Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 14: Ernesto Cisneros

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 14th 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 Ernesto Cisneros.

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.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

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.

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Ernesto Cisneros

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

A long, long time ago, during my senior year in high school, my teacher Sharon Saxton invited Helena Maria Miramontes to speak with our classroom about her anthology, The Moths and Other Short Stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone else saw the world through a similar lens as me—same Latinx lens. Her story made me feel connected, grounded. This was the first time that the idea of being a writer ever entered my mind. It also served as my motivation for writing my first short story—which I am now turning into my very own YA novel, entitled: The Writing on the Wall.

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

After giving up on a career writing screenplays, I decided to drop writing altogether and began teaching instead. The itch to write proved to be to powerful. I began writing short stories that served as prompts and writing samples for my students which they began to really enjoy. Before long, my students began pushing me to write. Eventually, I joined SCBWI and met a handful of individuals who helped me find my way.

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

There so many fantastic middle grade novels out there, but the ones I turn to every time I need further encouragement are: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli because of they way it deals with serious issues of race, running away, and mental health in a way that’s accessible to young children. There’s also Operation Frog Effect by Sarah Scheerger. I love the way she captures the voices of such diverse characters in an entertaining fashion—makes it all seem so effortless, although I know better.

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

My advice is to believe in myself and to value my heart. It is easily my most important asset I have because it definitely seeps its way into everything I write.

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

…they reach children while they are still at work shaping their views of the world. I feel that books can serve as moral compasses that can help instill morals, characters, and empathy—all things the world really needs.

 

 

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

Book Review: We Unleash the Merciless Storm by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Being a part of the resistance group La Voz is an act of devotion and desperation. On the other side of Medio’s border wall, the oppressed class fights for freedom and liberty, sacrificing what little they have to become defenders of the cause.

Carmen Santos is one of La Voz’s best soldiers. She spent years undercover, but now, with her identity exposed and the island on the brink of a civil war, Carmen returns to the only real home she’s ever known: La Voz’s headquarters.

There she must reckon with her beloved leader, who is under the influence of an aggressive new recruit, and with the devastating news that her true love might be the target of an assassination plot. Will Carmen break with her community and save the girl who stole her heart—or fully embrace the ruthless rebel she was always meant to be?

MY TWO CENTS: In this action-packed follow-up to her debut novel We Set the Dark on Fire, Tehlor Kay Mejia continues her revolutionary queer romance with a bang. Picking up moments after We Set the Dark on Fire ends, We Unleash the Merciless Storm shifts vantage points from Dani, the Primera wife whose secret identity as an undocumented immigrant from beyond Medio’s rigid borders complicates her life and causes her to tenatively join the resistance, to Carmen, who seemed to embody the social mores of Medio’s stratified and exclusive world, but is actually an undercover operative for the revolutionary group La Voz.

Readers will need to be familiar with We Set the Dark on Fire to fully grasp the extent of We Unleash the Merciless Storm. I found myself returning to the previous book to remember the intricacies of Medio’s social codes and to remind myself of character names and traits. This is not a stand alone book, and, I would wager, it’s a sequel best enjoyed immediately following reading (or rereading) the first novel.

The switch to Carmen as the main character proves an interesting counterpoint to Dani’s narrative in the first novel. Whereas Dani is largely unaware of the mounting resistance to Medio’s restrictive government, Carmen is deeply involved in the resistance. Carmen seems superficial and catty in the first novel, but We Unleash the Merciless Storm unravels that narrative, posing Carmen as an astute and powerful member of La Voz. But, her relationship with Dani was an unforeseen complication to her mission to unravel Medio from the inside.

It would be a typical narrative maneuver to have Carmen torn between her love for Dani and her loyalty to La Voz, but Mejia resists that stale plot. Rather, Carmen sees her loyalties to both Dani and La Voz as intertwined. Mejia’s explorations of Carmen’s motives seem authentic and they reflect the complex and competing emotions of resistance and love. Those who are looking for nonstop action may be frustrated with Carmen’s frequent reflections on her relationship with Dani, but these thoughts don’t seem out of place for someone like Carmen who was undercover for the majority of her formative years. Not only is Carmen contending with the loss of her love, but she’s also relearning how to be a part of La Voz after years away. Carmen’s wondering also reveals important questions about revolution. Is a political uprising necessarily violent? Can change be made without pain? As Carmen grapples with these questions, her loyalties to La Voz are questioned and she must prove herself while also remaining true to her values.

As with my feelings toward We Set the Dark on Fire, I found We Unleash the Merciless Storm to be the kind of novel that I longed for as a teenager (and, frankly, enjoyed immensely as an adult). The romance is there, of course, but it’s not the entire focus–and it shouldn’t be! I love a good romance, especially a queer romance, but the complexities of Medio’s government and La Voz’s revolutionary ideals give contemporary teens an important counterpoint to our own global politics.

 

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo  Editing: Adrian King

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Tehlor Kay Mejia is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult fantasy novel We Set the Dark on Fire and its sequel, We Unleash the Merciless Storm, and the forthcoming Miss Meteor (co-written with National Book Award nominee Anna-Marie McLemore). Her middle grade debut, Paola Santiago and the River of Tears, releases from Rick Riordan Presents in 2020.

Her debut novel received six starred reviews, and was chosen as an Indie’s Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild selection, as well as being an Indiebound bestseller in the Pacific Northwest region. It has been featured in Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and O by Oprah Magazine’s best books of 2019 lists.

Tehlor lives in Oregon with her daughter, a dog that matches her hair, and several rescued houseplants. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 13: Loriel Ryon

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 13th 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 Loriel Ryon.

Loriel Ryon is an author of middle grade fiction. She spent her childhood with her nose in a book, reading in restaurants, on the school bus, and during every family vacation. Her upbringing in a mixed-heritage military family inspires much of her writing about that wonderfully complicated time between childhood and adulthood. Also a nurse, she lives in the magical New Mexico desert with her husband and two daughters. Her debut middle grade novel is Into the Tall, Tall Grass with Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass releases April 7, 2020.

 

Cover_IntotheTallTallGrassHere is the publisher’s description:

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her abuela, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her abuela, who will she have left?

When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that Wela needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.

Loriel Ryon

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

I have always written on and off throughout my childhood and adolescence, though not seriously and completely terrified someone might actually read what I wrote. I’d never imagined that I could actually finish a project. I’m a science-geek, and though I have always loved to read, I never thought I was a very good writer. I did okay in my English classes, but always struggled with reading and writing about the classics, not finding that I could really connect with them emotionally.

After I became a mother, and a mostly stay-at-home one, at that, I found that I needed something for myself. The day-to-day monotony of motherhood was really starting to get to me. So, being the crazy person I am, I gave myself homework that I would do every single day during nap time. It started with: write one chapter. Then: write the first 25% of it. Then: Finish it. Even if it’s bad. Even if you mess up. Just finish it. And so I did. I wrote a YA novel. And it was broken and unfixable, but it taught me two things. 1. I could finish something if I made it a goal, and 2. That I needed to do it again. And so I did, and that is where I got the spark to try my hand at a middle grade novel and what sparked the idea for my debut middle grade Into the Tall, Tall Grass.

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

I find the time between childhood and adolescence, specifically that upper middle grade/tween age to be the age I like to write for. That time is full of massive changes in physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Kids are becoming more and more aware of the expanding world around them and how they fit (or don’t fit) in. It was the age where I switched from reading children’s books to adult books, that I may not have been quite ready for content-wise. I wish there would have been more books that dealt with the issues I was dealing with at that age: friends, first crushes, family, finding yourself, puberty, all of it.

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

TUCK EVERLASTING is one from my childhood that I will never forget. It is one of the few classics that I really connected with and loved and has definitely inspired me in my debut. More recent ones that I’ve read that I have loved are FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, STAND UP, YUMI CHUNG by Jessica Kim, and THE MOON WITHIN by Aida Salazar. They all sucked me in and left me changed by the end of it.

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

Be yourself and be okay with it. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t try to be someone else. Own who you are and try (as hard as it is) to just be you. You are going to spend a good portion of your life trying to figure it out anyhow, might as well start now.

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

…they show us that it’s okay to make mistakes and come out the other side changed.

 

 

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). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Maximiliano Córdoba loves stories, especially the legend Buelo tells him about a mythical gatekeeper who can guide brave travelers on a journey into tomorrow.

If Max could see tomorrow, he would know if he’d make Santa Maria’s celebrated fútbol team and whether he’d ever meet his mother, who disappeared when he was a baby. He longs to know more about her, but Papá won’t talk. So when Max uncovers a buried family secret–involving an underground network of guardians who lead people fleeing a neighboring country to safety–he decides to seek answers on his own.

With a treasured compass, a mysterious stone rubbing, and Buelo’s legend as his only guides, he sets out on a perilous quest to discover if he is true of heart and what the future holds.

MY TWO CENTS: Pam Muñoz Ryan is known for her immersive, fictional worlds and her sympathetic storylines. Mañanaland is no different, throwing its reader into Santa Maria and its mysterious history without preamble. Initially, I thought that this might be a fairytale land, populated with knights and princesses in castles, but Muñoz Ryan quickly smooths over that assumption by having Max, our earnest protagonist, be a soccer (fútbol) loving young man. Other indicators, such as the presence of cars, lend to the understanding that this is at least a quasi-modern world. Nevertheless, the bubble of fantasy remains throughout the reading, owing to Max’s belief in the everyday magic of his world.

Max grew up on the tales of La Reina Gigante, the looming and off-limits tower in his hometown. Local folklore tells of its haunting by the “hidden ones,” refugees escaping the neighboring country of Abismo. Fueled by his grandfather’s, Buelo’s, tales of his journeys and encounters with other mystical beings, Max entertains the idea that hidden worlds exist–perhaps even hidden worlds that contain his missing mother. 

The truth, however, blends the fantastic with the mundane. I’m hesitant to give anything away here, as I urge everyone to read Mañanaland for themselves. The reveal of Max’s true past, his mother’s fate, and his family’s secret is worth the wait. And, if I could register one complaint with the book, it would be that: waiting. The pacing of the text is quite slow in the beginning, leaving the reader wondering alongside Max if he’ll ever be trusted to learn or do anything. However, once Max understands his place in the world, the text whirls by–a journey of heart and valor.

Paralleling Mañanaland’s plot, which Muñoz Ryan admits takes place “[s]omewhere in the Américas,” is the real-world plight of our own hidden ones, the refugees entering the United States in search of something better. Santa Maria’s legend holds the hidden ones as either victims or criminals. With anti-immigrant sentiment in our own country perpetuating the myth of immigrants fleeing their own Abismos as a threat, reading a book like Mañanaland unsettles that ideology, cracks it open to show its flaws. I find myself saying this in almost all of my reviews, but this book folds its sociopolitically exigency seamlessly into its pages. With so many young readers experiencing these dark messages either about themselves, their families, or people they know–a book like Mañanaland can help them understand and feel seen, but also look for ways they can help, just like Max.

All-in-all, I found Mañanaland to be a quick, immersive, and necessary read. For young readers graduating from shorter chaptered books, this would be a great introductory text to longer novels. Like Muñoz Ryan’s other middle-grade works, however, Mañanaland appeals not just to a tweenage readership, but to many. It would be a great read aloud for younger readers and it would be something I’d put in the hands of my college seniors. With its emphasis on hope, growth, and change, Mañanaland will easily join the esteemed ranks of Muñoz Ryan’s other works.

Mañanaland releases March 3, 2020.

 

Pam Munoz RyanABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pam Muñoz Ryan is an American author and the 2018 U.S. nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award. She is the author of ECHO, a Newbery Honor book and the recipient of the Kirkus Prize. She has written over forty books, including the novels ESPERANZA RISING, BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN, RIDING FREEDOM, PAINT THE WIND,  THE DREAMER, and ECHO. She is the author recipient of the National Education Association’s Civil and Human Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Multicultural Literature, and is twice the recipient of the Pura Belpré Medal and the Willa Cather Award.

Her novel, ESPERANZA RISING, was commissioned as a play by the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre and has been performed in many venues around the U.S. including The Goodman in Chicago, and the Majestic Cutler Theater, in Boston.

Other selected honors include the PEN USA Award, the Américas Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and the Orbis Pictus Award. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, (formerly Pam Bell) holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from San Diego State University and lives near San Diego with her family.  Many of her stories reflect her half-Mexican heritage.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities

Book Review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg, France.  Women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia Blau and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves. 

Five centuries late:  A pair of red shoes seals to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.

MY TWO CENTS: As with any Anna-Marie McLemore book, Dark and Deepest Red is like watching a particularly colorful sunrise breach over a murky, ominous landscape. It’s illuminating, warming, but also bears with it a hint of darkness that makes the sunlight that much sweeter. Their distinctive prose, full of lush and elegant language, is immediately recognizable as is their attention to telling the stories of people history would try to forget. Dark and Deepest Red takes that task to a new level, pairing the historical narrative of Lala and Alifair in Strasbourg in 1518 with that of Rosella and Emil in a contemporary world. Their stories parallel, sharing common themes and motifs.

The Strasbourg narrative retells the dancing plague, in which roughly 400 people were struck by a shared affliction: dancing incessantly, sometimes to death. McLemore frames this historical moment as not just a time to examine socio-religious and early medicinal practices, but as a backdrop for xenophobic concerns about the Romani peoples. Lala, also called Lavinia to avoid being coded as Romani, flees her homeland to avoid persecution, but anti-Romani laws follow her. With the onset of the dancing plague also comes speculation that Lala or her aunt are the culprits. Her assumed involvement is further compounded by her relationship with the transgender Alifair. Lala is the focus character for the chapters recounting Strasbourg in 1518, making her a key character alongside Rosella and Emil.

Meanwhile, Rosella and Emil alternate chapters. Rosella’s told in the first person and Emil’s in the third. That we only get into Rosella’s mind is important, as she is afflicted with a similar plague: when she resews a pair of shoes originally made by her treasured grandparents and tries them on, she quickly learns that she cannot remove the shoes, and, to make matters worse, the shoes force Rosella to dance and, indeed, act independently of her body, often putting her in danger. The shoes also lead Rosella into Emil’s arms. Emil, who has rejected his own Romani heritage, must tap into his roots to help save Rosella.

The alternating chapters are a dance in and of themselves, leaping from Rosella to Strasbourg to Emil back to Strasbourg and resuming the sequence. This alternation, however, does possibly overemphasize the Strasbourg chapters, potentially at the risk of subordinating Rosella and Emil’s stories. When reading, I did find myself more invested in Lala and Alifair, rather than Rosella and Emil. (And, to be fair, this may just be a personal preference, but I do wonder if this is tied to the narrative structure, or my own personal interest in dance and the dancing plague…) While each story is deeply intertwined and McLemore does an artful job of drawing them together, the dual narratives may appear too divergent, at least initially. To be clear, they do come together. And they do so in the intricate, special, and supernatural ways typical of McLemore’s work.

Importantly, as well, for an audience invested in Latinx children’s literature, this text does not centralize Latinidad or problematize it. It’s incidental but nevertheless present. I find this so significant. Rosella’s ethnicity and racialized body are certainly something that inform the plot, but she is not the one who largely experiences xenophobia, Lala does. Regardless, Latinx readers will find mirrors in Lala’s experiences. That McLemore poses this shift in representation offers a wider appeal to this text. Rather than being seen as a “Latinx text,” or a “Romani text,” or a “queer text,” it’s all three. At these intersections we find a lovely, challenging, and poignant read.

TEACHING TIPS: The historical narrative of this text would lend it well to a paired text with a lesson on history. It may also be an interesting discussion tool to aid in explorations of the treatment of queer peoples in history. 

It would also pair well with discussions of Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” as McLemore notes thus tale as a major influence on their writing of the novel. Students may read both and write about the similar themes. Students may also consider other Andersenesque stories and write their own retelling wise diverse casts. 

 

Anna-Marie McLemoreABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is the queer, Latinx, non-binary author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature; WILD BEAUTY, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist Best Book of 2017; BLANCA & ROJA, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; DARK AND DEEPEST RED, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and THE MIRROR SEASON, forthcoming in 2021. 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERCris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Finding a Home in Stories: A Guest Post by Middle-Grade Author Adrianna Cuevas

By Adrianna Cuevas

In my debut middle grade novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Publication date: 5/12/20, FSG/Macmillan), military kid Nestor Lopez moves houses so much, he loses his sense of place. He finds a home trading books with his deployed dad, father and son writing notes and questions in the page margins while artistic Nestor adds illustrations. Stories connect him to his dad stationed thousands of miles away.

When Nestor reads a book with his father, he’s able to explore his dad’s military experiences in a new way and the book enables conversations service members are often reluctant to engage in. As Nestor explains:

“I flip through the pages of this book, Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, and stop the first time I see Dad’s handwriting. I press my fingers over his words, closing my eyes and imagining him sitting in his rack, reading. I flip through each page, looking for his handwriting, scanning for evidence of the life he lives when he’s away from us.”

Stories connect Nestor to those around him and deepen his relationships—particularly important for a boy who feels that home is something impermanent and unreliable.

Not all young readers will relate to Nestor’s constant moves. Not all will connect with the concept of a parent who is far away. But regardless of their current situation, readers can see books as a home. A place to retreat. A place to feel seen and accepted.

Growing up, that’s what books were to me.

My teenage social life summed up in one photo

As a child, I devoured any story I could get my hands on. With parents and a sister who were all avid readers, trips to the library to fill up bags of books and evenings spent browsing bookstore shelves were as expected as pastelitos for Nochebuena and Celia Cruz on the radio. I knew the bookstore and library at the University of Miami, where my dad was a professor, as well as my own house.

The books of my childhood transported me to places I’d never been. As a Florida girl, I was obsessed with the snowy wilderness in Jack London short stories. A solitary introvert, I marveled at the friendships in the Babysitters Club series. My early thirst for the gruesome and grim was satisfied by an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. I didn’t think I needed books with Cuban-American main characters because my culture was all around me in Miami—in the food, the language, the music.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I realized what a haven books can be for readers. I’d never lived anywhere so homogenous, both culturally and ideologically. In Miami, I was allowed to be a book-obsessed hockey fan who was bad at sports and loved to travel. In my new surroundings, I was Latina, nothing more and always less. I was complimented on my mastery of the English language, even though I didn’t speak Spanish fluently until I was in my twenties. Despite receiving an academic college scholarship, I was required to attend seminars about how not to get pregnant and drop out, the expectation for minority students. I was met with confused stares when I confessed that I didn’t like spicy foods because don’t all Mexicans like that? No longer able to see my culture or myself in my environment, I turned once again to my reliable home—books.

I shielded myself from ignorance and microaggressions I had never before experienced by diving into books by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, and Isabel Allende. Their words were familiar, a hand on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t alone. In their stories, I saw loud, boisterous families that mirrored my own. I read mouthwatering descriptions of the food I missed, whose ingredients weren’t even available to me anymore. My language was presented as something beautiful and poetic, not something to be overcome and unlearned. I had never understood the importance of seeing yourself represented in stories until I wasn’t represented in the society around me.

In Total Eclipse, Nestor moves from a place where he is seen and accepted to a place where he is misunderstood and othered. For the first time in his life, he lives off-post and experiences what it’s like to live away from a military base.

“Fort Hood had a Whataburger, a video arcade, and a comic book shop… Most kids at school had parents in the military, so everyone understood if you didn’t want to talk in the middle of science because your dad had flown across an ocean the night before. Now Mom’s moved me to a town where I’m a circus freak. An alien from a distant planet. My only comfort is knowing I might not be here long.”

Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t have the option like I did to dive into stories and see himself in books, as military family representation, especially Latinx families, is incredibly small in children’s literature. How much would it have meant to him to have books like Pablo Cartaya’s Each Tiny Spark to help him while his father is deployed?

Similarly, my choices when I moved to the Midwest were limited and it was difficult to find books that reflected my Cuban-American experience. Twenty years ago, the catalog of stories featuring characters like me was microscopic. How much more at home would I have felt with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos or Laura Taylor Namey’s The Library of Lost Things at my disposal when I was an awkward freshman? I would have taken Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe to college with me, turning to them when I felt othered and isolated.

Children deserve to see themselves in stories, not just as caricatures of their culture, but as representatives of the diversity that exists within a culture and as humans with all their quirks and flaws. Nestor Lopez isn’t just a Cuban-American kid who scarfs down his abuela’s croquetas de jamón and plays dominos with his abuelo. He loves dart gun battles, Pokémon cards, and random animal trivia. He’s quick with a snarky remark and his fingers are constantly smudged with pencil lead from sketching. It is my hope that in Nestor, young readers will find a friend they can relate to who shares their eccentricities and hopes.

In a world increasingly antagonistic toward Latinx people, our words as authors have the opportunity to whisper to children, “You are not alone.” Our books can serve as a blanket that warms them when they’re surrounded by the coldness of indifference and ignorance. Our characters can show them they can be heroes.

Our stories can welcome them home.

 

 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adriana currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food. Learn more about Adrianna on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!