Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Donna Barba Higuera

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is 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 Donna Barba Higuera.

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration.

Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture Books are about kids who find themselves in odd or scary situations.​ From language to cultural differences in being biracial life can become…complicated. So like Donna,  characters tackle more than just the bizarre things that happen to them in their lives.

Donna likes to write about all things funny, but also sad, and creepy, and magical. If you like those things, she hopes you will read her books!

Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs.

Her middle grade novel, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance released September 8, 2020.

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Here is the publisher’s description:

My gym shorts burrow into my butt crack like a frightened groundhog.

Don’t you want to read a book that starts like that??

Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues.

She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who”s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she”s not gonna let that slide.

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Donna Barba Higuera

DonnaBarbaHiguera-Headshot-color .jpg

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

Teachers. That’s the short answer.

Mrs. Griffin, Mrs. Presho, Mrs. Arnoldus, My Uncle Ted. Mr. Presho. Each one of them at specific times told me I should write down the stories in my head.

I think of myself as a storyteller more so than a writer. My imagination has been on full speed, creating alternate plotlines for as long as I can remember. From the books I’m reading, to those “I wish I would’ve done this instead” moments, to my Aunt’s Readers Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained book that I read to tatter, my mind tries to make those things more magical, or brave or mysterious.

But still, bottom line, teachers encouraged me to channel those bizarre stories churning in my mind and put them on paper. Imagining stories for me is easy. Writing them down is hard work. Thank goodness for the teachers who encouraged me to work.

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

I’ve written adult and YA novels as well, but I always get pulled back into Middle Grade. I’ve tried to put my finger on why this happens. I think it’s because that was the age in which I felt most awkward and vulnerable and experienced the most internal struggle in my own life. (But also, the most external conflict.) It’s the age where I still need to work through my thoughts and issues. If this comes across onto the page, there’s more emotional conflict, and that is where I believe better stories come from.

I think many writers don’t even realize until they are done writing a book that they’ve written something that is helping them digest something from their past.

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

For me, the best MG has a mix of humor and emotional growth.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Just released. Unlike any format in MG I’ve ever read, but so beautifully written and funny and sad. This book is going to be a classic!

I Am Fartacus- Electric Boogerloo (2nd in series) by Mark Maciejewski

Hilarious! Probably the only book with Fart and Booger in the title that received a Kirkus star. Perfect balance of humor and friendship and MG struggles.

Rogue by Lynn Miller Lachmann

Again, a perfect mix of humor and strife. Also, one of the best books showing “voice” of a character. And we need more books with neuro-diverse characters.

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

This book does have some funny moments of awkwardness that are so true to life regarding menstruation. Those funny moments help will help young readers digest these topics that have historically been taboo. This novel has had to navigate some speed bumps with the more conservative crowd, but it will overcome that and stand the test of time to be a classic.

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

LOL. Remember how I mentioned most writers realizing after they wrote a book, that it helped them digest something about themselves. It’s the message I discovered after writing Lupe Wong Won’t Dance that my kid-self needed to hear.

It is:  Always be your true self. If you are, the right people will enter and remain in your life.

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

If writers put our own vulnerabilities and hurdles on the page, it allows kids who are going through the same timeless struggles, feel like they are not so alone.

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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 is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: Freedom, We Sing by Amyra León and Molly Mendoza

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Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As powerful as it is beautiful, Freedom, We Sing is a lyrical picture book designed to inspire and give hope to readers around the world. Molly Mendoza’s immersive, lush illustrations invite kids to ponder singer/songwriter Amyra León’s poem about what it means to be free. It’s the perfect book for parents who want a way to gently start the conversation with their kids about finding hope in these very tense times we are living in.

OUR TWO CENTS: Amyra León’s Freedom, We Sing (2020) is a lyric poem told between a Black mother and her child as they contemplate the meaning of freedom. They ask questions about freedom like “Is it a place?/ Is it a thought?/ Can it be stolen?/ Can it be bought?” Questioning what freedom is, where it is, and who can access it are tremendously important questions for children and adults alike to ask and analyze. In this book, the idea of freedom is threaded to the experiences of others: “Mama tells me that/ there are children/ with hearts like mine/ beat beat beating in their chests/  With different skin colors/ hair, languages, and interests/ they learn to walk and talk/ and dance and scream/  Just like me or anybody.” While there are differences amongst people that could, and have, created forms of oppression limiting one’s freedoms, León also reminds readers that inside our chest are similar beating hearts.

The purpose of freedom for all is not to ignore each other’s differences but to embrace them while also highlighting our similarities. León and Mendoza also represent the very real oppressions that can impact one’s freedom. In one spread, Mendoza illustrates refugees of different skin tones walking together toward freedom. León writes: “Mama tells me that/ There are mothers/ With hearts like ours/ Beat beat beating/ In their chest/ Running from war/ With whatever is left/ Doing everything/ They can to protect/ Their children/ And their breath.” Again, León and Mendoza highlight differences and similarities as means of coming together rather than finding ways to other one another. 

The mother and the child give readers a poetic definition of freedom: “Mama tells me/ Breath is Freedom/ A sweet release/ The right to be/ A universal sign of life and peace.” In these lines, freedom is tied to breathing, to existing, to life. Freedom is as essential as breathing. Freedom can be seen as an individual act because, for the most part, we are responsible for our own breathing. However, León and Mendoza align the idea of freedom as breathing to the idea of community. On the page spread with “Breath is Freedom,” Mendoza has illustrated a diverse group of people with their eyes closed, drawn to look like they’re inhaling. Their faces look peaceful and some of them smile. Throughout the story, León repeats the words “inhale” and “exhale” to describe many things, such as people breathing, but also as trees, and the relationship between the sun and the moon. The repetition of the phrase forces readers to pause and take a deep breath. The relationship of breath and freedom can also be linked to Climate Change. There are several depictions of nature in the book, such as birds, trees, and flowers that suggest that breathing clean air should be a freedom that should also be protected.  

Molly Mendoza’s illustrations are vibrant and magical. There are several depictions of movement in her illustrations. In the first pages, the mother and her child are dancing and twirling and strokes of yellows and oranges mimic their movements behind them. In the pages depicting large groups of diverse people marching, there are also bold strokes of color signaling their direction or standing in for a sort of path to guide them. The pages with “inhale” and “exhale” also demonstrate movement by showing contraction and expansion. In one page, for example, a beautiful tree with yellow, green, and blue leaves stands tall and packed in with the word “inhale” to the left of the tree. On the other page, the same tree, now bare showing all its branches, is surrounded by an explosion of color and shapes with the word “exhale” underneath.

Additionally, Mendoza uses the idea of differences and similarities to visually depict the message of the book. Contrasting concepts such as the colors blues, yellows and oranges, the sun and the moon, and the expression to inhale and exhale can be found throughout the book. One scene, for example, shows the mother and her child sitting next to each other with a sun above the mother and a moon above the child. The word “Inhale” rests above the moon. In the next page, the mother and the child hug and above them the sun and moon have come together to create a new shape. Below them is the word “Exhale.” Readers will certainly have fun looking at all of Mendoza’s brilliant art. 

Freedom, We Sing presents an always relevant conversation about the meaning of freedom. León’s poem examines how freedom is all around us and within us and something we can give to ourselves. León also points to the ways that people around the world are fighting for their freedoms, even if it means having to leave one’s home behind. Mendoza’s artwork is a visual representation of what freedom looks like–from the tiniest flower to the vastness of the universe. With this book, León and Mendoza remind readers that freedom starts with breathing—inhale and exhale.

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Photo by Maria Marrone

ABOUT THE WRITER (from her website): Amyra is a musician, playwright, author, and activist. Her work fuses music and poetry through powerfully transparent performances focusing on social inequalities and communal healing whilst celebrating love, blackness, and womanhood.

She has performed throughout the United States and Europe collaborating with the likes of The Apollo, BAM, BBC, Roundhouse, Amnesty International and more.

Amyra composed Una Mujer Derramada in collaboration with Sivan Eldar commissioned by and performed with Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Orchestra, the Montpellier National Opera, and the Paris Chamber Orchestra. She is the inaugural recipient of the Battersea Arts Centre Phoenix Award which led to the 2019 London premiere of her debut play VASELINE.

She is the author of Concrete Kids (Penguin 2020), Freedom We Sing (Flying Eye Books 2020) and Darling (Walker, Candlewick 2022) . Her musical debut, Something Melancholy, led to sharing stages with Common, Robert Glasper, Nikki Giovanni and more. Amyra’s debut album, WITNESS, is set to release this summer.

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© Maddie Maschger

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (from her website): Molly Mendoza is an illustrator currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is captivated by the relationships that she has built with friends, family, and foes alike over the course of her life. Molly sets out to emulate those relationships through her chaotic yet rhythmic style to make some dang-good drawings.

Alongside personal/observational narrative, Molly enjoys making images of  space travel, plants, ladies and small dogs. Frequently she can be found working on editorial projects, making comics/zines, and eating hot dogs. Molly is a BFA graduate from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and recipient the RockStar Games Award from the 2015 SOI Student Competition — she continues to work hard and remain a pretty cool lady.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERSSonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.

Book Review: Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

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Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger siblings Max and Mía feel safe and loved.

But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. His worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.

Now more than ever, Efrén must channel his inner Soperboy to help take care of and try to reunite his family.

A glossary of Spanish words is included in the back of the book. 

OUR TWO CENTS: Ernesto Cisneros’ Efrén Divided (2020) centers Efrén Nava, a young Mexican-American boy who lives with his parents and two siblings in Highland, California. In the novel, Amá works as well as takes care of household responsibilities and Apá goes off to work. Efrén refers to Amá as Soperwoman, after her Mexican sopes, for being able to whip up culinary miracles from the very little they have. While Efrén is a U.S Citizen, his parents are undocumented and the possibility of them being deported hangs over Efrén each night his Amá out late working–afraid she might not return. When Amá goes out to interview for a different job she is caught by ICE and is immediately deported to Tijuana, Mexico. Amá’s absence disrupts the family’s routine and Efrén finds himself responsible for his two younger siblings while Apá works countless, sleepless nights to send Amá money for her return. One day on their way to school, Efrén’s best friend, David, decides he wants to run for school president. After Amá gets deported, Efrén is unable to concentrate and unable to meet  his school responsibilities. Efrén embarks on a journey into Mexico where he meets a friendly taxi man, Lalo, who helps him find his way to his mother. While Amá’s return is uncertain, Efrén decides if running for class president against his best friend is the best thing for him. 

With Efrén Divided, Cisneros shines a spotlight on the emotional toll of having a  mixed-status family when the U.S. government is bent on separating families. Efrén hears about families getting separated at the U.S./Mexico border from the news, from his friends, and from people around his neighborhood. ICE has become an ominous presence in his personal life but also in his community: “He’d heard about ICE setting up checkpoints and literally taking people off the street. He’d heard about ICE helicopters scaring people out of their homes and hauling them away. He’d even heard of ICE making stops at Mexican-geared supermarkets and handcuffing anyone who couldn’t prove they belonged. Whether the rumors were true or not, they sounded real enough to worry him” (Cisneros 49). Constantly hearing about ICE coming and taking family members is psychologically taxing, and for children, this type of violence disrupts any sense of safety children may be trying  to create for themselves. Efrén doesn’t know if ICE is, in fact, arresting people, but he knows enough about ICE to be worried anyway. At 12 years old, he knows enough about systemic power and the ways it’s abused to know that he doesn’t need to see ICE separating families to believe it’s happening and to fear it could happen to his family. He is also aware that the issue with citizenship is one of belonging in some sort of American imaginary where only certain people belong. After his mother is deported, Efrén learns more about ICE, raids, and crossing the border from doing online research and from gossip at his local laundromat. There’s a sense that being more informed is empowering to Efrén, but there are moments when all of the information is debilitating because he feels helpless–not just to help his mother but powerless to tackle an entire system.   

After Amá is deported, Efrén undergoes an adultification process–readers will see him take on more adult responsibilities like taking care of his younger siblings, maintaining the household, and becoming his father’s confidant. It’s clear these responsibilities fall on him because he’s the oldest child. Through this process, Efrén has to learn to do everything Amá did for them and he develops greater  empathy  for all of this labor. One of the ways this adultification is evident is in Efrén’s concern over money for food. Apá gives him the little money he can, but when it’s not enough, Apá suggests he use Amá’s stash of quarters for laundry. As a way to stretch out the money as much as he can, he decides to also take food from school: “He leaned up against the closest trash bin and grabbed some of the unopened bags of celery and crackers students had thoughtlessly tossed away” (Cisneros 91). Efrén recognizes the act of taking the food as stealing and as a necessary risk to help his family. This moment is particularly interesting because he’s put in a position that forces him to question what he’s learned about “right and wrong.” It’s wrong to steal, but it would also be wrong to let his younger siblings go hungry. He resolves that “taking the food from the trash bin wasn’t really stealing” (93). He learns more about these adult “gray areas” throughout the novel including when he learns that what Amá plans to do to get back to her family is considered a crime and later when he witnesses families holding one another through a man-made border wall. 

Apá’s decision to let Efrén cross into Tijuana by himself is another example in the novel of  the ways that the current immigration system in the U.S. forces children to grow up. Efrén and his dad need to get Amá the money to live in TIjuana and eventually make her way back to the U.S. Apá is ready to take the risk of crossing the border to deliver the money, knowing full well that, if he gets caught, he will also be separated from his children. Efrén convinces him that another separation will not help, so Efrén is then tasked with taking a large amount of money over the border to give to his mother. The entire section that takes place in Tijuana is both nerve-wracking and tender. Cisneros does an excellent job at building tension and at rewarding the reader with a heartfelt mother/son reunion. But again, Tijuana is a reminder of how Efrén has been forced to act as an adult because the system is set up against his family. What he witnesses in Tijuana also allows for a moment of introspection on what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Readers also see the ways that Efrén’s parents have been disempowered because of the lack of citizenship; even though Efrén sees his parents as superheroes, there’s a system in place created to dehumanize them, and people like them.

Parallel to the storyline of Amá getting deported is also the storyline of the 7th grade class elections. Efrén volunteers as campaign manager for David, who is running against  their classmate, Jennifer. David is white and from a broken family, and he thinks winning the election will give him enough clout to change how his peers view him. On the other hand, Jennifer is running to help children and parents who are undocumented like her. After confiding in one another that they both have mixed-status families Jennifer says, “‘Nos quisieron enterrar, pero no sabían que éramos semillas […] My mom likes to remind me of this every day. She’s right though. That’s why I’m running. Figured I could make a difference, even if just at school” Cisneros 31). The Mexican saying indeed plants itself in Efrén’s mind and grows as the novel progresses, later informing his decision to also run against his best friend for president and to help keep his community informed on immigration issues and their rights. For both Jennifer and Efrén, the school elections become a way to effect changes where they can. The elections and Efrén’s participation show readers that even the smallest form of governing, like class elections, can serve as forms of empowerment for students and for the community at large. Additionally, school elections are an excellent way to discuss power and governing bodies with young people. Jennifer and Efrén demonstrate that power can be used for good rather than using it to exploit those without it. 

We recommend everyone read Efrén Divided. With Efrén, Cisneros has created a sensitive and caring young boy—of which we need more and more representations. Efrén is an intelligent 12-year-old, but what helps him understand his family’s circumstances and the political climate around him is his kindness. While the story focuses on immigration, it’s also about finding self-empowerment while living in a system determined to disenfranchise people. We also particularly liked the focus on the emotional toll that children with citizenship in mixed-status families experience. Cisneros makes clear that the emotional burden is due to a broken immigration system and not, in this case, because of any decisions made by the parents. Throughout the novel, it’s also evident that ICE is terrorizing  communities and, ultimately, traumatizing people. And one of the ways this happens is by not allowing parents to parent their children by forcefully removing the parent from the picture because of citizenship status. With everything impacting his mental health, Efrén still lets hope guide him to fight for a more just system for all. Efrén Divided is a powerful and heartwarming read about a young boy’s desire to bring his family together after being separated by ICE and learning that he has more power than he realized. Cisneros reminds readers that at the end “somos semillitas.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. Efrén Divided is his first book. He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that. You can visit him online at www.ernestocisneros.com.

Click here for a Q&A we did with Ernesto Cisneros.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERSSonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Chantel Acevedo

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is 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 Chantel Acevedo.

Chantel Acevedo was born in Miami to Cuban parents. She is the acclaimed author of adult novels, including The Distant Marvels, which was a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and she is also a professor of English at the University of Miami, where she directs the MFA program. Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse is her debut middle grade novel. Chantel lives with her personal Muse Squad, aka her family, in Florida. You can visit her online at http://www.chantelacevedo.com.

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Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse just released last week, on July 7, 2020!

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Here is the publisher’s description:

Callie Martinez-Silva didn’t mean to turn her best friend into a pop star. But when a simple pep talk leads to miraculous results, Callie learns she’s the newest muse of epic poetry, one of the nine Muses of Greek mythology tasked with protecting humanity’s fate in secret.

Whisked away to Muse Headquarters, she joins three recruits her age, who call themselves the Muse Squad. Together, the junior muses are tasked with using their magic to inspire and empower—not an easy feat when you’re eleven and still figuring out the goddess within.

When their first assignment turns out to be Callie’s exceptionally nerdy classmate, Maya Rivero, the squad comes to Miami to stay with Callie and her Cuban family. There, they discover that Maya doesn’t just need inspiration, she needs saving from vicious Sirens out to unleash a curse that will corrupt her destiny.

As chaos erupts, will the Muse Squad be able to master their newfound powers in time to thwart the Cassandra Curse . . . or will it undo them all?

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Chantel Acevedo

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

My earliest writing memories are from elementary school. I wasn’t popular, or an athlete, or outgoing. But I could write, and I enjoyed crafting these little stories about my friends, slotting them into superhero roles, or imagining their happy futures. My friends loved seeing themselves on the page, and I loved that they enjoyed it so much. But I didn’t think of writing as a career for a long time. I earned an MFA, published my first book, and even then, didn’t think of myself as a “real” writer, whatever that meant. It took me years to shake that off!

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

I’ve written four novels for adults before turning to middle grade. Partly, I’d been waiting patiently for the muses to send me a good kid-book idea, but also, I have two daughters who straddle the middle grade age bracket, and so their voices, and that of their friends, were swirling around in my head when I finally dreamed up MUSE SQUAD. I love this age, and these voices so much!

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

There are too many! Anything by Kate DiCamillo. Anna Meriano’s Love, Sugar, Magic series is such a delight, and I recommend it all the time to parents. I just finished and loved Adam Gidwitz’s medieval story, The Inquisitor’s Tale. And one I’m really looking forward to is Adrianna Cuevas’ The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez!

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

First, I’d give myself the biggest hug. Then, I’d say, “Be yourself. I know it takes courage, but you’ve got that in spades. Dale, que tu puedes.” I think I hid a lot of myself from others in middle school, thinking the things I liked were too uncool, or “little kid stuff.” I wish I’d embraced what made me different a bit more.

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

Because middle grade is when that tiny, buzzing, critical voice starts to worm its way into our brains. Middle grade novels can help young readers see that they aren’t alone in their worries, their fears, or their joy. Also, when main characters make mistakes and then problem-solve, readers do so along with them, and hopefully, the memory of these stories will be available to them when facing their own challenges.

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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 is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Reina Luz Alegre

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is 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 Reina Luz Alegre.

Reina Luz Alegre lives in the Miami area with her family. She’s dreamed of becoming an author since the second grade, and grew up to work on various other professional dreams—including as a freelance journalist and lawyer—before debuting her first novel, The Dream Weaver. When she’s not writing, Reina loves to read, sing, and salivate over baking shows.

The Dream Weaver just released last week, on June 23, 2020!

 

Dream Weaver Final CoverHere is the publisher’s description:

Zoey comes from a family of dreamers. From start-up companies to selling motorcycles, her dad is constantly chasing jobs that never seem to work out. As for Zoey, she’s willing to go along with whatever grand plans her dad dreams up—even if it means never staying in one place long enough to make real friends. Her family being together is all that matters to her.

So Zoey’s world is turned upside down when Dad announces that he’s heading to a new job in New York City without her. Instead, Zoey and her older brother, José, will stay with their Poppy at the Jersey Shore. At first, Zoey feels as lost and alone as she did after her mami died. But soon she’s distracted by an even bigger problem: the bowling alley that Poppy has owned for decades is in danger of closing!

After befriending a group of kids practicing for a summer bowling tournament, Zoey hatches a grand plan of her own to save the bowling alley. It seems like she’s found the perfect way to weave everyone’s dreams together…until unexpected events turn Zoey’s plan into one giant nightmare. Now, with her new friends counting on her and her family’s happiness hanging in the balance, Zoey will have to decide what her dream is—and how hard she’s willing to fight for it.

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Reina Luz Alegre

Current Author Photo Reina Luz AlegreQ. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve wanted to become a writer since second grade. I remember we’d be assigned to make up a story, and it felt like the classroom around me just disappeared. I’d become totally absorbed by the page in front of me, on which I wrote whatever scenes started streaming through my head like a TV show. And I’ve just never stopped wanting to escape into writing a story.

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

I really love the sweet hopefulness in middle grade. I’m a huge fan of happy (or at least not unhappy) endings.

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

I have so many favorites! IVY ABERDEEN’S LETTER TO THE WORLD by Ashley Herring Blake, FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks, LOVE SUGAR MAGIC: A MIXTURE OF MISCHIEF by Anna Meriano, just to name a few, plus I’m so excited to read my fellow Musas’ books on LasMusasBooks.com.

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

I think I’d do almost everything differently if I could go back to middle school! First, I’d tell myself to relax because I took everything—and especially myself—way, waaay too seriously. I’d tell myself to have a bit more fun and not worry so much about what other people thought. I sometimes counted myself out before anyone else could. I more or less assumed popular kids could never become close friends because they were too cool.  I was just so extremely self-conscious and insecure about all the social stuff.

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

Middle grade novels are important because they help middle grade readers feel less alone as they navigate all those big changes and feelings that are part of adolescence. I also think middle grade novels are awesome for teens and adults because (at least all the ones I’ve read so far) always leave you feeling fairly uplifted and hopeful.

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photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Kim Baker

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is 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 Kim Baker.

Kim Baker’s first middle grade novel, PICKLE, has been selected for many reading lists and was a CBC Children’s Choice Awards Book of the Year finalist, a Texas Bluebonnet Award finalist, and an SCBWI Crystal Kite winner. Her next book, THE WATER BEARS, will be released from Wendy Lamb Books, Random House on April 21, 2020. When she was thirteen, she lived above an old theater and drove a rusty VW van to odd jobs. Now she lives in Seattle, near tide pools but usually far from bears. Find more at www.kimbakerbooks.com

Water Bears releases tomorrow, April 21, 2020.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Newt Gomez has a thing with bears. Last year, he survived a bear attack. And this year, he finds an unusual bear statue that just might grant wishes. Newt’s best friend, Ethan, notices a wishbone on the statue and decides to make a wish. When it comes true, Newt thinks it’s a coincidence. Even as more people wish on the bear and their wishes come true, Newt is not convinced.

But Newt has a wish too: while he loves his home on eccentric Murphy Island, he wants to go to middle school on the mainland, where his warm extended family lives. There, he’s not the only Latinx kid, he won’t have to drive the former taco truck–a gift from his parents–and he won’t have to perform in the talent show. Most importantly, on the mainland, he never has bad dreams about the attack. Newt is almost ready to make a secret wish when everything changes.

Tackling themes of survival and self-acceptance, Newt’s story illuminates the magic in our world, where reality is often uncertain but always full of salvageable wonders.

 

Kim Baker

KimBaker_headshot

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

I wanted to be a writer for my whole life. I love reading. I love spending time around books and story makers. Shelves of books are my happy place. I volunteered after school in the school library during fourth and fifth grade. I would bike across town to go to the used bookstore and soak up that vanilla smell that comes off the yellow pages. Some of my favorite places are libraries and bookstores. My parents and teachers were supportive, so I wrote a lot as a kid. My second grade teacher, Ms. Moyer, wrote, “Hope to see you as a writer someday!” in my yearbook. She probably wrote that in every student’s yearbook, but I took it to HEART. I felt like she really saw me that way. For a long time, I didn’t think writing stories for a living was practical, so I pursued other careers. After a move, I switched gears and took writing classes when my kids were little. I got involved in our regional SCBWI community. I attended conferences and workshops, read craft books, and wrote crappy stories. I honed my abilities and took a shot. Now, I’m inspired to keep writing by the book community. I want to stay in this club forever.

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

Sometimes, when I teach workshops, I have writers make a list of their five favorite books growing up. Not just the first ones they remember, but the ones that they identified with that filled their hearts. It’s a good gauge to find where your voice might be. Most of my favorites came from the middle grade years. They call it the golden age of reading, when kids pick out more of their own books and look for those windows and mirrors. It’s outwardly focused as kids look for where they might fit in the world. When I really started diving in and considering middle grade as a direction, I’m continuously amazed by how much great writing and potential there is with the form.

I didn’t have a lot in common with the characters as a kid because they didn’t reflect a lot about my life. There weren’t a lot of Latinx families, or working class families, or blended families. I really like that stories are reflecting more realities now and giving kids those opportunities to see themselves as the heroes.

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

The quality of middle grade novels is amazing these days! There’s so much more choice now than when I was young. It’s so hard to narrow down, but I’ll read anything by Kate Messner, Jason Reynolds, Meg Medina, or Rebecca Stead. We’ve seen some amazing debut novels in the last couple of years— Front Desk by Kelly Yang, The Line Tender by Kate Allen, I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day, Into the Tall, Tall, Grass by Loriel Ryon, and Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. And I’m preordering so many books by new Latinx authors, like my fellow writers in Las Musas. How cool is that?

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

I would say that anything is possible and never to count myself out.

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

They offer hope.

 

Also by Kim Baker:

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads