Book Review: The Victoria In My Head by Janelle Milanes

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

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.

greeceABOUT 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.

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT 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.

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.

 

Book Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

This review is based on an advance reader’s edition.

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: In the tradition of Before I Fall and If I Stay, this tour de force from acclaimed author Adam Silvera, whose debut the New York Times called “profound,” reminds us that there’s no life without death, no love without loss—and that it’s possible to change your whole world in a day.

Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio are going to die today. The two boys are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. There is some good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure—to live a lifetime in a single day.

MY TWO CENTS: The release date for They Both Die at the End was September 5, 2017. It’s no coincidence that the novel also takes place on that date, with chapters time-stamped to reflect the passing hours. This is no ordinary day for Mateo Torrez, 18, and Rufus Emeterio, 17, both of New York City. An unfailingly accurate notification service known as Death-Cast delivers the news that it is their last day on earth. Sadly, both boys have lost loved ones whose deaths were predicted in the same, bone-chilling fashion.

They Both Die at the End sends readers on a spellbinding adventure, following the two main characters as they squeeze in one more day of living. The story hits the ground running at 12:22 a.m., when Mateo’s phone sounds the eerie Death-Cast alert. Rufus receives his alert not long after that. Yet for all the tension of the ticking countdown, this novel narrates a surprisingly tender friendship that springs up between the two strangers. They connect through the app Last Friend, one of numerous social, cultural, and commercial spin-off products resulting from the launch of Death-Cast, which has been in existence for six years.

By the time Rufus and Mateo’s last day arrives, society has accepted the reliability of the Death-Cast predictions, and has developed norms in response to the ubiquitous presence of so-called Deckers, people who’ve received the last-day warning. This is made evident in a scene where subway passengers realize that a Decker and her Last Friend are among them. A stranger offers sympathy. “Sorry to lose you,” she says to the Decker, and commends them both for spending the final hours together. The Death-Cast phenomenon has changed the landscape of everyday life in other ways. Restaurants offer discounts to Deckers, and at a special amusement park called Make a Memory, Deckers and their companions indulge in simulated extreme sports. Social media has summoned a flurry of responses, too, including CountDowners, a blog devoted to the postings and live-feeds of Deckers, who share real-time accounts of their final hours on earth. Silvera weaves these fictitious cultural creations seamlessly into an otherwise recognizable version of contemporary city life.

How Death-Cast knows when a person will expire is anyone’s guess, but because his mom died in childbirth, Mateo has been death-haunted all his life. Paranoia about dying has kept him from making friends and participating in childhood activities, such as going on sleepovers and roller-skating in the park. Now, with the bitter reality of death squarely before him, Mateo is engulfed in the pain of wasted opportunities. When the End Day news comes, he is home alone. His father, who is hospitalized in intensive care, has been in a coma for weeks, and Mateo’s only other significant connections are with a close friend, Lidia, and her one-year-old daughter.

While Mateo is a loner, who from the safe confines of his apartment has engaged primarily with the digital universe of blogs, games, and apps— Rufus is more of a here-and-now guy: confident, socially connected, and comfortable jumping into new experiences in a way that Mateo never has been. When readers meet Rufus, he’s giving his ex-girlfriend’s new guy a beat-down. Then the Death-Cast ringtone goes off and everybody freezes. Although foster brothers Malcolm and Tagoe are on hand to provide Rufus with backup during the fight, for reasons that aren’t immediately revealed, they can’t help him once the police get involved. So Rufus takes flight alone, into the darkened streets of the city. He needs a friend.

The novel follows Mateo and Rufus from their separate, but equally jarring Death-Cast notices until they connect through the Last Friend app. During the course of their hours together, they bridge the initial awkwardness, and in cementing a friendship, defy the opposing pull of their personalities and lifestyles. Rufus gently goads Mateo to push aside long-held fears, and Mateo responds by embracing new experiences, from small to significant. By the time they land at Clint’s Graveyard—a dance and karaoke club that exists to give Deckers an unforgettable send-off—Mateo is more alive, more himself than ever, and the boys’ friendship turns romantic.

In his debut, More Happy Than Not, Adam Silvera demonstrated a fluid command of speculative fiction. In They Both Die at the End, he repeats that impressive feat, crafting a futuristic world that lands credibly in all its disquieting aspects, yet never forgets that telling a specific story is the most important order of business. Silvera’s ability to weave the strange and disturbing world of Death-Cast into a powerful character-driven narrative keeps readers on the edge to the last page, and drives a keen level of anticipation for the next offering from this gifted writer.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find They Both Die at the End, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adam Silvera was born and raised in the Bronx. He has worked in the publishing industry as a children’s bookseller, marketing assistant at a literary development company, and book reviewer of children’s and young adult novels. His debut novel, More Happy Than Not, received multiple starred reviews and is a New York Times bestseller. Visit his author site for more information.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: Martí’s Song for Freedom/ Martí y sus versos por la libertad written by Emma Otheguy, illus. by Beatriz Vidal

 

Reviewed by Chantel Acevedo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As a young boy, Jose Martí traveled to the countryside of Cuba and fell in love with the natural beauty of the land. During this trip he also witnessed the cruelties of slavery on sugar plantations. From that moment, Martí began to fight for the abolishment of slavery and for Cuban independence from Spain through his writing. By age seventeen, he was declared an enemy of Spain and was forced to leave his beloved island. Martí traveled the world and eventually settled in New York City. But the longer he stayed away from his homeland, the sicker and weaker he became. On doctor’s orders he traveled to the Catskill Mountains, where nature inspired him once again to fight for freedom. Here is a beautiful tribute to Jose Martí, written in verse with excerpts from his seminal work, Versos sencillos. He will always be remembered as a courageous fighter for freedom and peace among all men and women.

MY TWO CENTS: Nineteenth century Cuba and New York come alive in the pages of Emma Otheguy‘s Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad. Otheguy tells the story of José Martí, Cuban poet and patriot of Cuba’s independence, in prose that feels like verse, in both English and Spanish.

Interspersed throughout are excerpts from Martí’s Versos sencillos, and the effect is a powerful one. Martí himself speaks his story in these moments, affirming with his lyricism what Otheguy has told us–stories of the poet’s childhood, of watching slaves cutting sugar cane, which makes José “shake with rage,” of finding himself in exile in the Catskill Mountains that made him homesick for Cuba, and of his return to Cuba, “like an eagle healed, to join in a new war for independence.”

Otheguy does a wonderful job of capturing the act of writing, which can be difficult to describe. We see Martí’s evolution from pamphleteer to journalist, speechwriter, to poet. The word “inspiration” comes up often, and the sources of that inspiration range from people and their suffering, to people’s excitement, to trees, birds, and of course, swaying palmas reales.

Growing up Cuban-American in Miami, José Martí’s poems were the first I committed to memory. My abuela would “test” me, and I would recite. In Martí’s poems for children, both beauty and soul resided. “Los zapaticos de rosa,” a favorite in my house, was a lesson in humility and generosity, the injustice of poverty, and the innocence of childhood. Would that all children, everywhere, in every language, could learn it! In the bilingual school I attended, we memorized “Cultivo una rosa blanca…” and said it together as a class, like a prayer. When students fought, the teachers would remind us that we were all supposed to be “amigo(s) sincero(s).” So I was delighted to have the opportunity to read Otheguy’s book and share it with my daughters. The language, both in English and Spanish, is accessible. My five year old had no trouble listening to the story. The illustrations by Beatriz Vidal are rich with detail–from the colorful mantillas on the shoulders of women to Cuban tiles on the floor of rooms, to the birds that seem to alight on the text of each page.

Though I’ve heard of Martí all my life, I was surprised to learn of Martí’s time in the Catskills and the grueling work he did in a quarry while in prison, and so the book can be illuminating to readers beyond the elementary school level. Indeed, the battles Martí fought, both rhetorically and physically, and the forces of injustice that worked against him, are conflicts that resonate today across the globe. Reading the book to a child might be followed up by discussions of injustice today, and how the places where we live might resemble Cuba in the nineteenth century. Perhaps more importantly, a discussion of how we might be more like Martí could be a wonderful take-away.

The back cover features an actual portrait of José Martí, and a quote: “And let us never forget that the greater the suffering, the greater the right to justice, and that the prejudices of men and social inequalities cannot prevail over the equality which nature has created.” It is hard to imagine a Cuban childhood sans Martí, or a description of Cuba that does include reference to his influence. But beyond Cuba, Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad comes at an important time when even young readers are thinking about how we might make the world a more just place.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at http://www.emmaotheguy.com. Emma’s guest post for this blog provided a fascinating look at her Cuban heritage and her childhood development as a reader.


Photo of Beatriz VidalABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Beatriz Vidal was born in Argentina and attended the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of Cordoba University. In New York, she studied painting and design with Ilonka Karasz for several years. During that time, her career as an illustrator began with designs for Unicef cards and record covers. She has illustrated many children’s books, including The Legend of El Dorado, A Library for Juana, Federico and the Magi’s Gift, and A Gift of Gracias. She divides her time between Buenos Aires and New York City.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Chantel Acevedo’s novels include Love and Ghost Letters (St. Martin’s Press), which won the Latino International Book Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book of the Year, Song of the Red Cloak, a historical novel for young adults, A Falling Star (Carolina Wren Press), winner of the Doris Bakwin Award, and National Bronze Medal IPPY Award, and The Distant Marvels, (Europa Editions), a Carnegie Medal finalist and an Indie Next Pick. Her latest novel, The Living Infinite (Europa Editions), is forthcoming. She is also the author of En Otro Oz (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook of poems. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, North American Review, and Ecotone, among many others. She earned her MFA at the University of Miami, where she is currently an Associate Professor of English, and advises Sinking City, the MFA program’s literary journal.

Under the Sky and Over the Sea: A Cuban-American’s Reflections on Childhood Reading

By Emma Otheguy

Every Thursday afternoon the summer I was fourteen, I volunteered at story hour. The public library had a small lawn where they would set up a chair, and us teenagers would read while the younger kids sat in the grass around us. I always came straight from dance class, and I remember so clearly how the world looked from my big reading chair: my flip-flops and convertible tights, the lawn grass and its summer scent, the kids looking up at me as I looked down at them. I discovered Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There and marveled at how it could be so mysterious and yet so familiar: a goblin’s kingdom, and a protective older sister.

That summer was the first time I was aware of not being a child myself, realizing that I had changed and that my perspective in the big chair was different from that of the little faces sitting in the grass. I was finding for the first time that I could no longer go waltzing in the front door of children’s worlds, that to access the viewpoint of these kids I would have to be like Ida in Outside Over There, who reaches the goblin realm by going backwards out the window. Ida’s story reminded me of Rubén Darío’s Margarita, sailing under the sky and over the sea to reach a kingdom where stars grow like flowers. I knew by fourteen that you could not go knocking at the door to other galaxies, that they could only be reached by an angled approach, and magic.

I knew all about finding my way to outside over there, because it was an exact reflection of my experience as a child of immigrants: translating one culture for the other, figuring out if backwards out the window or sideways through the rain was the right way to help my parents understand the latest American trend. It’s what adults do when they read picture books to children, and it’s what children do when they hold two cultures within themselves. I didn’t visit Cuba until I was a teenager, and so my parents’ homes, their memories and our family and friends in Cuba, were known to me only through this act of translation. Each summer we visited our family in Puerto Rico, my parents’ attempt to sail through the sky and pluck the stars, to show us the world we couldn’t know. We walked along El Pasaje de la princesa in San Juan, and they told us about el malecón in La Habana. In Luquillo there were memories of Varadero, and in all that sun and green and salty air we tried to find Cuba, tried to reach the world we couldn’t access in the normal way, the world we could only know backwards out the window and through the rain.

I read the Narnia books, and Julie Edwards’ Mandy and Anna Elizabeth Bennett’s The Little Witch with different eyes than the other kids in my school, with a fierce identification, because I knew all about worlds tucked away in cedar for safekeeping, about gardens under lock and key, about children and parents who could visit only in magic mirrors. Cuba was all of these things to me, and in children’s books I saw the willing together of separate worlds that I associated with the gap between my parents and me, and my role in explaining the United States to them.

But for all I learned from Ida and Margarita, I couldn’t in those days close the divide between the books I read in school and those I read at home. They might as well have existed in their own separate realms, so completely inaccessible were they to one another. At home, we read poetry and picture books that my parents picked up on their travels, or that we got as gifts from family in Puerto Rico and Mexico. We read what my parents remembered of their own childhoods, like Darío’s Margarita and Martí’s Los zapaticos de rosa. Those stories were dear, and magical, and wholly confined to my life at home.

Today, Latinx children’s authors have finally brought the books of home and the books of the school and library closer together. There are too many to name in one blog post, so I will only say that it has been a tremendous privilege to read and share the titles that have been featured on this site. These books mean that children today don’t have to experience the world as divided and distant, they mean that home and town can be closer together. They mean that it’s safe to love both Sendak and Darío.

My debut picture book, Martí’s Song for Freedom, is a biography of Cuban poet and national hero José Martí, but it is more importantly the story of the connections he made between Latin America and the United States, of how he loved Cuba while living in New York. This book honors Martí’s activism and his fight for justice, and it also tells the story of how Martí learned to go outside-over-there: how he found in the sighing pine trees the sound of the Cuban palmas reales he missed so much, how he lessened the distance between Cuba and New York. He came from everywhere and was on the road to every place, he knew how to dip under the sky and over the sea, how to close the gaps between divided worlds. He used poetry and passion to accomplish it. He too, would know about picture books, and his story is for every child who learns to share and hold our diverse cultures together.

MARTÍ’S SONG FOR FREEDOM / MARTÍ Y SUS VERSOS POR LA LIBERTAD hits shelves July 17th, 2017. To learn more about the inspiration for this book, read Emma’s earlier blog post at Anansesem. MARTÍ is now available for pre-order from any retailer, and Emma is sending signed bookplates and stickers to all pre-orders. Fill out this form to get yours!

Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at http://www.emmaotheguy.com.

 

 

Guinevere Thomas and Christina Diaz Gonzalez: Two Versions of Cuban Childhood

Mom and twinsGrowing Up Q-Ban

by Guinevere Thomas

To grow up Q-ban…it was and still is an experience.

There are probably things that all American-born Cubans share in common. But my childhood environment may not mirror another Cuban-American’s experience, because to explain how I grew up Cuban, is to also explain how I grew up Black.

I was born in Miami, Florida. It was the 80’s and my mother was a teenager doing the best she could in a harsh environment. Folks from Florida know the humidity is a killer. You could never “beat the heat,” but when you’re a kid your tolerance is higher, and much like the heat, nothing really affected me negatively before the age of six.

I was a naïve kid. So naïve, that my mother, bless her heart, told me that every single person in the world was Cuban too, and I believed it. Years later, I sent my mother sarcastic greeting cards about how she totally doomed me for life, but I see now why she did it. While no generation gets off easy when it comes to racism, her generation and those before hers experienced it in a different way. She was hoping I could navigate through the world more readily if I believed everyone was like me.

Uncle

Photobombed by an uncle!

Miami made this fantasy easy. I was surrounded by everything Cuban, or at least by closely related cultures that kept the illusion going–Puerto Rican and Haitian, to be exact. Of course, I’d always known I was Black. I just never saw myself as different from other Black kids, because most Black kids I knew in Miami were Cuban too.

Then most of my family uprooted to Jacksonville, Florida, and my naiveté fell away. I realized for the first time how split my identities were, and race and culture became challenges for me. In a city that was mostly composed of non-Latino White and Black American, my family was no longer surrounded by a common culture. We were the other. And it sucked.

In a few ways, we did fit in. In Miami, growing up with coarse hair, I’d stood apart from my mixed race or White Cuban friends whose parents didn’t spend hours on their children’s so-called pelo malo, an offensive term used by Spanish speakers. But in Jacksonville, this was the norm for non-Latino Black girls and boys. Yay! I wasn’t different in that sense anymore!

But then there was that 3rd grade field trip…

We were encouraged to bring snacks, and I asked my mother to make empanadas and ensalada criolla (my mom’s famous mix of delicious tropical veggies and fruits).

“This isn’t salad, there’s no lettuce in it.”

“Why would you put guava paste and cheese together?”

And those were some of the nicer things said about the food.

Strangely, much of the backlash came from my classmates’ parents. I was so embarrassed. Many kids shared my appearance, but they didn’t connect to me on other levels. My food was disgusting to them and they considered my name weird, especially when I went by the full version, Guinevere Zoyana.

Cuban flag

Guinevere’s bedroom as a teen included the Cuban flag.

For years, I’ve debated about which way I should identify. To most of the world I am African American, which is not bad at all, and for a big portion of my middle school/high school years, I solely chose the term Black, because this made it easier for other people. But as an Afro-Cuban, I’m part of an amazing culture and history. It sucked to hide my full identity simply because people don’t readily view me as Latina.

Even now, I struggle with identity. Growing up Cuban shaped how I saw things: How people treated me based on my appearance and the fact that I was actually Black and Cuban-American. My blended culture even had an impact on my politics.

I know some folks think being Latino is all the same, but even language isn’t enough to make Latinos a monolith. We have different colloquialisms that get lost in translation. For example, my Latino friends who aren’t Cuban think it’s weird I say “Que Bola Asere!” to a complete stranger who my sister’s old boss’ cousin mentioned might be Cuban!

Although kid-lit is producing more books highlighting the Latino experience, this doesn’t mean the stories will mirror everyone’s reality. For a very long time, the Afro-Latino experience was nowhere to be found in books, and this is why I think it’s so important to publish these stories.

Current photoI co-write with my twin sister, Libertad, and despite our experiences, we still haven’t mastered writing for Afro-Cuban teens. But our plans for 2016 will be filled with teens of various Afro-Latino backgrounds. One of our first planned releases features a Haitian-American girl and another puts an Afro-Puerto Rican girl front and center. It’s definitely a journey making these new voices heard and I’m super excited about it!

book coverGuinevere Thomas is one half of Twinja Book Reviews, a book blog that celebrates diversity in books by day, and slays ninjas by night. Diversity is her strong point. Procrastination is her weak point. If you know anyone who’d like to join her My Afro-Latino series, email her at guinevere.libertadthomas@gmail.com. Chat books with her on Twitter @dos_twinjas where she joins her partner in crime to tweet about diversity in books and media. Be sure to visit her official site (in progress). www.gltomas.net  And you can check out her debut release under her shared pen name G.L. Tomas on Amazon here!

Red Umbrella 2The Cuba I Know

by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Cuba. A land I’ve never seen with my eyes, but have felt in my heart. A place my parents and grandparents would describe in their stories as an island with the most beautiful beaches, rolling verdant hills and, if you believed my grandmother, a place where the sky was a little more blue. I was born in a country only ninety miles north of that seemingly magical island, but those ninety miles were filled with so much pain, heartache and stolen dreams that it was an abyss that my family could not, would not, cross. Yet, part of Cuba, the piece my family carried inside them to the United States, was ever present within the walls of my home.

The Cuba I experienced while living in a small, Southern town was the one my parents and grandparents chose to share with me. It was in their stories of love, loss, and sacrifice that I learned about their struggles to have a good life in Cuba and how it (along with basic freedoms that I would always enjoy in the U.S.) had been taken away from them after the communist revolution. It was this tearing apart of lives that left scars that would permeate through generations. These are the scars that are re-opened every time a dissident is jailed, a blogger beaten, or another balsero drowns trying to cross those ninety miles to freedom. It is the pain of what was left behind, what can never be recovered, of childhoods lost, and dreams turned into nightmares that my family made sure I understood.

And yet… Cuba still beckons all of its children (and the children of its children) with a siren song of love, family and culture. Those were the aspects of Cuban life I experienced on a daily basis and that became ingrained into my identity. Cuba was revealed to me in the Spanish language that we spoke at home and in the sayings like “le ronca el mango” and “por si las moscas” which never made sense in English, but completely summarized a feeling or situation. It was felt in my soul through the music of Celia Cruz, Benny Moré and La Sonora Matancera that was so often played on our old record player. I could savor Cuba in the foods that were prepared by my mother and grandmother (arroz, frijoles negros, and picadillo were staple dishes) and the pastellitos and pan cubano that my extended family would bring up from Miami whenever they came to visit. The lessons of Cuba could be seen in the value placed on education (because “no one can take what’s inside of you”) and in the smaller cultural ideas such as never being allowed to go to sleepovers, never swimming right after eating for fear of the dreadful patatú, and never placing my purse on the floor. This all formed my understanding of what it is to be Cuban.

Moving Target 2And now, fifty-five years later, it is that understanding that is reflected in my life. On a large scale, it is most easily seen in my writing through books like The Red Umbrella (the story of a Cuban girl who is sent to the US through Operation Pedro Pan) or Moving Target (an action/adventure story that features an American girl of Cuban descent who becomes embroiled in an ancient mystery dating back to biblical times). But the legacy of Cuba can also be seen in the smaller moments of my personal life such as when my children make Cuban coffee with espumita or I prevent them from jumping into the pool after having a big lunch for fear that there may be something to those patatú stories.

This is my Cuba. My heritage. A heritage that will not be forgotten, but will continue to be passed to the next generation who will hopefully see what my grandparents could not…a free Cuba with a democratically elected government. Until then, I will keep my purse off the floor…por si las moscas.

author_highresChristina Diaz Gonzalez is the award-winning author of The Red UmbrellaA Thunderous Whisper, and Moving Target. Her books have received numerous honors and recognitions including the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, the Florida Book Award, the Nebraska Book Award, a Notable Social Studies Book and the International Literacy Association’s Teacher’s Choice Award.  She speaks to students across the country about writing, the importance of telling their stories and the value of recognizing that there is a hero in each one of us. Visit her website at www.christinagonzalez.com for further information.

This concludes our series on Cuban American children’s and YA writers. We hope you loved reading these guest posts as much as we loved hosting them!