Book Review: The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt

 

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

The Radius of Us CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Ninety seconds can change a life ― not just daily routine, but who you are as a person. Gretchen Asher knows this, because that’s how long a stranger held her body to the ground. When a car sped toward them and Gretchen’s attacker told her to run, she recognized a surprising terror in his eyes. And now she doesn’t even recognize herself.

Ninety seconds can change a life ― not just the place you live, but the person others think you are. Phoenix Flores Flores knows this, because months after setting off toward the U.S. / Mexico border in search of safety for his brother, he finally walked out of detention. But Phoenix didn’t just trade a perilous barrio in El Salvador for a leafy suburb in Atlanta. He became that person ― the one his new neighbors crossed the street to avoid.

Ninety seconds can change a life ― so how will the ninety seconds of Gretchen and Phoenix’s first encounter change theirs?

Told in alternating first person points of view, The Radius of Us is a story of love, sacrifice, and the journey from victim to survivor. It offers an intimate glimpse into the causes and devastating impact of Latino gang violence, both in the U.S. and in Central America, and explores the risks that victims take when they try to start over. Most importantly, Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us shows how people struggling to overcome trauma can find healing in love.

MY TWO CENTS: To write about unaccompanied minors fleeing to the United States from El Salvador, is to talk about violence, family separation, corruption and trauma.  The Radius of Us, written by Marie Marquardt, explores the trauma of assault, gang harassment, abandonment and diaspora in the lives of Phoenix, Ari and Gretchen. Phoenix and his young brother, Ari, flee El Salvador due to gang violence. On their journey to the States, they are kidnapped in Mexico and forced into slavery. When they finally arrived to the U.S., they are arrested and separated. Although the novel begins with Gretchen’s and Phoenix’s first person narratives, we quickly learn how their lives intersect. They both live in the same Atlanta suburb and, although they don’t know it immediately, they’ve experienced traumatic events in their lives that connect them. Indeed, they face their fear of crowds, heights, and learn that trauma cannot completely leave them, and that they cannot be who they once were, yet there is the promise of recovery.

The reader can guess that Phoenix and Gretchen will eventually end up together, but the story is not about their romance. The story centers on the impact of trauma and how each of these characters is able to help the other face their fears. The author slowly takes us through the lives of the main characters and each of the people that play a small or big part in their recovery. Phoenix lives with Sally and Amanda, a couple who takes care of Phoenix while his asylum status is determined.  Phoenix volunteers as a gardener in the “place without a soul”—as Gretchen and her friend Bree call it—a community garden for the residents of the subdivision. We learn quickly that Gretchen suffers from panic attacks. She is homeschooled as a result of this, and is finishing her high school senior year studying from home.  As Phoenix and Gretchen get closer, they both learn—as does the reader—about each other’s pasts: Phoenix’s attempt for a better life in the U.S. for himself and his little brother, his fear of heights and his current immigration status; Gretchen’s assault, which causes her to have panic attacks, and her now estranged college boyfriend. The author explores the issue of trauma slowly and carefully. We see how the characters, at different points, deal with the past by being each other’s support system. Sometimes they listen, they let the other vent, or they hold each other as they re-live or are triggered by a situation that takes them right to the place of trauma. We even see how trauma is expressed differently in different characters; for example, Ari is unable (or unwilling, the jury still out!) to speak, but can draw pictures to deal with his past. We see these drawings in the book, too. The drawings, and Phoenix interpretation of them, allow the reader to see the value of different types of expression, especially as it relates to trauma therapy.

Marquardt does not shy away from issues of xenophobia, and the misunderstanding that exists when someone is in limbo about their immigration status. However, she also shows us the kindness of people willing to lend a hand, and support and advocate for those who have been wrongly persecuted. We see this in the characters of Amanda and Sally, Sister Mary Margaret, and the couple that owns a tattoo shop. Similarly, we see how Phoenix is the person that helps Gretchen heal, while at the same time sacrifices his education and life for his brother Ari.

TEACHING TIPS: In my opinion, it is impossible to teach this novel without providing the reader with the historical context of unaccompanied minors. Whether this is novel used in high school or college classrooms, it is important to understand the devastating effects of poverty and gang violence in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and the difficult decision parents (if they are still alive) must make to send their children to a safer place. Another important topic to explore is the Bestia, the train that transport thousands of Central Americans to the U.S. and about the Mexican women known as Las Patronas who feed the migrants traveling on it.

Another unique element in this novel is the intersection of drawings and tattoos to tell a story. We see Ari’s drawings as memories of his past, the traumatic events that he remembers and his nostalgia for his home country. Although we do not see the tattoos, we know they are used as markers. Gangs use them to identify each other and to mark members as cattle. This, at times, helps Phoenix and Ari survive, but it also brings shame. In the end, the reader can see how these artistic expressions prove to be transformative.

Headshot-OfficialMarie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. She is currently working on a digital oral history collection about Latin@s in Ohio, which has been published as an eBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

On Fearlessness, and Writing to Change the World: A Guest Post by Author Marie Marquardt

 

By Marie Marquardt

“I am fearless, except when I’m not.”

This is how I describe myself, each time that I gather in a classroom of ESOL students to run writing workshops. It’s part of an exercise developed by Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy, in their fabulous resource Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Each person makes a statement about who they understand themselves to be, or maybe just about how they feel at that particular moment. The statements build together to create poetry – simple, beautiful, honest poetry.

This exercise was first introduced to me by Meg Medina, who has inspired me immensely with her practice of “literary citizenship.” One way that I strive to live into the identity of a literary citizen is by gathering with nascent speakers of English – teenagers full of ideas and energy, with incredible and often heart-wrenching stories to tell, yet struggling to put them into words that are not their first language – and, in some cases, not their second or third, either. I try to be fearless as I read to them from my own stories, but sometimes I’m not.

I worry about how they will evaluate me – the middle-aged white lady whose recent book features characters like many of them – kids who have run away from some of the most dangerous communities in the world, looking for a safe place to live and maybe – just maybe – to one day call “home”.

Group shots and selfies from a recent workshop with ESOL students in a Gwinnett County, Georgia High School.

My very best days as an author are these days, when eager students come rushing up to me after our workshop, asking for selfies; when they tell me about their favorite character; when they marvel at how I learned to cuss like a Salvadoran, or how much I know about making pupusas. I want so much for my books to resonate with them — Their stories inspire me to write young adult novels in the first place.

Because of how profoundly these young adults’ experiences have shaped me, every one of my books has at least one point-of-view character who is an immigrant from Mexico or Central America. For twenty years, as an academic researcher, advocate, and service provider in Latinx immigrant communities in the South, I’ve listened to teen immigrants’ stories, and I’ve seen them unfold. I consider it an honor to create characters inspired by the teens I have had the great privilege to know. They have trusted me with their stories and I feel a great responsibility to convey their truth onto each page.

This is not a process that I take lightly, so I don’t do it alone. I rely on consultants who identify with the cultural traditions and national-origin groups I am representing. They teach me about the nuances of the culture and language, and they help me get a deeper understanding so I can build more robust and honest characters on the page (in other words, they teach me such important skills as cussing like a Salvadoran!).  I also rely on sensitivity readers, and I take their feedback very seriously.

Equally important, I consider it my responsibility to support the work of #ownvoices authors by  mentoring young authors from marginalized communities. I have worked for two years as a volunteer with We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Dean Myers Grant committee, and this year, I’ve pledged to work with ESOL students, facilitating workshops that help them build their own authorial voices and tell their own powerful stories.

I recently read a short interview with Jacqueline Woodson, when she was honored with the Lambda Literary Visionary Award. She said something that I think is damn near perfect: “Write specifically and furiously. Write to change the world.”

I aim to write specifically.

The Radius of Us CoverI can only tell the stories that I know. In the case of The Radius of Us, I felt compelled to write the story of a young asylum seeker from El Salvador because of the relationships I have built with real young adults in similar situations. It has been one of my greatest honors to help run a non-profit called El Refugio, which works with detained immigrants and their families. As part of that work, I have experienced the heartbreak of building friendships with dozens of young asylum seekers from the northern triangle of Central America. I have spent countless hours visiting with these young men in detention, sitting across the glass from them, telephones pressed to our ears. Unlike my story’s protagonist, most of these young men never have the chance to leave detention, until they are deported.

I aim to write furiously.

I am desperate for more people to know and understand the stories of these young men, and I also am, indeed, furious. I have followed some of them back to El Salvador, to see how they are faring after deportation. I have seen the dire circumstances into which our courts return them. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that, in the immigration court that determines the fate of these young men, only 5% are granted asylum. I can’t bear the thought that, like our friend Moises, some of these young people are being sent back to die.

I write to change the world.

On good days (fearless days), I remind myself that writing these stories is an act of compassion. When I allow myself to dive into the experience of Phoenix – an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, or Gretchen – a white suburban girl who was the victim of assault – I practice compassion. I hope that by telling these stories, I can model compassionate action, and I also fervently hope that, once they are out in the world, my stories will open safe, compassionate spaces. I hope that they create opportunities for teen readers to speak honestly with one another, to recognize those insidious systems (like racism and xenophobia) that aim to keep us apart, and also to affirm the beautiful, fragile humanity that we share in common.

I believe that, with more compassion, our world would be a radically different place. Compassion compels us to walk alongside people in crisis, and not to turn away. Compassion drives us to seek mutual understanding, to find those human qualities and dispositions that we share in common, while also not dismissing the profound differences that shape our experiences. Compassion changes the world.

This is what drives me to be fearless (except when I’m not).

Marie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

Book Review: Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre Written by Rene Colato Laínez, Illustrated by Laura Lacámara

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez

Main_mama_the_alien_fc_hi_res_finalDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Sofía has discovered a BIG secret. Mamá is an alien–una extraterrestre! At least, that’s what it says on the card that fell out of her purse. But Papá doesn’t have an alien card. Does that mean that Sofía is half alien?

Sofía heads to the library to do some research. She finds out that aliens can be small, or tall. Some have four fingers on each hand, and some have big round eyes. Their skin can be gray or blue or green. But she and Mamá look like human people. Could Mamá really be an alien from another planet?

Filled with imagination and humor, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre is a sweet and timely immigration story, and a tender celebration of family, no matter which country (or planet) you are from.

MY TWO CENTS: In this bilingual book, Sofía is bouncing a ball when she knocks her mother’s purse to the floor. In the purse, Sofia discovers a card with the word “ALIEN” at the top. Sofía begins to think that her mother is, indeed, an alien. She even thinks she must be half alien, “I started to put the puzzle together. Mamá was an alien. Papá didn’t have a card, so he was not an alien. That mean I was half alien.”

Sofia researches aliens and wonders how her mother has hidden the fact that she is an alien from her. As Mamá gets ready for her citizenship ceremony, Sofía sees a shadow of her mom with rollers in her hair and tells her parents her suspicion about Mamá being an alien. Sofía learns that the word alien can have different meanings.

Her mother explains, “Sofía, I’m not from outer space. What you saw was my old Resident Alien card. That card allowed me to live and work here in the United States.” The story comes to an end when Sofía’s mom becomes a citizen. This book provides a glimpse into one way a girl makes sense of a complicated immigration process. Few books allow the reader to understand the complexity of the immigration system in the United States through the eyes of a child. This book is an entrance into discussion of the complex process that families must go through to become American citizens.

The illustrations are large and beautiful. In particular, the illustrator, Laura Lacámara, provides vivid pictures of the imagined aliens with humans. It is through the illustrations that we learn that Sofía’s mother is from El Salvador. A picture shows Mamá standing on an outline of El Salvador on a map. The illustrations provided in the thought bubbles add to the story and help the reader understand what Sofía is thinking about.

The author’s note at the end of the book details his own story of coming to the United States and receiving his Resident Alien Card. The author ends the note with the following, “I want readers to know that immigrants may be referred to as aliens, but this only means that they come from other countries. We are all citizens on planet Earth.”

TEACHING TIPS: Author René Colato Laínez wrote a blog post for Lee and Low books titled “No More Illegal Aliens.” In this post, Laínez discusses the use of the term “illegal aliens” and why he advocates for the use of the term “undocumented immigrants. This blog entry could be used as a paired text with the book Mamá the Alien/ Mamá La Exraterrestre.

Also, Lee and Low has developed an extensive teacher’s guide for Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre. This guide includes vocabulary, discussion questions, specific activities for English Language Learners, and interdisciplinary activities.

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: René Colato Laínez is an award-winning Salvadoran author of many multicultural books. He is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. Rene is a bilingual elementary teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School, where he is known by the students as “the teacher full of stories.”

 

 

Here are other posts we’ve done about the author:

A Conversation with René Colato Laínez

Book Review: The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez


Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Laura Lacámara is a Cuban-born children’s books author and illustrator. Lacámara holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drawing and Painting from California State University, Long Beach and studied printmaking at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. Her love for writing and illustrating children’s books grew when she signed up for a children’s book illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of Floating on Mama’s Song/Flotando en la Canción de Mamá (Junior Library Guild Selection, Fall 2010 & Tejas Star Book Award finalist 2011-12) and illustrator of The Runaway Piggy/El Cochinito Fugitivo (winner of 2012 Tejas Star Book Award) and Alicia’s Fruity Drinks/Las Aguas Frescas de Alicia.

Here are other posts we’ve done about the illustrator:

Book Review: Dalia’s Wondrous Hair/El Cabello Maravilloso de Dalia

Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 2: Juana Martinez-Neal, Maya Christina González & Laura Lacámara

 

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

Book Review: Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez, PhD

28957208DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: An eloquent and moving account of the tragic migrations of thousands upon thousands of children who are leaving their homes in Central America, often alone, to seek refuge in the United States. Why are they going and how does it feel to be one of them? What is this terrible trip like? What do their hopes and dreams for safety, a new life and a loving reception mean to them?

A refugee from El Salvador’s war in the eighties, Jorge Argueta was born to explain the distressing choice confronting young Central Americans today who are saying goodbye to everything they know because they fear for their lives.

This book is beautifully illustrated by master artist Alfonso Ruano.

MY TWO CENTS: Somos Como Las Nubes/ We are Like the Clouds is a moving collection of bilingual free verse poems. This is one of the few books that I have encountered about the heartbreaking experiences of children who leave their homes to embark on their journey to the United States. This collection of poetry begins with poetry depicting the experiences and sights of the children’s home countries. The poetry then shifts to the journey that children take to get to the United States. The author includes poems that describe the fears of traveling on La Bestia (a fast moving moving train that many migrants use to travel), discuss being accompanied by “coyotes,” and describe children’s feelings as they cross the deserts.  I’ll share one of the most powerful poems about the journey titled “Las Chinamas”. The word Chinamas refers to the border between El Salvador and Guatemala.

When we crossed

the border at Las Chinamas

I saw the river Paz.

Its water runs smiling

between the rocks.

Here the cenzontles (mockingbirds)

never stop singing.

 

I remembered

our schoolyard,

the gualcalchillas, (small songbirds)

and my teacher

Miss Celia.

 

I remembered my mother,

my brothers,

my sisters.

Who knows

when I will see them again.

I look at the sky

and think,

we are like the clouds.

 

What I loved about this book is that there is message of hope in knowing that children are resilient, but the author does not hold back in depicting the heartbreak that goes along with leaving a home country. The book allows the reader to the experience the treacherous journey to the United States through the eyes and wonder of a child. The pictures in this book are also stunningly beautiful. The pictures depict the children’s home countries, families crossing borders, and children laying on the soft sand in the desert. The final poems in the book offer hope. In the poem “Fear,” a mother tells her child in his dream, “This is not a dream, you are in my arms.” The child has arrived to his destination in Los Angeles.

I shed tears when I read this book. It is heartbreaking and it is a poignant reminder that children are children and that there are difficult decisions that children should not have to make. In my opinion, what makes this book even more powerful is that it is written by Jorge Argueta. The author’s note at the beginning of the book shares Jorge’s own experience of fleeing El Salvador and coming to the United States. He shares his inspiration for writing the book by stating, “Like the clouds, our children come and go. Nothing and no one can stop them”.

TEACHING TIPS: This book is an invitation to learn about the harsh realities that children face when they leave their homes and embark on the difficult journey to the United States. It would be a great addition to any classroom library. It would be an excellent book to add to text sets about immigration or refugees. Teachers can also use this book to teach children about writing through difficult situations. It can also be used to show students how illustrations can enhance poetry as this book is beautifully illustrated.

To find Somos Como Los Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Image result for jorge arguetaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jorge Tetl Argueta is a celebrated Salvadoran poet and writer whose bi-lingual children’s books have received numerous awards. His poetry has appeared in anthologies and textbooks. He won the America’s Book Award, among other awards for his first collection of poems for children, A Movie in My Pillow. He was the Gold Medal Award winner in the 2005 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) for Moony Luna/Luna, Lunita Lunera. His other works for children include Xochitl and the Flowers, 2003 America’s Award Commended Title, Trees are Hanging from the SkyZipitioTalking with Mother EarthThe Little Hen in the City and The Fiesta of the Tortillas.

 

Alfonso RuanoABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Alfonso Ruano was born in 1949 in Toledo, Spain. He studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid. He has published about 20 books for children and has received multiple awards for his work.

 

 

 

 

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

Book Review: Francisco’s Kites by Alicia Z. Klepeis

25673458

Reviewed by Marianne Snow

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Arte Público Press): Francisco looks out his bedroom window and thinks about his home back in El Salvador. He misses his friends and playing in the village’s park. He wants to fly a kite near his new home in the U.S., but his mother can’t afford one.

“If Mamá can’t buy me a kite, maybe I can make one,” he thinks. Picking up a bag, Francisco leaves the apartment in search of treasures that he can use for his project. He finds purple cellophane, a pile of string and a broken model airplane. In his apartment building’s recycling area, Francisco discovers other useful items that people have thrown away. He can’t wait to spread out all the goodies and start building his very own cometa!

Soon Francisco is testing his creation in Sunnydale Park. He makes it fly up and down, spin in the air, even make loops! The colorful toy catches the attention of a man who runs a recycled goods store. He wants to sell Francisco’s kites in his shop! But can Francisco really find enough material to make them? And will he be able to deliver them in time?

MY TWO CENTS: I love how Alicia Klepeis so deftly and unassumingly weaves together a variety of topics in this dual language book. With themes like homesickness, immigration, recycling, ingenuity, and family, Francisco’s Kites might easily become cluttered or scattered, but it’s not. Instead, it’s a simple story about a boy who creatively channels his past experiences – flying kites in his former home in El Salvador – to establish himself in windy Chicago, spend quality time with his mom, meet new people, and work on saving the earth. Readers will enjoy following the inventive Francisco, learning about kites, and maybe even picking up some information about Salvadoran food (pupusas – yum!). Meanwhile, Gary Undercuffler’s charmingly retro – but still fresh, clean, and colorful – illustrations add to the airy, buoyant tone of the book.

Another perk of this book is its message about recycling, which is delivered clearly without being heavy-handed. As they observe Francisco resourcefully collecting trash and other used objects to make kites, readers will learn about repurposing, a recycling strategy that anyone can try. These days, we know about the benefits of recycling, and no doubt children constantly hear about it at school. But many neighborhoods, towns, and even larger cities don’t have accessible, user-friendly services and resources like curbside pickup or community recycling bins. If kids don’t have access to these services at home, it’s important for them to learn about other options – like repurposing, which can provide them with fun, easy ways to help the earth and feel like they’re making a difference. When young readers pick up a book like Francisco’s Kites, who knows how they’ll be inspired?

TEACHING TIPS: Teachers who want to foster their students’ interests in recycling can use Francisco’s Kites as a platform for a hands-on, interdisciplinary learning unit. In addition to this book, teachers can share other texts about recycling of various genres and formats (non-fiction, poetry, news articles, videos), and students can discuss how repurposing used materials can not only prevent waste from piling up in landfills, but also help people save money as they reuse instead of buying new. Next comes collecting used materials – either at home or at school – and turning them into some kind of magnificent art project.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): I arrived on this planet on a fall day in 1971. My mom delivered me at a big hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. She stayed home with me until I went to school. My dad was a 5th and 6th grade teacher. I spent my entire childhood in Woburn, Massachusetts on a quiet dead-end road. An only child, I was somewhat of a bookworm. I was always a bit nervous about school and spent a lot of my time doing homework until I graduated from college.

Right after I finished college, I got an internship at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. I loved that job for many reasons. The work was interesting, I got to go to great films and concerts nearly every week and… I met my husband (a fellow intern) there. We’ve been married nearly 20 years now. When my internship ended, I started graduate school to become a teacher. I taught middle school geography for several years in Massachusetts. Then I moved to upstate New York and stayed home with my three children for about ten years before becoming a writer. I now write almost full-time for kids and plan to do that for as long as possible. I love this job!

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Francisco’s Kites, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

MarianneMarianne Snow is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, where she researches Latin@ picture books, representations of Latin@ people in nonfiction children’s texts, and library services for Spanish-speaking children and families. Before moving to Georgia, she taught Pre-K and Kindergarten in her home state of Texas and got her master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Texas A&M University. In her spare time, she enjoys obnoxiously pining for Texas, exploring Georgia, re-learning Spanish, and blogging at Critical Children’s Lit.

A Conversation with René Colato Laínez

By Lila Quintero Weaver  portada-juguemos-futbol-football

If you are not acquainted with the picture books of René Colato Laínez, get thee to a bookstore right away! A Salvadoran transplant who teaches kindergarten in California, René writes joyful, bilingual picture books that children everywhere adore. I am delighted to share a one-on-one conversation with René about his life and work.

Lila: René, on your website, you express that the goal of your writing is “to produce good multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States.”

As a collaborator on Latin@s in Kid Lit, a blog that exists to promote those very goals, I say BRAVO! Now for a question: What led you to adopt these goals?

René: I came to the United States when I was 14 years old. In my country, I was a smart student. I had good grades and many dreams to accomplish. In the United States, I did not know the new language. I felt lost and many times I thought that I would never be able to accomplish my goals. The inspiration to write books with a positive message to minority children came from my own life experience. I worked hard and never gave up. Yes! I accomplished my dreams. I am a teacher and an author. I want to tell minority children that they can accomplish anything they want. With “ganas” you can conquer the highest mountain.

Senor Pancho

Lila: Let me brag on your latest book. Señor Pancho Had a Rancho has received glowing reviews. It was named a top picture book by Chicago Public Library and was included in the Cuatrogatos Foundation anthology, De Raices y Sueños. I could keep going, but let me pause to ask: What inspired you to create what’s essentially a Spanish version of “Old McDonald Had a Farm”?

René: One day my ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher told us that we could learn English through music. She played the song of a man named McDonald and he had many farm animals. When I listened to the song, I was confused when the dog barked woof woof instead of gua gua. My teacher told me that in English farm animals made English sounds. I said to myself, “If I bring my perro from El Salvador, he has to learn English too!” Later on, when I became a teacher, I played the song with my kindergarteners, but I always added the Spanish sounds. After having so much fun with my students, I decided to write a book about both English and Spanish farm animals, where they could have a great time speaking two languages.

Lila: Please share a bit about your childhood experiences of immigration from El Salvador.

René: I left the country with my father, due the civil war. Along with thousands of Salvadorans, my family was looking for a better place where we could be safe from the war. But I had a happy life as a child. I loved to go to school and read all the comics books from Mexico and Argentina, like El Chapulín Colorado and Mafalda. Since first grade, I wanted to become a teacher. My favorite books were Don Quijote and Las Telerañas de Carlota. I was so surprised to find my favorite book in English, here in the United States—Charlotte’s Web.

Lila: You teach kindergarten in a California school full of Latino children. How has this influenced your writing? Is teaching what led you to write picture books in the first place?

René: In high school and college, I wrote many drafts of novels. But when I came to the classroom, I discovered picture books and soon fell in love with them. I started to write my own books for my students and they called me “El Maestro lleno de Cuentos” (“The Teacher Full of Stories”). Later on, after receiving advice from many teachers and talented authors such us Alma Flor Ada, Isabel Campoy and Amada Irma Pérez, I decided to submit my work for publication.

Lila: Your books consistently offer bilingual texts. Why is this important to you?

René: I love bilingual books because you can share them with families who speak Spanish, English or both. They can also be great tools to speak and learn to read a second language. When I started to submit my manuscripts, I always envisioned them as bilingual books—books that I could share with my students, their parents, my family here in the United States, and all my relatives and friends in El Salvador.

Lila: Your writings frequently celebrate the happy coexistence of Latino and non-Latino cultures. This occurs in The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez and in Juguemos al Fútbol/ Let’s Play Football (coming out this month in the bilingual hardcover edition), to name just two examples. What inspires your multicultural bent?

René: Latino children usually live in two worlds in the United States. They speak English and Spanish and celebrate holidays from the two cultures. Many times people fight to see which language or culture is most important. I love them both and in my books I want to tell children that instead of deciding which culture is better, we can celebrate both and have double the fun.

Lila: Writing a picture book looks easy only to those who have never tried it. What’s it like for you? Do you wait for inspiration to strike or do you have a disciplined routine?

René: Writing picture books is so much fun for me. It was not easy at first but I read tons of them until I was ready to write my own stories for publication. I usually start with the problem or idea for a story. Then I think it over, again and again, and begin to create the story in my mind. When I have something solid, I begin to write it. Many incidents in the classroom help me with ideas for new stories.

Lila: You graduated from the prestigious Vermont College of Writing for Children & Young Adults and have published at least nine books. That’s a lot of experience! Can you share some hints for aspiring writers?

René: Never give up, believe in yourself, and work hard for your dreams. Take creative writing classes and join critique groups. If you are writing children’s books, it is always a great idea to join SCBWI, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Submit your work and learn from rejection letters. Believe in your stories, because you are the only one who can tell and write them. 

renecolatolainezRené Colato Laínez is a native of El Salvador. He is the award-winning author of many picture books and the recipient of honors that include the Latino Book Award, the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, the California Collection for Elementary Readers, the Tejas Star Book Award Selection, and the New Mexico Book Award. He is listed among “Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch (and Read)” by the site Latinostories.com*. He received a degree from the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. René’s full-time profession is teaching kindergarten in California. For more information, please visit his official author site