Book Review: Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When three very different girls find a mysterious invitation to a lavish mansion, the promise of adventure and mischief is too intriguing to pass up.

Ofelia Castillo (a budding journalist), Aster Douglas (a bookish foodie), and Cat Garcia (a rule-abiding birdwatcher) meet the kid behind the invite, Lane DiSanti, and it isn’t love at first sight. But they soon bond over a shared mission to get the Floras, their local Scouts, to ditch an outdated tradition. In their quest for justice, independence, and an unforgettable summer, the girls form their own troop and find something they didn’t know they needed: sisterhood.

MY TWO CENTS: The stakes of activism are not the same for all who engage. Skin color, gender presentation, age—all of these are contributing factors to who is most at-risk when being a visible activist. But, as Celia C. Pérez’s sophomore novel, Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers, rightly notes, “’[s]ometimes the desire for change is bigger than anything else’” (270). For Ofelia, Aster, Cat, and Lane—the desire to change the outdated traditions of the scout troop, the Floras, is bigger than the risks they encounter. Spurred by Cat’s passion for birds, the girls decide to campaign to change the Floras’s most cherished symbol: the feathered hat worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest. The hat, however, is a relic of a past that nearly caused the extinction of multiple bird species across the United States.

AudubonWhile the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 outlawed the practices that lead to the creation of hats like those worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest, it didn’t outlaw the hats that already existed. The hat’s persistence in the lore of the Floras is problematic, but the hat represents different things for each girl. For Cat, the hat is the Floras’s suspension in the past; for Lane, the hat is an opportunity to rebel and make friends; for Ofelia, the hat is a chance to broaden her journalistic horizons; and for Aster, the hat parallels her desires to learn more about her own family history. Each girl’s storyline weaves together into a mission for change, even if the desired outcome (getting rid of the hat) stands in for something divergent for each.

When I first started reading, I struggled a bit with remembering the distinction between each character, but I settled into the text quickly and was soon immersed in the community of Sabal Palms, Florida. On an aesthetic level, the text is upbeat, funny, and conversational. It makes the reader feel like they’re right beside Lane, Cat, Ofelia, and Aster as they plan their various (and often ill-fated) maneuvers against the Floras. The book also contains paratextual material corresponding to each character—like recipes from Aster or journalism tips from Ofelia. Like many recent books for young readers, Strange Birds is a good introduction to activism for young people who want to become more engaged in their worlds.

Further, in these unique, young characters, Pérez has created an ensemble cast that will resonate with a wide array of readers. Each girl is quite different—in fact, when Pérez revealed the cover of the novel on Nerdy Book Club, she included a personality quiz that lets readers see which girl they are most like (I’m an Ofelia, for the record, por supuesto).

Nevertheless, with a cast of characters like this, of young women from such different backgrounds, there is always tension. That Pérez doesn’t shy away from these moments is significant. Rather than sugarcoat their friendships and smooth over any dissonance, Pérez reveals the ways each girl wrestles with what could easily become asymmetrical relationships. Lane, the granddaughter of Sabal Palm’s most affluent family, has a distinct privilege among the other characters, not just because of her wealth but also because of her race. Often posed against Aster—the granddaughter of the first Black professor at Sabal Palms University and whose ancestors worked for Lane’s—Lane’s privileges are thrown into sharp contrast. When she must confront these privileges, all of the characters, including the Latinas Cat and Ofelia, take a look at their positionality within their community. In confronting how their social statuses are stratified by race and class, the girls grow closer because they acknowledge their differences. Resultantly, I view this as a strong text to introduce readers to the concept of intersectional feminism, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain that “because of [women of color’s] intersectional identity as both women and of color within discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, women of color are marginalized within both” (from “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” published in Stanford Law Review).

Ultimately, this is not a novel of single experiences. This is a novel that celebrates diversity. As with her debut middle-grade novel The First Rule of Punk, Pérez has invited readers to experience childhood as a time of transformation and self-actualization, a time of difference and discovery. Importantly, Strange Birds allows space for and encourages those discoveries to unfold, spread their wings, and take flight.

 

image.pngABOUT THE AUTHOR: Celia C. Pérez is the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father.  Her debut book for young readers, The First Rule of Punk, was a 2018 Pura Belpré Award Honor Book, a 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards honor book, a winner of the 2018 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, a Junior Library Guild selection, and was included in several best of the year lists including the Amelia Bloomer List, NPR’s Best Books of 2017, the Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books, the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids, School Library Journal’s Best of 2017, The Horn Book Magazine’s Fanfare, and ALSC’s Notable Children’s Books. Her second book for young readers, Strange Birds, will be published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers in September 2019.

She lives in Chicago with her family where, in addition to writing books about lovable weirdos and outsiders, she works as a librarian. She is originally from Miami, Florida, where roosters and peacocks really do wander the streets.

 

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: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

MY TWO CENTS: Much to my delight, there were a number of titles released in 2017 that filled me with pride and transported me back to my days as a middle school book worm. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora was among them. Arturo’s story possesses familiar hallmarks of coming of age tales, a first crush, a crummy summer job as a dishwasher (albeit at his family’s beloved restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla), and self-discovery. With equal measures of humor and heart, Pablo Cartaya’s middle grade debut is sure to leave readers anxious for an invite to the Zamora family Sunday dinners. What truly makes The Epic Fail special, though, is how Cartaya burnishes deeper themes like family, community, gentrification, and cultural identity with nuance and irresistible charm.

When Wilfrido Pipo, a villainous real estate developer, saunters into Canal Grove looking to build a luxurious high rise, Arturo and his family fear the move will drastically alter their Miami neighborhood. Pipo intends to buy the city-owned lot next to La Cocina, which the Zamoras also planned to bid on, hoping to expand their restaurant. In order to convince community members to back his development plan, Pipo throws fancy events and raffles off all-expenses-paid trips. Arturo senses Pipo’s duplicitous nature and is spurred into action by Vanessa, his activist cousin, and Carmen, his new crush. Together, they hatch plans, one involving a Hulk disguise, to further investigate Pipo’s shady background and resist his ambitions. Gentrification and activism are timely topics, but their weightiness can feel overwhelming and disheartening, especially in light of news about Dreamers, to name one example. Cartaya does his best to impart readers with some hope. Arturo and his family picket and attend public forums at city hall, actions which, whatever the ultimate result, display a sense of agency, a power Arturo realizes he possesses.

At one protest, Vanessa holds a picket sign reading “Family is Community-Community is Family,” a succinct summation of two overarching themes. For Cartaya, family is not just those related by blood, but those with whom you choose to spend time, and sometimes, inadvertently share space. We readily throw longtime friends under the family umbrella, but Cartaya implores readers to consider neighbors, even the most eccentric among them, as members of our extended families. La Cocina itself is an extension of the family’s dining room, where an array of regulars eat, local businesses build partnerships (the restaurant buys its meat and greens from area vendors), and everyone is welcome.

Cartaya’s portrayal of an ample list of secondary characters is one of his greatest successes. He depicts a variety of personalities using distinct and vivid details, bringing the community of Canal Grove to life. Whether it is Arturo’s best friend Bren, a hopeless dork perpetually trying to look and sound like Pitbull, or Aunt Tuti, who has a penchant for dramatics, but is a fierce defender of her family, readers will surely recognize at least one, if not many, of Cartaya’s characters. Arturo may be the hero of the story, but it is the people around him who inspire his actions and give his mission purpose. His fight to save the family restaurant is also a fight for the preservation of his hometown, a love he shares with the people of his community, who, in turn, make that community a place worth loving. In one passage, Arturo wonders where Pipo’s own family might be, “All that success and I never heard him talk about anyone who he cared about.” Arturo’s realization reminded me of Harry Potter’s own assessment of Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix, whom he pities for being equally rootless. A poignant message about community that traverses Hogwarts and Canal Grove.

As Arturo’s Abuela’s health declines, she gives Arturo a box of photos and letters from his Abuelo, which reference the poet José Martí. The poet is a link to his grandfather and his Cuban heritage. Arturo is pulled in by Martí, a figure emblematic of embracing multiple cultures and causes. Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he “sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.” Although awkward in many aspects of his life, Arturo moves through his multitudes with spectacular ease. The narrative of struggling to balance cultural identities has shifted. Of course, stories about cultural struggle are necessary, but it was wonderful to see Arturo just be himself. It allowed me to let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I was holding in.

I could go on and on about The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. How touched I was by the depictions of Abuela’s tenderness, his mom’s quiet struggle becoming matriarch of the family, Arturo’s admiration for Carmen’s colorful braces, and of course, the food (recipes included as backmatter). This novel was a true joy to read from beginning to end. A rare feat, even in children’s literature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by Viking. He is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. http://www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and was born and raised in Queens, NY.