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!