Book Review: The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

 

On Thursday, we posted a Q&A with debut author Rebecca Balcárcel. Today, Mimi Rankin reviews her novel, The Other Half of Happy.

Review by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

MY TWO CENTS: I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of The Other Half of Happy at TLA from Michaela at Chronicle Books (Thank you!). Although a normal Middle Grade length, I breezed through Quijana’s story without noticing time pass. Quijana is delightfully normal in the best way possible, and yet she still feels wholly developed, along with the other characters throughout the book. By the time I reached the end, I knew these characters as fully realized, multidimensional people in my own life.

My bias as an adult reader of children’s lit is that although I can remember being twelve, I am not reading this as a twelve year old, so I am truly not reading in the perspective of a child. Likewise, I am not a mother, so while I can empathize with Quijana’s mom, I also cannot read accurately through a shared lens of a parent. Still, even with this disclaimer, Balcárcel’s writing allowed me to have both pairs of eyes; to step back into that horribly awkward preteen skin and empathize with the adult woman whose world is crashing around her as she’s spinning ten plates at once.

Quijana’s story is a beautiful yet fairly simple story of a twelve-year-old girl. She has crushes, she is figuring out her passions, and she struggles with certain school subjects. But there are so many layers to Quijana’s story that many middle schoolers may resonate with; layers that they may think no one else could possibly understand. From having a sibling with sensory sensitivities and developmental delays, to losing a loved one for the first time, to one of the most poignant parts of the story for this reviewer, understanding what it means to be a third culture kid, Balcárcel combines the personal with the universal into a story that is likely to be felt deeply by preteens far beyond the Latinx community. Quijana loves her father but feels a barrier of culture in her own home; the culture she is growing up in is not that of her father’s upbringing. Finding her own balance of defining her identity on her own terms is something she will have to decipher on her own, and I find that to be a compelling and inspiring piece of this book.

Another favorite moment was Quijana’s solidarity with other Latinx kids at the bus stop; Quijana’s perspective guesses that they are Mexican. She tries to strike up a conversation with the little Spanish she knows only to be ridiculed by another student at the bus stop who is assumed to be non-Latinx. This moment bonds together the Latinx students at the bus stop, Quijana included, although it’s made clear that they are not all Guatemalan as Quijana is. This brings up a fascinating idea of unity among Latinx communities in the US; there is some bond beyond differing cultures based solely in language and the experience of the immigrant, of coming from somewhere else.

“That’s what it’s really like being twelve. Everything rolling toward you.” -Page 1

Balcárcel effortlessly brings huge conversations about cultural identity and disabled children to a very real and very simple discussion: life as a twelve-year-old girl. When you’re twelve, everything seems monumental, even if it may not seem that way in nostalgic hindsight. Thanks to Rebecca Balcárcel and Chronicle Books for a wonderful read that brought me back to middle school!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

 

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

 

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 11: Rebecca Balcárcel

 

We are back from our summer break with lots of great, new interviews, book reviews, and events planned. We start today with a Q&A with middle grade author Rebecca Balcárcel, who is celebrating the recent release of her debut novel The Other Half of Happy.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 11th in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Rebecca Balcárcel.

Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

The Other Half of Happy is her debut middle grade novel.

It was released August 20, 2019!

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

 

 

Rebecca Balcárcel

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

A. Storytellers, books, and teachers! My father is an entertaining storyteller, and I absorbed much from his natural sense of drama and comedic timing. He’ll also suddenly quote a poem with misty eyes and point out the beauty of Spanish sounds. All of this gave me a heightened awareness of language’s power. Books served as my dearest friends throughout childhood. From the magic of picture books before bedtime to full novels, I loved being transported to fictional worlds. I always dreamed of creating that experience for others. I still read to apprentice myself to great authors and learn their craft. And a shout out to my third grade teacher, Miss Valentine, who read Where the Red Fern Grows aloud to us chapter by chapter after lunch. I cried in school, but it was worth it! Later teachers encouraged me to write, and their confidence in me helped me take my writing seriously.

Q: Why did you decide to write a middle grade novel?

A: Can you believe that when I started writing, I didn’t know that this book was middle grade, nor that it was a novel?! Trained as a poet, I started writing prose poems in the voice of a bi-cultural twelve-year-old. She had a lot to say, and in one summer, I created about 40 little scenes. I wasn’t sure, though, if this was an adult looking back or a true MG project. It was my agent who said, “I think this would sing as a middle-grade novel.” I decided to go for it! It took two years of revision and rewriting to turn my stack of poems into a novel. It turns out, I love writing middle grade. That age is a time of deepening self-knowledge and broadening world-knowledge, the pivot point between child and adult. So much of who we are emerges in those years. It’s a psychologically rich moment to write about.

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

A. So many! The classics, like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia, still make me cry. But I’m thrilled to be reading many new novels of worth. This year, I’ve especially enjoyed Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn, which has a child with autism like my book does, and the just-released For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama Lockington, whose main character straddles two cultures, as mine does. I’ve sought out Latina writers, and have found an amazing community. Las Musas Books (https://www.lasmusasbooks.com/) is an entire collective of new YA and MG novelists! I’ve also loved Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes and Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres. And let’s not leave out this year’s Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Great books!

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

A. Don’t be embarrassed by what moves you! If a song or an idea touches your heart or blows your mind (in a good way), keep exploring in that direction. That’s the direction in which you will find kindred spirits, true friends, and your own growth. Ignore the people that pooh-pooh your music, your style, or whatever you geek out on. Fly that freak flag and own your joy!

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

A.  . . . they inspire us to be our best selves!

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

Guest Post by Author Diana Rodriguez Wallach: How I Broke Out of My Latina YA Box

 

By Diana Rodriguez Wallach

The main character of my new young adult spy thriller series, Anastasia Phoenix, is not Latina. Given how few books feature Latinx characters, you might not find this very surprising. But when your maiden name is Rodriguez and you’ve previously written a YA Latina trilogy, this fact is a little shocking to the publishing world.

.                                  

The first book in the series, Proof of Lies, went through a lot of rejections before it made it into print. At first, I stumbled into the wrong market—I was pitching a spy thriller when YA imprints were buying vampires, then werewolves, then dystopian. Eventually the publishing pendulum swung back toward contemporary, but I encountered a different issue. “I’m surprised the main character isn’t Latina,” was a common comment from editors who passed on the manuscript.

At one point, a prior agent who represented the novel suggested I consider the switch. Just make Anastasia Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, anything. But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. While this book went through many, many significant edits during the years it took to find the right publishing house, Anastasia’s ethnicity remained the same. Frankly put, I couldn’t see her parents as Puerto Rican spies. Proof of Lies is set in Italy; the second book, Lies that Bind (March 2018), is set in England, France, and Brazil. The entire concept was to set each book in a different country, primarily European. I was aiming for a James Bond or Jason Bourne feel, only with a female in the lead.

I didn’t realize I was breaking a cardinal rule of marketing.

In 2008, I published my first YA trilogy, Amor and Summer Secrets. It’s a YA Latina romance, and it was the third novel my agent tried to sell on my behalf. My first two manuscripts, which are still unpublished, featured white teenagers in coming-of-age tales. After those failed attempts, my agent suggested I write a multicultural story, so I did. Mariana Ruiz is a non-Spanish-speaking half-Puerto Rican teen growing up in the Philly suburbs who feels disconnected to her Latina heritage, until she’s forced to spend the summer on the island. The book sold in two days.

Unbeknownst to me, that book put me in a box. Like any other author, my publisher’s sales and marketing team had to determine where to place my book and exactly which reader I should reach. For me, I wasn’t simply put in the YA Box, but the YA Latina Box. So when I followed up that series, which placed in the International Latino Book Awards, with a novel featuring a white girl with a double-black belt in karate and no mention of ethnic identity other than “American teenager,” I unwittingly broke their marketing rules.

I’m not the first author to face this; it’s why many writers choose pen names when switching genres (whether it be a YA author writing adult romance, or a thriller writer penning a literary tome). Like them, my prior agent asked if I’d consider a pseudonym, but I refused. It wasn’t for any political statement, but for the most honest reason of all—I worked really hard on this book for years, and I was going to see my name on it when it published. Even if that name was Rodriguez. Even if that name gave readers the wrong impression of what was inside.

Because ultimately, my last name doesn’t comprise the entirety of who I am. Yes, my father was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but my mother is Polish and she grew up in a Polish-speaking household, and went to a Polish-speaking church and Catholic school. I attended Christmas mass in Polish every year growing up, and my mom cooked pierogi and kielbasa right alongside Spanish rice and plantains on Christmas Eve. I’m positive a lot of teens have similar experiences, whether they be Latinx and Irish, Indian and African American, or Filipino and Jewish.

So Anastasia Phoenix is not my big fat Latina book. While there is some Spanish dialog in it—because her love interest, Marcus, is from Madrid—I stuck to my vision and kept the mystery at the center of the plot rather than her ethnicity. That’s not to say I won’t write another Latina novel. In fact, I’m working on a contemporary YA right now that will feature a multicultural character. But I hope to follow it up with another YA thriller about a female ghost hunter whose ethnic background may never be mentioned. If I’m lucky, I will publish them all under my real name, and I hope my readers will follow along. Whatever ethnicity they may be.

AuthorHeadshot_2015ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of the Anastasia Phoenix Series, three young adult spy thrillers (Entangled Publishing). The first book in the trilogy, Proof of Lies, was named by Paste Magazine as one of the “Top 10 Best Young Adult Books for March 2017.” Bustle also listed her as one of the “Top Nine Latinx Authors to Read for Women’s History Month 2017.” Additionally, she is the author of three award-winning young adult novels: Amor and Summer Secrets, Amigas and School Scandals, and Adios to All The Drama (Kensington Books); as well as a YA short-story collection based on the Narcissus myth, entitled Mirror, Mirror (Buzz Books, 2013).

In 2011, she published a highly regarded essay in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins). It was the only essay chosen from the anthology by Scholastic to be used in its classroom materials. Diana is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses (Twilight Times Books, 2015), and she is currently on staff as a featured blogger for Quirk Books.

In 2010, Diana was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.com, and she placed second in the International Latino Book Awards. She is an advisory board member for the Philly Spells Writing Center, and is a Creative Writing instructor for Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. She holds a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University, and currently lives in Philadelphia. For more about Diana, check out The Whole Story.

Book Reviews: Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean & The Rooster Would Not Be Quiet

 

Reviews by Dora M. Guzmán

The following books are examples of what to do when confronted with a problem. Both texts demonstrate the power of teamwork and sharing our voice with love and joy.

LOLA LEVINE MEETS JELLY AND BEAN

Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The Levines are finally getting a pet–a furry one that is. They are excited about adopting a kitty they name Jelly, but they don’t get very far in the process when Ben starts sneezing. Oh no, he’s allergic! Lola is devastated and sets out to find Jelly a good home. Luckily, Lola is rewarded with a very happy (and still furry) ending. With Lola’s trademark humor, we can expect a few mishaps, many funny moments, and a cute new pet all wrapped in one adorable book.

MY TWO CENTS: This realistic fiction chapter book is the definition of a bicultural family that loves to spend time with each other and solve everyday problems! Lola Levine has a younger brother named Ben. She is your typical older sister who is always looking out for her brother. Lola and Ben are adopting a kitten! But before they can get a cat, they have to do some research on what a cat needs and even start building a cat play structure, or as the family calls it “a cat castle”. Once their new cat, Jelly, is home, Ben and Lola discover that Ben is allergic to cats! The ending of this realistic and humorous book is a true reflection of how a family solves a problem and works together for one goal. An amazing series to add to your diverse classroom library!

Monica Brown created an excellent bicultural character when she started the Lola Levine series. The sibling relationship between Lola and Ben is so apparent and loving, as well as the other relationships within the family. Lola Levine is a great role model for all as she navigates her childhood throughout this great series!

TEACHING TIPS: Teachers can use this early chapter book or components of it to model narrative writing, especially how to focus on small moments or details. Teachers can also use this book to focus on character analysis of either Lola or Ben as well as teaching story elements and making connections.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

monica6ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Monica Brown, Ph.D. is the author of many award-winning books for children, including Waiting for the BiblioburroMarisol McDonald Doesn’t MatchMarisol McDonald no combina The Lola Levine series including: Lola Levine is Not Mean!Lola Levine, Drama QueenLola Levine and the Ballet Scheme, and Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean. Find Monica on Facebook at Monica Brown, Children’s Author, on twitter @monicabrownbks, or online at www.monicabrown.net.

 

 

 

Image resultABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Angela Dominguez was born in Mexico City, grew up in the great state of Texas, and lived in San Francisco. She’s the author and illustrator of picture books such as Let’s Go, Hugo!; Santiago Stays; Knit Together, and Maria Had a Little Llama, which was an American Library Association Pura Pelpré Honor Book for Illustration. She now writes and creates in her studio in Brooklyn, New York.

 

 

THE ROOSTER WOULD NOT BE QUIET!

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: La Paz is a happy, but noisy village. A little peace and quiet would make it just right. So the villagers elect the bossy Don Pepe as their mayor. Before long, singing of any kind is outlawed. Even the teakettle is afraid to whistle
But there is one noisy rooster who doesn’t give two mangos about this mayor’s silly rules. Instead, he does what roosters were born to do.
He sings:
“Kee-kee-ree-KEE ”
Carmen Deedy’s masterfully crafted allegory and Eugene Yelchin’s bright, whimsical mixed-media paintings celebrate the spirit of freedom — and the courage of those who are born to sing at any cost.

MY TWO CENTS: There is a town, La Paz, that loves to sing and make all types of noise! However, there is a new mayor in town and with new leaders come new rules. The new mayor, Don Pepe, establishes a law of absolutely no singing or noise EVER! Well, a few days later, there is a rooster who moves into town and what roosters do best is sing in the morning. The mayor is shocked that someone would disobey the new noise ordinance and does everything in his power to enforce his law. Little to the mayor’s knowledge, the town sides with the Rooster and dethrones the mayor. The little town is back to what it was meant to be- joyful, noisy, and proud of it!

A hilarious bilingual story with a strong message for all to hear! The illustrations are vivid and significantly engage the reader as they are pulled into the plot of what is going to happen next.

TEACHING TIPS: Teachers can use this text to teach predicting, character analysis of the townspeople, the Rooster, and/or Don Pepe, as well as teaching readers about the progression of a problem and solution. Teachers can highlight the theme of what it means to have a voice and stand up for your community. Teachers can also use this book as a writing mentor text to model onomatopoeia, transition words, and dialogue.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find The Rooster Would Not Be Quiet, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carmen Agra Deedy is an internationally known author of children’s literature, a storyteller and radio contributor. Born in Havana, Cuba, she immigrated to the United States with her family in 1963 after the Cuban Revolution. Deedy grew up in Decatur, Georgia and currently lives in Atlanta and has three daughters. She has also written books like 14 Cows in America and Martina The Beautiful Cockroach.

 

 

 

Image resultABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Russian-born artist Eugene Yelchin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theater Arts. During his studies, he designed sets and costumes for dramas, comedies and ballets. He also co-founded a children’s theatre in Siberia. Despite obstacles, Eugene traveled to the United States to share his expertise and talent as an artist. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers and advertising campaigns, TV commercials, and animated films. His novel Breaking Stalin’s Nose was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2012. His website is http://eugeneyelchinbooks.com/index.html

 

 

 

img_0160ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-3 and also teaches an undergraduate college course in Children’s Literature. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never ending “to read” pile!

Book Review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

26594801DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:

Things/People Margot Hates:
Mami, for destroying her social life
Papi, for allowing Junior to become a Neanderthal
Junior, for becoming a Neanderthal
The supermarket
Everyone else

After “borrowing” her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts. With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal. Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

MY TWO CENTS: It is no surprise that life, for a teenage girl, is complicated: trying to fit in, finding purpose, inspiration, friends, and dealing with family dynamics. Add to all of this, growing up bicultural! We meet Margot Sanchez, our Puerto Rican protagonist, spending the summer working at her father’s bodega in the Bronx, as punishment for using her father’s credit card without his permission. We quickly find out about Margot’s family dynamics; her family sent her to a prep school to give her a better education and a brighter future—for herself and the family. Her brother, Junior, is a college drop-out who now works in Papi’s bodega and is expected to take over the business in the future. Both Papi and Mami want the best for their children and operate under traditional Latinx gender values that allow Junior to easily occupy the public space, drink, smoke, and be sexually active, while Margot cannot.

Margot’s understanding of her own place in society is complicated by her parents’ decision to send her to a prep school. She quickly begins to change her look, part of her identity, and adopt those of Camille and Serena—white, rich classmates who often treat Margot as a project by giving her fashion tips, relationship advice, and suggesting that it was perfectly fine to “borrow” her father’s credit card to shop for clothes that were clearly beyond her family’s budget.

In The Education of Margot Sanchez, Rivera tackles issues of peer pressure, family expectations, gender bias, and community. While Margot has several people in her life who are constantly suggesting what she should look like, how she should act, and what she should do, Moises, a local community activist, and Elizabeth, her childhood friend, are the people that make her face her own insecurities, question her sense of belonging, and deal with her constant desire to fit in with her prep school values. Rivera walks us through Margot’s summer of “real” life education, full of lies, sex, and betrayal.

Although the novel hints at a romance between Moises and Margot, their interaction is one that helps her grow, accept herself, and understand how her community is being negatively impacted by gentrification and big corporations moving in; in fact, even her own family business is feeling the change. Throughout the story, Margot learns about her family’s shortcomings and how unhealthy family traditions and cultural norms can push each of them to make wrong choices.

As I was reading this book, I could almost hear my teenage daughters say, “Get over it, Margot! Quit listening to Camille and Serena!” Because Margot, quite frankly, is annoyingly desperate for their approval. Yet, we also see that Margot is trying not to be an outcast at her new school and does anything to be accepted by the popular girls, including stealing. Rivera helps us see that teenagers, although subject to peer pressure, also have the capacity to change, re-invent themselves, ask for forgiveness and restore relationships.

TEACHING TIPS: The Education of Margot Sanchez can be used to teach about public vs private education, formal education vs life/street education, and, although minimal, the values of different Latinx families.  It is also an opportunity to talk about family relationships, love, friendship, and gentrification—this last topic is a current trend, happening in many mid-size to large cities across the United States. Who experiences gentrification? Are “clean up” the neighborhood projects always negative or positive? How can people who face gentrification organize? What communities typically experience gentrification? What minority groups? Only minority groups? Research on these topics can add value to class discussion and can help further understand this present day issue affecting our communities.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about The Education of Margot Sanchez, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Hi-res image. Photo by Julian Sambrano Jr. 

Photo by Julian Sambrano Jr.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer and author of The Education of Margot Sanchez, a contemporary young adult novel forthcoming from Simon & Schuster on February 21, 2017. She is a 2016 Pushcart Prize winner and a 2015 Clarion alumni with a Leonard Pung Memorial Scholarship. She has been awarded fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her short story “Death Defiant Bomba” received honorable mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s 2014 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, selected by author Nathan Englander. Lilliam was also a finalist for AWP’s 2014 WC&C Scholarship Competition.

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. She is currently working on a digital oral history collection about Latin@s in Ohio, which has been published as an eBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.

 

American Stories of Opportunity, Hope, and Ambition: A Guest Post by Author Jennifer Torres

 

By Jennifer Torres

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and be a college math professor.

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and become a college math professor.

Escalon is a Spanish word that means “step” or “stepping stone.” It is also a small town in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley, surrounded by dairies and almond orchards. Just off Main Street there, across from American Legion Post 263, is the library where Melissa, an eighth grader, volunteers to read to younger children, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish.

“I think it’s important to read to kids because they get to know new things when they read a book,” she told me. Melissa’s own favorite books, she said, are mystery and fantasy novels. “It’s like a whole new world.”

Just like Melissa, many of the children who visit the Escalon Library are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants, families who saw, in the United States, a step toward opportunity and who courageously took it.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverThose stories are American stories, and I hope that readers will recognize them in Stef Soto, Taco Queen.

The fictional Stef Soto, like millions of very real children in the United States who have immigrant parents, is a first-generation American.

Just like Melissa, Stef sometimes translates for her mom and dad.

Just like Stef, Melissa has parents whose hearts thunder with hope and ambition for their daughter.

“I want her to remember where she comes from, but her future is here,” Melissa’s mom, Adriana, told me in Spanish as she helped her daughter lead an arts-and-crafts project at the library. (She credits the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s Migrant Education department for encouraging her to become an advocate for Melissa’s learning). “I want her to graduate, to go to college, to have a better quality of life.”

She and her husband have encouraged Melissa to begin investigating colleges, to think about what she wants to study, who she wants to be.

“I’ve decided I want to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Melissa said, braces glinting. “I think that’s a good one for what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is teach math. When I asked her what grade, she hesitated, sheepish about correcting me.

Finally, she shook her head. “No, I want to be a math professor. Like at a university.”

Just like I did—in a family that includes first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans, as well as some who still live in Mexico—Stef is growing up speaking and listening to a vibrant mix of English and Spanish. We both find comfort in friends and family and warm tortillas, smeared with butter.

And just like all of us, I think, she is trying hard to figure out exactly where she belongs. Too often, for too many, it can feel like a here or there question.

But as I have learned, as students like Melissa remind us, and as characters like Stef discover, our stories are so much richer than that.

“I get to have both cultures,” Melissa said. “And I want people to know that immigrants are people—smart people—who want a better future, and so they came to this country. I think it’s really brave of them.”

jtorresFrom the author’s website: Hi there. I’m Jennifer. I live with my family in California’s Central Valley, and I write stories. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, writing stories about real people, whose lives told us something about our world and maybe about ourselves. Now, I write books for young readers—books with make-believe characters whose stories, I hope, are just as full of life and truth as the real ones.

Check out my picture book, Finding the Music, published by Lee & Low Books, and look out for my debut middle-grade novel, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, coming January 2017 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.