Book Review: Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey written by Ruth Behar, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth

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Reviewed by Maria Ramos-Chertok

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: A poignant multicultural ode to family and what it means to create a home as one girl helps her Tía move away from her beloved Miami apartment.

When Estrella’s Tía Fortuna has to say goodbye to her longtime Miami apartment building, The Seaway, to move to an assisted living community, Estrella spends the day with her. Tía explains the significance of her most important possessions from both her Cuban and Jewish culture, as they learn to say goodbye together and explore a new beginning for Tía.

A lyrical book about tradition, culture, and togetherness, Tía Fortuna’s New Home explores Tía and Estrella’s Sephardic Jewish and Cuban heritage. Through Tía’s journey, Estrella will learn that as long as you have your family, home is truly where the heart is.

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MY TWO CENTS: I am a big fan of Ruth Behar’s and have enjoyed her adult books as much as her middle grade books Lucky Broken Girl (2017) and Letters from Cuba (2019). Tía Fortuna’s New Home is her first picture book aimed at younger audiences.

The book’s landscape is the relationship between an aunt and her niece. The story follows little Estrellita as she tracks the process of her aunt moving out of her beloved home into a facility for the elderly. This move is the second big move in Tia’s life, the first being when she immigrated to the United States from Havana, Cuba. While both of these moves are objectively hard ones, Tia manages to enjoy the present and keep an optimistic attitude which positively influences Estrellita’s experience. 

I liked that the story focused on the opportunities inherent in changing one’s circumstances and presented an uplifting paradigm. Having Sephardic characters and bilingual text enhances the story by providing a personal and unique slice of life. I wish this book had been available to me when I was young.

The illustrations by Devon Holzwarth are amazing, and I found myself being drawn into the story more and more through the vivid and colorful artwork.

TEACHING TIPS: I could see using this book to discuss life transitions generally and the attitude one brings to change. Students can discuss the contrast between focusing on the negative versus the positive aspects of a pending life transition. For students who have a grandparent moving into assisted living, this book would be a great orientation to one way that move can happen.

The book can also be used as part of a module on cultural diversity, as it covers Cuban-Jewish characters.  In a Jewish Day School, the book would be ideal in exposing students to the multiculturalism of the Jewish people.

In teaching about family trees, the book references how family recipes are passed down from generation to generation. In this vein, it would be interesting to have children interview their parents or grandparents to find out what recipes they make that were passed down to them and from whom. 

The Author’s Note at the end of the book is a story unto itself and where I’d recommend teachers begin in order to gain context before sharing the book with students. There is also a fabulous glossary of words that could be a fun addition for students to learn new words.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): As a storyteller, traveler, memoirist, poet, teacher, and public speaker, Ruth Behar is acclaimed for the compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. Born in Havana, Cuba, she grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. Her recent memoirs for adults, An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy, explore her return journeys to Cuba and her search for home as an immigrant and a traveler. Her books for young readers are Lucky Broken Girl and Letters from Cuba. She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and her honors also include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University, and an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (from her website): Devon Holzwarth is a picture book illustrator, author, and painter. Born in Washington D.C., Devon grew up in Panama surrounded by nature and her dad’s art supplies, and has lived in many other places over the years. She currently lives in Germany with her family including her husband, two kids, a galgo dog from Spain and a little dachshund from Romania.

Devon earned her BFA in 2000 from the Rhode Island School of Design focusing on screen printing and painting. She has written & illustrated two picture books: FOUND YOU and SOPHIE’S STORIES, with Alison Green Books/Scholastic UK. She has a number of picture books publishing in 2022, including “Tia Fortuna’s New Home” (Knopf Books, English & Spanish language versions), “Listen” (Dial Books and Penguin UK), and “Everywhere With You” (Walker Books US and Walker Books UK).

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Maria Ramos-Chertok is the author of The Butterfly Series: Fifty-two weeks of Inquiries for Transformation and a contributor to three anthologies: All the Women in My Family Sing: Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom (FEB 2018) edited by Deborah Santana, She’s Got This! Essays on Standing Strong and Moving On (FEB 2019), and What We Didn’t Expect: Personal Stories About Premature Birth edited by Melody Schreiber (NOV 2020). For more information and/or to receive her monthly blogs posts visit www.mariaramoschertok.com

Book Review: Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! by Alexandra Alessandri, illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonada

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Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from the front cover): Ava Gabriela is visiting her extended family in Colombia for the holidays. She’s excited to take part in family traditions such as making buñuelos, but being around all her loud relatives in an unfamiliar place makes Ava shy and quiet. How will Ava find her voice before she misses out on all the New Year’s fun?

MY TWO CENTS: This #OwnVoices picture book is a heartwarming story about New Year traditions in Colombia, as well as the development of Ava’s personality. While there is some mention of traditions such as buñuelos and the Old Year doll, the highlight is definitely the main character, Ava. She is a quiet, shy character. Ava and her family are busy making preparations for the New Year. As her family shows various Colombian traditions, Ava observes but does not say much. In the beginning, Ava hesitates to say hello or “speak up.” Yet after making buñuelos, Ava begins to giggle. Throughout the book, she begins to question why she is so shy and often shows what she means to say versus what she actually does with a signal or facial movement. As a teacher, her behavior and speech reminded me of a student who had a speech-language need, thus Ava may connect to students who share the experience of finding the words to say in public situations.

The illustrations span across the spread using bold colors and subtle details. The English and Spanish text is written in an authentic manner, one that I appreciate as a frequent Spanglish speaker. Additionally, the text placement allows for readers to focus on the illustrations. Overall, Ava’s character was a joy to follow throughout this story. I appreciated that all of her family members respected her participation, even if she did not verbally respond right away. The days were filled with family traditions, love, and most of all, patience, as they welcomed one another, shy or not.

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a grades K-5 setting, with a focus on the primary grades. This is a great addition to any classroom library and as a read aloud. Some ideas to focus on during instruction:

  • Themes: Culture & Traditions
    • The Author’s Note gives readers an insight into the Colombian traditions mentioned in the book, such as the twelve grapes and the Año Viejo traditions.
  • Themes: Character Empathy; Finding Voice
    • Focus on Ava, how she communicates with her family and the feelings she has throughout all her experiences.
  • Mentor Text: Writing in two languages
    • How to use and format both English and Spanish in a narrative text

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Photo by Dawn Yap @ YapOriginals

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alexandra Alessandri is a Colombian-American poet, English professor, and children’s author, who grew up surrounded by plenty of primos and primas. She’s obsessed with coffee and urban murals, and every year, she looks forward to buñuelos and el Año Viejo. When not writing or teaching, Alexandra spends her time daydreaming of Colombia, relearning the piano, and planning the next great adventure with her family. She lives in Florida with her husband, son, and hairless pup. Visit her online at alexandraalessandri.com

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From the illustrator’s website

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Addy Rivera Sonda is a Mexican illustrator who loves color and nature. When not drawing, she explores ways to live a more sustainable life. Addy hopes her stories and art can build empathy and lead to a more inclusive world. She currently lives in California. Find her website at addyriverasonda.wixsite.com/portfolio.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is also a current doctoral student in NLU’s  EDD Teaching and Learning Program with an emphasis on Reading, Language, and Literacy.  When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!