Book Review: Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez & Monica Brown, illus. by Christine Almeda

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Fourth grader Sarai Gonzalez can do anything. She can bake, dance, and run her own cupcake business. But when Sarai’s grandparents are forced to move, even Sarai’s not sure what to do. So she hatches a super awesome plan with her younger sisters and cousin to buy back the house. But houses are more expensive than she ever thought, her sisters won’t listen, and she’s running out of time. Will Sarai find a way to save the day?

Inspired by the life of viral video sensation and social activist Sarai Gonzalez with the help of award-winning children’s book author Monica Brown.

MY TWO CENTS: Like many, I was enchanted by the star of Bomba Estéreo’s 2013 viral hit “Soy Yo.” Sarai Gonzalez, with her glasses, funky hair, and can-do attitude was instantly memorable for her message of self-acceptance. Gonzalez’s quirky persona resonated, in part, because she represents a Latinidad not often proliferated in contemporary media. Sarai’s unique brand of relentless optimism, captured so artfully in the “Soy Yo” music video, is magnified in the early reader Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome, written by Gonzalez and award-winning author Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is lovely in a multitude of ways. From Gonzalez and Brown’s conversational and jovial tone to Almeda’s illustrations (both in the margins and via two-page spreads throughout the text). And, albeit brief, this book is captivating.

 

 

For a young readership, Sarai’s opening affirmation “YOU ARE AWESOME” is as much a declaration for Sarai as it is for the readers she invites along with her as she embarks on an entrepreneurial mission to save her grandparents’ house (2). Bolstered by her endless supply of creative problem-solving, Sarai recruits her sisters to help make cupcakes and sell lemonade (limonada) and “delicious purple-corn-ade” (chica morada) to raise money when her grandparents’ rental home goes up for sale (78). Young readers will be captivated by Sarai’s agency and her ability to think quickly and take charge. Even so, her contributions to her family are fully within her capabilities as a ten-year-old and, as such, are completely believable. The ultimate result of her efforts is equally realistic and conveys to young readers that even in failure, success and growth can be found.

Gonzalez and Brown ultimately weave a tale that shares its abundance of hope with a readership who needs it. In a time when Latinx children are victimized by current political ideologies, seeing Sarai take charge and resist provides a necessary counterstory. What’s more, Sarai’s story of perseverance and hope is universal. In many places throughout this book, being Latinx is incidental to the plot. It’s a great joy to read a book like this. So often, being Latinx (though Sarai is careful to explain her family history, her mother is Peruvian and father is Costa Rican, while she and her sisters are from the U.S.—meaning that she and her family “are really, truly Americans—North, South and Central!” [7]), is the catalyst for problems. But Sarai’s grandparents’ ethnic and cultural identities are unrelated to their rental house being sold. As such, this text doesn’t paint one’s Latinidad as something to overcome, but rather something to be embraced, as Sarai uses her bilingualism to sell her baked goods and other treats to a wider customer base.

For young readers who need an extra boost of confidence, Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome delivers. Mingled with Almeda’s illustrations, which add just the right amount of pizzazz to an already bright narrative, Gonzalez and Brown’s prose is engaging while also being accessible to young readers just beginning to look for chaptered books. Sarai’s story will captivate readers, just as Sarai’s dance moves and bespectacled gaze did in “Soy Yo.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sarai GonzalezThirteen-year-old, Sarai Gonzalez became an overnight sensation after appearing in Bomba Estereo’s “Soy Yo,” a music video about embracing yourself and loving your flaws. The video has garnered over 50 million views and the New York Times called Sarai a Latina icon. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is the first book in the new chapter book series inspired by her life. Sarai lives in New Jersey with her family.

 

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Monica Brown, Ph.D., is the award-winning author of Waiting for the Biblioburro/Esperando al BiblioburroMarisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, and the Lola Levine chapter book series, including Lola Levine is Not MeanLola Levine, Drama Queen, and Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme. Her books have garnered starred reviews, the Americas Award, two Pura Belpré Author Honors, and the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship on Chicano Cultural Literacy. She lives in Arizona with her family and teaches at Northern Arizona University. Find out more at www.monicabrown.net.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATORChristine Almeda is a Filipino-American freelance illustrator from NJ / NYC. She graduated from Montclair State University, earning a BFA and an Award for Excellence in Animation & Illustration, focusing on children’s media. She believes in the power of storytelling and that art has the ability to make life a little more beautiful.

Click here for an introduction to illustrator Christine Almeda, which includes a look inside Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.

Book Review: Ugly Cat and Pablo by Isabel Quintero

 

Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Ugly Cat is dying for a paleta, or ice pop, and his friend Pablo is determined to help him get one by scaring a little girl who is enjoying a coconut paleta in the park. Things go horribly wrong when, instead of being scared, the little girl picks Pablo up and declares that he would make a great snack for her pet snake. Oh and there’s also the small problem that Ugly Cat may have inadvertently swallowed Pablo in all of the commotion!

Ugly Cat and his impeccably dressed mouse friend, Pablo, are an unlikely and dynamic duo who will win young readers over with their ridiculously silly antics and their search for tasty treats.

MY TWO CENTS:  As Pablo likes to say “Oh my galleta!” What a charming, silly, delightful book! I was captivated by Ugly Cat and Pablo from the very first page. They are a fantastic odd couple, one pre-occupied with food and the other with adventure. Quintero’s dialogue is snappy and if some of the vocabulary is a little above the average elementary reader, it makes it a great read-aloud and vehicle for introducing new words in both English and Spanish. I appreciate that the Spanish isn’t italicized and all the characters go back and forth between both languages, so no one is singled out as the ‘Other’.

Quintero slips in some good lessons about being kind to friends, listening, and using your words when there’s a misunderstanding. This book falls squarely in the genre of buddy animal comedy, with tons of kid appeal. The setting of an urban park is well chosen and readers will be almost as hungry as Ugly Cat by the time they finish reading the descriptions of all the great street food. Best of all, this is a series, so students who fall in love with Ugly Cat and Pablo will soon have more adventures to giggle over.

Extra points to Scholastic for great book design and back matter! Ugly Cat and Pablo each have their own font for their dialogue, giving a comic book sensibility to the pages that don’t have any word bubbles as part of the illustrations. There are pictures on almost every page to lend support to visual learners, a glossary at the back that translates the Spanish, and even a recipe for Ugly Cat’s favorite treat, paletas.

TEACHING TIPS: The strong characters and specific setting make this a great choice for elementary school book groups. Students can discuss the motivations each character, their misunderstandings and predictions for what will happen at all the cliff-hanger chapter endings. Students could also write their own endings for some of the book’s incidents and make different choices for the characters.

Another great project would be to compare the friends in this book to other animal books with friends, such as classics Frog and Toad or George and Martha, or more contemporary stories such as The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems. Students could also compare the parks and streets of Paris in Diva and Flea to the parks and streets in Ugly Cat and Pablo.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Isabel Quintero is a writer and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She was born, raised, and resides in the Inland Empire of Southern California. She earned her BA in English and her MA in English Composition at California State University, San Bernardino. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces from Cinco Puntos Press, her first novel, is the recipient of several awards including the 2015 William C. Morris Award for Debut YA Novel and the California Book Award Gold Medal for Young Adult. In addition, the book was included on School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2014, and one of Kirkus’ Best Teen Books of 2014, among other lists. The first in her series of chapter books for Scholastic, Inc. Ugly Cat and Pablo, was released in Spring 2017. Her first graphic novel, a biography about photographer Graciela Iturbide, released by Getty Publications in March 2018. In addition to writing fiction, she also writes poetry and her work can be found in The Great American Literary Magazine, Huizache, As/Us Journal, The Acentos Review, The Pacific Review, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @isabelinpieces or visit her website laisabelquintero.com.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Max Loves Muñecas! by Zetta Elliott

Reviewed by Ashley Hope Pérez MaxLovesMunecasCOVER

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Max wants to visit a beautiful boutique that sells handmade dolls, but he worries that other children will tease him. When he finally finds the courage to enter the store, Max meets Señor Pepe who has been making dolls since he was a boy in Honduras. Señor Pepe shares his story with Max and reminds him that, “There is no shame in making something beautiful with your hands. Sewing is a skill—just like hitting a baseball or fixing a car.” 

MY TWO CENTS: Max Loves Muñecas interweaves a number of topics: resisting the constraints of traditional gender roles, child homelessness, resourcefulness and resilience, and the value of cooperation and generosity. In the hands of a lesser writer, these many focal points might overpower a slim chapter book of 72 pages, but Zetta Elliott creates a richly textured narrative world and situations that give readers opportunities to pause, consider their own lives, and reflect on the power of individual choices.

The first and last chapters of the book focus on Max, a young American boy intrigued by the intricacy and beauty of the dolls in a neighborhood shop run by Señor Pepe. Despite his interest, Max fears teasing by his classmates; in fact, the book’s title comes from the teasing he endures. By the end of this book, however, Zetta Elliott turns “Max loves muñecas!” from a taunt into an affirmation as Señor Pepe invites Max to work as his apprentice. Although “Max loves muñecas!” powerfully captures a key shift in the book, it is somewhat misleading as a title because Max’s story serves primarily as a frame for Señor Pepe’s telling of his own experiences as a young boy in Honduras, which are the focus of the eight central chapters of the book.

MaxLovesMunecasImage1We first learn of Pepe’s life as a poor but happy boy living with a loving grandmother who earns money by cleaning a wealthy family’s home and selling rag dolls to tourists. When Pepe’s grandmother passes away, neighbors make arrangements and send a telegram, but no one comes to get him. After three days, the landlord sends him away. With nothing but a blanket, his grandmother’s sewing basket, and a handful of coins, Pepe strikes out on his own.

He briefly joins a band of street boys living under an overpass where each has a special skill he contributes to the group, but he remembers his grandmother’s admonitions: “You are not a street boy. You do not drift from place to place like a weed in the sea” (15). After a night on the streets, Pepe stops to help an elderly woman struggling to open the shutters to her doll shop. So begins his relationship with Señora Beatriz, who cautiously invites him into her shop, intrigued by his delight at the beauty of her dolls and impressed with his good manners and facility with simple sewing tasks. Pepe finds a place in her heart—and her home—and continues to develop his love for making beautiful things.

But of course there are bumps along the way, a number of which center on the difficulty of balaMaxLovesMunecasImage2ncing good intentions and generosity to others with responsibility and a concern for appearances. When Señora Beatriz sends Pepe out for lunch on their first day together, Melky, one of the street boys, recognizes him and runs over to join him. Pepe becomes preoccupied with Melky’s disheveled appearance, worrying that the señora might think he is a street boy, too, if she sees him with Melky. Pepe understands the boy’s hungry glances at the lunch bag, but his fear over damaging his opportunity with Señora Beatriz is what drives him to share his food: “If I give you some of my lunch, you have to promise to go away. You can’t let the señora see you—ever!” (33).

Later, when the señora goes out of town for the night, Pepe’s desire to surprise her leads him to attempt to finish a wedding dress using her cantankerous sewing machine. When it jams, his efforts to fix it result in a broken piece. Fearing a return to the streets if the señora discovers his disobedience and damage of the machine, he searches out Primo, the leader of the street boys, who is also an expert tinkerer. Primo can’t repair the broken piece without seeing the whole machine, and a new round of dilemmas opens up for Pepe as Melky and Primo follow him back to the señora’s house. He knows the señora would not want strangers in her house and worries that the street boys might get up to mischief, but he can’t see any way out of his problem without help. Far from wanting to steal from the señora, Primo and Melky fall in lMaxLovesMunecasImage3ove with the beautiful fabrics and deck themselves out in tiaras and veils. Primo succeeds at fixing the sewing machine, but the boys are so tired from their efforts they fall asleep at the kitchen table.

Once Señora Beatriz’s initial displeasure wears off, she is impressed by Primo’s technical abilities, charmed by young Melky, and pleased with the initiative and cooperation of all three boys. Ultimately, although only little Melky goes to school, all three boys gain the chance for a better life through their work for Señora Beatriz.

TEACHING TIPS: Max Loves Muñecas! is a good choice for upper elementary readers to explore on their own, and it would make an excellent read-aloud text (one chapter per session) for students across the elementary grades. The story highlights the boys’ spontaneous interest in dolls and fine fabrics, and it shows how following one’s passions can open doors. Max Loves Muñecas! also creates openings for students to discuss differences regarding schooling and child poverty in different communities and at different times. Finally, the book offers a number of scenarios where the “right” choice is relatively ambiguous, and these scenarios are ripe for exploration in conversation, journaling, drawing, or reenactment.

Although the handful of simple illustrations scattered through the book help provide a visual reference point for Pepe and Max’s adventures, there is still plenty of room for imagining and recreating scenes from the story. Students may especially benefit from guided exercises to help them imagine perspectives and experiences different from their own. Start with questions like, “What do you think Melky feels when Pepe makes him promise to never come to the señora’s shop?” or “Why is the señora disappointed when she first returns from her trip?” but take time exploring the other perspectives involved in a given moment in the narrative. When supported, even young children can stretch their capacity for empathy and perspective-taking beyond identifying with the protagonist.

MaxLovesMunecas_Zetta Zetta Elliott is the award-winning author of stories for children, YA novels, and poetry, plays, and essays for adults. Born and raised in Canada, she has lived in the US for 20 years and earned a PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003. Her picture book, Bird, won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest and the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers. Her latest YA novel, The Deep, was published in November 2013. She is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing, and to this end she has published several illustrated books for younger readers—including Max Loves Muñecas—under her own imprint, Rosetta Press. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Visit her online at www.zettaelliott.com

MaxLovesMunecas_MauricioPhotoMauricio J. Flores was born in 1988 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where he currently resides. Trained as an architect, he has worked extensively as a freelance illustrator and web designer. When he’s not drawing, he enjoys listening to a vast spectrum of music genres, studying languages, and reading epic fantasy novels and comics. Visit him at http://mjflores.visioncomicshn.com/.