Book Review: The Last 8 by Laura Pohl

 

Reviewed by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOKClover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth as she knows it. When Clover hears an inexplicable radio message, she’s shocked to learn there are other survivors—and that they’re all at the former Area 51. When she arrives, she’s greeted by a band of misfits who call themselves The Last Teenagers on Earth. Only they aren’t the ragtag group of heroes Clover was expecting. The group seems more interested in hiding than fighting back, and Clover starts to wonder if she was better off alone. But then she finds a hidden spaceship, and she doesn’t know what to believe…or who to trust.

MY TWO CENTS: The Last 8 is a solid science fiction read. For those who are passionate about sci-fi, the book presents a really enticing plot that keeps the reader on the edge of their seats. Readers are taken on a journey with Clover and forced to contend with the mysterious beings that have taken over the planet and decimated all forms of life (with the exception of a tiny population of which Clover is a member). Clover can find no way of killing them, and is completely clueless as to why they do not seem to notice her, even though they’ve obliterated every other living thing around her.

Her arrival at Area 51, six months after the initial contact with these otherworldly beings, introduces her to a seemingly random group of other teens who, like her, pass unnoticed by these violent beings. This group of teens, as it turns out, may not be as random as the reader thinks (but I won’t give any spoilers!). The plot is a pretty solid suspense ride, with thrills heightening as these teens try to figure out a way to overcome these new alien overlords.

The best thing about this book is Clover. Clover is a complicated and well-formed character.

She highlights a number of really interesting qualities that are not often explored in YA (or any) literature. First, though it’s never delved deeply into, she seems to be a character who is not immediately looking for romance or any sort of sexual relationship (i.e. Clover is aromantic/asexual – it’s never blatantly stated, but heavily implied). The reader comes to understand her complicated relationship with her ex-boyfriend, as one that Clover was appreciative of because she is able to appreciate people in her life without it needing to be about romance or sex.

Additionally, throughout her journey to Area 51, Clover goes through periods of serious helplessness and severe depression to the point that she realistically contemplates suicide. I find it refreshing that Pohl is up-front about Clover’s feelings as she travels through the country for the six months between the initial alien contact and her arrival at Area 51.

Another great thing about this book is that it involves a large and diverse cast. The readers see young people who come from all areas of this country, and even from abroad. There is a great variety of ethnicities and sexual identities. I appreciate that this is becoming more common in YA literature, but an example like this one, where the characters are intersectionally diverse (ethnically and sexually diverse at the same time) is particularly admirable.

While an overall good start to this series, there are a couple of weaker points. First, though it’s made clear that Clover has been flying planes for a large part of her life and that she is genetically designed to be better at this than any other living being on Earth, it was still hard to wrap my head around the idea that she’s not only adept at flying very high-level military grade aircrafts, but that she’s so adept she can fly several different ones with no training whatsoever. Now, I completely understand that this can be explained by the idea that she’s not entirely human and therefore has superhuman capabilities, but it was still a stretch for me.

Lastly, the ending was not only confusing, but it seemed very rushed and slapped together. This is particularly unfortunate because Pohl spends a good amount of time really building up the middle portion of the book. It would have been worthwhile to focus on continuing that trend through the rest of the novel.

Overall, though, this was a great read, and I’m excited to see what happens in the second book of this duology!

TEACHING TIPS: The Last 8 was a thoroughly entertaining read, and any lover of sci-fi or adventure novels would find it a fast and fun read.

This book’s greatest teaching points come from the conversations about relationships and mental health that the book encourages. I love that many YA writers make it a point to destigmatize the diversity of these two things and challenge the ways readers might think about these topics. Honestly, if you think about the situation that Clover finds herself in, it is plain that anyone would be overcome with a sense of hopelessness and loss. Pohl’s description of Clover’s thought processes is legitimate and accurate and can be a great way to begin having conversations about what loneliness and depression are and how both can affect our mental health.

The book also brings to light relationships and individuals that are healthy and diverse. Clover’s relationships with her grandparents, her ex-boyfriend, and her newfound group of friends illustrate how vastly different relationships can look. Additionally, Clover’s character is one that is in charge of the interactions that she wants to have with people. She’s open and honest about how she feels, romantically or friendship-wise, and that is absolutely something that should be explored more in conversations with youth and adults.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Author’s Website): Laura Pohl is a YA writer and the author of THE LAST 8 (Sourcebooks, 2019). She likes writing messages in caps lock, quoting Hamilton and obsessing about Star Wars. When not taking pictures of her dog, she can be found curled up with a fantasy or science-fiction book. A Brazilian at heart and soul, she makes her home in São Paulo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Book Review: Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré / Sembrando Historias: Pura Belpré bibliotecaria y narradora de cuentos

 

  Planting in Spanish

Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Follow la vida y el legado of Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City.

When she came to America in 1921, Pura carried the cuentos folkloricos of her Puerto Rican homeland. Finding a new home at the New York Public Library as a bilingual assistant, she turned her popular retellings into libros and spread seeds across the land. Today, these seeds have grown into a lush landscape as generations of children and storytellers continue to share her tales and celebrate Pura’s legacy.

This portrait of the influential librarian, author, and puppeteer reminds us of the power of storytelling and the extraordinary woman who opened doors and championed bilingual literature.

MY TWO CENTS: Another bilingual favorite to add to the informational biography shelf! Pura Belpré is widely known for the book award created in her honor through the American Library Association. Every year, the Pura Belpré Award is one that recognizes Latinx authors and illustrators that reflect the Latinx culture in their picture books or novels.

Pura Belpré had seeds of determination and passion that followed her from Puerto Rico. That same blessing led her to work in a library and share her stories with children, however, she quickly discovered that many of her own stories, reflective of her Puerto Rican culture, were not readily available to the community. Therefore, she begins to share her stories with children and then begins to write down all her stories for others to read. Soon after, she is telling her stories all around the world. This biographical account of Pura’s life story and life’s work is nothing short of inspirational. Pura unequivocally shares her passion for storytelling to all so that her stories and culture are not lost. Despite losing her best friend and husband, she returns to the library scene while also inspiring others, and sees her seeds of storytelling and Latinx culture, come to fruition.

The sentence structures are concise but impactful as they tell the story, almost in a poetic form, of inspiration and passion as Pura moves to a role within the library. The reader is mesmerized in her storytelling and how certain words stand out with the use of a brushstroke. Words and phrases in Spanish are realistically embraced within the narrative structure, so much that it flows and might go unnoticed. The sharp, bold, multicolored background brings life to the determining force behind Pura’s life and purpose with books and libraries. The illustrator perfectly captures the authenticity of the story through its detailed illustrations and placement of characters and scenes. The illustrations dance around the entire page, which keeps the reader involved as the story progresses. Certain illustrations, like the simple flowers and musical notes, follow Pura as she shares her stories across the pages. The additional final pages also provide extensive references to text and film for further research in Pura’s lifework, as well as Latinx culture, especially the Puerto Rican culture.

Overall, a perfect addition, in both English and Spanish, to your biography shelf, especially highlighting the power of small, yet meaningful actions and how it evolves into a movement across Latinx and book cultures.

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a grades K-5 setting, with a focus on the primary grades.

  • Teaching descriptive vocabulary words and phrases
  • Focus on character traits, especially traits describing Pura throughout the story
  • Focus on the illustrator’s purpose of using certain colors or placement of illustrations to convey meaning
  • This book can also be combined in a biographical unit of inspirational storytellers or librarians.
  • Students can also be invited to research more of Pura Belpré’s lifework, as well as the impact of the Pura Belpré award on books.

To learn more about the Pura Belpré Medal and find the latest winners and honors, check out the ALA’s Pura Belpré Award home page.

Anika Denise Author Hi-res PhotoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anika Aldamuy Denise first heard the stories of Pura Belpré from her titi Rose, who, like Pura’s family, enjoyed sharing the treasured folklore of Puerto Rico. Today, Anika is the celebrated author of several picture books, including Starring Carmen!, Lights, Camera, Carmen!, and Monster Trucks. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Rhode Island. Other new titles coming in 2019 include The Best Part of Middle illustrated by Christopher Denise, and The Love Letter illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins.Visit her online at www.anikadenise.com.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Paola Escobar grew up traveling from town to town in Colombia. From a very young age she liked to draw the stories her grandmother Clara told about her ancestors, the countryside, and animals. Today, Paola is an illustrator who is passionate about telling stories of her own, having published with SM Spain, Planeta, Norma, and more. She lives very happily in Bogota, Colombia, with her husband and their dog, Flora. Follow her on Instagram here!

 

img_0160ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-3 and also teaches an undergraduate college course in Children’s Literature. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never ending “to read” pile!

 

Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children. Both paths promise a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.

And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.

Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

MY TWO CENTS: Would it be hyperbolic to say that I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this? Reading We Set the Dark on Fire made me feel fifteen again, devouring every immersive fantasy book with a twist of romance that I could get my hands on. But where those books fell short in both diversity and female empowerment, We Set the Dark on Fire excels and exceeds.

Opening with a brief folkloric backstory, Tehlor Kay Mejia’s shining debut novel submerges its reader in the hierarchical world of Medio and its fraught borders. Medio’s tension with its border towns and what lies beyond its literal border wall finds roots in the mythology established at the beginning of the text: The disintegrating relationship between brother gods, both desirous of the same wife. Ultimately, the Sun God won the right to have a relationship with both an earthly queen, Constancia, and the Moon Goddess—his Primera and Segunda wives—over his brother, the Salt God. Scorned and cursed, the Salt God was banished. Mimicking this folktale, Medio’s contemporary social system is built around the upper classes having a Primera wife, who runs the household, and Segunda, for beauty and harmony. While the upper echelons superficially thrive on this model, the border and beyond—territory of the Salt God—suffers and is subjected to increasing violence.

Mejia’s worldbuilding in the first few pages of this novel are brilliant, thorough, and engaging in a way that doesn’t feel beleaguered. Though Medio’s world may seem leagues away, its tumultuous border disputes feel so grounded in our contemporary moment that readers will instantly latch onto this novel. The orders that those who would risk traversing Medio’s border wall be shot on sight seem jarring when reading the novel, but then I turn on my TV or open social media and I’m reminded, once again, of the exigency of a novel like this.

Additionally, Mejia’s masterfully and lovingly created world plays perfect backdrop to the complex relationship between new Primera wife, Dani, and Segunda wife, Carmen. Dani, an undocumented immigrant from beyond the wall, smuggled across when she was a child, has managed to stay under the radar, even through her new marriage to the most eligible and most politically well-positioned bachelor in Medio. But her passing comes at a cost: being indebted to the rebel group La Voz. As Dani performs increasingly risky tasks for La Voz, she becomes further entangled with their mission. Complicating matters is her at-first catty relationship with Carmen, but as Dani and Carmen grow more intimate, Dani’s investment in the revolution becomes all the more precarious.

We Set the Dark on Fire sets the stage for what (I hope, please Tehlor Kay Mejia, please, tell me there will be more) promises to be a robust and revolutionary universe. Carmen and Dani’s relationship, alone, is a revolutionary prospect. We are getting more and more queer Latinx books for young readers, but to see this kind of representation in a fantasy novel is just lovely and wonderful (even if the plot of the book is dark and gritty). Like I said, this is the kind of novel I would have loved as a teenager. It doesn’t overemphasize its love story, but it makes Dani’s unfolding attraction to Carmen feel organic, naturally growing from their situation and Dani’s own burgeoning self-awareness. What’s more, the attention to Dani’s growth and empowerment will resonate with young readers, seeking similar empowerment from the texts they read. Finally, Mejia’s choice to make this a Latinx story is calculated and necessary. The names, foods, and contours of Medio’s spaces bespeak Latinx culture, but Mejia is careful to not overemphasize and caricaturize. This world feels real because it’s grounded in something real. Mejia’s given us a gift in this lush, rebellious, queer, Latinx story.

All-in-all, We Set the Dark on Fire’s otherworldliness, its devotion to strong and multifaceted female Latinx characters, and its queer romance subplot make it impressive, and Mejia’s immersive prose make it lasting. To be fair, it may be a little difficult to get into because it does move slowly, building tension at the same time as the reader digs deeper into Medio’s innerworkings; even so, it’s worth the wait. For fans of Anna Marie McLemore’s books, We Set Fire to the Dark is a must-read. We’ll be talking about this book for years.

 

Tehlor Kay MejiaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tehlor Kay Mejia is an author and Oregon native in love with the alpine meadows and evergreen forests of her home state, where she lives with her daughter. We Set the Dark on Fire is her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Book Review: The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

 

Review by Cris Rhodes & Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid. But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

The Moon Within releases tomorrow, February 26, 2019.

CRIS RHODES’S REVIEW: Aida Salazar’s debut verse novel unfolds through metaphor, captivating poetry, and unabashed discussions of menstruation and maturation. I have never read a book where menstruation has been explored with such openness—and that’s even as Celi does everything in her power to dodge and delay the moon ceremony her Mima wants to throw upon Celi’s first period! Celi’s unease with her body’s changes resonated with me. At the risk of oversharing—I remember that anxiety and the strange sense of loss when starting one’s period well. Salazar adds complexity to this already confusing time by layering Celi’s menstrual journey with her first real crush and the dawning realization that her best friend, Marco, is genderfluid.

Salazar’s choice to utilize Indigenous Mesoamerican terms to explain Marco’s (I’m using this name as Salazar switches to using it nearly exclusively in the latter half of the text, though Marco’s feminine name is still occasionally used) gender identity is intriguing. Salazar writes, “Marco has Ometeotl energy / a person who inhabits two beings / the female and the male at once.” I don’t think I can adequately explain the beauty of this explanation. On the other hand, I want to be clear that, at the same time as it’s a big step to have a genderfluid Latinx character in children’s fiction, this construct could’ve been pushed further. We experience Marco through the filter of Celi. When reading, I found myself having to temper my disappointment that the queered character was not the main character with my admiration for the open and honest way with which Celi’s maturation (both physical and mental) is handled. I cannot be too disappointed though, because, ultimately, The Moon Within does so much to further representation in Latinx children’s literature. Its unapologetic depictions of Afro-Latinx identity, menstruation, gender, sexuality, bullying, colonialism, just to name a few, are invaluable.

One of the most intriguing parts of The Moon Within, for me, was Celi’s mother and Moon Ceremony. When I was reading, I was reminded of one of my favorite slam poems: “The Period Poem” by Dominique Christina. Celi’s mother wants her to be empowered by her period. And there is power in the period. But when you’re a kid, the only power it wields is embarrassment—a power Celi perfectly embodies. I found myself chuckling at Celi’s embarrassment in one line, and in the next, Salazar would sweep me off my feet, and I’d be cringing and hiding alongside Celi. I’d wager many a person who’s had a period can relate to Celi’s impulse to hide from her family and to downplay her maturing body. Nevertheless, Mima’s insistence that Celi have a Moon Ceremony is rooted in not just a desire to ensure her daughter not feel shame at the natural functions of her body, but also in a personal conviction to reclaim her Indigenous Mexican heritage. Celi feels an intimate pull toward the Moon, la Luna, and in her later discussions of the moon as Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec goddess, we see her start to embrace her mother’s mission.

For readers who are torn by their culture, by their bodies, by their friendships, The Moon Within is a must-read. And, honestly, I think it’s a must-read for anyone, anywhere. This verse novel’s melodious language, unapologetic tone, and loving care for its characters and readers is evident and shouldn’t be missed.

MIMI RANKIN’S REVIEW: I discovered this book from the author herself during the USBBY’s Outstanding International Books presentation. Following the committee members’ comments on the themes of the list, Salazar was presented as the keynote speaker. She spoke about the importance of language for Latinx people, particularly children. Latinx children in the United States grow up in between worlds; they are often the very definition of “third culture kids.” Salazar opens up an interesting set of questions regarding this language use for Latinx kids with her novel, The Moon Within, written in verse.

Celi Rivera is a biracial, multicultural preteen girl in Northern California who loves to dance the Puerto Rican Bomba. Celi is on the brink of womanhood, and she certainly does not want to discuss it with her Mima, Papi, or little brother Juju. Mima prepares her Moon Ceremony, an ancient indigenous Mesoamerican celebration of a girl’s first menstruation, while Celi begins developing her first crush on the skateboarding Ivan. After one of Celi’s Bomba performances with her best friend, drummer Magda, Ivan insults Magda’s gender-bending style and appearance.

This coming-of-age story about first heartbreak, identity of both gender and culture, and how to decipher, for the first time, your own beliefs is even more powerful through the use of verse. The style allowed me to more fully connect to Celi’s perspective emotionally and emphasized the universality of what it means to be a young woman regardless of culture. Still, the beauty of this title is not just that Salazar fearlessly and effortlessly discusses the female body and menstruation in a way that has not been done since Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but that she enlightens the world to the Mexica reverence to the woman.

What I love about this book is that it is not only a point of mirroring and relation for Latinx children, but it is a point of education for non-Latinx children. Only occasionally interspersed with Spanish, the story feels both personal and universal; duality is a later theme in the text, so this may have been intentional on the part of Salazar.

Another exciting aspect of Salazar’s book is the perspective on sacred Mesoamerican spiritual beings, particularly the xochihuah. This gender-expansive being was “more often seen through a sacred lens, with respect” as “some evidence shows”. In this claim and the one that follows in the author’s note, this being that was neither exclusively female nor male may very well not have been revered. Still, in this not knowing, Salazar makes a conscious choice to utilize the ancient being from her ancestors and speak to a modern audience on allowing children to wholly be themselves. Continuing with the integration of Mesoamerican cultural practices into this text, Salazar includes an English translation from scholar David Bowles of The Flower Song. According to Salazar, this is the only known piece of literature documenting the Moon Ceremony and it just so happens to be written in verse.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this heartfelt and quick read and expect to see it making a lot of buzz for awards next year.

TEACHING TIPS FROM CRIS RHODESThe Moon Within would prove a lovely addition to any middle school classroom library (or high school, or elementary school—I maintain that anyone could and should read this book, though it does speak more clearly to readers of a similar age to its protagonist). It would be particularly useful in an ELA unit on poetry, but it would also be a great addition to a health class or sex education. It would also be a great way for students to experience traditional cultural practices—like the bomba dancing and drumming Celi and Marco practice.

 

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aida Salazar​ is a writer, arts advocate and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade verse novels, THE MOON WITHIN (Feb. 26, 2019), THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Spring, 2020), the forthcoming bio picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Fall, 2020). All books published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic. Her story, BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

MimiRankinABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin has a Master’s Degree with Distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. She is currently a Marketing Manager for a company working with over 25 publishers worldwide. Her graduate research focused on claims of cultural authenticity in Hispanic Children’s Literature and her dissertation received highest marks.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 9: Aida Salazar

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

Today, we highlight Aida Salazar.

Aida Salazar​ is a writer, arts advocate and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade verse novels, THE MOON WITHIN (Feb. 26, 2019), THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Spring, 2020), the forthcoming bio picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Fall, 2020). All books published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic. Her story, BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

The Moon Within is her debut novel, which releases on Tuesday!! Here is the publisher’s description:

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

 

 

 

 

Aida Salazar

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

A. I began to write when I was thirteen years old after the suicide of my seventeen-year-old sister. Poetry was my first refuge. It was the place where I began to express and unravel the pain I felt in my grief over losing my beautiful sister in such an incomprehensible way. Poetry, too, was how I made sense of the simultaneous changes happening to my body, to my mind, inside my community and life. That creative connection was special and it quietly flowed through me and accompanied me while I navigated high school and began college and tried to discover what I wanted to be and do with my life. It remained tucked away in my journals until I was 18 when, for the first time, I read the work of other Latinx writers while in a Latinx literature course. That class not only saved me from academic probation (because I got an A to balance out my terrible grades) but it revolutionized my existence as a Xicana and my own writing that had been hidden in those journals. It was as if the work of Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, among others, gave me permission to share my own writing with a very Xicana perspective with the world. I could dare call myself a writer because I had their great example.

 

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

A. Middle grade is a tremendously fertile space from which to write because there is a unique tension between two worlds. Middle grade readers, I think, possess the innocence, rich sense of wonder and play inherent in childhood, while at the same time, they are discovering deeper feelings and learning about things beyond their immediate lives that push against childhood. There are so many questions that beg to be answered, so many stories that beg to explore those questions and a new, almost magical, awareness that enfolds as they bloom into wiser beings.

 

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

A. There are so many! I am especially drawn to stories from people of diverse backgrounds, those that break from the white, heteronormative literary cannon. I loved Bird in a Box and The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney – it was actually after reading the latter that I was inspired to write The Moon Within in verse; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a masterpiece (as is just about anything she writes); As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds; Margarita Engle’s Hurricane Dancers; See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson, Front Desk by Kelly Yang; A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park; and Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai; George by Alex Gino; some older titles that are evergreen for me – Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Locomotion by Jaqueline Woodson, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. However, the middle grade novels emerging from Las Musas (the first kidlit debut group of Latinx writers) have me most excited because they are opening the cannon wider than we have ever seen. Look for great middle grade stories by Anna Meriano, Emma Otheguy, Jennifer Cervantes, Yamile Saied Mendez, Hilda Solis, Mary Louise Sanchez and Claribel Ortega!

 

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

A. Don’t be afraid to believe in your poems though they may seem awful and as if they could help no one. Believe in their pain and in their heart because one day that very vulnerability will touch someone else’s life in ways you least expect. And when that magical moment comes, you will realize the meaning in the risk you took in believing.

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they can be the source of inquiry, of discovery, of refuge, of delight, and inspiration while on the tight rope between childhood and adolescence.

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

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

Cover Reveal for Freedom Soup by Tami Charles, illus. by Jacqueline Alcántara

We are delighted to host the cover reveal for Tami Charles’s picture book, Freedom Soup, which will be published by Candlewick Press.

Freedom Soup celebrates the history behind the Haitian tradition of ringing in the New Year by eating soup joumou. The book is written by Tami Charles and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara.

First, here is some information about the creators:

 

PictureTami Charles: Former teacher. Wannabe chef. Tami Charles writes picture books, middle grade, young adult, and nonfiction. Her middle grade novel, Like Vanessa, earned Top 10 spots on the Indies Introduce and Spring Kids’ Next lists, three starred reviews, and a Junior Library Guild selection. Her recent titles include a picture book biography, Fearless Mary, humorous middle grade novel, Definitely Daphne, and forthcoming titles published by Sterling, Charlesbridge, Candlewick Press, and more. When Tami is not writing, she can be found presenting at schools both stateside and abroad. (Or sneaking in a nap…because sleep is LIFE!)

 

 

photo credit @eyeshotchaJacqueline Alcántara is a freelance illustrator and spends her days drawing, painting, writing and walking her dog. She is fueled by electronic and jazz music, carbs and coffee. Jacqueline studied Art Education and taught high school art and photography before transitioning to illustration.

In combination with freelance illustration, Jacqueline has a wide range of work experience in other art and design related positions. She managed an art gallery and framing studio in Chicago, worked in the set decoration department on NBC’s “Chicago Fire”, and was the Member Relations Manager at Soho House Chicago where she cultivated a community of Chicago creatives in fashion, advertising, fine art and more. She has a never ending interest in learning new skills and taking on new challenges.

Her experience working with children has led her to focusing on children’s literature and specifically in pursuit of projects featuring a diverse main character. She won the 2016 “We Need Diverse Books Campaign” Mentorship Award and is excited to be working to promote inclusiveness and diversity in children’s literature and the illustration field.

Now, here is some information about the book, pulled from this interview with Tami Charles.

She said, “Freedom Soup is written in tribute to the undying spirit of the Haitian people. Today, many people associate Haiti with poverty and earthquakes. But long ago, on January 1, 1804, Haiti made history as the first black republic to free themselves from the bondage of slavery. When slavery still existed on the island, slave masters rang in the New Year by eating Freedom Soup. They didn’t grow the vegetables or prepare the soup, of course. Their slaves did that for them. And for all of their hard work, slaves were not even allowed to eat the soup to celebrate the New Year. After twelve years of uprisings and fighting for their freedom, Haiti claimed their independence from France. Do you know how they celebrated? By eating Freedom Soup, of course! What a testament to their faith and resilience!”

Finally, here is the cover of Freedom Soup:

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Ta-da!

 

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Beautiful cover! We can’t wait to hear more about this book. We will keep you posted on a release date.