Book Review: Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle by Hilda Eunice Burgos


Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERHer last name may mean “kings,” but Ana María Reyes REALLY does not live in a castle. Rather, she’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two parents (way too loveydovey), three sisters (way too dramatic), everyone’s friends (way too often), and a piano (which she never gets to practice). And when her parents announce a new baby is coming, that means they’ll have even less time for Ana María.

Then she hears about the Eleanor School, New York City’s best private academy. If Ana María can win a scholarship, she’ll be able to get out of her Washington Heights neighborhood school and achieve the education she’s longed for. To stand out, she’ll need to nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase, which means she has to practice through her sisters’ hijinks, the neighbors’ visits, a family trip to the Dominican Republic . . . right up until the baby’s birth! But some new friends and honest conversations help her figure out what truly matters, and know that she can succeed no matter what.

Ana María Reyes may not be royal, but she’s certain to come out on top.

MY TWO CENTSAna María (Anamay to her family) is a 6th-grader, living in a two-bedroom apartment with Mami and Papi, her older sister Gracie (8th grade), and younger sisters Rosie (6) and Connie (3). With barely enough time and space to practice her beloved piano to prepare for her Lincoln Center performance, Anamay is less than excited when Mami and Papi announce that a new baby is expected to arrive in December.

It’s no surprise that Ana María doesn’t feel seen or appreciated at home until Tía Nona comes from the  Dominican Republic to visit. Tía Nona knows just how to make Anamay feel special with regular phone calls and praise for her piano-playing successes. When Tía Nona announces that she is getting married in the Dominican Republic, Papi quickly declares that they can’t afford to pay for everyone to attend. But with a little convincing from Ana María, and a financial intervention from Tía Nona, the Reyes family soon finds themselves preparing for the big trip and the big day.

Tía Nona likes to have every comfort, and Ana María is no different. She feels like she connects best with Tía Nona out of everyone in her family…until they arrive in the Dominican Republic and everyone is witness to Tía Nona’s cruel treatment of a young servant girl named Clarisa, whom Tía Nona calls “Cosita” (little thing). When Ana María sees Clarisa struggle to help her family eat, she gains a new perspective on her own privileges and life back home in New York…and a new perspective on Tía Nona.

As Ana María works to perfect her Lincoln Center recital piece, the lessons she learned in the Dominican Republic — about family, friendships, and what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re not — all lead Ana María to make some tough choices to make her dreams come true.

Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle has a lot of moving parts, each playing off the other to create a story with depth and heart, and Hilda Eunice Burgos weaves it all together like a master composer.

Lee & Low Books offers this Teacher’s Guide for Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle.

hilda9573ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hilda Eunice Burgos has been writing for many years, but Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle is her first published novel. Her parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born, and she grew up in Washington Heights as one of four sisters. She now lives with her family near Philadelphia, where she works as an environmental lawyer. Please visit her website at

Check out the Middle Grade Author Q&A she did with us:


ABOUT THE REVIEWERJessica Walsh is a K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist from suburban Chicago. She has been a middle school teacher for twelve years. She holds degrees in Secondary English Education and Reading Instruction. She is a mom, an avid reader, and a strong advocate for equity in education. You can find her on Twitter at @storiestoldinsf.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 7: Hilda Eunice Burgos


By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the seventh 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 Hilda Eunice Burgos.

Her debut middle grade novel, Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, released October 2, 2018! Here’s a description of it:

Her last name may mean “kings,” but Ana María Reyes REALLY does not live in a castle. Rather, she’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two parents (way too lovey-dovey), three sisters (way too dramatic), everyone’s friends (way too often), and a piano (which she never gets to practice). And when her parents announce a new baby is coming, that means they’ll have even less time for Ana María.

Then she hears about the Eleanor School, New York City’s best private academy. If Ana María can win a scholarship, she’ll be able to get out of her Washington Heights neighborhood school and achieve the education she’s longed for. To stand out, she’ll need to nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase, which means she has to practice through her sisters’ hijinks, the neighbors’ visits, a family trip to the Dominican Republic . . . right up until the baby’s birth! But some new friends and honest conversations help her figure out what truly matters, and know that she can succeed no matter what. Ana María Reyes may not be royal, but she’s certain to come out on top.

And now more about Hilda: Hilda’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born, and she grew up in Washington Heights, New York City, as the third of four sisters. Hilda received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in French and Spanish literatures, and her J.D from Harvard Law School. She now lives and practices law in the Philadelphia area. Hilda and her husband have two grown children and an adorable little dog. Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle is her first book.

Hilda is also a member of Las Musas, the first collective of women and non binary Latinx MG and YA authors to come together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature.


Hilda Eunice Burgos

hilda9573Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. Books and my love of language. I wanted to be a writer as soon as I learned how to read, but I never thought it could be my “real job.” I took creative writing classes for fun in college and law school, but it was after law school, when I took a night course on writing for children, that I felt I had found my writing niche.


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

A. I choose to write middle grade novels because I enjoy reading them. Middle grade books can include thought-provoking themes that expand our hearts and minds, while also providing a hopeful and encouraging message. It’s great to see that middle grade books are more diverse and inclusive now than they were when I was a child (a LONG time ago), but we still have a long way to go before every reading child feels represented. I hope to do my part by adding my traditionally underrepresented voice to the mix.


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

A. That is a very tough question to answer. I love so many middle grade novels! I especially enjoy realistic fiction that tugs at the heart, like Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo; Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes; When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin; Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan; One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia … I could go on and on. I also enjoy humorous books and novels in verse, both of which are so difficult to write, yet authors like Susan Tan (creator of the very funny Cilla Lee-Jenkins books), Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Kwame Alexander, and Margarita Engle make them seem effortless. As you can see, I can’t really pick one or even a few favorites.


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

A. Have fun and enjoy being a kid!


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

A. Middle grade novels are important because middle grade children are ready and eager to explore the world outside of themselves, and novels are a great and safe way to do that.One of my favorite authors, Julia Alvarez, has said that “we come out of a great book as a different person from the person we were when we began reading it.” This is certainly true of good middle grade books, which can teach children that tough circumstances are out there, but we can deal with them, and we will emerge different and stronger on the other side.



photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy 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.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Award Winners: Spotlight on Julia Alvarez


PuraBelpreAwardThe Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Julia Alvarez, the winner of the 2004 Pura Belpré Narrative Award for Before We Were Free and the 2010 Narrative Award for Return to Sender.

Reviews by Cindy L. Rodriguez


DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her 12th birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have emigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared without a trace, and the government’s secret police terrorize her remaining family because of their suspected opposition of el Trujillo’s dictatorship.

Using the strength and courage of her family, Anita must overcome her fears and fly to freedom, leaving all that she once knew behind.

From renowned author Julia Alvarez comes an unforgettable story about adolescence, perseverance, and one girl’s struggle to be free.

MY TWO CENTS: Anyone who has read Julia Alvarez’s adult novels will enjoy the connections made in Before We Were Free to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. In Before We Were Free, Alvarez explores the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic through the eyes of Anita de la Torre, a 12-year-old girl in 1960 whose family slowly reduces in number during the novel. Some, like her cousins, the Garcias, flee the country, while others go missing or are arrested. In the beginning, Anita has little knowledge of politics and the underground movement to assassinate Trujillo. In fact, at the start of the novel, Anita looks to El Jefe’s picture at times when she needs strength. She slowly becomes more aware that life under Trujillo has become increasingly dangerous for many, including her own family members who are a part of the movement to kill the dictator.

One moment of shocking clarity comes when Trujillo attends a party and becomes attracted to her fifteen-year-old sister. The family goes into emergency mode and manages to get her sister out of the country before Trujillo can take her in every sense of the word. Anita’s increased understanding leaves her confused and literally shocked into silence. The once-talkative girl slips into silence, at times even forgetting words that were once simple and familiar. When Anita and her mother go into hiding after Trujillo’s assassination, she writes in her diary, but then erases the pages in case the secret police raid the home. She literally cannot say or write anything because of fear. At some point, Anita decides to write and not erase–or be erased. She wants someone to know she existed if she were ever taken away by the police.

Throughout the novel, Alvarez often refers to wings, birds, and flying in connection with the Mirabal sisters, the “Butterflies” who were murdered, and the fight for freedom that continued through Anita’s family and others. Anita not only takes flight from her home, but has to learn how to free herself internally, to spread her wings and fly despite her grief of losing family and everything she considered home.

A masterful storyteller, Alvarez makes a complex political situation accessible to younger readers through Anita, who faces political drama alongside normal 12-year-old milestones, like getting her period and having a first crush. Alvarez also sprinkles the narrative with other issues that she does not delve into deeper, but could be discussion starters for book clubs and students. For example, Anita’s family employs a black, superstitious Haitian maid. While she is loved like family, this dynamic should spark conversation about race and class issues within Latin American countries. Another example is when Anita begins school in New York City. She is placed in the second grade, despite her age, and her teacher calls her “Annie Torres.” This scene is like a one-two punch to the gut and should be examined further. Mental health is another issue touched upon that warrants further discussion. Anita talks about feeling empty and numb, and her mother takes tranquilizers to calm her nerves. The reader gets the idea that living under such conditions and surviving when family members did not will require years of emotional and psychological recovery.

TEACHING TIPS: Before We Were Free is a great option to include in a historical fiction unit in Language Arts or as a fictional option in a Social Studies class learning about different types of governments, Latin America, or under a theme such as “the fight for freedom.” Students often learn about the colonists’ fight against the British, but rarely learn about more recent struggles for democracy in other countries. The relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic could be explored, as well as the ideas mentioned above. Anita’s character development should be traced and analyzed, paying close attention to what triggers each of her changes and what finally prompts her to have the courage to embrace her new life.


Review from Vamos a Leer

Educator Guide from Vamos a Leer

Reader’s Guide from Penguin Random House



DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm from foreclosure. Tyler isn’t sure what to make of these workers. Are they undocumented? And what about the three daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected to her American life. Her family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico. Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?

In a novel full of hope, but with no easy answers, Julia Alvarez weaves a beautiful and timely story that will stay with readers long after they finish it.

MY TWO CENTS: Although Before We Were Free and Return to Sender are set in different countries, they have similarities. In Return to Sender, Mari and her family are migrant workers on a Vermont dairy farm. She encounters a mix of acceptance and scorn from her classmates, the townspeople, and even Tyler, at first. The chapters are shared between Mari (first person, often written in letters) and Tyler (third person), who reveals that he is confused about being a proud, patriotic American and knowing that his father is breaking the law by hiring undocumented workers. In addition to dealing with the varied reactions of the locals, Mari’s family worries about the whereabouts of her mother, who returned to Mexico but is supposed to be on her way back via a coyote. She has been unreachable, however, for several months. The family is also under constant threat of deportation. Complicating matters, Mari was born in Mexico, while her two younger sisters were born in the United States, which splits their feelings about where is home and how they would feel if they needed to return to Mexico.

Like Anita in Before We Were Free, Mari ends up in hiding and writing in a diary, after a raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ends with her parents being arrested. Also like Anita, Mari needs to find her voice and, in her case, she has to find the courage to speak on behalf of her family to government officials. Read together, students could explore the different reasons for immigration, as the families in the two novels come to the United States for different reasons–political asylum versus employment–yet the underlying reason is always the same–more opportunities for their children.

Things that struck me as odd were Mari’s heavy accent (I listened to the audio book), her lack of understanding of English “sayings,” and her fond memories of Mexico, considering she moved to the U.S. when she was 4 and has attended American schools. Based on my experience with ELL students, these details would have made more sense if Mari had been in the U.S. for only a few years, not the majority of her life.

Still, Return to Sender does a great job of offering various viewpoints on immigration and migrant workers on struggling American farms, and I like that Alvarez places her migrant workers in Vermont, where the author lives, as we most often read and hear about migrant workers in border states.

TEACHING TIPS: As mentioned above, students could read both novels and compare/contrast the characters and their experiences, as both face personal, familial, and political challenges. Return to Sender also allows students to learn more about immigration and migrant workers, particularly in New England. The title was taken from a real government operation to find and deport migrant workers, so students can research that particular policy while reading this fictional account. Both books also lend themselves to deep questions about freedom, rights, and who has access to these.


Educators guide from Random House has interviews and several links with more information about Alvarez and her work.


Jilia Avaraz receiving a medal from Barack ObamaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Alvarez is an award-winning writer of poetry, essays, and novels and short stories for children and adults. Alvarez was born in New York City, but her family returned to the Dominican Republic when she was three months old. Her family became involved with the underground movement against dictator Rafael Trujillo. They left the country and returned to New York City in 1960. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and earned her master’s in creative writing from Syracuse University. She is currently the writer in residence at Middle College and runs a sustainable coffee farm/literacy center in the Dominican Republic.

Her novels for adults include How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, In the Time of Butterflies, iYo!In the Name of Salomé, and Saving the World. Her books for children include How Tía Lola Came to Visit/Stay, Before We Were Free, Finding Miracles, and Return to Sender. Alvarez has won numerous awards for her work, including the Pura Belpré and Américas Awards for her books for young readers, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. In this picture, she is receiving the National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by President Barack Obama.

A Conversation with Author-Illustrator Matt Tavares

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright 2015 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright 2015 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA.

By Lila Quintero Weaver

When author-illustrator Matt Tavares turns his focus on a children’s book topic, beautiful things happen. We love what he did with Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It  from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues, a stirring picture book biography of the Dominican baseball great Pedro Martinez and his highly influential brother Ramón. Now we’re turning our focus on Matt himself, a prolific producer of books for kids, who agreed to answer a few of our burning questions.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Wow, your paintings are magnificent! They’re highly realistic yet deliver much more than faithful representation, in terms of their emotive power and aesthetics. Please tell us about your journey to professional illustration.

Matt: Wow, thank you! That’s certainly what I always try to do, so it’s very nice to hear my pictures described that way. Even if I’m painting a realistic scene, there is always something I can do to heighten it, to go beyond what a photograph might show.

Matt's been drawing since childhood.

Matt’s been drawing baseball figures since childhood.

I’ve always loved to draw. Even when I was 4 or 5 years old, I thought of myself as an artist. I drew all the time, and knew I wanted to be some kind of artist when I grew up. It wasn’t until I was a junior at Bates College that I decided I wanted to illustrate picture books. I wrote and illustrated a picture book as my senior thesis. I spent my whole senior year working on it. After that, things happened pretty quickly- I found an agent who liked it, and she shopped it around to publishers, and found Candlewick Press. They basically asked me to do the whole thing over again with the guidance of an editor and art director, which I happily did. Then in 2000, Zachary’s Ball was published, my first book.

Matt hard at work in his studio

Matt hard at work in his studio

LiKL: You’re not only an illustrator—you also write. Can you walk us through the process of creating a picture book, starting from the idea phase and ending with publication?

Matt: Sure. The beginning part is pretty messy, where I just have all kinds of ideas floating around and I write everything down in my notebook. From there, most of the ideas just wither away, but every now and then one of them grows into something I think I might actually be able to work with.

I always write the words first, then once I figure out how to divide it up into pages, I do rough sketches. And there is always a lot of back and forth between the words and pictures. In a picture book, part of the story will be told with words and part of the story will be told with pictures. Once I start figuring out what the pictures are going to be, I realize I don’t need some of the words.

Once all my sketches are approved by my art director (after a couple rounds of revisions, usually), I start working on the final illustrations. That part usually takes 4 to 6 months. The whole process, from start to finish, can take 9 months to a year, depending on the book. Then once all the illustrations are done, it’s about a year until it comes out in stores.

LiKL: By my count, seven of your published children’s books center on baseball stories, including Growing Up Pedro, your picture-book bio of Dominican major league star Pedro Martinez, which we reviewed in November. What’s your connection to the sport?

Matt: Baseball is just something I’ve always loved. I grew up near Boston and have great memories of going to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox play. When I was a kid, I was really into collecting baseball cards, watching baseball, playing baseball and wiffle ball. It’s one of the few things that has been a constant in my life from the very beginning. So when I started writing books for kids, baseball was a natural subject. Honestly, I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid, but I would read anything if it was about baseball. I know there are still kids like that, and I hope they find my books!

LiKL: Speaking of Growing Up Pedro, you must have done a great deal of research on Pedro Martinez’s life and career, not to mention baseball in general and Dominican life. Fill us in.

Matt: This was my fourth baseball biography, but it was the first about a player I actually got to watch play. So this book was very personal for me. I read a lot of interviews and articles, but I also relied on my own memories of being at Fenway when Pedro was pitching. When he was on the mound, Fenway Park transformed into a different place. There was this electricity that surrounded him. I was excited to try to capture that in a book.


In the Dominican Republic, local children were happy to pose for photos Matt would use in illustrating Growing Up Pedro.

I also traveled to the Dominican Republic when I was working on Growing Up Pedro, which was amazing. Instead of just finding pictures online, I actually got to go to places that still look how they did when Pedro was a kid. I took tons of pictures. It was incredible to be able to go home after that trip and use all these experiences that were fresh in my mind and put them right into my book. It really helped me feel personally connected to the whole story.

LiKL: On this blog, we highlight excellent kid lit that focuses on Latino/a characters, something you pulled off beautifully in Growing Up Pedro. As far as you can tell, has this picture book expanded your reach into the Latino community?


Meeting young fans at book events

Matt: Absolutely, and that’s been really great. I was thrilled when I found out Candlewick was going to do a Spanish edition of the book, because I know that Pedro is a hero to millions of Spanish-speaking people. I love knowing that kids can read Pedro’s story in English or Spanish.

It’s such a powerful thing when a kid can see a bit of themselves in a character, and I think a lot of people have made that connection with Pedro. For some kids it’s because he grew up poor, or even just that he was skinny and small. But I think the fact Pedro is Latino definitely helps a lot of Latino/a readers feel more connected to the story.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright 2015 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright 2015 Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA.

LiKL: Suppose you could hang around the studios of any three illustrators—living or dead—for the purpose of asking questions and observing technique. Who would those illustrators be and why?

Matt: Tough to pick three… I’ll say Chris Van Allsburg, because he’s one of my all-time favorite illustrators, and I would love to watch him work. I would probably just take pictures of all his art supplies then go to the art store and buy all the same stuff. Maurice Sendak, because he was a genius and was always so fascinating in interviews. I never got to meet him. And Jerry Pinkney. I did a book signing with him once, and he was so nice and humble and approachable. He’s been making books for so long, and has had so much success. I’d love to spend some time with him and maybe pick up some good habits.

LiKL: Naturally, we’re curious to know what’s next from Matt Tavares. If you’re free to share, tell us about books already in production, or a project still shiny with wet paint.

Matt: My next book is Crossing Niagara, which is a picture book about The Great Blondin, the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. That comes out in April. Then I have another picture book biography that I illustrated with Candlewick that comes out in Spring 2017, about the first woman pilot. And right now I’m just starting final art for a book I wrote that comes out in Fall 2017. This one is going to be a very new direction for me- it’s fiction, and the main characters are birds. I’m very excited to try something new.

DR2Writer, illustrator, baseball lover! Learn more about Matt Tavares and his books at his official website.

Book Review: Growing Up Pedro by Matt Tavares

Growing Up Pedro


Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Before Pedro Martinez pitched the Red Sox to a World Series championship, before he was named to the All-Star team eight times, before he won the Cy Young Award three times, he was a kid from a place called Manoguayabo in the Dominican Republic. Pedro loved baseball more than anything, and his brother Ramón was the best pitcher he’d ever seen. He dreamed of the day he and his brother could play together in the major leagues. This is the story of how that dream came true. Matt Tavares has crafted a fitting homage to a modern-day baseball star that examines both his improbable rise to the top of his game and the power that comes from the bond between brothers.

MY TWO CENTS: The author-illustrator Matt Tavares makes beautiful picture books, many of which explore stories from baseball. His sports biographies for young readers include Henry Aaron’s Dream, There Goes Ted Williams, and Becoming Babe Ruth. In Growing Up Pedro, Dominican major league pitcher Pedro Martinez takes a turn in the spotlight. At the peak of Martinez’s brilliant career, he pitched for the Boston Red Sox. In 2004, his performance in Game 3 helped the team capture a long-sought World Series championship. Martinez’s story abounds with tall achievements, but there are other, smaller points of inspiration in his journey, and this combination makes him an ideal hero for kid readers.

Just as the title implies, Growing Up Pedro traces Martinez’s rise to baseball glory back to childhood years. As the story begins, young Martinez sits on the sidelines, riveted by his older brother Ramón’s ability to fire fastballs. Ramón is good—really good—but even as he pursues his own baseball dreams, Ramón takes the time to teach Pedro everything he knows about pitching. Sometimes they practice their aim on mangos, still clinging to the branches. When Ramón is drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pedro continues honing his skills on his own and ultimately captures the attention of U.S. talent scouts. After he joins his brother in Los Angeles, Pedro faces new challenges. He must work hard to prove himself to critics who consider him too small-framed to succeed as a major-leaguer. Before it’s all over, Martinez perfects a 97-mph fastball, wins the prestigious Cy Young Award multiple times, captures a World Series title, and lands a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Matt Tavares shares about Growing Up Pedro during a library visit. Photo credit: Sujei Lugo

Growing Up Pedro succeeds on multiple levels. First, it’s a story of dreaming big and achieving bigger. The narrative emphasizes that talent plus hard work make it possible for this young boy to rise out of obscurity and poverty. In one illustration, Pedro is shown alone, practicing outdoors at sunset. With Ramón already in the United States, Pedro’s internal drive to excel is what keeps him going, throwing pitch after pitch in the dying light.

As already noted, this picture book offers a warm portrayal of the family bonds that carry both brothers into the ranks of professional sports. One vignette shows them dreaming aloud: “At night, they lie awake, two to a mattress, and talk about what they will do when they are millionaires.”

Growing Up Pedro also gives satisfying glimpses of rural Caribbean life, and it drives home the importance of baseball in the Dominican culture. At Campo Las Palmas, a Dodgers’ facility in the Dominican Republic, dozens of boys go through the thirty-day tryout alongside Pedro.

Matt Tavares’s illustrations command attention. The soft colors of his landscapes suggest sunshine diffused by tropical humidity. Mountains draped in lush vegetation fill the backdrops of the Dominican scenes. In the second part of the story, Pedro’s world switches to baseball stadiums packed with cheering fans, dressed in Red Sox team colors. One powerful illustration zooms in on Martinez’s face as he stands at the pitcher’s mound. His eyes contain supreme focus and reflect years of devotion to his sport. The accompanying text reads: “…when it is his turn to pitch, Pedro is very serious. All day, he is quiet and focused. When he takes the mound, he imagines he is a lion fighting for his food.” (This image is available for viewing on the author’s website, linked below in his bio.)

Kids respond to Matt's art with baseball illustrations of their own, Photo credit: Sujei Lugo

Kids respond to Matt’s art with baseball illustrations of their own. Photo credit: Sujei Lugo

Toward the end of the book, the narrative circles back around to the Dominican Republic. When an injured Pedro nevertheless pitches and sends the Red Sox into the American League Championship Series, Tavares’s paintbrush fills in scenes of celebration on the home front, where fans gather in front of television sets to watch Pedro. Following his success, “people dance in the streets. Kids tie scraps of metal to their bikes and ride through the darkness. Sparks light up the night like fireworks.” This is a transcendent moment that extends the hero’s journey into something bigger than himself, into a victory for all his people and for other dreamers, near and far.

Matt Tavares is a prolific writer and illustrator of children’s books. His work has received starred reviews and high honors, including three Parents’ Choice Gold Awards, six Oppenheim Gold Seal Awards, and an International Reading Association Children’s Book Award. Matt’s original artwork has been exhibited at major museums. He’s a popular speaker and presenter to adult and child audiences alike. Visit his official website to learn more.


Visit Pedro Martinez’s page on the National Baseball Hall of Fame site.

The Dominican Republic boasts a jaw-dropping number of players in the ranks of professional baseball. This website provides an informative chart.

Watch a highlights video of Martinez pitching a 17-strikeout game in 1999.


IMG_1291Lila 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. 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: The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph

By Kimberly Mach

334442DESCRIPTION: Twelve-year old Ana Rosa is a blossoming writer growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country where words are feared. Yet there is so much inspiration all around her – watching her brother search for a future, learning to dance and to love, and finding out what it means to be part of a community – that Ana Rosa must write it all down. As she struggles to find her own voice and a way to make it heard, Ana Rosa realizes the power of her words to transform the world around her – and to transcend the most unthinkable of tragedies.

MY TWO CENTS: The message here is understanding free speech and the power of words. Even though this is the key to the whole story, I found myself loving the book for other reasons, too.

The Color of My Words, by Lynn Joseph, is told through poetry and prose. The start of each chapter is a poem written by Ana Rosa, with the final poem, The Color of My Words, lending itself to the title.

It was a surprising read for me because I got more than I expected. Reading the novel allowed me a window into Dominican culture in a way that films and textbooks have not. Perhaps it’s that the story is about the lives of one family and their neighbors in one village. Their traditions, their laughter, and their struggles were tangible to me because Lynn Joseph brought those characters to life. When I closed the book the colors and rhythm of the culture stayed with me as much as the message.

Joseph shows us that there is poverty in the DR, but the people here are not poor. These are, in fact, two different things. For the majority of Dominicans, economic struggle is part of life. It is real and ever-present. In the opening of the story, Ana Rosa says she can’t have a notebook of her own because the cost is equal to “two whole dinners” for her family. Despite this, it’s the richness of life with family and friends that abounds. At the end of every two weeks, on pay day, there is a celebration, a fiesta.  “On fiesta days, people forgot their roofs that leaked rain, and the jobs that were closing down, and the tourists that didn’t come this year, and how much they missed husbands and brothers who worked hard in Nueva York and sent money home by Western Union. On fiesta days, there were no problemas!”

One of the most memorable moments of the book for me is when Ana Rosa shares with us what it is like to dance the merengue on these fiesta days. She describes the music that flows through the limbs of her Papi, straight into the ground, and how one seems to pull the beat from the other. It is a unique point of view because Ana Rosa cannot dance. When others dance at fiesta Ana Rosa serves food and takes care of the babies. It is her father, her Papi, who finally teaches her how to feel the music, a music that is a constant rhythm in the lives of her family and neighbors. In a moving scene that takes the reader from the back porch to the beach near their home, Papi teaches Ana Rosa to feel the world around her, to listen to the sea and find the rhythms there.

This strength and new courage give Ana Rosa the confidence to use her words and write an article about the rights of the village being infringed on by the government. This action terrifies Mami because people who speak against the government in their country often pay a steep price. This is where the powerful message comes in. Lynn Joseph constructs this story in a way that will grab students and help them to understand both the power of words and the sacred freedom of speech. After reading The Color of My Words, they will be less likely to take that right for granted.

TEACHING TIPS: The social studies connections abound, but they go beyond culture and geography. The real connection when students finish this book will be made in civics and government. What citizens of the United States enjoy as the first amendment, the freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, is not consistent throughout the world. In some countries, citizens cannot speak their own mind. The penalties are stiff ranging from fines to imprisonment and even death. For students to read about characters who risk so much to speak their minds, in voice or print, will be humbling and allow them to gain a new understanding and appreciation for the right to free speech. Students will come away from this book understanding that no system is perfect, but those that protect and honor a citizen’s right to speak, allow debate and political discourse, are respectful of our human dignity.

In Language Arts, the novel may be used in several ways, including a study in poetry. Ana Rosa’s poetry uses several different rhyme schemes throughout the book and her topics are varied. She writes about wash day with Mami, her desire to record her thoughts on paper, and the colors in an election year. After students have read the book, they may reexamine these poems and read them in a new light. There are multiple passages in which a study of figurative language can be used. Among my top picks here would be the scenes where Papi teaches Ana Rosa to dance, where Ana Rosa shares with us the feelings of her first crush, and the scenes where she is writing and the freedom she feels in being able to put words to paper. Chapters may be used in isolation as well, but I would make sure to have a copy of the book nearby because students will want to read it once they get the experience of one chapter!

AUTHOR: Lynn Joseph has a wealth of experiences that she brings to her writing. Lynn was fortunate to spend time in both Trinidad and the United States when she was younger. According to her website, she loves to travel and meet people in new places. This is undoubtedly where her stories come from. When she goes to a new place she experiences it fully, and fortunately for her readers, she chooses to share it through the power of story. She is the author of several picture books and Flowers in the Sky, a young adult novel. The Color of My Words was a Notable Book for a Global Society, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and won the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. For more information, please visit her website which contains a full interview and tips for student writers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Color of My Words, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out, and

Kimberly Mach (2)Kimberly Mach has been teaching for sixteen years and holds two teaching certificates in elementary and secondary education. Her teaching experience ranges from grades five to twelve, but she currently teaches Language Arts to middle school students. It is a job she loves. The opportunity to share good books with students is one that every teacher should have. She feels privileged to be able to share them on a daily basis.