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The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.
We have been marking the award’s 25th anniversary in different ways on the blog. Today, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Cecilia Cackley talk with Rebecca Balcárcel and Adrianna Cuevas.
Rebecca Balcárcel’s novel, THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY (2019), is a 2020 Pura Belpré Honor Book, an ALSC Notable Book, and was called “a must-have for all library collections” by School Library Journal. She serves the students of Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English. Look for her next novel, SHINE ON, LUZ VÉLIZ!, about a girl who codes, May 3, 2022.
Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. A former Spanish and ESOL teacher, Adrianna currently resides in Austin, Texas with her husband and son. When not working with TOEFL students, wrangling multiple pets including an axolotl, and practicing fencing with her son, she is writing her next middle grade novel. Her novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez won a 2021 Pura Belpré Honor.
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.
Cecilia 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
Please enjoy this interview with Jarod Roselló, the author and illustrator of the Red Panda & Moon Bear graphic novel series, and translator Eva Ibarzabal, who helped create the Spanish version, Panda Roja y Oso Lunar.
Romy Natalia Goldberg: First of all, congratulations on both versions of Red Panda & Moon Bear! It’s exciting to have another Latinx graphic novel to add to our shelves, especially one with a Spanish translation.
Jarod Roselló: Thank you! I’m so excited to have it in the world. I immediately sent a copy to my abuela!
The original English version, Red Panda & Moon Bear, was published in July 2019 and Panda Roja y Oso Lunar was published in July of 2020. What was the genesis of the Spanish translation? Was it in the works from the beginning or did the opportunity present itself further along in the process?
Jarod: It wasn’t an original plan, or at least not one that was shared with me at the time I was working on the book. Shortly after Red Panda & Moon Bear was released, IDW Publishing (Top Shelf’s parent company) announced a new Spanish-language initiative, and then I got an email from my editor that my book had been selected by IDW to be translated as part of the first wave of Spanish-language books.
Beforehand I said “original English version” but that begs the question – when you created these characters and wrote the original manuscript was it all in English in your head? Or were there some scenes or phrases that naturally popped into your head in Spanish first?
Jarod: English is my primary language, despite the fact I was raised in Miami by my Cuban family, and spoke Spanish with certain family members who didn’t speak English. We didn’t speak Spanish much in my house, with my siblings and parents, but still, there are certain words, expressions, and phrases that only exist in Spanish for us. I think it’s easy to explain that growing up bilingual or in a bilingual setting, means that you “switch” between languages. But when I use Spanish terms—in my books, or in real life with my own kids—it doesn’t necessarily feel like two separate languages. I wanted the English edition to feel that way as well, that when Spanish appeared it wasn’t a breach in the English, it’s just the way language developed and is used in these communities and families. That matched my own experience growing up and felt true for me.
I’m curious about the process for creating a translation. In addition to yourself, who else was involved?
Jarod: It started with my editor letting me know they were looking for a translator. We decided early on, that someone else would translate it, and that we would look for someone who was either Cuban, Cuban American, or spoke a more Caribbean Spanish, so the setting would hold.
Eva Ibarzabal: When they contacted me for the first time I had serious doubts. I had already translated fiction and biographies for young readers, but graphic novels were way beyond my comfort zone. The approach is completely different, you have space constraints and a unique style, but then I read the English version and fell in love with the characters and the story. I’m very happy with the outcome.
There are so many variations of Spanish out there. In Spanish translations, this is something that really comes through in figures of speech and exclamations. I learned some new ones reading Panda Roja y Oso Lunar, which I assume are specific to the Caribbean. Did everyone speak the same “type” of Spanish? If not were there particular scenes and word choices that generated debate?
Eva: Jarod and I have something in common, we are both Cuban-Americans. I lived in Miami for a short period of time before moving to Puerto Rico, and my family was very attached to their roots and ancestry. I guess that helped me capture the essence of the characters and their way of speaking. I just had to dust off some memories of my own childhood and the comics I used to read back then. Other than that, some sounds and the use of onomatopoeia are the most difficult to translate because in Spanish we tend to use lengthy descriptions instead.
Jarod: There were also some interesting conversations after we got Eva’s script, because we also had a Spanish-language editor working on it, and they had notes about some of the expressions and suggestions for changes. But sometimes, I’d never heard of the expression the editor wanted to use. In the end, my editor let me cast the tie-breaking vote on which one we would use.
This book feels different from other translations I’ve read. It’s clear you had a specific goal in mind.
Jarod: This stemmed from an early conversation with my editor that it shouldn’t just be a translated book, but that the Spanish edition should be a Spanish-language universe, and it should be read that way.
Eva: I think the best compliment a translator can receive is that their work does not read as a translation. You have to digest all the ideas and convey the meaning in the most natural way possible; the text should flow. In the case of a graphic novel, an additional challenge is to be concise, because Spanish tends to be more wordy. I was counting words and measuring spaces all the time to be sure the new text would fit and not take space from the illustrations. It’s definitely like a parallel universe, as Jarod says.
Jarod: And you did such a fabulous job with that, Eva. I loved how you were able to preserve the puns and references, and still capture the spirit and energy of the book.
It sounds like there were two different processes you had to go through – translating the copy and adjusting the content. Let’s talk about the copy first. For a panel where you had a basic sentence that needed to go from Spanish to English, what did you do? I assume it wasn’t as easy as just copying text from a Spanish script and plunking it into your text bubbles.
Jarod: As Eva mentioned, Spanish tends to be longer, not just in the construction of sentences, but individual words can be very long, which created some visual challenges fitting them into the existing word balloons.
One benefit to being both the letterer and the original artist was that I could adjust the word balloons to accommodate the Spanish, just how I write out the English first, then draw the word balloon around it. It’s not quite that simple, either, though, because the word balloons take up visual space in the panel. So, often, I had to redraw certain panels so that relevant imagery wasn’t being blocked or so the visual composition still looked the way I would want it to look.
I wanted to put the same care and attention to detail in the Spanish edition. And I also really love that the English and Spanish editions are not exactly the same: some drawings are new, some panels are modified, and even corrected a few tiny mistakes I found along the way!
Now let’s talk about what sounds like a much more complex process – altering content, both the text and actual images, that simply would not make sense if translated directly into Spanish.
Jarod: A good example of this was in chapter 7. The kids and the dogs head to the library. The kids are reading a picture book in Spanish and the dogs are curious because they don’t know Spanish. There’s a brief conversation about how the kids’ Spanish is a little rusty, and that they need to practice more. In the Spanish edition, though, it’s a Spanish-speaking world, so this conversation wouldn’t have made any sense, because the dogs are speaking Spanish.
So, I rewrote the opening pages to that chapter so that the characters are talking about how comics are real books, and reading comics counts as reading. I redrew a few of the panels as well and edited the others. And we sent that scene separately to Eva to be translated, and then we went back in and swapped pages to put it all together.
Eva: And I was glad of that decision because I already had a big question mark on that page! That’s the advantage of all the team working together and communicating all along. I think the solution was perfect.
Red Panda & Moon Bear: The Curse of The Evil Eye is slated for January 2022. Will there be a Spanish translation as well? Did the experience of translating the first book alter the way you’re writing and drawing the second installment at all?
Jarod: I don’t know if they’re planning a Spanish translation of The Curse of the Evil Eye, but I really hope so! The experience of relettering and sitting with my book in Spanish definitely affected how I approached book 2. The Spanish and Cuban roots of the setting are more visible, there’s a lot more Spanish, too. I feel like reading Eva’s translation taught me what this world looks like in Spanish, and even gave me a little confidence to use more of it. I feel like I can hear the character’s voices more clearly, and that’s helped me understand them and their world better.
Eva: From my point of view, it was a great learning experience which I really enjoyed. So I hope to be part of the team again if the decision to have a Spanish version is made. How about a simultaneous launching? That would be awesome!
Jarod Roselló is a Cuban American writer, cartoonist, and teacher. He is the author of the middle-grade graphic novel Red Panda & Moon Bear, a Chicago Public Library and New York Public Library 2019 best book for young readers, and a 2019 Nerdy Award winner for graphic novels. Jarod holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction, both from The Pennsylvania State University. Originally from Miami, he now lives in Tampa, Florida, with his wife, kids, and dogs, and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida. You can reach him at http://www.jarodrosello.com and @jarodrosello (Twitter & Instagram)
Eva Ibarzabal is a Cuban-Puerto Rican translator, writer and media and language consultant. After completing a BA in Modern Languages and a MA in Translation, Eva worked in print media and television for 20 years, winning multiple accolades for the production of Special News Programs. A few years ago, her love for Literature made her switch to Literary Translation. Her works include biographies, fiction and children books. Her English to Spanish Translation of El mundo adorado de Sonia Sotomayor won the International Latino Book Award in 2020.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, Other Places Travel Guide to Paraguay, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators.
(Left: The paperback cover of Sal & Gabi Break the Universe with the 2020 Pura Belpré Award sticker. Right: The sequel, Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe, released May 5, 2020.)
Review by Toni Margarita Plummer
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents a brilliant sci-fi romp with Cuban influence that poses this question: What would you do if you had the power to reach through time and space and retrieve anything you want, including your mother, who is no longer living (in this universe, anyway)?
How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?
When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.
Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken—including his dead mother—and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.
A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in his mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.
MY TWO CENTS: This is Carlos Hernandez’s first middle grade novel, published by the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney. The imprint publishes books which draw from the mythology or folklore of underrepresented cultures. Unlike other books they’ve published, and Rick Riordan’s own books, Sal & Gabi Break the Universe doesn’t involve a half-god protagonist and aloof or sinister gods. Hernandez isn’t drawing from any mythology for his fantasy world, but rather from science and the idea of parallel universes, which is really refreshing. The Cuban aspect is there, absolutely. The book is set in Miami and we see Cuban culture everywhere, from the language to the food to the mannerisms. Sal is the best and most charming narrator we can hope for, taking us on a vibrant journey as he starts at a new school in a new city.
Culeco Academy of the Arts is not Hogwarts. There’s no magic or super powers. But artistic and creative kids will be itching to enroll! Students take classes in Textile Arts (costumes!), Health Science and the Practice of Wellness (rock-climbing!), and Theater Workshop (dancing, puppets, kata!). Detention is one big educational party.
An important but not defining part of Sal’s character is that he has diabetes, and we see how that affects his life and choices in very concrete ways. Some of the characters, including a teacher, need to be educated on what having diabetes means. Once they get it, they see that although he has some limitations, Sal is a kid just like any other. Scratch that. He’s a talented magician who always has a trick up his sleeve, especially his GOTCHA! stamp. Oh, and he can also open portals into other universes.
What stands out most in the novel are the relationships. Sal’s classmate, Gabi, a future lawyer, is a fantastic character who wears her feminism proudly and literally (all her T-shirts bear inspiring lines from women). The friendship she and Sal build is tentative at first, but cements over the course of the novel. It’s a beautiful thing to witness these two resilient and utterly delightful young people join forces to help each other. The relationships they have with their families are also wonderfully rendered. Sal lives in a big house he calls the Coral Castle with scientist Papi and principal American Stepmom who likes to say, “Phew!” Gabi spends a lot of time with her mother and her many Dads (an entertaining lot!) at the hospital, where her baby brother is in the NICU. I loved the interactions between these families as well. It’s all so intriguing, in fact, that whatever cosmic danger is brewing due to not-closing portals seems to take a back seat. And despite the book’s title, nothing catastrophic actually happens.
One word of caution: Sal’s mother passed away some years ago and he misses her so much that sometimes he inadvertently brings back an alternate Mami, who he calls Mami Muerta. If you are considering giving this to a child who has lost a parent or someone else close, you may want to consider how that particular child will respond to this aspect of the story. On the one hand, it’s maybe comforting, and mind-expanding, to think your loved one exists in other universes, just slightly different. On the other, it could be a little unnerving. Sal’s grief over his late mother is very real and sympathetic, as are his conflicted feelings about wanting her back while also knowing that his father has moved on and is very much in love with his new wife, who happens to be a lovely woman.
There is a lot of compassion to go around in this novel. Even the bully gets a chance to show there’s more to him than what meets the eye. Carlos Hernandez has created a universe infused with possibility, with love, and with acceptance. It’s a place that holds both true sadness and genuine laughs. This debut is an engaging and fun-filled read for middle schoolers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carlos Hernandez has published more than thirty works of fiction, poetry, and drama, most notably a book of short stories for adults entitled The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. He is an English professor at City University of New York, and he loves to both play games and design them. He lives with his wife, Claire, in Queens, New York.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondista and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and works as an acquiring editor at an independent publisher in New York City. Toni lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.
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.
ABOUT 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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mimi 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.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Simon & Schuster): A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.
Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.
But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.
From debut author Janelle Milanes comes a hilarious and heartfelt tale of the spectacular things that can happen when you go after what you really want.
MY TWO CENTS: I’m not a voracious reader of romance novels for any age group. This book, however, completely caught me off guard. I won’t say that the book wasn’t predictable. It was, but it would have been disappointing if it had not been predictable.
Without giving too many details away, Victoria Cruz is growing up in a world where all outcomes are designed to please what she thinks others are expecting of her. The Victoria in her head wants so much to be her own person, but she has a hard time dealing with what she thinks her parents reactions will be. Her Cuban parents gave up everything in Cuba and have worked so hard in the United States to give Victoria and her brother the life that is often unavailable in countries like Cuba. Victoria, like so many children of immigrant parents, feels like telling them that she doesn’t want to become a doctor and graduate from Harvard will disappoint them in a way she’s not ready to accept. When she finally takes the plunge and starts rebelling in small ways (which she does with help from her best friend, Annie), Victoria finally starts feeling like herself. In doing this, of course, she lies to her parents, hiding her real self once she begins acting more like the “Victoria in her head.”
Here’s where the predictability sets in. Does Victoria get in over her head with the lies she’s telling to others? Yes. Does she inevitably have to face some truths that she’s been trying to hide from herself? Maybe. Does everything turn out well in the end? Quite possibly, but I don’t want to give any spoilers!
But as I mentioned, that’s not a disadvantage in this case! The version of herself that she tries to hide is a person who is passionate, easy-going, and even incredibly funny. In one passage, Victoria complains about a part of her female anatomy in a way that is “lmao” funny, but in a way that most anyone, regardless of gender, can empathize with. Herein lies Victoria’s real value. She’s a very likable character who makes questionable decisions (just like any of us), is afraid of disappointing her parents, sometimes is a little self-centered, but not maliciously. Readers will want her to succeed, to make the person she is in her head a reality.
Because of her Cuban background, the reader gets a taste of the Latinidad that she identifies with (large family gatherings, celebrating Noche Buena with her abuelita who never lets an opportunity to comment on Victoria’s vegetarianism pass, learning choreographed salsa dances because you’re in your cousin’s quince court). The thing that Milanes does particularly well is she makes Victoria more than just a Cuban-American. While her parents are a little obsessed with her being an exemplary child (for legitimate reasons, of course), Victoria is not defined just by her Cuban identity or her Latina ethnicity. Instead, those things are small parts of the compilation that is a more real representation of identity: where she comes from is important, but so is what she likes and dislikes, who she meshes well with, what her dreams are. The way that Milanes creates a “whole package” character in Victoria is what shines brightest in this book.
TEACHING TIPS: One important lesson to be learned from reading The Victoria In My Head is that it’s important to be true to yourself. Throughout the book, Victoria tries to deny the things that she wants out of life to either please those around her or be the model person that she thinks others want to see. The reader can see her grapple with her identity throughout, and can hopefully associate with her struggle and learn that compromising one’s identity to please the world often leads to catastrophe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Author’s Website): Janelle Milanes is originally from Miami, FL and received her BA in English Literature from Davidson College. A lifelong YA addict, she moved to New York for her first job as a children’s literature associate at Simon & Schuster. For the past five years, Janelle has worked as a teacher and librarian throughout the New York City area. Her first novel reflects many of her own experiences growing up as a second-generation Latina in America. Janelle currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two cats. Her favorite Disney princess is Belle, since she was also a big book nerd.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.
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 OrderofthePhoenix, 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
ABOUT 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.