Book Review: Stella Diaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez

 

Reviewed by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Stella Diaz loves marine animals, especially her betta fish, Pancho. But Stella Diaz is not a betta fish. Betta fish like to be alone, while Stella loves spending time with her mom and brother and her best friend Jenny. Trouble is, Jenny is in another class this year, and Stella feels very lonely. When a new boy arrives in Stella’s class, she really wants to be his friend, but sometimes Stella accidentally speaks Spanish instead of English and pronounces words wrong, which makes her turn roja. Plus, she has to speak in front of her whole class for a big presentation at school! But she better get over her fears soon, because Stella Díaz has something to say!

MY TWO CENTS: The narrative of the “shy kid” is not rare in children’s literature. There are countless tales about boys and girls alike who struggle to express themselves and would rather be overlooked than have to speak in front of their class, a school assembly, or otherwise step outside their comfort zones. Growing up as a shy kid myself, I think about this experience a lot and have realized that “shy” is often misleading or represented one dimensionally in literature and pop culture. In Angela Dominguez’s quietly poignant middle grade debut, Stella Diaz Has Something to Say, the “shy kid” narrative is enriched by a unique but deeply relatable character, with an active internal life, and explored through the lens of language itself.

For someone who is shy, language is a fickle friend–not necessarily because you may not know words in a given language, but because simply pulling them together in a coherent order while in front of someone unfamiliar or in an overwhelming situation can be quite the burden. Stella Diaz is no stranger to this scenario. At home playing cards with her older brother, Nick, dancing salsa with her Mom, or in the lunchroom sitting with her best friend, Jenny, she is easily able to express herself, but many other social settings quickly flip her discomfort switch, leaving her “stomach in knots.” Through a charming and direct first-person narrative, Dominguez brings Stella to life, treating readers to her thoughts, concerns, passions, and moments of joy, making Stella’s story much more than just a-shy-kid-trying-to-get-over-their-shyness plot. Stella faces many common childhood challenges, like learning to ride a bike, bullying, and a project presentation, alongside other weightier concerns, like realizing her status as a green card holder (“Did you know we’re aliens?,” she asks her brother). But Stella, an astute observer of the world (a super power, if you ask me), is able to, in spite of some creeping, self-conscious worries, confidently cope with minor failures and push herself to take on challenges. An inspiration to many, and a validation for readers who may recognize that same quiet fortitude in themselves.

Despite her shyness, Stella longs to connect with others, including the new kid joining her third grade class, who she hopes “speaks Spanish.” Stella’s simple wish for a Spanish speaking friend reveals the significance of the language in her life, it’s representation of her culture, and how intrinsic it is to her identity. At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because “here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.” Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as “code switching” or speaking “Spanglish,” Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.

But still, Stella loves Spanish. How it “feels nice to my ears,” how so many of the words “sound better…than in English,” and singing the lyrics to “El Corrido de Chihuahua,” as Abuelo plays it on his guitar. Stella’s hope for a Spanish-speaking friend can be read as a desire to have someone tacitly understand the nuances of navigating these identities and the part language plays in feeling connected and forming a sense of self. Ultimately, language is just that, a way to be understood by the world. Stella herself notes how she appreciates that despite speaking in a low voice she never “had to repeat anything” to Jenny, and the laughs she shares with her family don’t need to be translated.

As Dominguez relates in the “Author’s Note,” many of Stella’s experiences and struggles mirror the author’s own, including migrating from Mexico, having a Vietnamese best friend, and taking speech classes. Not surprisingly, Dominguez’s spot art is featured throughout the chapters, a device that makes this title accessible and appealing for younger readers, while simultaneously making the book a realistic and personal document. Readers can imagine that Stella herself doodled the images on the pages chronicling her experiences and observations. Stella Diaz is Dominguez’s first middle grade novel, and it is simply unforgettable.

 

Angela DominguezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela Dominguez was born in Mexico City, grew up in the great state of Texas, and now resides on the east coast. She is the author and illustrator of several books for children including Maria Had a Little Llama, which received the American Library Association Pura Belpré Illustration Honor. In 2016, she received her second Pura Belpré Honor for her illustrations in Mango, Abuela, and Me (written by Meg Medina). Her debut middle grade novel, Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, was published January 2018. When Angela is not in her studio, she teaches at the Academy of Art University, which honored her with their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.

Angela is a proud member of SCBWI, PEN America, and represented by Wernick and Pratt Literary Agency. As a child, she loved reading books and making a mess creating pictures. She’s delighted to still be doing both.

 

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 100 Best Books for Kids list, most recently as a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews for School Library Journal of English and Spanish language books for children and teens, and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children, Young Adult Library Services Association, and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and born and raised in Queens, NY.

 

Celebrating the Love Sugar Magic series by Anna Meriano

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Words by Anna Meriano, Art by Cecilia Cackley

To celebrate the paperback release of Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano and the release of the sequel, Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, please enjoy these profiles of the main characters in the series, along with collage portraits by Cecilia Cackley. Look for the books at your local bookstore or library and try making some of the sweet treats that each of these characters loves! Happy reading and baking!

First, here’s information about the newest book in the series:

LOVE SUGAR MAGIC A SPRINKLE OF SPIRITS JACKET

Leonora Logroño has finally been introduced to her family’s bakery bruja magic—but that doesn’t mean everything is all sugar and spice. Her special power hasn’t shown up yet, her family still won’t let her perform her own spells, and they now act rude every time Caroline comes by to help Leo with her magic training.

She knows that the family magic should be kept secret, but Caroline is her best friend, and she’s been feeling lonely ever since her mom passed away. Why should Leo have to choose between being a good bruja and a good friend?

In the midst of her confusion, Leo wakes up one morning to a startling sight: her dead grandmother, standing in her room, looking as alive as she ever was. Both Leo and her abuela realize this might mean trouble—especially once they discover that Abuela isn’t the only person in town who has been pulled back to life from the other side.

Spirits are popping up all over town, causing all sorts of trouble! Is this Leo’s fault? And can she reverse the spell before it’s too late?

Anna Meriano’s unforgettable family of brujas returns in a new story featuring a heaping helping of amor, azúcar, and magia.

Now, here are the character profiles:

 

IMG_9046Isabel:

Age: 18

Power: Influence. First-born Isabel can manipulate the emotions of people around her, making them artificially happy, calm, or even scared. It’s a dangerous power to have, so she uses it carefully, except sometimes when she gets mad at Marisol.

Personality: Isabel is the oldest sister, and she takes on a lot of responsibilities both at home and at the family bakery. She’s patient with Leo and loves studying magic and adding decorative details to baked goods.

HP House: Ravenclaw

Favorite recipe: Tres Leches cake because it’s fun to make and decorate for different occasions. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8LpO047bXw)

 

 

IMG_9045Marisol:

Age: 16

Power: Manifestation. Second-born Marisol can pull small objects out of thin air, which comes in handy to stock up her makeup and nail polish collection. She can’t summon anything too large or heavy, but she comes up with a lot of creative ways to annoy Isabel or accomplish tasks with her power.

Personality: Cranky teen Marisol would much rather spend time with her friends than work at the bakery, either on everyday chores or on special magical recipes. She may not be the most patient sister, but she’s a strong ally when things go wrong.

HP House: Gryffindor

Favorite recipe: Payaso cookies because they’re easy and you can text while the dough freezes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgKJXDnlZKU)

 

 

IMG_9043.jpg

Alma & Belén:

Ages: 15 (Alma is one hour older)

Powers: Alma and Belén share their third-born power with each other and with their aunt Tía Paloma. All three can see and talk to ghostly spirits from the other side of the veil, and they can summon the spirits so that others can hear or even see them as well. It takes a lot of energy, so it’s good that they each have a partner to work with.

Personalities: Belén and Alma are usually in their own world, whether they’re inventing secret languages, dressing like their favorite fictional characters, or talking to ghosts. Still, they’re dedicated to their family and focused on honing their skills.

HP Houses: Alma: Slytherin (or Ravenclaw) Belén: Ravenclaw (or Slytherin)

Favorite recipe: Pan de muerto because it’s great for contacting spirits! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38Hu6afbEHQ)

 

 

IMG_9047Leo:

Age: 11

Power: Like the rest of her family, Leo can use her baking magic to make cookies that fly, bread that brings luck, and all sorts of pastries with supernatural side effects. But she doesn’t know yet what her special individual power will be. Those powers are usually based on birth order, but Leo’s the first ever fifth-born daughter, so her powers are still a mystery!

Personality: Leo is the baby of the family, which means she sometimes worries about being left out or kept in the dark. She is determined to prove herself as a baker and a bruja, but that determination can lead her to make decisions that aren’t always the best. Like, for example, the time she accidentally put a love spell on her friend and then shrank him!

HP House: Gryffindor

Favorite recipe: Puerquitos (also known as marranitos)! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2UNs9W7YUw)

 

 

IMG_9044Caroline:

Age: 11

Power: Leo’s abuela once told her that magic works in everyone’s life and provides them with a special ability or gift, the thing they’re meant to do. Caroline has a lot of talents, but she hasn’t figured out exactly what her special gift is yet.

Personality: Caroline is Leo’s best friend, a good student and clever plotter. Because of her family in Costa Rica, she can help Leo translate things to and from Spanish. She loves to read and always shows her appreciation for her friends.

HP House: Hufflepuff

Favorite recipe: roles de canela (cinnamon rolls) of all types, from the ones in the vending machine at school to the dry easy to eat ones from the bakery to the gooey delicious ones Leo makes at her house sometimes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgIHugi7TOI)

 

 

ANNA MERIANOABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Meriano is the author of the “Love Sugar Magic” series, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Shelf Awareness. A Houston native, she graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in writing for children from the New School. Anna works as a tutor and part time teacher with Writers in the Schools, a Houston nonprofit that brings creative writing instruction into public schools. In her free time, she likes to knit, study American Sign Language, and play full-contact quidditch.

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

Book Review: The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Nuñez

 

Review by Elena Foulis

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: It is 1957 in Marianao, a suburb on the outskirts of Havana. Adela Santiago is thirteen years old and lives in a small blue house with her mother, father, brother, and grandfather. And yet something is amiss. Her neighbors are disappearing. Not only that, but her parents’ marriage seems to be disintegrating and her cousin is involved with a bombing at the Hotel Nacional. Welcome to a world where the sight of police officers shooting citizens in broad daylight is a normalcy, where every day there is a higher body count than the day before, where in the cramped pews of churches, in the creaking wood of backwards Havana alleys, a revolution is brewing. Welcome to Cuba.

MY TWO CENTS: Viviana Prado-Nuñez’s first novel, The Art of White Roses, is a beautifully told story of a young girl growing up in Batista’s Cuba. Adela, the protagonist, tells the story of her neighborhood, family, and friends as she tries to make sense of how disappearances, violence, and affairs affect her and the people she loves. The story looks deeply into family life, such as sibling interactions, her parents’ sweet but complicated relationship, and Adela’s abuelo. Despite the political conditions of the time—including repression, police brutality, and desaparecidos—Adela is most impacted by her family dynamics. As she tries to make sense of cruelty, mysteries, and her own disappointments, Adela is both observant and conversant about the possible deaths of universitarios whom they all knew and who were possible revolucionarios. She witnesses the death of Luis, a neighbor and troubled-young man who also might have been part of an uprising against the police, and her own family drama of her father’s affair. One of my favorite chapters is, “The night they met,” because Prado-Nuñez’s weaves happy memories of when Adela’s parents met and the present reality of their strained marriage. The author’s narrative choice, at once nostalgic, funny, and tragic, centers around Adela’s perspective with the backdrop of the revolution.

The novel is not always told chronologically, rather, each of the chapters tells the story of an event, family member, or place. The stories help the reader see the protagonist’s development, but it is not a typical coming-of-age story, meaning, there is no event that suddenly helps her find her voice. Instead, Adela’s understanding of herself is directly tied to her place and community, including the oppressive political circumstances that, in the end, force her family to move. Her future is uncertain—including her educational future—because of circumstances that have to do with her father’s affair first, and her Batista’s regime second. Prado-Nuñez’s detailed descriptions of places and people add to Adela’s understanding of the world around her, and the reader enjoys the author’s carefully crafted narrative. This is best exemplified by her discussion of the book’s title, connected to José Martí’s poem and personal story of choosing to love and forgive, in the face of pain, as Adela’s father explains, “white roses are hard times,” and later says, “white roses are hard for me, too.”

TEACHING TIPS: Taking advantage of today’s digital tools, a google earth exploration of Marianao, its surrounding neighborhoods, and its proximity to Havana, can help understand the setting and how that might determine the experiences of Adela and her family. Research on Hotel Nacional, a historical site, will add to discussion of time and place of the novel. There is a lot to explore visually via photography about Cuba, especially since it seems suspended in time. These already available resources, can lead to digital projects such as storymaps, digital storytelling and digital archival projects about neighborhoods and historical sites.  While the historical background of Bastista and Castro is important, it would be also helpful to study American influence in the country and how this might have affected Cubans during this time and how this has informed U.S.-Cuba relations today.

 

Viviana Prado-NúñezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Viviana Prado-Núñez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in a hospital with a 4.0 Google review rating and a view of the ocean. Previous publications include The Best Teen Writing of 2014, 4×4 Magazine, Columbia Spectator, and Quarto Magazine. She is also the 2017 winner of the Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature for her novel, The Art of White Roses.

 

 

 

 

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. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.

 

Book Review: Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez & Monica Brown, illus. by Christine Almeda

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Fourth grader Sarai Gonzalez can do anything. She can bake, dance, and run her own cupcake business. But when Sarai’s grandparents are forced to move, even Sarai’s not sure what to do. So she hatches a super awesome plan with her younger sisters and cousin to buy back the house. But houses are more expensive than she ever thought, her sisters won’t listen, and she’s running out of time. Will Sarai find a way to save the day?

Inspired by the life of viral video sensation and social activist Sarai Gonzalez with the help of award-winning children’s book author Monica Brown.

MY TWO CENTS: Like many, I was enchanted by the star of Bomba Estéreo’s 2013 viral hit “Soy Yo.” Sarai Gonzalez, with her glasses, funky hair, and can-do attitude was instantly memorable for her message of self-acceptance. Gonzalez’s quirky persona resonated, in part, because she represents a Latinidad not often proliferated in contemporary media. Sarai’s unique brand of relentless optimism, captured so artfully in the “Soy Yo” music video, is magnified in the early reader Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome, written by Gonzalez and award-winning author Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is lovely in a multitude of ways. From Gonzalez and Brown’s conversational and jovial tone to Almeda’s illustrations (both in the margins and via two-page spreads throughout the text). And, albeit brief, this book is captivating.

 

 

For a young readership, Sarai’s opening affirmation “YOU ARE AWESOME” is as much a declaration for Sarai as it is for the readers she invites along with her as she embarks on an entrepreneurial mission to save her grandparents’ house (2). Bolstered by her endless supply of creative problem-solving, Sarai recruits her sisters to help make cupcakes and sell lemonade (limonada) and “delicious purple-corn-ade” (chica morada) to raise money when her grandparents’ rental home goes up for sale (78). Young readers will be captivated by Sarai’s agency and her ability to think quickly and take charge. Even so, her contributions to her family are fully within her capabilities as a ten-year-old and, as such, are completely believable. The ultimate result of her efforts is equally realistic and conveys to young readers that even in failure, success and growth can be found.

Gonzalez and Brown ultimately weave a tale that shares its abundance of hope with a readership who needs it. In a time when Latinx children are victimized by current political ideologies, seeing Sarai take charge and resist provides a necessary counterstory. What’s more, Sarai’s story of perseverance and hope is universal. In many places throughout this book, being Latinx is incidental to the plot. It’s a great joy to read a book like this. So often, being Latinx (though Sarai is careful to explain her family history, her mother is Peruvian and father is Costa Rican, while she and her sisters are from the U.S.—meaning that she and her family “are really, truly Americans—North, South and Central!” [7]), is the catalyst for problems. But Sarai’s grandparents’ ethnic and cultural identities are unrelated to their rental house being sold. As such, this text doesn’t paint one’s Latinidad as something to overcome, but rather something to be embraced, as Sarai uses her bilingualism to sell her baked goods and other treats to a wider customer base.

For young readers who need an extra boost of confidence, Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome delivers. Mingled with Almeda’s illustrations, which add just the right amount of pizzazz to an already bright narrative, Gonzalez and Brown’s prose is engaging while also being accessible to young readers just beginning to look for chaptered books. Sarai’s story will captivate readers, just as Sarai’s dance moves and bespectacled gaze did in “Soy Yo.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sarai GonzalezThirteen-year-old, Sarai Gonzalez became an overnight sensation after appearing in Bomba Estereo’s “Soy Yo,” a music video about embracing yourself and loving your flaws. The video has garnered over 50 million views and the New York Times called Sarai a Latina icon. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is the first book in the new chapter book series inspired by her life. Sarai lives in New Jersey with her family.

 

monica6

Monica Brown, Ph.D., is the award-winning author of Waiting for the Biblioburro/Esperando al BiblioburroMarisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, and the Lola Levine chapter book series, including Lola Levine is Not MeanLola Levine, Drama Queen, and Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme. Her books have garnered starred reviews, the Americas Award, two Pura Belpré Author Honors, and the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship on Chicano Cultural Literacy. She lives in Arizona with her family and teaches at Northern Arizona University. Find out more at www.monicabrown.net.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATORChristine Almeda is a Filipino-American freelance illustrator from NJ / NYC. She graduated from Montclair State University, earning a BFA and an Award for Excellence in Animation & Illustration, focusing on children’s media. She believes in the power of storytelling and that art has the ability to make life a little more beautiful.

Click here for an introduction to illustrator Christine Almeda, which includes a look inside Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.

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.

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.