Book Review: Queen of Tejano Music: Selena by Silvia López, illus. by Paola Escobar

 

Review by Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Selena Quintanilla’s music career began at the age of nine when she started singing in her family’s band. She went from using a hairbrush as a microphone to traveling from town to town to play gigs. But Selena faced a challenge: People said that she would never make it in Tejano music, which was dominated by male performers. Selena was determined to prove them wrong.

Born and raised in Texas, Selena didn’t know how to speak Spanish, but with the help of her dad, she learned to sing it. With songs written and composed by her older brother and the fun dance steps Selena created, her band, Selena Y Los Dinos, rose to stardom! A true trailblazer, her success in Tejano music and her crossover into mainstream American music opened the door for other Latinx entertainers, and she became an inspiration for Latina girls everywhere.

MY TWO CENTS: As a middle-grader, Selena was my idol! I wish I had found her music earlier, but it was perhaps a year or so before her death. When the news broke, I was devastated and found solace in listening to her music and learning about her as much as possible. To this day, her music is a big part of my life. I had her CDs and her doll, I learned her songs and movements, and sometimes I even made up my own choreography. I approached this book, then, not only as a reviewer of children’s books but also as a lifelong fan of Selena.

 How does one introduce to children the life of such an important icon of Latinx music whose life ended so tragically and so soon? Queen of Tejano Music: Selena tells the story of Selena Quintanilla, from her childhood in Lake Jackson, Texas to her successful career as a trailblazing singer and fashion designer. Presented in twenty short vignettes, López perfectly presents enough details on each page without overwhelming the reader with too much text.

Selena Quintanilla was born on an Easter Sunday, on April 16, 1971 to Marcella and Abraham Quintanilla, who, as a young man, had dreams of a music career. Selena “had been singing almost since she could talk” and soon after her parents realized she had perfect pitch. With her brother A.B. on guitars and her sister Suzette on the drums, music became a family affair. Through the years, the family band performed anywhere they could, and after a few years, Selena y Los Dinos was born. Through this history of Selena’s life and music career, López reminds readers of the challenges she faced: overcoming the language barrier, stepping into a male-dominated music landscape, and her father’s initial opposition to Selena’s romantic relationship with Chris Pérez.

This biographical account of Selena’s life and work is inspirational. Along with some of the obstacles that Selena encountered, the author highlights so many of the singer’s achievements that paved the way for women in music. At age fifteen, Selena won a Tejano Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year, an accolade she continued receiving for years, along with other ones. She later received a Grammy Award for Best Mexican American Album. Yet, her success was not only measured in awards. López writes about Selena as a philanthropist, fashion designer, entrepreneur, and caring human who loved her family.

The narrative part of the book does not explicitly mention Selena’s death. Rather, this information is offered on the back pages of the book. I debated whether this part of Selena’s story should have been included in the main narrative or not. Yet, I thought it was handled gracefully. By writing the main text in past tense, López alludes to her passing and then offers more information about it after the last vignette. At this point, readers are presented with a timeline that begins with Selena’s birth in 1971 and ends in 1997, when the movie Selena starring Jennifer Lopez opened in theaters. Following the timeline, the book presents “A Little More About…,” a section with short pieces of information about Tex-Mex Music, Quinceañeras, and Corpus Christi, among others, as well as more details about Selena, including her tragic death. One observation to make here is the section titled “Hispanics or Latinos” seems to present the terms as synonyms: “Tejanos are part of a larger group of Americans, called Hispanics or Latinos, who have Spanish-speaking ancestors.” While many Latinxs are also Hispanic, there are some differences that could have been easily explained there. Nevertheless, the information is accessible, clear, and easy to understand.

The colorful illustrations are as vibrant as Selena’s smile and capture the singer’s bubbly personality. Paola Escobar creates a medley of double-page spreads and illustrated vignettes that depict in more detail specific moments in Selena’s life and specific aspects of her culture. One page depicts five moments as if they were Polaroid pictures, inviting the reader perhaps to think of her song “Fotos y Recuerdos” (pictures and memories). I noticed that on almost every page or spread, a flower is illustrated, whether it is a print fabric, picture, real flower, or even a pin. Details such as this one are just an example of how Escobar’s illustrations enhance and complement López’s writing to create an engaging work of art.

There have been several books and media about Selena’s life, in addition to musical tributes, fan-made merchandise, anniversary albums, and makeup lines, to name a few. In October 17, 2017, Google honored her with a doodle, as part of the launch of a virtual exhibit on Google Arts & Culture. Joining these tributes, Queen of Tejano Music: Selena is a celebration of the singer’s life—her music, her fashion, her memory, and her legacy, still alive and strong 25 years after her passing. A perfect addition to any picture book collection!

Queen of Tejano Music: Selena releases August 25, 2020 in both English and Spanish.

 

IMG_6548.JPGABOUT THE AUTHOR: (from the dust jacket) A Cuba native raised in Miami, Silvia López holds degrees in English, library science, and educational technology. Her career as a children’s librarian at schools and public libraries spans over three decades. She is a published author of books for children, including biographies and picture books such as Just Right Family: An Adoption Story, and a collaboration with Italian artist Guido Daniele, Handimals: Animals in Art and Nature. Also, her digital book, Zuzuncito: Un Cuento del Pájaro Abeja Cubano, was named Best Children’s Picture eBook of 2017 by the International Society of Latino Authors.

 

Paola Escobar Biography - pickledinkABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Paola Escobar is a Colombian graphic designer and illustrator. She has illustrated books for a variety of publishers in Latin America, Europe, and the United States, as well as for digital and print magazines. Some of her work includes Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré, written by Anika Aldamuy Denise, and Little Guides to Great Lives: Anne Frank, written by Isabel Thomas. She is currently drawing and living very happily in Bogotá with her husband and her dog, Flora.

 

 

headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Currently her research examines representation in transitional chapter books that feature Latinx characters. In addition, she is managing editor of Anansesem: The Caribbean Children’s Literature Magazine. She has presented on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. At present, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

 

Book Review: Telegrams to Heaven / Telegramas al Cielo by René Colato Laínez, illus. by Pixote Hunt

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

Image resultDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Telegrams to Heaven / Telegramas al Cielo recounts the moving childhood of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, who from an early age discovers the candor, light and power of the word, which he uses to pray and to write poetry, sending telegrams to heaven from his heart. René Colato Laínez, the renowned Salvadoran writer, has written a touching story about the great Salvadoran prophet who dreamed from his childhood of being a priest, and became not only a priest, but also a bishop, an archbishop, and the great orator of his country. His word remains, for the Salvadoran people and the world—a prayer, a poem, a sweet telegram that Archbishop Romero continues to send in the name of his people to the heart of heaven. The colorful, modern illustrations of Pixote Hunt make us reflect with deep tenderness, showing us the innocence of the great Archbishop Romero as a young child.

MY TWO CENTS: René Colato Laínez offers a bilingual picture book tribute to the Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, chronicling the icon’s early spiritual development. The Archbishop, then simply known as Oscar, grew up in Ciudad Barrios, in the San Miguel department of El Salvador. Laínez introduces us to Oscar as he works in his family’s home post office and telegram business. Oscar marvels at the telegraph, which can, “like magic” send messages across long distances. He then begins to wonder if he can also use this technology to communicate with heaven. His father clarifies that messages can be sent to God through prayer, prompting Oscar’s dedication to praying “when he woke up, when he milked the cow, after he finished his homework and to give thanks before every meal.” Oscar’s devotion permeates all aspects of his life. Even his artistic talents, like playing the flute and writing poetry and music, serve as expressions of his spirituality and commitment to God.

The story’s sole source of tension arises when Oscar expresses his desire to become a priest. His father is chagrined, and instead sends his son to work at a carpentry shop as a distraction. The text, however, does not specify why Oscar’s parents were not supportive of his wish to become a priest. His father’s admonition, “there are so many things that you can be in this life,” coupled with details in the text about businesses owned by the Romeros and their ability to hire a private teacher for Oscar, hint at a socioeconomic reason. Laínez may have highlighted the moment to demonstrate Oscar’s staunch and early commitment to the Church, but I wanted more clarity.

Indeed, Oscar is not dissuaded from entering the priesthood. When Bishop Dueñas visits Ciudad Barrios, Oscar uses his carpentry shop earnings to buy a crisp white suit to meet the prelate. This encounter is a watershed moment in Oscar’s life, and thus ends the narrative chronicling his childhood. On the following page, we see Oscar as an adolescent, headed to youth seminary in San Miguel and, as the text indicates, later on to Rome, at the behest of Bishop Dueñas, to complete his studies. The final spread is of Oscar, now ordained as Father Arnulfo Romero, palms facing up in front of the church altar, ready to celebrate mass in front of the Ciudad Barrios community, where his journey began.

The accompanying illustrations by Pixote Hunt mainly mirror the information conveyed in the text, but the images lack the warmth of Laínez’s tone. The digital, abstract style leaves characters appearing flat and expressionless, and fail to depict settings distinctly. Many of the spreads are set against surreal or monochromatic backgrounds, such as the telegram and carpentry shops, which appear almost indistinguishable because of the identical color choices. In the few scenes in which a setting is clear, such as the central plaza or the town’s church, details are limited to straight lines, and the people of the community appear as outlined shapes in a solid color with indistinguishable facial features.  Although the story is about The Archbishop, who came to be loved and respected across the world, he will be forever identified with El Salvador. The abstract visual elements used in the illustrations instead create a distance between the subject and his surroundings, an overall disappointing effect.

Laínez’s admiration and respect for the Archbishop is evident and deeply personal, as he relates in the Author’s Note. No doubt Salvadorans and other Latinxs familiar with the Archbishop will be touched and pleased to see his story in print, particularly for young audiences. This title also serves as a reminder of the hope that lives within the Salvadoran community despite many current and past hardships. However, for audiences completely unfamiliar with the Archbishop, or those looking for a comprehensive biography, the story’s narrow focus and static illustrations will fall short. I was left with many additional questions about Oscar’s childhood, his hometown, and his family. Perhaps other readers will, like me, be encouraged to seek more information elsewhere. I do, however, reserve the hope that this will be the first of many titles for young readers that will chronicle that Archbishop’s life and legacy.

 

Image result for rene colato lainezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Known as “the teacher full of stories,” René Colato Laínez is the Salvadoran author of several bilingual picture books including I Am René, the Boy/Soy René, el niño (Piñata Books), Waiting for Papá/Esperando a papá (Piñata Books), Playing Lotería/ El juego de la lotería (Luna Rising). I Am René, the Boy received the Latino Book Award for “Best Bilingual Children’s Book.” Playing Lotería was named a “Best Children’s Book” by Críticas magazine and the New Mexico Book Award “Best Children’s Book.” Playing Lotería and I Am René have both been nominated for the Tejas Star Book Award—the K-6 bilingual counterpart to the Texas Bluebonnet Award.

 

Image result for pixote huntABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (From his website): As a director, art director and designer in the film industry I bring more than 10 years experience in animation to every project. Highly skilled in drawing, painting and musical composition, my creative goal is to bring an innovative insight to every project. Always on the cutting edge, my experience in combining animation with live action began in 1994 when I directed and art directed THE PAGEMASTER, and continued as I designed the 3D opening and interstitials for FANTASIA 2000 that seamlessly weaved the animated sequences together. I feel my unique achievements in film and music have garnered me the honors of being a voting member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the GRAMMYs/Recording Academy.

 

 

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.

Guest Post: Margarita Engle’s Passion for Writing About Hope and Forgotten Heroes

By Margarita Engle

Recently, I was asked what “legacy” I hope to leave by writing. Legacy is an intimidating word, but at least one portion of the answer is fairly simple. I love writing about independent thinkers who have been forgotten by history. These lost heroes might have been celebrated in their own times, or they may have worked in such obscurity that their names are unknown. Many are famous in their countries of origin, but have never been introduced to readers in the U.S.

Just a few years ago, any library search for children’s books about Latinos would have revealed little more than a series of shamefully inaccurate works glorifying brutal conquistadores. During the interim, excellent biographies of César Chávez and Sonia Sotomayor have been added, along with a handful of beautiful picture books about artists, writers, and musicians.

Surrende TreeThe work of reclaiming lost heroes has barely begun. My own approach is not strictly biographical because I love writing verse novels, and I also love writing first person interpretations of historical events. I often mix historical figures with fictional characters. In other words, I feel free to explore, experiment, and imagine. It’s a process that feels like time travel. Diaries, letters, and journals are my most important research materials, because they contain the emotional essence of history, along with the meticulous details of daily life. When I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba, I was fortunate to have access to Juan Francisco Manzano’s autobiographical notes, which had been smuggled off the island by British abolitionists. For The Surrender Tree, I could not find anything written by Rosa la Bayamesa or any of Cuba’s other courageous wartime nurses, so I read the diaries of rebel soldiers, as well as interviews with reconcentration camp survivors. The Lightning Dreamer is based on the poetry and prose of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who wrote a groundbreaking interracial romance novel that was published more than a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only was Sab far more daring, it was also more influential in Europe and Latin America. So why don’t North Americans know Avellaneda’s name? Does it make sense to learn only about our own little corners of the world?

Hope is at the heart of every topic I choose. I love to write about people I admire. In general, I admire them because they were independent thinkers, far ahead of their times, or because their courage took the form of kindness. I don’t see history as a series of wars, with dates of battles to memorize and names of generals who are automatically assumed to be heroic. My heroes are the ordinary people who made hopeful choices in times that must have seemed hopeless. Tropical Secrets and Silver People are examples of topics so huge—the Holocaust, and construction of the Panama Canal—that I chose to write primarily in the voices of fictional composite characters, rather than individual historical figures. For Hurricane Dancers, the absence of first person indigenous Cuban accounts of the Conquest forced me to rely on a combination of legends, imagination, and the diaries of priests. I read the journals of conquistadores with skepticism, because they were written with a specific agenda—trying to make themselves look heroic, so that they could apply for additional funds from the Spanish Crown.

final Silver People cover-1Lightning Dreamer notable-1

Not all of my books are verse novels, and not all are for young adults. One of my favorite challenges is writing picture books about people who are not considered “famous enough” for biographical works. This limitation has actually helped me present my historical picture book manuscripts simply as inspiring stories, instead of struggling to make the subjects seem more famous than they are. Some are not famous at all, simply because Latinos, other minorities, and women, have generally been omitted from earlier historical writings. Sadly, recent history books tend to copy the earlier ones. The result is an entire segment of classroom curricula and pleasure reading with no representation of forgotten groups.

At present, I have several biographical picture books already in the publishing pipeline, and several that are still searching for publishers. None of them are about easily recognized names, if you live in the U.S. Thankfully, with the help of wonderful editors and fantastic illustrators, I hope that these picture books will inspire young readers. Drum Dream Girl (Harcourt, 2015) is being illustrated by the amazing Rafael López, whose gorgeous art will help illuminate the life of a ten-year-old Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke the island’s taboo against female drummers. The Sky Painter (Two Lions, 2015) will have beautiful, scientifically accurate illustrations by Aliona Bereghici, to show how a boy of Puerto Rican origin became the world’s greatest bird artist, by allowing birds to live, instead of following Audubon’s tradition of killing and posing them.

If children have heard Latin jazz or visited New York’s Natural History Museum, they’ve heard and seen the results of Millo Castro’s courage and Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ kindness, even though they are unlikely to have seen those names in a library or classroom. I firmly believe that it is time to make room for books about the lives of people who should be famous, rather than limiting young readers to books about people who are already famous.

No discussion of biographical writing is complete without the subject of autobiography. Writing a childhood memoir has been the greatest challenge of my life. It is strictly nonfiction—no imagining, only remembering. Certain memories are excruciatingly painful. I love recalling childhood trips to visit my extended family in Cuba, but I dread remembering the October 1962 Missile Crisis that ended those journeys. Enchanted Air, a Cold War Memoir (Atheneum, 2015) combines the two. Positive and negative. Joy and sorrow. Despair and hope. With a powerful cover illustration by one of the world’s greatest artists, Edel Rodríguez, this memoir already feels like my life’s work. It is a book that helps me reclaim the separated half of my family, and along with them, the half of my identity that was almost destroyed by politicians.

Writing about lives is a process of exploration, so even though the memoir feels like my life’s work, I’ve already found other people I hope to depict in verse novels and picture books. I’ve returned to the research stage, reading history, and deciding which parts of history have not yet been honestly portrayed.

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Margarita-HavanaMargarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino/a. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Awards and Honors, as well as three Américas Awards and the Jane Addams Peace Award. Margarita’s newest verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, and her newest picture book is Tiny Rabbit’s Big WishShe lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the forest to help train her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs. For more information, visit her author site and enjoy interviews by Caroline Starr Rose  and Robyn Hood Black.