A Studio Visit with Author-Illustrator Lulu Delacre, one of the most prolific Latinx artists working today

 

By Cecilia Cackley

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“I’ve decided that this is going to be my best decade!” declares Lulu Delacre. She has just turned sixty and after thirty-eight years in the publishing industry, she has written or illustrated over thirty different books for young readers, making her one of the most prolific Latinx artists working today. Her latest book, Turning Pages is an autobiographical picture book by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor and arguably Delacre’s highest profile collaboration to date.

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Delacre was born in Puerto Rico to Argentine parents who encouraged her love of drawing. After beginning her college career in the Fine Arts department of the University of Puerto Rico, she transferred to L’Ecole Supérieure d’Arts Graphiques in Paris, France. Delacre says she was inspired to apply for the school after learning that a famous Puerto Rican artist had trained there. Her father was skeptical, telling her she wouldn’t get in because of the quality of work required, but she was accepted into the third year of the five year program and eventually received a full scholarship to finish her degree after her family ran into financial hardship. Delacre studied many different artistic disciplines at the school, including typography and print-making, and the course included real-world assignments such as designing a new currency that she remembers as challenging and fun. Some of the more traditional European assignments had amusing results for a student from the Caribbean, she says.

“[For] one of my first assignments we had to illustrate the four seasons, and of course, I was coming from Puerto Rico. So, winter—I did something in pastel pinks and blues and everyone laughed, but of course it was a matter of perspective! I came from an island, I had never witnessed winter before, never in my life.”

Delacre says that she had no idea at that point that you could become a children’s book illustrator. “Books that we got in Puerto Rico were mostly fairy tales from Spain, which didn’t speak to me. The concept of the picture book was entirely foreign to me.” She discovered picture book illustration at an American gallery in Paris which was showing art from the book In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. “That was a revelation. I had no idea before that moment what I wanted to do.” Delacre had been focusing on graphic arts because she wanted to earn a living and recognized, “I was not at the level of a Picasso,” but now she had found the work that would become her passion.

After finishing school, Delacre moved to San Francisco with her husband, who was in the military. She had no contacts, but started knocking on doors and found work doing textbook illustrations and commercial artwork. When her family moved to Massachusetts, she started giving to the children’s section of the public library and taught herself to create picture books by analyzing examples such as Where the Wild Things Are. With no connections in publishing, Delacre had to hustle to break into the industry.

“In order to get into the field, I went to New York. I created two identical portfolios and made twenty-two appointments in five days, stayed at the Y, and by that Friday, I had my first job illustrating for Sesame Street magazine. From there, [I moved to] Simon & Schuster when they had Little Simon. I started illustrating public domain material like these [nursery rhyme] board books.”

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Delacre’s first book to incorporate Latinx culture was inspired by the birth of her daughters, to whom she wanted to introduce to traditional Latin American children’s rhymes.  “I went to the library looking for a book of our folklore, from Latin America, our nursery rhymes, and I couldn’t find anything. Why do American kids get to have these books and kids that come from Spanish speaking countries don’t?” Delacre had recently published the Nathan and Nicholas Alexander books with Scholastic, so she went to her editor there and suggested the book of songs and rhymes that eventually became Arroz con leche, which turns thirty this year and is still in print.

Delacre’s first books with Simon and Scholastic were done in colored pencils, over a thin layer of watercolor to make the process go a little faster. In her home studio in Maryland, she has two large art tables surrounded by materials, including colored pencils, acrylics, watercolors and collage materials. “I do everything the old-fashioned way,” she says. “I like to touch materials. I try to do things that the computers cannot do yet. That’s why I use collage and the textures, pressed leaves—things that the computer doesn’t do or doesn’t do as well.”

Delacre pushes herself to try new art styles and materials for each project she takes on. Salsa Stories has linoleum cuts because the stories are being told by characters who would have been familiar with that style of art in Puerto Rico in the 1950’s. Her book US in Progress pairs short stories with illustrations created from collaged newspaper, pencil drawings on acetate and texture created from tiny holes in rice paper. Olinguito A to Z, a Spanish alphabet book, was based on scientific information about the different animals who live in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. The different species were painted in flat colors, a graphic version of each animal that reaches back to Delacre’s work as a graphic designer. The background paper for each spread was created from actual leaves from the cloud forest. She also created the typography for the letters that appear on each page. “I created the letters because I wanted them to fit in a square to mirror the shape of the book. I wanted to show the kids what the mist looked like. In the cloud forest, you would see everything through the mist, so to reveal the true colors of the species, I gathered the mist in the squares surrounding the letters.”

Delacre’s most exciting recent project is the picture book autobiography Turning Pages by United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She explains that the process of getting the assignment was a bit unusual. “I got an email from [editor] Jill Santopolo asking if I had an agent, and I said not any more, and so she goes, “I need to talk to you, can I call you tomorrow?” and I said sure and gave her my number. I get a call the next day and she begins by saying, “I have a somewhat secret project that needs to be fast tracked and we want you for it.” And then she explains about the project and I pause, it’s sinking in and I said “Why me?” I had never worked for this publisher, and I had never worked with her. And she answers, “’Because she chose you,’ meaning the justice. This is very rare—this is the very first time that the author handpicks me.” Delacre goes on to explain that Sotomayor was given a stack of picture books to look at when selecting an illustrator and that one of the reasons she chose Delacre was because the justice wanted the illustrations to be lifelike. “I know that one thing that was very important to her was to portray her mamá and her abuelita as close as possible to reality.” Sotomayor also appreciated that Delacre has a strong relationship with the island of Puerto Rico. Although the book mostly takes place in urban settings such as the Bronx, Delacre began each oil wash with a layer of green sap oil, because Sotomayor wanted the island to be present in the illustrations. The original artwork from Turning Pages can be seen in the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University through March 17, 2019.

Delacre says that her advice to Latinx illustrators trying to break into publishing is “Follow your heart. Tell the story that you really have within you and you really must tell. Don’t feel like you have to be like someone else. Just be yourself.” Delacre points out that unlike other children’s book illustrators such as Tomie DePaola, she doesn’t have a specific, recognizable art style. “In the beginning of my career, I thought it was a flaw because I understood if I didn’t have a certain style, I wasn’t as recognizable name wise. But I can’t be that way because I get bored doing the same thing over and over again. I have to push myself to try new things because each project is about learning for me. What can I do with this that I haven’t done before?” She is talking about using mono prints for her next project, in black and white, a major departure from her usual paint and colored pencils. “Now it’s like I don’t have to prove anything. You know, this is going to be my best decade and after that who knows? Maybe I’m not going to do another book. I’ll be creating, but something different. Every single project I do is really to reach a community that perhaps wasn’t finding their image in books. I’m always trying to create what is needed.”

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 3

This is the third and final installment in a roundtable conversation with some of the reviewers on our team. It can’t be said too often: we’re overflowing with THANKS for the hard work and wisdom they pour into their reviews! Still, we figured they’d have more to say on the topic of children’s and YA lit, so we posed a few questions. 

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?

Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries. I was an avid reader as a child and have very fond memories of Scholastic Book Fairs. My dad, who was a teacher, was one of my biggest literacy advocates. He would bring home piles of books and advanced reader copies that his colleagues shared with him. As a Mexican immigrant, he was mostly happy that these books were in English. It made for a really diverse set and rarely included bestsellers. Today, I still look for diversity in genres and aim to search for hidden gems. I also tend not to read bestsellers until years after their release.

Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach with The Butterfly Series. As a bi-cultural child (Cuban immigrant father/Jewish American mother) growing up in a majority white neighborhood in the 1960 and 70s, I did not have any books that reflected my Latinx heritage. As a result, it was very challenging for me to articulate my identity. My father, who spoke English with a heavy accent, chose not to teach us Spanish. That further compounded my confusion as child named “Maria Diana Ramos” who did not speak or understand Spanish.

Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist, creator of puppet theater, and a children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC. I was a voracious reader as a child and it has been a huge part of my identity since I was about six or seven years old. In elementary school, I mostly read historical fiction—I didn’t get into fantasy or sci-fi until I was in middle school. I read a lot of what we term the ‘canon’ like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, etc and only as an adult have I realized that I never read a chapter book about a Latinx character as a kid. Even though I went to a dual immersion school, most of the Spanish books in the library were translations of things like the Little House series. I work hard to hold onto the mindset of a kid when I read, especially when reading books about Latinx characters and try to imagine how they would have affected me if I had read them earlier in life.

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)?

Cecilia Cackley

Cecilia: I usually read a book through once and often I’m not sure if I’m going to be the person reviewing it. Since I’m a book buyer, I’m reading most books about six months ahead of publication date and my first thought is always for whether or not I’ll purchase this book for the store and what short blurb I can write to get a customer interested in it. Once I know I’m reviewing it for the blog, I make a list of points that I thought were especially interesting about the book and I read it a second time, paying close attention to those elements.

Maria: I tend to read a book and then sit with it for a bit before writing. I like to see what it makes me think about. I don’t typically take notes or use sticky flags and I avoid eating when I write because I find it distracting (I take a dedicated break when I eat). I really don’t like people who earmark pages in books or who write in books with pen, so I avoid doing both. Over the course of a few days, I might jot down some phrases to jog my memory for when I do sit down to write. I prefer an organic flow on the page to the pre-outlined, thoughtful preparation. I’m that way in a lot of my life –not just writing (spontaneous versus planned).

Araceli: Most of my reading happens during my long commute on the Boston T, so I keep tools to a minimum. Before writing a review, I keep a document on my phone filled with notes by categories — overall thoughts, teaching connections, and related readings. I make a note of quotes and page numbers that speak to me and my Latina identity. On my happiest reading days, I sit on my couch next to my dog. Unfortunately, this means keeping my snacks to a minimum.

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.

Cecilia:  I used to be a third grade teacher and now I am a bookseller (I still teach art as a freelancer). My number one goal has always been to give kids and teens books they will love, books that will give them a greater understanding of the world and books that will reflect their own experiences. However, as a bookseller, I’m focused on selling, and I try to figure out who the audience is for the book and the best way to describe it in order to move it off the shelf. I’m not a trained critic and haven’t studied literature in an academic way, so a lot of how I approach books is from the point of view of “Who will read it?” and “How do I sell it?”

Maria Ramos-Chertok

Maria: In my youth, I worked a lot with kids who had severe challenges (sexual abuse, emotional disturbance, severe physical disability). I always had an acute awareness of how dependent children are on adults, and how the information we provide them, including the stories we tell, influences their development and sense of self. I never wanted to betray any child’s trust, so in my evaluation of texts I look for honesty and stories grounded in truth. I had my own children later in life, age forty and forty-two, and that perspective is what guides me most as a reviewer. I want a book that I would feel good reading to my two sons; I want a book that will make them think; I want a book that has characters that look like them.

Araceli: As a librarian, I try to be open-minded. While I may sometimes find fault with the story line or characters, that does not make a book bad. It just means it may not be for me! Reading is all about finding the right fit for yourself. I don’t believe there are people who aren’t readers, I just think they haven’t found the right literature yet. With so many formats, genres, book lengths, and topics, the possibilities are endless. With this perspective, I try to think about what type of reader each book is aimed for and highlight what they would find the most interesting.

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?

Maria: I am the daughter of a mother who came out as a lesbian when I was fourteen. That was in 1976 and there were no books that I knew of then that spoke to my circumstance or to my changing family construct. I love that there are books on alternative families now, but I also want characters who are racially and culturally mixed. I want layered characters and I also want strong feminist characters.

Cecilia: Central-American representation, PLEASE! I live and work in a city where the majority of the Latinx community has ties to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Across the river in Virginia, we have a huge Bolivian community. I almost never see these kids represented in books, especially by authors who share their heritage.

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.

Cecilia: Books that treat Dia de los Muertos like Halloween, books where everyone from Latin America lives in a little village, books where all the Latina characters are the “tough girl,” books where all the Latinx characters are poor or in a gang.

Maria: I’m tired of girl meets cute boy and they have a crush. I know that sells, but there are many other realities related to sexual orientation that are non-binary and gender fluid. That is a huge challenge for kids and I’d like to see more fluidity in the gender roles and stories.

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

Maria: Someone just sent me a copy of Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run The World. It’s not a book I would have bought for myself, but I found it interesting and think it’s a good read — especially for young adult women. Also, two dear friends of mine Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy wrote the book Yes! We are Latinos (2013) and gifted me a copy. I absolutely love that young adult book because it does exactly what I’ve always wanted in a book: share a diverse grouping of stories about the many different ways to identify as Latinxs. I wish I’d had a copy when I was growing up, but having it now is healing something inside of me.

Cecilia: I’m about to start WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE by Tehlor Kay Mejia and I’m super excited for it!

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In case you missed the previous posts in this series, here are links to Parts 1 and 2.

Unfortunately, not every current or recent contributor was available to respond to this Q&A. Here’s a list of those reviewers–mil gracias to each one! 

Chantel Acevedo reviewed Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad.

Dora M. Guzmán loves covering picture books. Here are her thoughts on Alma and How She Got Her Name/Alma y como obtuvo su nombre.

Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros supplied great insights on Jabberwalking.

Christa Jiménez did an excellent round-up review of baby books from indy publishers.

Marcela Peres provided her insights on Sci-Fu: Kick it Off.

Lettycia Terrones gave us a breakdown of The First Rule of Punk.

 

Latinx Book Reviewers Having Their Say, Part 2

 

This is part 2 in a roundtable discussion with members of our reviewing team. We are immensely grateful for their work. Most of them lead busy professional lives that center around literacy and literature. It only figures that they would have more to say about Latinx kid lit than can fit into a single review. Let’s hear them out.

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

Jessica Agudelo is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. Like many librarians, I was a dedicated reader throughout my childhood. I loved stories and even the physical books themselves. One of my greatest pleasures was when the Scholastic Book Fair would come to my elementary school.  I felt such joy browsing the glossy covers, then selecting just the right one to bring home and add to my own cupboard library. My treasured stash. I adored books like Amber Brown and the Wayside School series, and later the Caroline B. Cooney mysteries. I was an adult before I started realizing that my reading life was devoid of authors and characters of color. I didn’t know I needed it. But once I realized it was missing, I made a point to read all I could by and about Latinxs, and other non-white cultures and people. Nowadays, when I read titles like Pablo Cartaya’s The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, or Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk, I feel like I am 11 again, because these authors have so beautifully and honestly depicted the experiences of second-generation Latinx youth, reflecting many of my own struggles and joys. I am also grateful to be in the position to share diverse stories with kids, who can recognize themselves in these books or get a glimpse into the life of someone. In this way, I make up for lost time.

Jessica Walsh in her best-reader glory days! (She’s the smallest child pictured.)

Jessica Walsh is the K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist in an Illinois school district.  In kindergarten, I won a prize for having read the most books in my grade. We didn’t have many books at home back then – we couldn’t afford them–so I relied on my school and public libraries. Later I got books from the Scholastic Book Order and read titles like Beezus and Ramona and the Peanut Butter and Jelly series. Moving on to middle school, I consumed a steady diet of Sweet Valley High and everything by Christopher Pike. I remember staring long and hard at the covers, imagining what it would be like to live those lives. Looking back, I was searching to discover who I was. As the only kid of Mexican descent, I looked different than my peers and my hair wouldn’t do what the other girls’ hair did. (It was the 80s though…so I rocked that perm!) We had little money and I never had the right clothes or accessories. What the books I read had in common, though, were the universal struggles of growing up: conflicts with friends, parents. As I read and consider which books to put in kids’ hands, I think about the books I loved and that instilled in me a joy of reading.

Elena Foulis, Ph.D., leads a digital oral-history program to document the stories of Latinxs in Ohio. As a child, I liked reading, but lacked someone in my life who could point me to good books, appropriate for my age or identity. When I started college, I was in the U.S. and I devoured books that connected me to my roots and reminded me where I came from. I mostly read in Spanish, and later on, multi-ethnic literature in English. I have a graduate degree in comparative literature, so reading from different groups allowed me to learn from different cultures, linguistic backgrounds and histories.

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)?

Elena: I am a slow reader! I like to take my time with each book. I pause to imagine the landscape, the characters and the sound of their voices. I write on the margins and highlight important passages. Coffee is always involved, so occasionally, my books have coffee stains. 🙂

Jessica Agudelo

Jessica A: My reviewing process varies, depending on what I’m reading. For picture books, I read once through for an initial reaction to the story and art. Then I read a few more times (at least once, aloud) to note specifics, such as the relationship between the text and illustrations, or narrative strength and nuance. For fiction, sticky notes are a necessity! I don’t like writing in books and hate dog ears (although I sometimes use this technique on the train, when sticky notes aren’t available). I make notes about recurring themes, characters and their notable traits, plot specifics, and stand-out quotes that I might want to include in the review. I also jot down any similar books that come to mind, to offer that additional frame of reference.

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

Elena:  In my studies, I read literature of the Spanish-speaking world and U.S. literature. Although this included canonical works, I was always attracted to writers who spoke from the margins. I liked to understand the perspective of those on the peripheries, those who challenged mainstream culture. I devoured books written by women! I think this experience is valuable to reviewing Latinx books, and as a Latina who has two teen girls, I look for how each author approaches culture, identity and language, and how young women might be empowered by books that tell a familiar story, one that connects to their own experiences.

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?

Jessica A: More ordinary stories! Latinxs are joyful and resilient, we are not always struggling and suffering. There is beauty in the mundane. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Meg Medina speak a number of times. On one occasion, she mentioned the need for our community to elevate our heroes. I couldn’t agree more. We have an admirable list of icons, but there are so many more Latinx artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, and activists that have influenced American and world history. They should be represented in the books our kids and teens are reading.

Elena Foulis

Elena: I am still hoping to write a book myself! After living in the Midwest for many years, I would love to read about growing up Latinx in that region. We have The House on Mango Street, but we also need the perspective of Latinx growing up in rural areas or smaller cities, and from Central American backgrounds. It’s also important to address current topics that some consider taboo, like mental health.

Jessica W: I would love to see the books I needed when I was younger, such as books about kids with a desire to claim their Latinx culture, because their parents intentionally kept that part of their identity hidden. Growing up, my mother, who remarried, kept me away from my Mexican-American family. We moved thousands of miles away and rarely visited, partly due to the cost of travel. Not until later did she reclaim her heritage, so this meant I never heard family stories, although my father did enrich my life with the traditions of his heritage. I hope that young readers in similar experiences will have someone in their lives–a librarian, a teacher, a mentor–who can place an amazing Latinx story in their hands, which celebrate their culture. If I’d had that, I wouldn’t have continued to struggle with my Mexicanidad, even into adulthood.

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.

Elena: I think there are too many coming-of-age stories in Latinx books. While these storylines are important, perhaps there can be different ways to tell them.

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

Jessica W: Meg Medina’s middle-grade title Merci Suárez Changes Gears is dominating my thoughts right now. It’s such a powerful, yet humorous, look at intergenerational relationships and the inescapable bonds of family ties. A must-read! Also, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya, Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh, and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico by David Bowles, are all fighting for my attention right now!

Jessica A: Most of my time is spent reading children’s books. Most recently I’ve checked out some wonderful picture books, including a wordless debut by Cynthia Alonso called Aquarium; the beautifully illustrated Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal; and the hilarious (and bilingual) take on the famous cryptid, El Chupacabras, by Adam Rex. I also recently read Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, a fantastic young adult/adult collection of myths from Mexico retold by David Bowles. Usually I wait until the end of the year to read adult books, and on my to-read list is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Those are just a few titles. The full list is much, much longer!

Elena: Anything by Chimamanda Adichie! On my to-be-read- list: Tell Me How it Ends: and Essay in 40 questions, by Valeria Luiselli, and  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika L. Sánchez.

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. 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 5: Angela Cervantes

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the fifth 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 Angela Cervantes.

Her latest middle grade novel, Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring releases tomorrow!! Go get this book with the beautiful cover and awesome premise. Here’s a little more about it:

A room locked for fifty years.
A valuable peacock ring.
A mysterious brother-sister duo.
Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together.
While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belonged to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward — and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist. But the brother and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?

And now more about Angela: She is the beloved and award-winning author of several middle grade fiction novels. Her first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found, was named Best Youth Chapter book by the International Latino Book Awards and a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of 2014. Angela’s second middle grade novel, Allie, First At Last, received a starred-review from Kirkus and was a finalist for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers Award. Angela’s next middle-grade novel is the junior novelization of Disney Pixar’s animated film, Coco, was released in October 2017. Angela’s fourth novel, Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, will be released by Scholastic on March 27, 2018.

Angela Cervantes

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

A. My love for books inspired me to be a writer. Books were my first friends, and I relied on them to get me through some tough times, like my parents’ divorce, the loss of my abuelos, and issues around poverty. At an early age, I decided that I wanted to tell stories about girls like me. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to be in my life.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. It was my agent, Adriana Domínguez at Full Circle Literary who diagnosed me with a promising voice for middle grade fiction. Once I let that soak in, I knew she was right. I dived head-first, and I’m so happy I did, because I love middle grade novels and writing for middle grade students.

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

A. How much time do you have? There are so many! Growing up, I was obsessed with the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. They are still my all-time favorite books. More recently, I’m a big fan of Rita Williams-Garcia. Her books, One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven are amazing. Other faves that I’ve read recently include Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan; The Smoking Mirror (Book One) by David Bowles; Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper; Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai; Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson and The First Rule of Punk by Celia Pérez. I also love, love, love Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe García McCall.

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

A. Don’t throw away your stories. They’re not stupid. Someday, you’ll wish you could read them again. 🙂

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because young people need a safe place to let their dreams, curiosities and imagination play.

 

   

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy 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, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México by Duncan Tonatiuh

 

Review written by: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE COVER: As a child, Amalia Hernández saw a pair of dancers in the town square. The way they stomped and swayed to the rhythm of the music inspired her. She knew one day she would become a dancer.

Amalia studied ballet and modern dance under the direction of skilled teachers who had performed in world-renowned dance companies. But she never forgot the folk dance she had seen years earlier. She began traveling through the Mexican countryside witnessing the dances of many regions, and she used her knowledge of ballet and modern dance to adapt the traditional dances to the stage. She founded her own dance company, a group that became known as El Ballet Folklórico de México.

Using his signature illustration style, inspired by the ancient art of the Mixtecs, award-winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh tells the story of Amalia Hernández and the formation of the Flokloric Ballet, one of the most famous and successful dance companies in the world.

MY TWO CENTS: Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México tells the story of Amalia Hernández and the dance company that she founded. The description of Amalia’s life is told in a straightforward way and her story in enhanced by the beautiful illustrations. Amalia’s story of hard work, passion, and dedication is inspiring to read. Duncan Tonatiuh is intentional in mentioning the way that Amalia learned about the regions in which she danced. Through his storytelling, Tonatiuh details how Amalia Hernández took great care to learn about the regions of Mexico that she would be representing in her performances, “Ami began to travel to villages all around the country to learn as much as she could about the area’s traditional dances. She read about the history of each place and talked with elders.” This is important because it shows how Amalia tried to honor the traditions and people that she was representing in her productions.  The book details how Amalia’s dance company became famous in Mexico and around the world through representing the traditional dances inspired by the different regions in Mexico. The book also details how El Ballet Folklórico de México continues to perform every week and has been doing so for the past 50 years.

Through this book, Tonatiuh introduces us to an important historical figure who may not be well known. He introduces readers to Amalia and in doing so, he describes her importance in Mexico and the world. While discussing Amalia’s impact and legacy, Tonatiuh states that “She made the folkloric dances of Mexico known around the world, and she encouraged people of Mexican origin to feel pride in their roots and in their traditional dances”. This book highlights someone who was not only excellent in her field, but was also proud of her cultural heritage.

Tonatiuh’s signature illustrations, based on pre-Columbian Mexican art are a masterpiece! The pictures depict the traditional dances that Amalia’s dance company performed. The illustrations are colorful, fun, and bold. In particular, the movement of the dancers is done in such a way that readers able to see the movement in the different dances.

The back of the book offers more information about Amalia Hernández in the author’s notes. Here, Tonatiuh details some of the hardships and difficulties that Amalia experienced in establishing her dance company.  The book also offers an index, glossary, and sources where readers can get more information about the topic.

Prior to reading this book, I was not familiar with Amalia or the dance company that she worked to establish. As I read the text, I began to ask myself about Mexican historical figures, particularly women and the lack of representation of Mexican women in texts. This book is a great introduction to a woman who had a passion, worked hard to achieve her goals, was immensely proud of her Mexican heritage, and who sought to share Mexico’s rich history with the world through dance. I am providing some links that can help readers become familiar with Amalia and El Ballet Folklórico de México. There were several stories written about her after Google honored her with a doodle in September 2017 after what would have been her 100th birthday.

Amalia Hernandez’s 100th Birthday

https://www.google.com/doodles/amalia-hernandezs-100th-birthday

Amalia Hernandez, the revolutionary Mexican dance pioneer, gets a Google Doodle salute

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2017/09/19/amalia-hernandez-the-revolutionary-mexican-dance-pioneer-gets-a-google-doodle-salute/?utm_term=.f7ae40043cf4

 Website for El Ballet Floklórico de México

http://www.balletfolkloricodemexico.com.mx

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Danza! Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Duncan was born in Mexico City and grew up in San Miguel de Allende. He graduated from Parsons The New School for Design and from Eugene Lang College in New York City in 2008. His work is inspired by Ancient Mexican art, particularly that of the Mixtec codex. His aim is to create images that honor the past, but that address contemporary issues that affect people of Mexican origin on both sides of the border. His book Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale is the winner of the 2014 Tomás Rivera Mexican American children’s book award. It is also the first book to receive two honorable mentions, one for the illustrations and one for the text, from the Pura Belpré Award for a work that best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in children’s books. The book was featured in USA Today, The Chicago Sun, The Houston Chronicle among other major publications because it deals with the controversial topic of immigration. His book Diego Rivera: His World and Ours won the 2012 Pura Belpré illustration award. It also won the 2012 Tomás Rivera. His first book Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin received an honorable mention from the Pura Belpré Award in 2011. It was named an Americas Award Commended Title and a Notable Book for a Global Society list.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.