A Conversation with Lauren Castillo, illustrator of Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Cecilia Cackley: This is your twenty-first picture book! You’ve written three of them yourself, but you’ve also worked with a wide range of collaborators. How do you feel like your process has evolved as an artist?

Lauren Castillo: It feels like I’m choosing a different medium for each project, but somehow it ends up looking like the same type of art to others. Imagine for instance, doesn’t look too different from Nana in the City, but to me, I definitely worked in a lot of different ways to make the art. For example, because this book had so many landscapes, I really wanted to embrace that imperfect, texture-y feeling in a more abstract way. I wanted to have a looser style, so I used something that I had been playing around with in workshops with children—printmaking by painting on foam. It’s really fun because you don’t know what you’re going to end up with until you run the print. That’s kind of the beauty of printmaking, that nothing is going to be exact and precise. I think my art, over the years, felt like I was tightening up and it felt a little too crafted. I think it was because my drawing wasn’t as strong at first, so it gave this energetic, free feeling to the work and I liked that. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to trick myself into loosening up. For this book it was helpful to use this type of printmaking for the backgrounds. I would paint on the foam and then flip it over and stamp it on the paper. I work in a much smaller scale so when it’s enlarged it gets even more texture. With each book I need to use different types of materials to keep things interesting.

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CC: Is this your first non-fiction picture book about a living person?

LC: Yes.

CC: How was the research process different than for, say, your book about E.B. White?

LC: It was very different! I did not interact at all with Juan directly. I sent some questions through the publisher Candlewick because it was a poem and it was non-descriptive in terms of the locations and the years and that sort of thing. I had this vision for it so I didn’t want to know too many details but I wanted to gauge the era, the decade and the locations that he was speaking about. I had looked at some photographs of him and most were current so I decided, although I probably could have gotten some childhood photos of him, to do my own version of him and what I imagined he looked like when he was younger. So the character development was done without photo reference. But they gave me some locations to work with so I could get photos from the computer for those. It was a lot freer than working on E.B. White’s life, for example, because that was very descriptive and specific, even down to the animals that were in the barn.

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CC: Would you say this is the most poetic text you’ve ever worked on?

LC:  Probably. I would definitely call some of the other books I’ve worked on poetic, or poems but this feels most definitely like it was pulled out of a poetry book and it’s gorgeous. The first time I read it I thought “Well, I have to illustrate this!”

CC: Tell us a little about your own Latinx family background.

LC: My dad’s father is Cuban, and my mom’s mom is Puerto Rican.

CC: Is this the first book by another Latinx author that you’ve worked on?

LC: It is, which I was very excited about. I grew up asking a lot of questions about my grandparents’ lives and their parents’ lives, coming to the United States, and it seemed like I was more interested in my background and culture than a lot of my friends. I did a lot of reports as a kid, interviewing my grandparents. I would be curious to see how connected to my art Juan Felipe was, if there was anything that reminded him of his own life or if I took liberties that were very different. It would be interesting to have a conversation about it.

CC:  Do you think that you’ll ever make any work connected with your own family history?

LC:  My Puerto Rican great-grandfather was a musician, and when he moved to New York, his family lived in the Spanish Harlem area. My grandmother told me stories about when she was young and he had a band that would play around different venues in Spanish Harlem. So when I moved to New York for graduate school, we had to do a book project, and I decided I wanted to do a visual journalism project about this really old music store in Spanish Harlem called Casa Latina. I went there and asked them if I could spend a month coming in and out of their store and do drawings, so basically I did this whole visual journalism project that I turned into a book about the people in the store and how they interacted with each other and their customers. I would have conversations with them and take notes, so it was kind of like a diary, but it included drawings from the shop and portraits of people that work there, and I called it Casa Latina. I’ve wanted to turn that into a picture book at some point because when I was going to the store I had it in my mind that although that store wasn’t around then, that’s the same neighborhood that my great-grandfather was spending a lot of time in and playing music in. So I got really invested in that area, and for a while, I’ve been keeping some drafts of stories that I want to do, some ideas to turn that project into a picture book. So yes, I definitely want to do a project that connects to that Puerto Rican background.

CC: What are you working on now?

LC: At the moment I’m working on a very unusual project for me, which is completely imagined, because so far, my three picture books have all come from some sort of life experience, and so I’m working on this early chapter book. It’s about the hedgehog character that I had drawn that kept popping up in my sketchbook, and it’s all animals and one human character, and it’s very much a made up story. And also it’s a long format book, which is a lot of fun since I don’t have a lot experience with that!

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MORE ABOUT LAUREN CASILLO: Lauren studied illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She is the author and illustrator of the 2015 Caldecott Honor winning book, Nana in the City, as well as The Troublemaker and Melvin and the Boy. Lauren has also illustrated several critically acclaimed picture books, including Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley, Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, and City Cat by Kate Banks. She currently draws and dreams in Harrisburg, PA. You can find out more about her at http://www.laurencastillo.com/

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

Book Review: Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo

 

Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERCharlie Hernández has always been proud of his Latin American heritage. He loves the culture, the art, and especially the myths. Thanks to his abuela’s stories, Charlie possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the monsters and ghouls who have spent the last five hundred years haunting the imaginations of children all across the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Central and South America. And even though his grandmother sometimes hinted that the tales might be more than mere myth, Charlie’s always been a pragmatist. Even barely out of diapers, he knew the stories were just make-believe—nothing more than intricately woven fables meant to keep little kids from misbehaving.

But when Charlie begins to experience freaky bodily manifestations—ones all too similar to those described by his grandma in his favorite legend—he is suddenly swept up in a world where the mythical beings he’s spent his entire life hearing about seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Hispanic folklore and into his life. And even stranger, they seem to know more about him than he knows about himself.

Soon, Charlie finds himself in the middle of an ancient battle between La Liga, a secret society of legendary mythological beings sworn to protect the Land of the Living, and La Mano Negra (a.k.a. the Black Hand), a cabal of evil spirits determined to rule mankind. With only the help of his lifelong crush, Violet Rey, and his grandmother’s stories to guide him, Charlie must navigate a world where monsters and brujas rule and things he couldn’t possibly imagine go bump in the night. That is, if he has any hope of discovering what’s happening to him and saving his missing parents (oh, and maybe even the world).

No pressure, muchacho.

MY TWO CENTS“Myths, my abuela used to say, are truths long forgotten by the world.”

Mythological figures are as real as anything in Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows. This debut middle grade from Ryan Calejo takes readers both familiar and unfamiliar with Latin American mythology (and everywhere in between) on a crash course of myths from all over the Spanish-speaking world.

Charlie is in middle school, where standing out for any reason can make you a target. When Charlie suddenly sprouts horns (which go away) and feathers (which keep growing back) soon after his parents disappear, Charlie knows he has to try to stay under the radar. One school bully targets Charlie for being born in Puebla, Mexico. That same bully jokes about Charlie’s parents being deported because news has spread that they have been missing for two months. Surprising everyone, including Charlie, popular girl Violet Rey stands up to the bully in defense of Charlie when the bully tries to steal a locket left behind by his mother. “No sweat. I can’t stand racists or bullies — and especially not racist bullies.” With Violet’s help, Charlie discovers a map inside the locket that matches the layout of an old cemetery in town.

While investigating the cemetery with hopes of finding clues to his parents’ whereabouts, Charlie and Violet encounter the first of many mythical figures — a mysterious groundskeeper who is actually a calaca, a walking, talking skeleton who tries to kill them! But Charlie uses knowledge his abuela gave him about Juancho Ramirez, who had cheated Death, a calaca in the fable. Juancho knew calacas were traders by nature and loved trinkets, in particular, which could be bartered to save your life. The calaca/groundskeeper wants to trade Charlie for his map, and on closer inspection, tells Charlie it is an ancient map handsketched by la Calavera Catrina. The map shows the way to the world between worlds. The calaca/groundskeeper confirms that all Hispanic myths are real. The calaca’s explanation is that “the landmasses currently known as Central America, South America, and the Iberian Peninsula are closer in metaphysical proximity to the spirit realm than anywhere else on the planet.”

And so begins a journey to find out where Charlie’s parents are. Charlie must use all of the knowledge his abuela shared with him to stay alive even when enemies of La Liga de Sombras try to kill him. One after another, famous mythological figures show up to either help or harm, believing Charlie to be the Morphling, a hero who defeats the world’s most powerful witch. All in all, over twenty mythological figures from all over the Spanish-speaking world make appearances, along with brief explanations, usually from Charlie himself.

The conclusion is satisfying, yet clearly leads the reader to believe that more is to come for Charlie. The sequel, Charlie Hernández and the Castle of Bones releases October 22, 2019.

Spanish is used throughout the story, often with English translations, though readers will notice that italics are only used to show emphasis, whether Spanish or English. A glossary provides more information about each mythological figure that appears in the book.

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows is fast-paced and funny — just right for readers who are looking for adventure!

Image result for ryan calejoABOUT THE AUTHORRyan Calejo was born and raised in south Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami with a BA. He’s been invited to join both the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and the Golden Key International Honour Society. He teaches swimming to elementary school students, chess to middle school students, and writing to high school students. Having been born into a family of immigrants and growing up in the so-called “Capital of Latin America,” Ryan knows the importance of diversity in our communities and is passionate about writing books that children of all ethnicities can relate to. Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows is his first novel.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Walsh is a K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist from suburban Chicago. She has been a middle school teacher for twelve years. She holds degrees in Secondary English Education and Reading Instruction. She is a mom, an avid reader, and a strong advocate for equity in education. You can find her on Twitter at @storiestoldinsf.

Book Review: Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle by Hilda Eunice Burgos

 

Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERHer last name may mean “kings,” but Ana María Reyes REALLY does not live in a castle. Rather, she’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two parents (way too loveydovey), three sisters (way too dramatic), everyone’s friends (way too often), and a piano (which she never gets to practice). And when her parents announce a new baby is coming, that means they’ll have even less time for Ana María.

Then she hears about the Eleanor School, New York City’s best private academy. If Ana María can win a scholarship, she’ll be able to get out of her Washington Heights neighborhood school and achieve the education she’s longed for. To stand out, she’ll need to nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase, which means she has to practice through her sisters’ hijinks, the neighbors’ visits, a family trip to the Dominican Republic . . . right up until the baby’s birth! But some new friends and honest conversations help her figure out what truly matters, and know that she can succeed no matter what.

Ana María Reyes may not be royal, but she’s certain to come out on top.

MY TWO CENTSAna María (Anamay to her family) is a 6th-grader, living in a two-bedroom apartment with Mami and Papi, her older sister Gracie (8th grade), and younger sisters Rosie (6) and Connie (3). With barely enough time and space to practice her beloved piano to prepare for her Lincoln Center performance, Anamay is less than excited when Mami and Papi announce that a new baby is expected to arrive in December.

It’s no surprise that Ana María doesn’t feel seen or appreciated at home until Tía Nona comes from the  Dominican Republic to visit. Tía Nona knows just how to make Anamay feel special with regular phone calls and praise for her piano-playing successes. When Tía Nona announces that she is getting married in the Dominican Republic, Papi quickly declares that they can’t afford to pay for everyone to attend. But with a little convincing from Ana María, and a financial intervention from Tía Nona, the Reyes family soon finds themselves preparing for the big trip and the big day.

Tía Nona likes to have every comfort, and Ana María is no different. She feels like she connects best with Tía Nona out of everyone in her family…until they arrive in the Dominican Republic and everyone is witness to Tía Nona’s cruel treatment of a young servant girl named Clarisa, whom Tía Nona calls “Cosita” (little thing). When Ana María sees Clarisa struggle to help her family eat, she gains a new perspective on her own privileges and life back home in New York…and a new perspective on Tía Nona.

As Ana María works to perfect her Lincoln Center recital piece, the lessons she learned in the Dominican Republic — about family, friendships, and what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re not — all lead Ana María to make some tough choices to make her dreams come true.

Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle has a lot of moving parts, each playing off the other to create a story with depth and heart, and Hilda Eunice Burgos weaves it all together like a master composer.

Lee & Low Books offers this Teacher’s Guide for Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle.

hilda9573ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hilda Eunice Burgos has been writing for many years, but Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle is her first published novel. Her parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born, and she grew up in Washington Heights as one of four sisters. She now lives with her family near Philadelphia, where she works as an environmental lawyer. Please visit her website at hildaeuniceburgos.com.

Check out the Middle Grade Author Q&A she did with us: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/10/22/spotlight-on-middle-grade-authors-part-7-hilda-eunice-burgos/

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJessica Walsh is a K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist from suburban Chicago. She has been a middle school teacher for twelve years. She holds degrees in Secondary English Education and Reading Instruction. She is a mom, an avid reader, and a strong advocate for equity in education. You can find her on Twitter at @storiestoldinsf.

Book Review: Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya

 

Reviewed by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Marcus Vega is six feet tall, 180 pounds, and the owner of a premature mustache. When you look like this and you’re only in the eighth grade, you’re both a threat and a target.

After a fight at school leaves Marcus facing suspension, Marcus’s mom decides it’s time for a change of environment. She takes Marcus and his younger brother to Puerto Rico to spend a week with relative they don’t remember or have never met. But Marcus can’t focus knowing that his father— who walked out of their lives ten years ago—is somewhere on the island.

So begins Marcus’s incredible journey, a series of misadventures that take him all over Puerto Rico in search of his elusive namesake. Marcus doesn’t know if he’ll ever find his father, but what he ultimately discovers changes his life. And he even learns a bit of Spanish along the way.

MY TWO CENTS: What immediately drew me to this book was the title. So much discussion of “Latinx Children’s Literature” centers around bilingualism or dual-language published titles, but this title adds a very compelling commentary to those claims. Marcus Vega is 14 years old, 180 pounds, and six feet tall. This stellar combination makes some kids fear him and some taunt him. When he is nearly suspended after a fight in which he was defending his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome, Marcus’s mom agrees that going to Puerto Rico, where the boys were born and where Marcus’s estranged dad allegedly still lives, for spring break may be just what the family needs. Suddenly embraced by a family he never knew he had, Marcus begins to learn that you can get to know yourself by knowing where you’re from.

Written in the first-person perspective of Marcus, the writing felt occasionally flat, however I’ve never been a 14-year-old boy, so I can’t authentically comment on the voice. Although I felt some parts of the plot were a bit hurried, I found myself bawling on an airplane as I finished this book. I so wholly connected with Marcus and his feeling of wondering if “where” he’s from determines who he is. Cartaya explores Latinx identity in a way that may not be recognizable to many children identifying as Latinx in some capacity. However, it was certainly a familiar feeling to this reviewer. Between not growing up speaking Spanish (only hearing it consistently at my maternal grandparents’ home) and being slapped with a Scottish surname, I was never confident in defining my being “Puerto Rican.” In reading Cartaya’s novel, I no longer felt that imposter syndrome of identifying as a Hispanic woman because I’m not terribly fluent in Spanish. Identity politics are a complicated matter and Cartaya beautifully explores a side of Latinx identity through the eyes of a young boy who has been abandoned by his connection to his Puerto Rican identity.

Cartaya introduces readers to life in Puerto Rico as Marcus is introduced to it. Arriving in Old San Juan, Marcus meets uncles and cousins he had never heard of, let alone remembered, from his very early childhood living in Puerto Rico. He is welcomed unquestionably and unconditionally. The extended family ventures to more rural areas of the island, seemingly all in search of Marcus and Charlie’s father. An interesting approach to this story was the character of Marcus’s mom, Melissa. Melissa, who is not claimed as Puerto Rican herself, spent a significant amount of time in Puerto Rico when she was younger and this is where she met her sons’ father. Melissa is revealed to be fluent in Spanish and has a close relationship with her ex-husband’s family, despite not having spoken to them in years. The character of Melissa could present some interesting conversations on the “adoption” of culture and language, and I would be interested in discussing this further. Tackling everything from bullying, economic prejudice, cultural identity theory, separated parents, parental abandonment, and coming of age, this book needs to be a cornerstone of MG literature, particularly in the #ownvoices world.

 

51b2e-1486517321949ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pablo Cartaya is an award-winning author whose books have been reviewed by The New York Times, featured in The Washington Post, received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal, as well as been among the Best Books of the Year for Amazon, Chicago Public Library, NYPL, and several state award lists. He Is the author of the critically acclaimed middle grade novels The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (a 2018 Pura Belpré Honor Book) and Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish. His next novel, Each Tiny Spark will debut on the new Kokila Penguin/Random House Imprint, which focuses on publishing diverse books for children and young adults. He teaches at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program in Writing and visits schools and colleges around the country. Pablo is proudly bilingual en español y ingles. @phcartaya

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager for over 20 international children’s publishers. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer or clients. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Book Review: Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World by Gary Golio, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

 

Review by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION OF THE  BOOK: Carlos Santana grew up surrounded by music. Carlos’s father, a beloved mariachi performer, begins teaching his son how to play violin at an early age. But when Carlos later discovers American blues, he is captivated by the raw honesty of the music. Unable to think of anything else, he loses all interest in the violin and for a time, loses his way as well. Only after receiving an electric guitar of his own does he find his true life’s path.

From his early exposure to mariachi music to his successful fusing of rock, blues, jazz, and Latin influences, here is the childhood story of a legendary musician.

MY TWO CENTS: The magazine Rolling Stone places Carlos Santana within the pantheon of rock music’s greatest guitarists. But to put some perspective on his contribution as a Chicano, he was among the first to fuse blues-rock with Latinx instruments and rhythms, sometimes accompanied by lyrics in Spanish. In the mostly white world of rock and roll, Santana’s Latinidad stood in sharp relief, and his rise came at a time when Latinx performing artists rarely achieved notoriety on a national scale. Santana broke through this wall of invisibility. He did it by offering the world a sound that could not be ignored.

How did it all begin?

A captivating picture-book biography for readers of any age, Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World brings us the background story. Told in poetic prose, the narrative opens in the subject’s infancy and follows the early years of his musical development, culminating in the moment when his love for blues-rock ignites.

One of this book’s greatest strengths is the art of Rudy Gutierrez, whose high-powered illustrations explode with movement and color. Page spreads vibrate with psychedelic swirls, suggesting the fluidity and intensity in Santana’s music.

Born in 1947 in Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco, Mexico—a town of “dirt roads and mud houses”—Santana’s humble beginnings do not hold him back for long. Thanks to wise and loving parents, he receives rich exposure to music. His father, José Santana, is a bandleader in the mariachi tradition. Carlos seems destined to follow his father’s career path, but then discovers a musical expression that speaks to him far more convincingly.

As a child, Carlos looks on his father with great admiration. “When Papá plays the violin, even little Carlos can see how people’s eyes light up, filled with el espíritu de la vida. Everyone wants José Santana to entertain them on their special days, and Carlos believes his father is an angel, flying on a bicycle with his golden harp as he rides to play in the church orchestra.”

At home, José is the younger Santana’s violin instructor. Unfortunately, “Carlos doesn’t really like the violin, and the smell of wood, held close to his face, gives him no pleasure.” In an effort to expand his son’s possibilities, José takes Carlos to the cantinas where he plays, offering the budding violinist time on the stage. Yet for Carlos, something important is missing in these occasions: joy.

But everything changes once he hears American blues guitarists on the radio. “Names like Muddy Waters and B.B. King seem magical, their songs raw and honest.” After this critical discovery, clashes between father and son become more frequent, especially when Carlos tries to sneak a bit of blues-style improvisation into a mariachi performance. Eventually, José leaves Mexico to pursue better paying gigs in the United States. With his father gone, Carlos finds a bit of breathing room to indulge his musical tastes.

Then, unexpectedly, a package arrives from San Francisco. It’s a used electric guitar! Coming from his father, this gift sends a profoundly affirming message. “There will be no turning back. Now [Carlos] can start to play the song inside him, the one that has been there all along.”

The book’s closing paragraph hints at the brilliant career that lies beyond the scope of this story. “Young Carlos Santana will create a new flavor of rock and roll, charged with Latin passion and the raw honesty of American blues.”

TEACHING TIPS: For a broader understanding of Santana’s significance in the history of rock and roll, check the back pages of the book, which include a “More About Carlos Santana” section, a brief list of discography, as well as Internet and print sources for further information. See also this article on the PBS website.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gary Golio is a visual artist, a child therapist, and the author of numerous other picture-book biographies, whose subjects include Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and John Coltrane. Learn more about his work on his official website.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rudy Gutierrez is the distinguished creator behind the cover art for Santana’s multiplatinum album Shaman and the recently released In Search of Mona Lisa. He also illustrated a U.S. postage stamp in commemoration of Jimi Hendrix. Learn more about Gutierrez in this interview.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel published in 2018 by Candlewick Press. She’s also the writer-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & WhiteDarkroom recounts Lila’s experiences as a child immigrant from Argentina to Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. The Spanish edition is now available, under the title Cuarto oscuro: Recuerdos en blanco y negro.  Learn more about Lila on her website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.

Book Review: Stella Diaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez

 

Reviewed by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Stella Diaz loves marine animals, especially her betta fish, Pancho. But Stella Diaz is not a betta fish. Betta fish like to be alone, while Stella loves spending time with her mom and brother and her best friend Jenny. Trouble is, Jenny is in another class this year, and Stella feels very lonely. When a new boy arrives in Stella’s class, she really wants to be his friend, but sometimes Stella accidentally speaks Spanish instead of English and pronounces words wrong, which makes her turn roja. Plus, she has to speak in front of her whole class for a big presentation at school! But she better get over her fears soon, because Stella Díaz has something to say!

MY TWO CENTS: The narrative of the “shy kid” is not rare in children’s literature. There are countless tales about boys and girls alike who struggle to express themselves and would rather be overlooked than have to speak in front of their class, a school assembly, or otherwise step outside their comfort zones. Growing up as a shy kid myself, I think about this experience a lot and have realized that “shy” is often misleading or represented one dimensionally in literature and pop culture. In Angela Dominguez’s quietly poignant middle grade debut, Stella Diaz Has Something to Say, the “shy kid” narrative is enriched by a unique but deeply relatable character, with an active internal life, and explored through the lens of language itself.

For someone who is shy, language is a fickle friend–not necessarily because you may not know words in a given language, but because simply pulling them together in a coherent order while in front of someone unfamiliar or in an overwhelming situation can be quite the burden. Stella Diaz is no stranger to this scenario. At home playing cards with her older brother, Nick, dancing salsa with her Mom, or in the lunchroom sitting with her best friend, Jenny, she is easily able to express herself, but many other social settings quickly flip her discomfort switch, leaving her “stomach in knots.” Through a charming and direct first-person narrative, Dominguez brings Stella to life, treating readers to her thoughts, concerns, passions, and moments of joy, making Stella’s story much more than just a-shy-kid-trying-to-get-over-their-shyness plot. Stella faces many common childhood challenges, like learning to ride a bike, bullying, and a project presentation, alongside other weightier concerns, like realizing her status as a green card holder (“Did you know we’re aliens?,” she asks her brother). But Stella, an astute observer of the world (a super power, if you ask me), is able to, in spite of some creeping, self-conscious worries, confidently cope with minor failures and push herself to take on challenges. An inspiration to many, and a validation for readers who may recognize that same quiet fortitude in themselves.

Despite her shyness, Stella longs to connect with others, including the new kid joining her third grade class, who she hopes “speaks Spanish.” Stella’s simple wish for a Spanish speaking friend reveals the significance of the language in her life, it’s representation of her culture, and how intrinsic it is to her identity. At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because “here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.” Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as “code switching” or speaking “Spanglish,” Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.

But still, Stella loves Spanish. How it “feels nice to my ears,” how so many of the words “sound better…than in English,” and singing the lyrics to “El Corrido de Chihuahua,” as Abuelo plays it on his guitar. Stella’s hope for a Spanish-speaking friend can be read as a desire to have someone tacitly understand the nuances of navigating these identities and the part language plays in feeling connected and forming a sense of self. Ultimately, language is just that, a way to be understood by the world. Stella herself notes how she appreciates that despite speaking in a low voice she never “had to repeat anything” to Jenny, and the laughs she shares with her family don’t need to be translated.

As Dominguez relates in the “Author’s Note,” many of Stella’s experiences and struggles mirror the author’s own, including migrating from Mexico, having a Vietnamese best friend, and taking speech classes. Not surprisingly, Dominguez’s spot art is featured throughout the chapters, a device that makes this title accessible and appealing for younger readers, while simultaneously making the book a realistic and personal document. Readers can imagine that Stella herself doodled the images on the pages chronicling her experiences and observations. Stella Diaz is Dominguez’s first middle grade novel, and it is simply unforgettable.

 

Angela DominguezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela Dominguez was born in Mexico City, grew up in the great state of Texas, and now resides on the east coast. She is the author and illustrator of several books for children including Maria Had a Little Llama, which received the American Library Association Pura Belpré Illustration Honor. In 2016, she received her second Pura Belpré Honor for her illustrations in Mango, Abuela, and Me (written by Meg Medina). Her debut middle grade novel, Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, was published January 2018. When Angela is not in her studio, she teaches at the Academy of Art University, which honored her with their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.

Angela is a proud member of SCBWI, PEN America, and represented by Wernick and Pratt Literary Agency. As a child, she loved reading books and making a mess creating pictures. She’s delighted to still be doing both.

 

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 100 Best Books for Kids list, most recently as a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews for School Library Journal of English and Spanish language books for children and teens, and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children, Young Adult Library Services Association, and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and born and raised in Queens, NY.