Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Anika Fajardo

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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 Anika Fajardo.

Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which was awarded Best Book (Nonfiction) of 2020 from City Pages and was a finalist for the 2020 Minnesota Book Award. Her debut middle-grade novel What If a Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2020) was awarded the 2021 Minnesota Book Award. Her next book for young readers, Meet Me Halfway (Simon & Schuster) will be published in spring 2022.

Her writing for adults and children has appeared in numerous publications including Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton), We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World (U of Minnesota Press), and Sky Blue Waters: Great Stories for Young Readers (U of Minnesota Press). She has earned awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center.

A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis. 

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Here is the publisher’s description for WHAT IF A FISH:

Cover of the novel What If a Fish by Anika Fajardo

A whimsical and unflinchingly honest generational story of family and identity where hats turn into leeches, ghosts blow kisses from lemon trees, and the things you find at the end of your fishing line might not be a fish at all.

Half-Colombian Eddie Aguado has never really felt Colombian. Especially after Papa died. And since Mama keeps her memories of Papa locked up where Eddie can’t get to them, he only has Papa’s third-place fishing tournament medal to remember him by. He’ll have to figure out how to be more Colombian on his own.

As if by magic, the perfect opportunity arises. Eddie—who’s never left Minnesota—is invited to spend the summer in Colombia with his older half-brother. But as his adventure unfolds, he feels more and more like a fish out of water.

Figuring out how to be a true colombiano might be more difficult than he thought.

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Anika Fajardo

Anika Fajardo

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

My mom and my grandparents regularly read aloud to me when I was growing up, so books were always a big part of my life. In sixth grade I won a poetry contest after working with a guest poet in the schools. I got to read my poem on stage in front of an audience, and I decided I really wanted to be a writer. But it took me many careers (teacher, librarian, social media manager, web designer) before I actually let myself believe I could do it. 

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

I remember being that age fondly; I loved to read, write, play pretend, go on adventures. It’s such a great audience–they’re old enough to appreciate well-formed characters, intriguing plots, and sophisticated themes but without any of the sexy stuff of YA.

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

Of course, I love the middle-grade novels from Las Musas (THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, THE DREAM WEAVER, THE MUSE SQUAD). I’m from Minnesota, so my first picks are Minnesota authors like Kate DiCamillo (I adore RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE) and Pete Hautman (FLINKWATER FACTOR). I also love older books like MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS BASIL E FRANKWEILER and THE WESTING GAME.

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

Keep dreaming and don’t let any grown-ups tell you what you can or cannot do with your one precious life.

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

kids need something that’s just for them–not babyish and not too grown up–to which they can escape.

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photo of Cindy L. Rodriguez by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned teacher and children’s author. She is a middle school reading specialist in Connecticut, where she lives with her family. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. 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 three Jake Maddox books: Volleyball Ace (2020), Drill Team Determination (2021), and Gymnastics Payback (2021). Her debut picture book will be published by Cardinal Rule Press in summer 2022. She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Talk: Luci Soars by Lulu Delacre

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Welcome to another Book Talk, which can be found on our new YouTube channel!

Here, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez talk about LUCI SOARS by Lulu Delacre. Before you watch the video, you might want to get to know author-illustrator Lulu Delacre by visiting her in her studio: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2019/03/14/a-studio-visit-with-author-illustrator-lulu-delacre-one-of-the-most-prolific-latinx-artists-working-today/

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Click on the link below to watch the book talk and then add your comments below to join the conversation. ENJOY!

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Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

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Sonia 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.

Book Review: Miss Meteor by Anna-Marie McLemore and Tehlor Kay Mejia

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Review by Dr. Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: There hasn’t been a winner of the Miss Meteor beauty pageant who looks like Lita Perez or Chicky Quintanilla in all its history.

But that’s not the only reason Lita wants to enter the contest, or her ex-best friend Chicky wants to help her. The road to becoming Miss Meteor isn’t about being perfect; it’s about sharing who you are with the world—and loving the parts of yourself no one else understands.

So to pull off the unlikeliest underdog story in pageant history, Lita and Chicky are going to have to forget the past and imagine a future where girls like them are more than enough—they are everything.

MY TWO CENTS: Born from a magical collaboration between Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore, Miss Meteor follows the rekindled friendship between Lita Perez and Chicky Quintanilla as Lita, who has an urgent and extraterrestrial secret, decides to spend her final days on earth entering the Miss Meteor pageant. In the opening chapter, Lita tells the reader, “I don’t remember the moment I turned from star-stuff thrown off a meteor into a girl,” but her corporeal body is slowly deteriorating, leaving her “turning back into the stardust [she] once was” (1, 6). Lita explains that this isn’t the beginning of losing herself; in fact that process started years before when her friendship with Chicky Quintanilla deteriorated. Chicky, for her part, is an anomaly in her family–nothing like her boisterous sisters, Chicky prefers no makeup and keeping to the margins. But, as Lita’s body increasingly returns to stardust, she resolves to enter the pageant and to enlist Chicky to manage her success. 

If Miss Meteor were just to follow the rekindled friendship between Lita and Chicky, it would be an uplifting and touching story–but add in Mejia and McLemore’s characteristic magic and intrigue, it is an out of this world adventure. Lita’s literal otherworldliness is well-tempered by her somewhat geeky love of cacti and her clumsiness. Chicky’s rebellion is grounded by her devotion to her family’s struggling restaurant, “Selena’s,” named for the Tejana superstar who shares their last name (and a woman whom Chicky, despite her standoffish exterior, secretly idolizes). Together, Chicky and Lita’s campaign to climb to the top of the pageant allows each to excavate the parts of themselves they had long buried. Confronting the realities of their failures and shortcomings allows them to grow individually and together. 

As the great Selena Quintanilla once said, “if you have a dream, don’t let anybody take it away. And you always believe that the impossible is always possible.” This wisdom holds true for Miss Meteor, as Chicky and Lita defy the odds throughout the book. In alternating chapters, the two narrate their story of overcoming and the power of friendship. The text itself is relatively accessible, in keeping with both Mejia and McLemore’s traditionally immersive prose. While the pace is sometimes a bit slow, I was always invested in the characters and their pursuits. Further, the normalized queer content of the book is something that I have found to be a key part of Mejia’s and McLemore’s oeuvres. 

Tehlor Kay Mejia exploded onto the Latinx literature scene with her We Set the Dark on Fire series and Anna-Marie McLemore’s opulent books like When the Moon was Ours have been captivating readers for years. So, then, a collaboration between the two clearly sparks magic. Co-authored books like Miss Meteor run the risk of sounding too disparate, not cohering the dual narratives. While it is clear that Chicky belongs to Mejia and Lita is McLemore’s, the two blend well together. Chicky’s attitude and personality are emblematic of the gritty and industrious characters in Mejia’s other books. Likewise, Lita’s supernaturality and light share McLemore’s trademark magical realism. The balance in the narrative was equal between the two, and I was invested in both Chicky and Lita. Both characters were equally intriguing and I can see readers developing an affinity for either depending on their own personality and interests. Overall, Miss Meteor is a beautiful book, a fun read, and a shining addition to Mejia and McLemore’s bibliographies.

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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: 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

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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.