Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 1

Latinxs in Kid Lit owes tremendous thanks to the wonderful contributors who review books for us!  We were curious to learn how they conduct the reviewing process and which books sit atop their TBR lists, along with other topics. This post brings you Part 1 of a roundtable discussion with some of our current team members. Stay tuned—there’s more to come! 

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Tell us about yourself as a child reader. How do those experiences color your impressions of the books you read now?

Sanjuana Rodriguez

Sanjuana Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department of Kennesaw State University.  I attended kindergarten through second grade in Mexico, where I was born. Since most of my reading there was in workbooks, my first memories of actual books was after we moved to the United States, where I read as a way to learn English. I vividly remember searching the library for books that included Latinx characters. There were only a handful, including a biography of Gloria Estefan, which I read about 100 times. This is partly why I developed an interest in books by and about Latinx. My own background taught me the importance of kids seeing their experiences reflected in texts.

Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in English, who recently completed her doctorate in literature. My mom was an elementary school teacher, so she knew the importance of reading to my twin sister and me. Because of this, I became an avid reader. I read and reread the Josefina American Girl series. She was the first character I encountered who looked like me, and I used to put on traditional dresses to pretend I was her. As an adult, I’ve revisited those books and am sad to say they’re pretty awful, as far as representation goes. Now, when I do research on representation, I keep my child-reader self in the back of my mind. That little girl deserved better, so I let that inform how I read and advocate for the many excellent Latinx children’s books available today.

Mark Oshiro, the author of Anger is a Gift, is also the driving force behind the website Mark Does StuffI started reading at a very young age, and after reading almost everything in my school library, I moved on to my local branch. But few books had characters like me. Prior to high school, I recall only Bless Me, Ultima, which I have not revisited in a long time. Reading The House on Mango Street, at 14, is what made me realize that people like me could be in a novel. It’s one of the most important books in my life.

Katrina Ortega is the young adult librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. As a child, I was just as avid a reader as I am today. My first experience with Latinx characters didn’t come until high school, when I was assigned to read Bless Me, Ultima. Before that, I was only exposed to Latinx characters through books published in Mexico, read to me by my mom. I was never exposed to characters who came from similar situations as my own—Mexican-Americans whose families had lived in the U.S. for generations— and my view of “normal” book characters was very different from what I saw in my own life. Looking at some of the books currently available, I cannot imagine how much more I might’ve related to characters who looked like me or lived in environments like the one in which I grew up.

LiKL: What is your reviewing process like? Do you take notes throughout your reading time? Are there sticky flags involved? Are there sticky fingers involved (because: sugary snacks)?

Mark Oshiro

Mark: For my Mark Does Stuff reviews, I record myself while reading, so no note-taking there! But for publications like Latinxs in KidLit, I do take notes. What stands out? Which parts do I want to comment on? I keep track of my thoughts and how they develop as I experience the text. Those transitions can often be the coolest part of reading.

Sanjuana: My first step is to read the book just for fun! As I reread, I begin to think about my impressions of the text. My last step is to see what resources already exist online that teachers or librarians may find helpful.

Katrina: I read through the book first, then write down my initial thoughts about characters, setting, plot-lines, and go back through certain parts to read them more closely. My style of reading is such that I sometimes get completely consumed by the story and forget to stop and write things down. 

Cris: I bookmark important moments and quotations with sticky flags as I go, but I also tend to have a document open on my computer or phone where I type out some rough sentences and thoughts that may make it into the final review. I end up Frankensteining these notes together after finishing the book.

LiKL: Your work as an educator, youth librarian, scholar of children’s literature, or author of books for young readers is bound to affect your work as a reviewer. Help us understand the professional perspective you bring to the evaluation of texts.

Cris Rhodes

Cris: It’s really hard to turn off my scholarly training when I’m reading, so whatever I consume is filtered through that lens. I always have questions running through the back of my mind: How might this book be approached from a critical standpoint? Does feminist theory apply? Queer theory? Trauma studies? Sometimes those questions don’t make it into a review. Regardless, they’re always present, even if on the periphery, and they generate other modes of analysis that do come out in the reviews.

Katrina: The area I live and work in is a predominantly Latinx community. One of my main responsibilities as a teen/young-adult librarian is making sure the youth I work with find content to which they can relate. This doesn’t mean characters have to be from Harlem or the Bronx, although that definitely is a huge selling point. Instead,  the books I suggest must have genuine and honest characters, situations, and conversations. When I review a book, I ask myself, “Is this believable? Would a teen say something like that or behave in that way?” Authenticity in the representation of characters and situations is super important. 

Sanjuana: My work as an elementary teacher shapes the work I do as a reviewer. I am always thinking about how texts could be used in the classroom and how those books can facilitate conversations, particularly around difficult or controversial issues, such as immigration. In my current role, working with pre-service teachers, one of my goals is introducing them to books they’re unlikely to encounter in their field-experience classrooms. I want them to see the value of diverse characters and experiences in books, which they will hopefully include in their own future classroom libraries.

Toni Margarita Plummer is an award-winning writer of short stories, who has also worked in publishing. I was an acquiring editor for many years, meaning I was the one always hoping for good reviews for my titles, for those one or two golden lines I could put up online or on the paperback. I think the best reviews accurately describe what the book is about, place it in context, and highlight the successes and shortcomings of the work, all toward the end of helping readers to discover books they will enjoy. That is what I try to give in my reviews, along with those few golden lines of praise someone can pluck.

LiKL: Let’s draw up a wish list for authors and publishers. Which genres, storylines, locations, representations, or other considerations do you pine for in books for children or teens?

Katrina Ortega

Katrina: I love reading stories about the border. It’s where I grew up, and writers like Guadalupe Garcia McCall and Benjamin Alíre Saenz take me back to the desert and open skies of West Texas. I also love reading fantasy that is Latinx-character centric. The Brooklyn Brujas series by Zoraida Córdova is by far my favorite. In addition, I’d love to read more about Latinx families that have been living in the United States for generations, like mine has—families that have sprawled across the country, and their stories of traversing back and forth.

Mark: More Afro-Latinx rep is super important to me. I’m always on the lookout for more rep of queer Latinx, LGBT Latinx, and ace Latinx!!! The tradition I write in deals with the difficulties Latinx people face, historically and in our present time. But these days, I am also super into fluffy beach reads. I want some big Latinx rom-com YAs. Soon. I may be writing one myself!

Cris: As a Latina who grew up in a rural area with no other Latinxs besides those I was related to, I want more stories like that–more diverse Latinx experiences represented. We need more queer Latinx stories, more Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish, more Latinxs living outside of big cities, more Latinxs who don’t have large, extended families. We also need to make being Latinx not a plot point—I love books where being Latinx is incidental to what’s going on.

Sanjuana: I see a need for more books that represent diversity in the immigration experience, as well as more bilingual texts that reflect the growing number of multilingual students in schools.

LiKL: Now let’s flip the coin. What are your reading pet peeves? Specify the tired tropes, stereotypes, or overused plot machinations that cause you to roll your eyes—or to slam a book shut.

Cris: In continuation of my previous answer, I’m tired of books that homogenize the Latinx experience, even if they don’t mean to do so. Not all Latinxs act, live, and think the same way.  I encounter certain plot lines over and over: barrio life, single-parent homes, racism and xenophobia. That’s not to say these things aren’t valid experiences or necessary for a certain readership.

Mark: My reading pet peeves? Writers using a very easily solved misunderstanding to fuel their plot. Plots that could be solved by people just TALKING to one another. Also, Latinx drug lords. I’ll roll my eyes at the inevitable ICE or US border story written by a white person, with an attitude of “how can this possibly happen in our country?” Spoiler alert: it’s been happening for far, far longer than this past year.

Sanjuana: I don’t like to read books that paint a perfect picture of the world. I believe that literature should represent current realities and issues that children and teens are grappling with.

Katrina: My biggest pet peeve? When authors use Spanish in their characters’ dialogue, but then repeat the dialogue in English. It drives me up the wall to have to read the same thing twice! 

LiKL: What is your current hot read and which books are at the top of your to-be-read list?

Toni Margarita Plummer

Toni: I am reading Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, from the new Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney. Naturally, I am eager to read the imprint’s forthcoming Latinx titles by J.C. Cervantes and Carlos Hernandez. I think it’s so exciting that children will be invited to explore Latinx mythology through these books! I also still need to read I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L Sánchez and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Sanjuana: This a list of books currently on my desk ready to be read: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez ( I know that I’m late reading this one!). Picture books I can’t wait to read and share with kids: The Day you Begin by Jacquline Woodson, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, and Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera.

Mark: Just read Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath and it was just as stunning as I’d thought it would be. I’m about to read and review the newest Anna-Marie McLemore, and then am eager to start The Resolutions by Mia García!

Cris: My current “hot read” is any book I’m using for my dissertation, but I’m particularly enjoying digging into Celia C. Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk. My current TBR is anything I’m not using for my dissertation! I’m very excited to dive into Zoraida Cordova’s Brooklyn Brujas series. I recently began Lila Quintero Weaver’s My Year in the Middle, and there are some rad looking anthologies that have been recently released!

Katrina: I just finished Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, a semi-autobiographical (or so it seems) account of the journey north from Central America, written in verse. It’s heartbreaking and redemptive and beautifully put together. 

Our warmest thanks to the reviewers who participated in this roundtable discussion! We’ll continue the conversation in the next installment. 

 

Book Review: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

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This review by Lila Quintero Weaver is based on an advance uncorrected galley.

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Bryan has a good idea of what’s tight to him—reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But “no drama” doesn’t come with the territory of where he’s from, so he’s feeling wound up tight. While his mom encourages his calm, thoughtful nature, his quick-tempered dad says he needs to be tough because it’s better for a guy to be feared than liked.

And now Bryan’s new friend Mike is putting the pressure on—all of a sudden, his ideas of fun are crazy risky. When Bryan’s dad ends up back in jail, something in Bryan snaps and he allows Mike to take the lead. At first it’s a rush as Bryan starts cutting school and subway surfing. But Bryan never feels quite right when he’s acting wrong, and Mike ends up pushing him too far.

Fortunately, if there’s anything Bryan has learned from his favorite superheroes, it’s that he has the power to stand up for what he believes.

MY TWO CENTS: Starring an Afro-Puerto Rican character from Brooklyn, NY, this entertaining middle-grade novel is a brilliant read layered with emotional richness and nuance. Along with its primary selling point as a solid and strongly voiced story, Tight delivers an important but subtly threaded message on self-respect and moral courage. Bryan’s internal wrestling match, one brought on by a questionable friendship, lies at the crux of the story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story line could have easily devolved into a morality play. But Maldonado avoids such cardboard cutouts in favor of a skillfully crafted portrait of a relatable middle-grader facing down his vulnerabilities and learning how to choose the higher road.

Sharply drawn from head to toe, Bryan is a sympathetic character with a mounting dilemma that begins as soon as a boy named Mike makes his appearance. Initially, Bryan feels suspicious of the new boy, but lets go of those reservations when Mike reveals a kindred love of superhero comic books. Still, subtle things about Mike continue to nag at Bryan, setting up an undercurrent of mistrust. As Mike works his charisma on Bryan, gradually opening doors to dangerous and alluring pastimes, Bryan begins to rationalize his original misgivings. To complicate matters, things on the home front are going south, too. Bryan’s father, who’s recently gotten out of jail, seems to be courting trouble again, putting the whole family in a state of tension.

Although at times Bryan succumbs to risky behavior, he seems most like himself when the drama is dialed way down. He actually relishes the peace and quiet of his “office,” an unused desk at his mother’s workplace, where he spreads out his homework. In this vein, we also witness him happily chatting on a park bench with his mom, who he endearingly refers to as “my heart.”

You cannot help but love Bryan. He reads as a real boy, with a real life, and a rings-true voice that expresses rich interiority. But as if to test his tender side, Bryan’s world is complicated by the code of machismo. At his school and in his neighborhood, the message telegraphed at boys is don’t be soft. This refrain of warped masculinity features in many a Latinx treatment. Fortunately, Maldonado lifts the story above such tropes by enlivening Bryan with contradictory currents and introducing fresh possibilities that will keep readers on their toes.

Other elements of Latinx life include food (chicharrones, alcapurrias) and observations on ethnic identity. In an early scene, Bryan reveals that he purchased the new Miles Morales Spider-Man comic because “he’s my age and looks like me. He’s half black and half Puerto Rican. I’m full Rican but heads rarely guess right.”

It’s obvious that Bryan has a lot on his plate. Here he is at the corner bodega presenting a note from his mom, in which she appeals for store credit.

When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.

I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.

Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”

Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous-smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.

What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.

Does it need pointing out that Maldonado nails the art of voice?

In addition, he commands a spare approach to description, choosing a handful of small details for the sizzle they bring. One of my favorite examples of colorful scene-setting occurs when Bryan and Mike pass through a crowded train station. “Mike ducks under a turnstile and races up the steps. ‘PAY YOUR FARE!’ the teller’s voice yells through the microphone in the MetroCard booth. It sounds extra scary because it’s all metallic, like Darth Vader’s voice.”

This is a novel that kid readers across the board will go for, and that readers hungry for Afro-Latinx representation will cheer on. In Bryan, Maldonado has created a vivid, relatable character with a lot going on between his ears. He has also built a fascinating and realistic world for this character to occupy, and spun a story that packs punch, enclosing within it hidden, but never preachy, lessons about life and love and healthy self-respect.

IMG_5888ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

Click here to see our recent Q&A with Torrey Maldonado.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and a novel for kids, My Year in the Middle. Connect with her on Twitter, where her handle is @LilaQWeaver.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Hispanics featured in this collection come from many different backgrounds and from many different countries. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!

Poems spotlight Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez Wright, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Tomás Rivera, and Ynés Mexia.

MY TWO CENTS: This beautiful and memorable picture book once again showcases the partnership of creative luminaries Margarita Engle and Rafael López, following their award-winning collaboration on Drum Dream Girl. In Bravo!, Engle’s eighteen poems and López’s accompanying illustrations highlight notable Hispanics with strong connections to the United States. Some subjects are Puerto Ricans, while many are Latinx notables from the U.S. mainland. Quite a few came to its shores as immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A few are world-famous, like Tito Puente, César Chávez, and Roberto Clemente, but most are not. In fact, some individuals whose thrilling achievements should have earned them a prominent place in history have yet to receive their due, such as Cuban American Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot. (I eagerly anticipate the March 2018 release entitled The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book by Margarita Engle illustrated by Sara Palacios, which should go a long way toward filling that gap.)

The profiles are arranged chronologically, and each featured individual receives a double-page treatment consisting of a brief poem and a portrait illustration. The first spot belongs to Juan de Miralles (1713-1780), a Cuban supporter of the American Revolution, whose intervention helped save George Washington’s troops from scurvy. The final selection is Tomás Rivera (1935-1984), an influential teacher, poet, and University of California chancellor, who was also one of Margarita Engle’s creative-writing professors.

As with her novels in verse, Engle presents the stories of the characters through first-person-voiced poems that draw attention not only to that individual’s contributions to society, but also to the passions that drove them to action.

As mentioned earlier, most of these historical figures are not widely recognized. For example, how many readers in the U.S. are familiar with poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who advocated for her native Puerto Rico’s independence? In “My River of Dreams,” we learn of her poverty-stricken childhood and the natural world that she loved, as well as the heart of her advocacy:

I struggled to become a teacher

and a poet, so I could use words

to fight for equal rights for women,

and work toward meeting

the needs of poor children,

and speak of independence

for Puerto Rico.

Another selection, “Wild Exploration,” profiles Ynés Mexia (1870-1938), highlighting Mexía’s botanical studies in Mexico and South America, but also bringing out her bicultural origins, the anguish she suffered as the child of warring parents, and the fact that she discovered her true calling later in life than most:

But when I’m all grown up and really quite old,

I finally figure out how to feel useful,

Enjoying the adventure of a two-country life.

As with all eighteen of the profiled subjects, we can learn more about Ynés Mexía in the supplement “Notes About the Lives,” which explains that her career as a botanist began at age fifty-five and led to the discovery of five hundred new species.

In his bold, graphic portraits, Rafael López signals each person’s setting and historical period through carefully selected details in their apparel, the background scenery, and through visual symbolism that enriches the poetic text. One noteworthy example is in the profile of Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest whose ministry in New York focused on newly arrived Irish immigrants. In his portrait, Varela wears a clerical collar and holds an olive branch in his right hand, signifying the pacifism that set him at odds with his countrymen in Cuba. On the opposite page, a smaller and simply rendered three-leaf clover pays homage to Varela’s Irish parishioners.

Readers familiar with Margarita Engle, whose poetry often elevates the work of unsung Latinas, will not be surprised that the collection includes seven noteworthy women. In addition, a generous proportion of those featured are of African or indigenous ancestry, and this diversity is satisfyingly represented in López’s stunning portrait work. By showcasing extraordinary, yet under-represented achievers, Bravo! enhances their visibility and sends an affirming message to girls and children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. With that said, this collection would have felt more complete if it offered a wider representation of ancestral lands. Among the eighteen profiles, there are no Dominicans, and only one of each from Central America and South America. (Editors, please take note that Latinx people represent a broad sweep of nations and cultures.) Perhaps in recognition of the impossible task of selecting just eighteen subjects, a supplement at the back of the book entitled “More and More Amazing Latinos” provides a list of over twenty more Latinx achievers. These include Tony Meléndez, a Nicaraguan American guitarist; Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian American planetary geologist for NASA; and Jaime Escalante, a teacher of mathematics from Bolivia.

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics is a jewel of a picture book. It offers children an introductory glimpse of important historical figures they may never otherwise hear about. And let’s face it: adults will learn a great deal from these pages, too. As members of the Latinx community, these history-makers represent a rich variety of educational and economic backgrounds, an impressive array of careers and causes, as well as a diverse range of racial and ethnic legacies. Taken together, the tributes in this beautiful book point to the depth, complexity, and durability of Hispanic contribution to culture, innovation, civic advances, and many other components of life in the United States.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. For more information, visit Margarita’s website.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City, is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. A children’s book illustrator, he won the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2012, he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival poster. He has been awarded the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, three Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards. The illustrations created by López bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Learn more on his website.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERLila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Winners: Spotlight on Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velasquez

PuraBelpreAward

The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy.

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Eric Velasquez, the winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award for Grandma’s Gift.


Review by Lila Quintero Weaver

Grandma's GiftDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Every year, Eric spends his winter break with his grandmother in El Barrio while his parents are at work. There’s much to do to prepare for Christmas, including buying all the ingredients for Grandma’s famous pasteles, a special Puerto Rican holiday dish.

But Eric also has an assignment for school that requires a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a new painting. Grandma and Eric are nervous about leaving El Barrio but are amazed by the museum and what they see in the painting—a familiar face in a work of art by the great painter Diego Velázquez. That day Eric’s world opens wider, and Grandma knows the perfect gift to start him on his new journey.

In this prequel to Grandma’s Records, Eric Velasquez brings readers back to a special day spent with his grandmother that would change his life forever.

MY TWO CENTS: Eric Velasquez is the award-winning illustrator of more than 25 children’s books, including three that he wrote. In Grandma’s Gift and Grandma’s Records, reviewed here, Eric brings to life childhood moments that illuminate the warm and meaningful relationship he enjoyed with his grandmother, a native of Puerto Rico and resident of El Barrio, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem.

In a category where such books are woefully rare, both of Velasquez’s Grandma stories represent positive images of Afro-Latinx children and their families.

Although the story in Grandma’s Gift takes place inside a few square miles of contemporary New York City, it also casts a spotlight on a long-ago historical figure. Juan de Pareja was an enslaved man of African descent who worked in the studio of 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez and who became a painter in his own right. When Eric was a boy, Velázquez’s luminous portrait of de Pareja was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a price exceeding $5 million.

Grandma’s Gift contains two additional distinguishing aspects: elements of Puerto Rican culture preserved and passed down by the boy’s grandmother, and contrasting views between two physically proximate but culturally distant worlds, represented by El Barrio and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

At the story’s beginning, Eric is leaving school for Christmas break, in the company of his grandmother. His school assignment, to be completed during the holidays, is a visit to the Velázquez exhibit. But first, grandmother and grandson go shopping at La Marqueta, once a central feature of El Barrio, composed of bustling shops tucked under a railroad trestle. At La Marqueta, it’s evident that Eric’s grandmother is a respected and beloved member of the community. Not only do butchers and greengrocers call her by title and name—Doña Carmen—they are also familiar with the high standards she expects from every cut of meat and vegetable she purchases. When the shopping is done, Eric and his grandmother return to her apartment, where she launches an elaborate preparation of traditional Puerto Rican holiday dishes. Here, she is clearly in her element, deftly handling each step of the cooking, filling, and rolling of the pasteles, much to the admiration of young Eric.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

Used by permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

Nearly all of Doña Carmen’s dialogue is parenthetically translated into English, immediately behind her Spanish words. While this solution is not particularly elegant, it reflects the challenge that authors and publishers face in including authentic representations of a Spanish-speaking environment within an English text. The story translates greetings in Spanish by shopkeepers, words of wisdom spoken by the grandmother, and details relevant to the story, such as the names of the root vegetables used in making pasteles: calabaz, yautía, plátanos verdes, guineos verdes, papas.

El Barrio is a place that Eric’s grandmother comfortably navigates day after day. Here, her native tongue predominates, and everyone is a shade of brown. But when she and Eric head for the museum, a short bus ride away, they leave behind that familiar environment and land before the facade of the Metropolitan, cloaked in cultural status and imposing architecture. As Eric notes, there’s no one “from Puerto Rico on the streets and no one was speaking in Spanish.” At this point, Eric becomes her guide in this English-speaking world, translating the signs and captions that they encounter, stepping into a role that second- or third-generation immigrant children often play in their elders’ lives.

Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velázquez

Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velázquez

The highlight of the story arrives when Eric comes face to face with the portrait of Juan de Pareja, hanging in its gilded frame in one of the august exhibition halls of the museum. As a young person of color in the 1970s, he has never seen a member of his own people elevated to such a status: “He seemed so real—much like someone we might see walking around El Barrio. I couldn’t believe that this was a painting in a museum.” Eric is amazed and proud to learn that Juan de Pareja eventually achieved freedom and became a painter in his own right. For Eric, this discovery is a revelation that sparks artistic fire. On Christmas Eve, after everyone enjoys a traditional holiday dinner, Eric sits under the Christmas tree and opens his grandmother’s gift. It’s a sketchbook and a set of colored pencils. He immediately begins to draw a self-portrait. Through this gift, Eric’s grandmother expresses a clear vote of confidence in her grandson’s dreams, underscoring that he, too—a child of El Barrio, an Afro Latino—can follow in the footsteps of Juan de Pareja.

Flight into Egypt, by Juan de Pareja

Flight into Egypt, by Juan de Pareja

This touching, autobiographical story is richly illustrated in Velasquez’s photorealistic style, which authentically depicts settings and brings dimension to each character. Eric imbues his subjects with individually distinct physical characteristics, lending to each an air of nobility. He lovingly paints his grandmother as a lady of dignified bearing and warmth, usually dressed in subdued colors. But he often lavishes this humanizing treatment even on background characters, such as fellow passengers on the train and a nameless guard at the museum. In most of the illustrations, Eric employs a wide and vivid range of hues, but like Diego Velázquez, he sometimes falls back on a deliberately limited palette. When the boy and his grandmother stand before the portrait of Juan de Pareja, the rich browns of the ancient oil painting harmoniously come together with the rich browns of the grandmother’s clothing, as well as the skin tones of all three figures. He puts this deft touch with a monochromatic palette to great effect in the story’s electric moment of revelation, as the child Eric looks on the portrait of Juan de Pareja and grasps a new possibility for his future.

Eric VelasquezABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Eric Velasquez is an Afro-Puerto Rican illustrator born in Spanish Harlem. He attended the High School of Art and Design, the School of Visual Arts, and the famous Art Students League in New York City. As a children’s book illustrator, Velasquez has collaborated with many writers, receiving a nomination for the 1999 NAACP Image Award in Children’s Literature and the 1999 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for The Piano Man. For more information, and to view a gallery of his beautiful book covers, visit his official website.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Learn more about El Barrio from the definitive museum that bears the same name.

After decades of decline, La Marqueta is attempting a comeback. (This article is in Spanish.)

Here, a resident of El Barrio relates her memories of La Marqueta during its heyday.

See the official page for the Juan de Pareja portrait on The Met’s website.

 

Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

 

#LargeFears Chat: Where are the Afro-Latinxs in American History?

 

On Tuesday, Edith Campbell, Sujei Lugo, and Guinevere and Libertad Thomas, the sisters behind the Twinja Book Reviews, hosted the most recent #LargeFears Twitter chat. This month’s theme was: “Where are the Afro-Latinxs in American History?” Special guests included Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays, Sofia Quintero, author of Show and Prove and Efrain’s Secret, and Robert Liu-Trujillo, a visual artist. The #LargeFears chats started as a continuation of support of diverse books after the publication of Large Fears, a self-published title by Myles E. Johnson and Kendrick Daye, funded through Kickstarter, about a queer black boy facing his greatest fears.

Below is the link to the Storify for the chat and covers of books by/about Afro-Latinxs in honor of Black History Month. Although, these titles should be supported every month of the year, and we vow to do our part by reading and reviewing more of them here.

https://storify.com/Dos_Twinjas/where-are-the-afro-latinx-in-american-history

 

         AfroLatinx1 AfroLatinx4 AfroLatinx8 AfroLatinx11 AfroLatinx23AfroLatinx13 AfroLatinx14 AfroLatinx15 AfroLatinx16 AfroLatinx17 AfroLatinx18 AfroLatinx19 AfroLatinx20 AfroLatinx21 AfroLatinx22

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk: A Literary Stroll Around My Neighborhood

 

By Sujei Lugo

My public library has been collaborating with a local non-profit community organization for more than 10 years, and when I started working there as the children’s librarian earlier this year, one of my plans was to continue building our relationship with this non-profit. This organization offers youth development programs meant to engage young people in a variety of activities including community organizing, advocacy, and educational programs. The majority of the programs focus on Afro-Latino dance, music, and community-theatre workshops and classes. I’ve invited participants, mainly Afro-Latino teens, to offer workshops and put on performances at my library. Such activities help them to develop leadership skills and give them a sense of empowerment and visibility in their community.

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk page 1 and map located at the library entrance

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk page 1 and map located at the library entrance

A couple of months ago, I contacted their arts and cultural programs director to discuss a great new picture book, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Margarita Engle and Rafael López. This book seemed like ideal material to adapt into a play. Not long after that conversation, the organization’s special-projects manager stopped by my library and we had an informal chat about future collaborations. We wanted to work together on programming that would connect my library with their youth community center, located just five blocks away. This is when I shared my idea for a story walk, which seemed like a perfect way to integrate the community, cover the physical area between both buildings, and support literacy initiatives. She loved the idea, and it fit our mutual vision, for the following reasons: A. our community has a huge Latin@ population with lots of Latin@-owned businesses; B. a group of Afro-Latina teen drummers is active in the non-profit; C. my obsession and support for Latino children’s literature; and D. the Cuban restaurants in our neighborhood seemed like a natural tie-in for Drum Dream Girl in the context of a story walk.

Now we needed to move to the fun part: the planning.

First, we identified and contacted local businesses and organizations to talk about our story walk idea and our interest in incorporating them into the program. We explained that we were going to take a picture book, create poster boards for each page, and post them in storefront windows. Participants would walk down the street from the library to the youth community center, and following a Drum Dream Girl Story Walk map, they would read the page displays along the route. Community members responded enthusiastically, from “Eso está genial. Todo sea por la biblioteca y los niñ@s,” to “That’s so cool. Of course we are in.” Using their storefront windows was a great way to integrate them into our story walk. In the neighborhood surrounding the library, 90% of the businesses and organizations are locally owned and they include a significant number of non-profit endeavors. What’s more, 11 out of the 15 storefront participants turned out to be Latin@-owned businesses. Once they agreed to take part in the walk, we created a map containing the street addresses of each storefront and the corresponding page number(s) from the book located at each address.

Next came the creation of the story pages which would be posted in the windows. A successful story walk works best when using a picture book with a simple, easy-to-follow narrative, featuring single page illustrations, and minimal text. In this case, we made allowances for Rafael López, who paints some of the most beautiful illustrations in children’s literature, but which are usually double-page spreads. This posed a bit of a challenge. We first purchased three copies of the book, since we needed to use actual pages and not scans or photocopies. Then, using an X-acto knife, a pair of scissors, and a lot of patience, I carefully separated and cut the pages. This was done using two copies of the book, to ensure the display of all pages, front and back. (The third copy was a backup, in case of errors.) To maintain the look of the full spreads,  I carefully rejoined separated pages with hidden adhesive tape. Using glue sticks, I attached the pages to poster boards and added a prepared label containing the book’s title, the author’s and illustrator’s names, the correct page number, and the names of the sponsoring library and community organization. The final step was to trim and laminate each poster board.

From beauty salons to Cuban restaurants and health centers, the Drum Dream Girl Story Walk boards

From beauty salons to Cuban restaurants and health centers, the Drum Dream Girl Story Walk boards

 

For our story walk inauguration, we selected a Saturday morning. The actual story walk was designed to be read independently, which allowed families and individuals to follow the story at their own pace. They would pick up a map at the library, walk down the main street reading each story poster, and end up at the youth community center where related activities were being offered. To enhance the reading experience, we encouraged kids to jot down certain details of the story, such as the number of people they saw on each poster, which quickly turned into a game for them and increased their attentiveness. Since this book is about an Afro-Latina drummer, several activities were music-related. At a craft table, children created their own drums, maracas, and other instruments, using recycled materials. In a separate room, story-walk readers had the opportunity to participate in a drumming workshop conducted by Latina teen drummers. These activities brought an already wonderful book to life, and provided a way to celebrate the power of music as well as elements of Latino heritage.  The publisher was kind enough to furnish a few copies of the book, which were given out as prizes to the first kids that finished the story walk.

The Drum Dream Girl Story Walk was up for a two-week period. During this time, patrons stopped by the library to pick up maps, children flocked to the crafts area to make musical instruments, and many picked up a copy of the book, while others shared their excitement about how well the story walk integrated their community. A copy of the map was located outside, at the front of the library, so that even during our closed hours, anyone interested could follow the story on their own. A lot of people who knew nothing about the program enjoyed the story as they passed through the neighborhood, leading to greater awareness about the story walk, the library, the community, and of course, the courageous Cuban girl who changed a piece of music history.

Drum dreamers

Drum dreamers

 

The Drum Dream Story Walk was a great event to plan and implement in an urban setting, and although it took time and patience to create the poster boards, I would definitely do it again. Alternative programs like this contribute to breaking down the physical barriers that often exist between a library and the community it serves, and also tighten relationships with local groups, businesses, and library patrons. I foresee future story walks in my library work, using diverse picture books and bilingual titles. I also intend to invite school classes and local groups to form story-walk read-alouds. And let’s not forget that music and art-making activities enhance the story-walk experience and help bring a book to life in memorable ways.

 

SujeiLugoSujei Lugo was born in New Jersey and raised in her parents’ rural hometown in Puerto Rico. She earned her Master’s in Library and Information Science degree from the Graduate School of Information Sciences and Technologies at the University of Puerto Rico and is a doctoral candidate in Library and Information Science at Simmons College, focusing her research on Latino librarianship and identity. She has worked as a librarian at the Puerto Rican Collection at the University of Puerto Rico, the Nilita Vientós Gastón House-Library in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the University of Puerto Rico Elementary School Library. Sujei currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. She is a member ofREFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking), American Library Association, and Association of Library Service to Children. She is the editor of Litwin Books/Library Juice Press series on Critical Race Studies and Multiculturalism in LIS. Sujei can also be found on Twitter, Letterboxd and Goodreads.