A Conversation with Lauren Castillo, illustrator of Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Cecilia Cackley: This is your twenty-first picture book! You’ve written three of them yourself, but you’ve also worked with a wide range of collaborators. How do you feel like your process has evolved as an artist?

Lauren Castillo: It feels like I’m choosing a different medium for each project, but somehow it ends up looking like the same type of art to others. Imagine for instance, doesn’t look too different from Nana in the City, but to me, I definitely worked in a lot of different ways to make the art. For example, because this book had so many landscapes, I really wanted to embrace that imperfect, texture-y feeling in a more abstract way. I wanted to have a looser style, so I used something that I had been playing around with in workshops with children—printmaking by painting on foam. It’s really fun because you don’t know what you’re going to end up with until you run the print. That’s kind of the beauty of printmaking, that nothing is going to be exact and precise. I think my art, over the years, felt like I was tightening up and it felt a little too crafted. I think it was because my drawing wasn’t as strong at first, so it gave this energetic, free feeling to the work and I liked that. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to trick myself into loosening up. For this book it was helpful to use this type of printmaking for the backgrounds. I would paint on the foam and then flip it over and stamp it on the paper. I work in a much smaller scale so when it’s enlarged it gets even more texture. With each book I need to use different types of materials to keep things interesting.

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CC: Is this your first non-fiction picture book about a living person?

LC: Yes.

CC: How was the research process different than for, say, your book about E.B. White?

LC: It was very different! I did not interact at all with Juan directly. I sent some questions through the publisher Candlewick because it was a poem and it was non-descriptive in terms of the locations and the years and that sort of thing. I had this vision for it so I didn’t want to know too many details but I wanted to gauge the era, the decade and the locations that he was speaking about. I had looked at some photographs of him and most were current so I decided, although I probably could have gotten some childhood photos of him, to do my own version of him and what I imagined he looked like when he was younger. So the character development was done without photo reference. But they gave me some locations to work with so I could get photos from the computer for those. It was a lot freer than working on E.B. White’s life, for example, because that was very descriptive and specific, even down to the animals that were in the barn.

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CC: Would you say this is the most poetic text you’ve ever worked on?

LC:  Probably. I would definitely call some of the other books I’ve worked on poetic, or poems but this feels most definitely like it was pulled out of a poetry book and it’s gorgeous. The first time I read it I thought “Well, I have to illustrate this!”

CC: Tell us a little about your own Latinx family background.

LC: My dad’s father is Cuban, and my mom’s mom is Puerto Rican.

CC: Is this the first book by another Latinx author that you’ve worked on?

LC: It is, which I was very excited about. I grew up asking a lot of questions about my grandparents’ lives and their parents’ lives, coming to the United States, and it seemed like I was more interested in my background and culture than a lot of my friends. I did a lot of reports as a kid, interviewing my grandparents. I would be curious to see how connected to my art Juan Felipe was, if there was anything that reminded him of his own life or if I took liberties that were very different. It would be interesting to have a conversation about it.

CC:  Do you think that you’ll ever make any work connected with your own family history?

LC:  My Puerto Rican great-grandfather was a musician, and when he moved to New York, his family lived in the Spanish Harlem area. My grandmother told me stories about when she was young and he had a band that would play around different venues in Spanish Harlem. So when I moved to New York for graduate school, we had to do a book project, and I decided I wanted to do a visual journalism project about this really old music store in Spanish Harlem called Casa Latina. I went there and asked them if I could spend a month coming in and out of their store and do drawings, so basically I did this whole visual journalism project that I turned into a book about the people in the store and how they interacted with each other and their customers. I would have conversations with them and take notes, so it was kind of like a diary, but it included drawings from the shop and portraits of people that work there, and I called it Casa Latina. I’ve wanted to turn that into a picture book at some point because when I was going to the store I had it in my mind that although that store wasn’t around then, that’s the same neighborhood that my great-grandfather was spending a lot of time in and playing music in. So I got really invested in that area, and for a while, I’ve been keeping some drafts of stories that I want to do, some ideas to turn that project into a picture book. So yes, I definitely want to do a project that connects to that Puerto Rican background.

CC: What are you working on now?

LC: At the moment I’m working on a very unusual project for me, which is completely imagined, because so far, my three picture books have all come from some sort of life experience, and so I’m working on this early chapter book. It’s about the hedgehog character that I had drawn that kept popping up in my sketchbook, and it’s all animals and one human character, and it’s very much a made up story. And also it’s a long format book, which is a lot of fun since I don’t have a lot experience with that!

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MORE ABOUT LAUREN CASILLO: Lauren studied illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She is the author and illustrator of the 2015 Caldecott Honor winning book, Nana in the City, as well as The Troublemaker and Melvin and the Boy. Lauren has also illustrated several critically acclaimed picture books, including Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley, Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, and City Cat by Kate Banks. She currently draws and dreams in Harrisburg, PA. You can find out more about her at http://www.laurencastillo.com/

 

 

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

 

Book Review: Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno

 

Reviewed by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Rosa Santos is cursed by the sea—at least, that’s what they say. Dating her is bad news, especially if you’re a boy with a boat.

But Rosa feels more caught than cursed. Caught between cultures and choices. Between her abuela, a beloved healer and pillar of their community, and her mother, an artist who crashes in and out of her life like a hurricane. Between Port Coral, the quirky South Florida town they call home, and Cuba, the island her abuela refuses to talk about.

As her college decision looms, Rosa collides—literally—with Alex Aquino, the mysterious boy with tattoos of the ocean whose family owns the marina. With her heart, her family, and her future on the line, can Rosa break a curse and find her place beyond the horizon?

Don’t Date Rosa Santos releases Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

MY TWO CENTS: I had seen this book circulating the Latinx KidLit Twittersphere (Thanks Las Musas! @lasmusasbooks) and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it at ALA Midwinter (Thanks Dina at Disney!). I had an inkling I would like this seemingly sweet YA romance with a Latinx heroine, but the weight this story carries is far greater than a springtime young love. Rosa is a fierce, brilliant, Type A goal chaser, and I am completely here for her. She is unapologetic in figuring out not just what she wants, but is realistic in how to get there. As a former college admissions counselor, I was very proud of Rosa for dually enrolling in a community college and looking into Study Abroad programs while still in high school. So, yes, Rosa is an awesome lead. I laughed out loud at Moreno’s far-too-relatable scenes of awkward first dates and embarrassing parents. If you want an impeccably written YA novel that reads much older and more “real,” this is the perfect spring break read.

Still, Don’t Date Rosa Santos is just the first story in a new narrative for young Cuban-Americans. With the embargo lifted in the last few years, young people of Cuban descent are finally able to see where they come from, where their own narrative began. I myself am of Puerto Rican descent, so while our islands are not super far from each other, our stories are worlds apart. Since all of my relatives are American citizens, they have never had a problem popping back and forth between San Juan and Texas, Louisiana, or Florida. For Cubans, they had to make a decision so much bigger than just “moving”; it was fleeing, knowing that returning was not an option. Now, young Cuban-Americans have the option to visit the island of their people, but it is not without the weighted guilt of knowing the fear of their ancestors. Moreno beautifully illustrates this feeling of being torn that I’m sure many young Cuban-Americans feel: the desire to visit Cuba while battling abuelos y abuelas who still remember the horrors they escaped. This new reality is sure to bring up hard conversations within families—can you be Cuban without taking the chance to experience Cuba? To those who faced exile, is the Cuba they remember the Cuba of today?

Sometimes characters were introduced in a way that felt abrupt and confusing, but the confusion was usually alleviated quickly. Parts of the last few chapters felt slightly rushed in the plot, but Moreno tied up the story in a very lovely manner that was not at all cliché. I am so excited to watch how this story contributes to a very specific Latinx Children’s Literature conversation.

 

ninamorenophotoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nina Moreno is a YA writer whose prose is somewhere between Southern fiction and a telenovela. She graduated from the University of Florida with a B.A. in English Don’t Date Rosa Santos is her first novel.

 

 

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager for over 20 international children’s publishers. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer or clients. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 10: Emma Otheguy

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the tenth 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 Emma Otheguy.

Emma Otheguy is the author of the bilingual picture book Martí’s Song for Freedom (Lee & Low, 2017) about Cuban poet and national hero José Martí as well as the forthcoming novel Silver Meadows Summer (Knopf, 2019). Martí’s Song for Freedom received five starred reviews, from School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. Martí was also named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and the New York Public Library, and was the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2018 Children’s and Young Adult Book Award in Intermediate Nonfiction.

Emma attended Swarthmore College, where she studied children’s literature with Donna Jo Napoli and graduated with Honors. Later, she worked in farm-based education, at a children’s bookstore, and as a Spanish teacher. She holds a Ph.D. in History from New York University, where she focused on Spain and colonial Latin America. Emma has held fellowships and grants from the Mellon Foundation, the American Historical Association, the Council of Library and Information Resources, and Humanities New York. Emma lives in New York City.

Silver Meadows Summer is her debut middle grade novel.

IT RELEASES TOMORROW!

 

Here is the publisher’s description: Eleven-year-old Carolina’s summer–and life as she knows it–is upended when Papi loses his job, and she and her family must move from Puerto Rico to her Tía Cuca and Uncle Porter’s house in upstate New York. Now Carolina must attend Silver Meadows camp, where her bossy older cousin Gabriela rules the social scene.

Just as Carolina worries she’ll have to spend the entire summer in Gabriela’s shadow, she makes a friend of her own in Jennifer, a fellow artist. Carolina gets another welcome surprise when she stumbles upon a long-abandoned cottage in the woods near the campsite and immediately sees its potential as a creative haven for making art. There, with Jennifer, Carolina begins to reclaim the parts of the life she loved in Puerto Rico and forget about how her relationship with Mami has changed and how distant Papi has become.

But when the future of Silver Meadows and the cottage is thrown into jeopardy, Carolina and–to everyone’s surprise–Gabriela come up with a plan to save them. Will it work?

 

Emma Otheguy

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

A. I was inspired by my parents, who read me Latin American poetry and picture books, and by my elementary school teachers, who made time for free writing and independent reading every single day. The journals I kept in elementary school were never graded or marked up, they were a private space that we were given as students to write whatever we wanted. The same was true of independent reading time (or DEAR as we called it, and some schools still do it today). Time and space for reading and writing during the school day made all the difference for me and helped me develop my own literary tastes, stamina in both reading and writing, and a true love for these activities that allowed my inner life to blossom in school. If I could give elementary and middle schoolers one gift, it would be access to print books and time to read them in school.

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

A. Even before I wrote Martí’s Song for Freedom, I was interested in connections between the Caribbean and New York State. Writing about José Martí gave me space to explore one of those connections, but I needed fiction to fully delve into what it is to belong to both the Caribbean and the northeast of the United States. Carolina, the protagonist of Silver Meadows Summer, comes from a Cuban-American family that lives in Puerto Rico until their move to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Through Carolina, I was able to return to my memories of my grandmother’s house in Puerto Rico, my love of the Hudson Valley, the relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the dynamics of many cousins living under one roof.

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

A. Lots! A few of the middle-grade novels that you might find echoes of in Silver Meadows Summer include The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright, Mandy by Julie Edwards, and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. All books that feature a child’s relationship with nature and the landscape around them, and their desires to make sweet homes for themselves in new or challenging environments.

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

A. Figure out what being a Latina means to you and embrace that. Society is always telling children who they should be, and I think that Latinas often experience that pressure times two—the pressure to fit in with peers, and the pressure to be a certain ideal type of Latina. But the reality is that Latinidad is something we each carry inside of us, an identity that encompasses as many types as there are individuals.

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they guide children through growing up, which is the most important transition of our lives. Ursula K. Le Guin said that narrative is change, and if that is true, then middle-grade novels are the definition of great narrative, the reflection of the moment in life when we become ourselves. I think that it’s not only narrative that is change—hope is also change, the hope embodied in the changes that children effect in our society when they become adults, and therefore, in their evolution as they grow. So in a nutshell, I think middle-grade novels are important because they represent change, and hope, and because the best narratives I have ever read are middle-grade novels.

 

 

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 (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Nuñez

 

Review by Elena Foulis

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: It is 1957 in Marianao, a suburb on the outskirts of Havana. Adela Santiago is thirteen years old and lives in a small blue house with her mother, father, brother, and grandfather. And yet something is amiss. Her neighbors are disappearing. Not only that, but her parents’ marriage seems to be disintegrating and her cousin is involved with a bombing at the Hotel Nacional. Welcome to a world where the sight of police officers shooting citizens in broad daylight is a normalcy, where every day there is a higher body count than the day before, where in the cramped pews of churches, in the creaking wood of backwards Havana alleys, a revolution is brewing. Welcome to Cuba.

MY TWO CENTS: Viviana Prado-Nuñez’s first novel, The Art of White Roses, is a beautifully told story of a young girl growing up in Batista’s Cuba. Adela, the protagonist, tells the story of her neighborhood, family, and friends as she tries to make sense of how disappearances, violence, and affairs affect her and the people she loves. The story looks deeply into family life, such as sibling interactions, her parents’ sweet but complicated relationship, and Adela’s abuelo. Despite the political conditions of the time—including repression, police brutality, and desaparecidos—Adela is most impacted by her family dynamics. As she tries to make sense of cruelty, mysteries, and her own disappointments, Adela is both observant and conversant about the possible deaths of universitarios whom they all knew and who were possible revolucionarios. She witnesses the death of Luis, a neighbor and troubled-young man who also might have been part of an uprising against the police, and her own family drama of her father’s affair. One of my favorite chapters is, “The night they met,” because Prado-Nuñez’s weaves happy memories of when Adela’s parents met and the present reality of their strained marriage. The author’s narrative choice, at once nostalgic, funny, and tragic, centers around Adela’s perspective with the backdrop of the revolution.

The novel is not always told chronologically, rather, each of the chapters tells the story of an event, family member, or place. The stories help the reader see the protagonist’s development, but it is not a typical coming-of-age story, meaning, there is no event that suddenly helps her find her voice. Instead, Adela’s understanding of herself is directly tied to her place and community, including the oppressive political circumstances that, in the end, force her family to move. Her future is uncertain—including her educational future—because of circumstances that have to do with her father’s affair first, and her Batista’s regime second. Prado-Nuñez’s detailed descriptions of places and people add to Adela’s understanding of the world around her, and the reader enjoys the author’s carefully crafted narrative. This is best exemplified by her discussion of the book’s title, connected to José Martí’s poem and personal story of choosing to love and forgive, in the face of pain, as Adela’s father explains, “white roses are hard times,” and later says, “white roses are hard for me, too.”

TEACHING TIPS: Taking advantage of today’s digital tools, a google earth exploration of Marianao, its surrounding neighborhoods, and its proximity to Havana, can help understand the setting and how that might determine the experiences of Adela and her family. Research on Hotel Nacional, a historical site, will add to discussion of time and place of the novel. There is a lot to explore visually via photography about Cuba, especially since it seems suspended in time. These already available resources, can lead to digital projects such as storymaps, digital storytelling and digital archival projects about neighborhoods and historical sites.  While the historical background of Bastista and Castro is important, it would be also helpful to study American influence in the country and how this might have affected Cubans during this time and how this has informed U.S.-Cuba relations today.

 

Viviana Prado-NúñezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Viviana Prado-Núñez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in a hospital with a 4.0 Google review rating and a view of the ocean. Previous publications include The Best Teen Writing of 2014, 4×4 Magazine, Columbia Spectator, and Quarto Magazine. She is also the 2017 winner of the Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature for her novel, The Art of White Roses.

 

 

 

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.

 

Book Review: All the Way to Havana written by Margarita Engle, illus. by Mike Curato

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Together, a boy and his parents drive to the city of Havana, Cuba, in their old family car. Along the way, they experience the sights and sounds of the streets–neighbors talking, musicians performing, and beautiful, colorful cars putt-putting and bumpety-bumping along. In the end, though, it’s their old car, Cara Cara, that the boy loves best.

MY TWO CENTS: I really enjoyed the trip this picture book takes through the Cuban countryside and into the city of Havana. It is easy to identify with the narrator, as he gets squashed in the backseat by all the passengers! Engle makes the question of whether or not the narrator and his father can get the car to work a suspenseful one, but as the journey gets underway, we don’t feel pity for the family for having an old car, but rather excitement for everything they see along the road to Havana. The bright colors of the cars alongside the blue of the sky and ocean make the pictures very attractive and illustrator Mike Curato adds plenty of detail to the vehicles and the scenery in Havana. The figures in the pictures can sometimes look a little flat, but it was nice to see an Afro-Latinx family featured—an unfortunate rarity in a lot of picture books. Both the author and illustrator include notes at the end talking a little about the background of the story and the process of researching the illustrations.

TEACHING TIPS: As might be expected, this is a perfect story time book, especially for kids around ages 2-4 who are usually VERY into cars, trucks, and trains (so much that many bookstores have a separate section just for those books). The sounds the car makes invite call and response with story time or classroom listeners. The way the narrator talks about how Cara-Cara looks compared to all of the other cars might be a good lead in to having students draw their own imaginary car, including what it would look like and what sounds it would make. The context of traveling to a family celebration is also a good discussion point, where children can talk about their own trips to visit relatives and various family celebrations.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find All the Way to Havana, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Margarita Headshot

ABOUT THE AUTHORMargarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots. Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist as well as a poet and novelist. She lives in central California with her husband.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Mike Curato loves drawing and writing almost as much as he loves cupcakes and ice cream (and that’s a LOT!). He is the author and illustrator of everyone’s favorite polka-dotted elephant, Little Elliot. His debut title, Little Elliot, Big City (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Macmillan), released in 2014 to critical acclaim, has won several awards, and is being translated into over ten languages. There are now four books in the Little Elliot series: Little Elliot, Big City; Little Elliot, Big FamilyLittle Elliot, Big Fun; and the latest addition, Little Elliot, Fall Friends. Meanwhile, Mike had the pleasure of illustrating Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, and contributed to What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends. He is working on several other projects, including What If… by Samantha Berger and his first graphic novel. Publishers Weekly named Mike a “Fall 2014 Flying Start.” In the same year he won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder’s Award.

 

 

 

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: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

MY TWO CENTS: Much to my delight, there were a number of titles released in 2017 that filled me with pride and transported me back to my days as a middle school book worm. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora was among them. Arturo’s story possesses familiar hallmarks of coming of age tales, a first crush, a crummy summer job as a dishwasher (albeit at his family’s beloved restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla), and self-discovery. With equal measures of humor and heart, Pablo Cartaya’s middle grade debut is sure to leave readers anxious for an invite to the Zamora family Sunday dinners. What truly makes The Epic Fail special, though, is how Cartaya burnishes deeper themes like family, community, gentrification, and cultural identity with nuance and irresistible charm.

When Wilfrido Pipo, a villainous real estate developer, saunters into Canal Grove looking to build a luxurious high rise, Arturo and his family fear the move will drastically alter their Miami neighborhood. Pipo intends to buy the city-owned lot next to La Cocina, which the Zamoras also planned to bid on, hoping to expand their restaurant. In order to convince community members to back his development plan, Pipo throws fancy events and raffles off all-expenses-paid trips. Arturo senses Pipo’s duplicitous nature and is spurred into action by Vanessa, his activist cousin, and Carmen, his new crush. Together, they hatch plans, one involving a Hulk disguise, to further investigate Pipo’s shady background and resist his ambitions. Gentrification and activism are timely topics, but their weightiness can feel overwhelming and disheartening, especially in light of news about Dreamers, to name one example. Cartaya does his best to impart readers with some hope. Arturo and his family picket and attend public forums at city hall, actions which, whatever the ultimate result, display a sense of agency, a power Arturo realizes he possesses.

At one protest, Vanessa holds a picket sign reading “Family is Community-Community is Family,” a succinct summation of two overarching themes. For Cartaya, family is not just those related by blood, but those with whom you choose to spend time, and sometimes, inadvertently share space. We readily throw longtime friends under the family umbrella, but Cartaya implores readers to consider neighbors, even the most eccentric among them, as members of our extended families. La Cocina itself is an extension of the family’s dining room, where an array of regulars eat, local businesses build partnerships (the restaurant buys its meat and greens from area vendors), and everyone is welcome.

Cartaya’s portrayal of an ample list of secondary characters is one of his greatest successes. He depicts a variety of personalities using distinct and vivid details, bringing the community of Canal Grove to life. Whether it is Arturo’s best friend Bren, a hopeless dork perpetually trying to look and sound like Pitbull, or Aunt Tuti, who has a penchant for dramatics, but is a fierce defender of her family, readers will surely recognize at least one, if not many, of Cartaya’s characters. Arturo may be the hero of the story, but it is the people around him who inspire his actions and give his mission purpose. His fight to save the family restaurant is also a fight for the preservation of his hometown, a love he shares with the people of his community, who, in turn, make that community a place worth loving. In one passage, Arturo wonders where Pipo’s own family might be, “All that success and I never heard him talk about anyone who he cared about.” Arturo’s realization reminded me of Harry Potter’s own assessment of Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix, whom he pities for being equally rootless. A poignant message about community that traverses Hogwarts and Canal Grove.

As Arturo’s Abuela’s health declines, she gives Arturo a box of photos and letters from his Abuelo, which reference the poet José Martí. The poet is a link to his grandfather and his Cuban heritage. Arturo is pulled in by Martí, a figure emblematic of embracing multiple cultures and causes. Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he “sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.” Although awkward in many aspects of his life, Arturo moves through his multitudes with spectacular ease. The narrative of struggling to balance cultural identities has shifted. Of course, stories about cultural struggle are necessary, but it was wonderful to see Arturo just be himself. It allowed me to let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I was holding in.

I could go on and on about The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. How touched I was by the depictions of Abuela’s tenderness, his mom’s quiet struggle becoming matriarch of the family, Arturo’s admiration for Carmen’s colorful braces, and of course, the food (recipes included as backmatter). This novel was a true joy to read from beginning to end. A rare feat, even in children’s literature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by Viking. He is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. http://www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

 

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.