had been missing from Marcos’s life. Aceves succinctly explains, “How lucky that I been tight with these guys all my life. With friends like these, who needs family?” (304). In emphasizing the family that Marcos chooses, rather than the terrible one he is born into, Aceves finally delivers on promise implied in the book’s description: to reveal how Marcos remakes himself.

While I am still unsure if this ending sufficiently subverts the other, more stereotypical traits of The Closest I’ve Come, I do think this book could serve as an important mirror for readers whose circumstances are similar to Marcos’s. In other words, though this book does perpetuate some stereotypes and questionable tropes relating to Latinxs, it may reach readers who, like Marcos and his time with Future Success, simply need the right experiences to turn their lives around.

TEACHING TIPS: Because of my reservations about the book, I might be hesitant to teach it as the central focus of a literature class, but for a language arts unit focused on linguistics, The Closest I’ve Come offers several possibilities. It could provide some examples of vernacular English, as Marcos often drops auxiliary verbs or uses double negatives. Students might also discuss Marcos’s disuse of Spanish (he barely speaks it at home and has trouble understanding it when it is spoken to him), which is particularly important within the context of official language debates.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fred Aceves was born in New York but spent most of his youth in Southern California and Tampa, Florida, where he lived in a poor, working class neighborhood like the one described in The Closest I’ve Come. At the age of 21, he started traveling around the world, living in Chicago, New York, the Czech Republic, France, Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico, his father’s native land. Among other jobs, he has worked as a delivery driver, server, cook, car salesman, freelance editor, and teacher of English as a second language. The Closest I’ve Come is his first novel.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.

Book Review: The Go-Between by Veronica Chambers

 

Review by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: She is the envy of every teenage girl in Mexico City. Her mother is a glamorous telenovela actress. Her father is the go-to voiceover talent for blockbuster films. Hers is a world of private planes, chauffeurs, paparazzi and gossip columnists. Meet Camilla del Valle, or Cammi to those who know her best.

When Cammi’s mom gets cast in an American television show and the family moves to LA, things change, and quickly. Her mom’s first role is playing a not-so-glamorous maid in a sitcom. Her dad tries to find work, but dreams about returning to Mexico. And at the posh, private Polestar Academy, Cammi’s new friends assume she is a scholarship kid, the daughter of a domestic.

At first Cammi thinks that playing along with the stereotypes will teach her new friends a lesson. But the more she lies, the more she wonders: Is she only fooling herself?

MY TWO CENTS: Like many immigrants, Cammi came to her new home in Los Angeles by plane. But unlike most immigrants, her mother’s job security as a telenovela star and her family’s wealth made her transition much smoother. Cammi does share in the immigrant story and her experiences begin to overlap with those of many other Mexican immigrants. Unfortunately, it is the stereotyping and xenophobia that she encounters the most. She is judged by her wealthy classmates at her new private school, immediately labeled as a scholarship kid who is low-income with parents in low-paying and stereotypical jobs and in need of handouts.

For Cammi, this is a great departure from what she usually has to deal with. No one is vying to know her to get closer to her famous mother. Instead, her mother is not the center of attention and she leaves her paparazzi world behind. However, in search of an escape, Cammi begins to promote the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about Mexicans. So in looking out for herself, Cammi forgets about her community and her roots.

It takes long for Cammi to learn her lesson. If it wasn’t for other Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans who have to fight regularly to defeat the stereotypes and get others to see beyond them, she may not have known how her actions perpetuated racism. Albeit slowly, Cammi learns to understand her role not only as a Mexican, but as an immigrant and compatriota to her community.

TEACHING TIPS: Cammi brings into perspective that not all immigrants come into this country in the same manner or with the same opportunities. Some immigrants come with established work or educational opportunities, while others may have left those exact opportunities behind to immigrate to the United States. While Cammi is perhaps not the best role model for the majority of the book, she does allow us to question a diversity of immigrants and their experiences. In a time when our political discord says that immigrants from Mexico are the worst of the pack, what is Cammi bringing to light? Cammi’s story is merely one of many.

RECOMMENDED READING:

 

TransientABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Chambers is a prolific author, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Mama’s Girl which has been a course adopted by hundreds of high schools and colleges throughout the country. The New Yorker called Mama’s Girl, “a troubling testament to grit and mother love… one of the finest and most evenhanded in the genre in recent years.” Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, her work often reflects her Afro-Latina heritage.

She coauthored the award-winning memoir Yes Chef with chef Marcus Samuelsson as well as Samuelsson’s young adult memoir Make It Messy, and has collaborated on four New York Times bestsellers, most recently 32 Yolks, which she cowrote with chef Eric Ripert. She has been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Glamour. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latina heritage. She speaks, reads, and writes Spanish, but she is truly fluent in Spanglish. She is currently a JSK Knight fellow at Stanford University.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries.She has an MA in history and MLIS from Simmons College where she focused her studies on the role of libraries and archives in the cultural preservation of the U.S.-Mexican border. Additionally, she holds a BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University.  Her research is greatly influenced by her hometown of Laredo, TX which has led her to work in serving immigrants and underrepresented communities. Her current work involves exploring cultural identity through oral history in her project, Third Culture. You can find Araceli on Instagram. 

Book Review: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

MY TWO CENTS: Much to my delight, there were a number of titles released in 2017 that filled me with pride and transported me back to my days as a middle school book worm. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora was among them. Arturo’s story possesses familiar hallmarks of coming of age tales, a first crush, a crummy summer job as a dishwasher (albeit at his family’s beloved restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla), and self-discovery. With equal measures of humor and heart, Pablo Cartaya’s middle grade debut is sure to leave readers anxious for an invite to the Zamora family Sunday dinners. What truly makes The Epic Fail special, though, is how Cartaya burnishes deeper themes like family, community, gentrification, and cultural identity with nuance and irresistible charm.

When Wilfrido Pipo, a villainous real estate developer, saunters into Canal Grove looking to build a luxurious high rise, Arturo and his family fear the move will drastically alter their Miami neighborhood. Pipo intends to buy the city-owned lot next to La Cocina, which the Zamoras also planned to bid on, hoping to expand their restaurant. In order to convince community members to back his development plan, Pipo throws fancy events and raffles off all-expenses-paid trips. Arturo senses Pipo’s duplicitous nature and is spurred into action by Vanessa, his activist cousin, and Carmen, his new crush. Together, they hatch plans, one involving a Hulk disguise, to further investigate Pipo’s shady background and resist his ambitions. Gentrification and activism are timely topics, but their weightiness can feel overwhelming and disheartening, especially in light of news about Dreamers, to name one example. Cartaya does his best to impart readers with some hope. Arturo and his family picket and attend public forums at city hall, actions which, whatever the ultimate result, display a sense of agency, a power Arturo realizes he possesses.

At one protest, Vanessa holds a picket sign reading “Family is Community-Community is Family,” a succinct summation of two overarching themes. For Cartaya, family is not just those related by blood, but those with whom you choose to spend time, and sometimes, inadvertently share space. We readily throw longtime friends under the family umbrella, but Cartaya implores readers to consider neighbors, even the most eccentric among them, as members of our extended families. La Cocina itself is an extension of the family’s dining room, where an array of regulars eat, local businesses build partnerships (the restaurant buys its meat and greens from area vendors), and everyone is welcome.

Cartaya’s portrayal of an ample list of secondary characters is one of his greatest successes. He depicts a variety of personalities using distinct and vivid details, bringing the community of Canal Grove to life. Whether it is Arturo’s best friend Bren, a hopeless dork perpetually trying to look and sound like Pitbull, or Aunt Tuti, who has a penchant for dramatics, but is a fierce defender of her family, readers will surely recognize at least one, if not many, of Cartaya’s characters. Arturo may be the hero of the story, but it is the people around him who inspire his actions and give his mission purpose. His fight to save the family restaurant is also a fight for the preservation of his hometown, a love he shares with the people of his community, who, in turn, make that community a place worth loving. In one passage, Arturo wonders where Pipo’s own family might be, “All that success and I never heard him talk about anyone who he cared about.” Arturo’s realization reminded me of Harry Potter’s own assessment of Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix, whom he pities for being equally rootless. A poignant message about community that traverses Hogwarts and Canal Grove.

As Arturo’s Abuela’s health declines, she gives Arturo a box of photos and letters from his Abuelo, which reference the poet José Martí. The poet is a link to his grandfather and his Cuban heritage. Arturo is pulled in by Martí, a figure emblematic of embracing multiple cultures and causes. 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.” Although awkward in many aspects of his life, Arturo moves through his multitudes with spectacular ease. The narrative of struggling to balance cultural identities has shifted. Of course, stories about cultural struggle are necessary, but it was wonderful to see Arturo just be himself. It allowed me to let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I was holding in.

I could go on and on about The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. How touched I was by the depictions of Abuela’s tenderness, his mom’s quiet struggle becoming matriarch of the family, Arturo’s admiration for Carmen’s colorful braces, and of course, the food (recipes included as backmatter). This novel was a true joy to read from beginning to end. A rare feat, even in children’s literature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by Viking. He is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. http://www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and was born and raised in Queens, NY.