Book Review: Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafeal López

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Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As a little girl, Teresa Carreño loved to let her hands dance across the beautiful keys of the piano. If she felt sad, music cheered her, and when she was happy, the piano helped her share that joy. Soon she was writing her own songs and performing in grand cathedrals.

Then a revolution in Venezuela drove her family to flee to the United States. Teresa felt lonely in this unfamiliar place, where few of the people she met spoke Spanish. Worst of all, there was fighting in her new home, too- a Civil War.

Still, Teresa kept playing, and soon she grew famous as the talented Piano Girl who could play anything from a folk song to a sonata. So famous, in fact, that President Abraham Lincoln wanted her to play at the White House! Yet with the country torn apart by war, could Teresa’s music bring comfort to those who needed it the most?

MY TWO CENTS: Dancing Hands is a biographical picture book about María Teresa Carreño Garcia de Sena that embraces creativity, family, and music during turmoil in Venezuela and the United States. Teresa, also known as Piano Girl, learns early on that music is an art for others to enjoy in the moment and in their hearts. Despite inevitable conflict in both her home country, Venezuela, and her new home, the United States, music becomes her refuge. Playing the piano calms the storms, brings together her family, and inspires other artists, and even the president in office, Abraham Lincoln.

While the text is in English only, the language used to describe Teresa’s talent is filled with poetic and descriptive language. It moves the reader through a narrative timeline of events and emotions. The illustrations are phenomenal and invoke more emotions as the reader learns about Teresa’s life changes. The use of acrylic paint and its textured shades contrast against the sharp lines and fierce colors that spread across each page. Each page has strategically placed colors and imagery placement to convey the story’s mood. Still, Teresa’s life experiences and talents remain front and center, with her connection to her music and cultures highlighted. My favorite moment in her story is when, as a young child, Teresa inspired other musicians to come and create music. It shows how far and wide her inspiration reached even at a young age!

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a K-5 setting, with a focus on the grades 3 and up.

  • Writing Mentor Text
    • Descriptive language: The author provides a plethora of metaphors and descriptive language that can serve as models for student writing when used to describe objects, moments, and feelings.
    • Mini lesson on adjectives and verbs
  • Addition to a biography unit or music unit
    • The historical note at the end of the book can serve as a catalyst for further research into the life of María Teresa Carreño Garcia de Sena. Student researchers can also find out more about her music and how it added to the arts during and after her time.
    • In music class, students can learn more about her compositions, as well as listen to her music compositions to add to their study.
  • Author and illustrator study
    • Pair this text with other picture books written by Margarita Engle and compare her writing style as well as the characters.
    • Pair this text with other picture books illustrated by Rafael López and compare his artistic style.

Listen to María Teresa Carreño Garcia de Sena’s composition called La Falsa Nota played by another pianist.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many acclaimed books, including two other collaborations with Rafael López, Bravo! and Drum Dream Girl, as well as The Flying Girl; All the Way to Havana; Miguel’s Brave Knight; The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor book; Jazz Owls; The Poet Slave of Cuba; and her memoirs Enchanted Air and Soaring Earth. She lives in central California. Visit her at margaritaengle.com Follow her on Twitter: @margaritapoet

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López was born and raised in Mexico, a place that has always influenced the vivid colors and shapes in his artwork. He now creates community-based mural projects around the world and illustrates acclaimed children’s books, including The Day You Begin, Bravo!, Drum Dream Girl, We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands, and Book Fiesta! Rafael divides his time between Mexico and California. Visit him at  https://rafaellopez.com/

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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!

Book Review: Dear Abuelo by Grecia Huesca Dominguez, illus. by Teresa Martinez

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Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos 

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: There is much Juana is going to miss as she moves from Mexico to New York, but nothing more than her abuelo. Through letters to her grandfather, Juana details her flight, he new apartment, and her first days of school, where everyone speaks a language she barely understands. When Juana makes her first friend, though, things begin to change.

OUR TWO CENTS: In Grecia Huesca Dominguez’s Dear Abuelo (2019) Juana and her mother immigrate from Mexico to New York. Through letters written to Abuelo, who is back in Mexico, she details her feelings about  new and anxious experiences, like traveling on a plane for the first time, settling in her new apartment, and her first day of school. On the bus ride, Juana notices everyone speaking in English, she has trouble understanding and speaking despite having practiced. In school, Juana’s teacher does not pronounce her name correctly; this incident makes her feel discouraged. In the following letters, Juana tells Abuelo that she’s  met a new friend, Elizabeth, who is also from Mexico. Elizabeth speaks both English and Spanish and explains to the teacher how to say Juana’s name correctly. Juana finds the library and meets the librarian. The librarian shows Juana books written in Spanish, and this inspires Juana to write stories in English and Spanish. 

Teresa Martinez’s illustrations center a young, brown girl with bright rosy cheeks and short curly  hair. Martinez’s vibrant illustrations of  Juana’s experiences align brilliantly with her feelings, such as  depicting the feeling of anxiety or nervousness with her use of  grey and darker backgrounds and using splashes of bright greens, oranges, and yellows to capture Juana’s  feelings of zen and excitement. Mexico is represented with the use of bright flower garlands across the pages and those flowers are lost when Juana lands in New York in the middle of winter. At first, there aren’t any flowers at school because Juana has a difficult time fitting in. Once she meets Elizabeth, after the teacher pronounces her name correctly, and after finding books in Spanish, the flower garlands around the frame of the pages return. Not only are the flowers a connection to Mexico, but they also represent growth and opportunity. 

A significant aspect in Dear Abuelo is the use of the letter format to tell the story. The story ends with Juana maybe one day writing her own stories, but the entire book is an example of just that. The letters are a powerful device that allows Juana to process her emotions that come with leaving one’s homeland behind and needing to start anew. The letters are also a wonderful way to strengthen long distance family relationships, which helps Juana feel less lonely.  The letters also suggest that Juana is taking control of her own narrative; she is in control of the story she tells. 

Another significant aspect of Dear Abuelo is the importance of  embracing the uniqueness in names and the importance of connecting with family history through naming. The mispronunciation of (im)migrant student names in the American classroom is a far too common experience. Continual mispronunciation or mockery of a student’s name because they don’t sound or look “American” is an imperialist and white supremacist practice to try to other, marginalize, and erase people’s history, culture, and future. We appreciate that it was Elizabeth, also a child, who had the courage to disrupt assumed power relations and correct, and teach, the teacher how to say Juana’s names. It is also important that the teacher was open to learning something new. 

Dear Abuelo focuses on the Mexican immigrant experience that many children coming to the U.S at a young age might relate to. This picture book illustrates common hardships, including having a language barrier, the trouble of meeting new people, or finding interest in activities like the ones Juana participates in the book, such as playing in gym class or riding the bus. Other picture books that center a similar experience and conversation include Juan Felipe Herrera’s The Upside Down Boy  (2006) and Amada Irma Perez’s My Diary From Here to There (2009). 

Grecia Huesca Dominguez and Teresa Martinez do an excellent job at balancing the struggles young immigrants experience with the joys of still being a child. We wholeheartedly recommend this book to children and parents to read together and discuss the similarities and differences between Juana’s experiences and those of the readers. 

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Ask students to write letters to one another, to the teacher, to someone in their family.
  • Encourage students to also include an illustration or a flower garland border (or a different symbol that represents something about themselves).
  • Ask students to write about the origin and/or history of their names, about being the “new kid” at school, or about making friends.
  • More advanced students can probably write about the more difficult themes around immigration and belonging.

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Photo: Tracy Lane/Benchmark Education Company

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Grecia Huesca Dominguez moved from Veracruz, Mexico, to New York when she was ten years old. She started writing poetry while pursuing her BA in English and Creative Writing at CUNY Lehman College. She initially used poetry as a coping mechanism and soon began to use it as a way to chronicle her life as a single mother and undocumented immigrant, and her Latinx identity. Her first poem, “Marilín,” was published in 2015. Since then, she has published more poems and written three books.

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Teresa Martinez grew up in Mexico loving to draw and decided to study graphic design. She spent many afternoons reading books on art in the university’s library. She also took many painting courses and even went to Italy for a short course at the Leonardo da Vinci School (Florence). Eventually she started working as a children’s book illustrator and has been doing that ever since. Now Teresa lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERS: Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.

Book Review: Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

         

(Left: The paperback cover of Sal & Gabi Break the Universe with the 2020 Pura Belpré Award sticker. Right: The sequel, Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe, released May 5, 2020.)

Review by Toni Margarita Plummer

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents a brilliant sci-fi romp with Cuban influence that poses this question: What would you do if you had the power to reach through time and space and retrieve anything you want, including your mother, who is no longer living (in this universe, anyway)?

How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?

When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.

Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken—including his dead mother—and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.

A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in his mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.

MY TWO CENTS: This is Carlos Hernandez’s first middle grade novel, published by the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney. The imprint publishes books which draw from the mythology or folklore of underrepresented cultures. Unlike other books they’ve published, and Rick Riordan’s own books, Sal & Gabi Break the Universe doesn’t involve a half-god protagonist and aloof or sinister gods. Hernandez isn’t drawing from any mythology for his fantasy world, but rather from science and the idea of parallel universes, which is really refreshing. The Cuban aspect is there, absolutely. The book is set in Miami and we see Cuban culture everywhere, from the language to the food to the mannerisms. Sal is the best and most charming narrator we can hope for, taking us on a vibrant journey as he starts at a new school in a new city.

Culeco Academy of the Arts is not Hogwarts. There’s no magic or super powers. But artistic and creative kids will be itching to enroll! Students take classes in Textile Arts (costumes!), Health Science and the Practice of Wellness (rock-climbing!), and Theater Workshop (dancing, puppets, kata!). Detention is one big educational party.

An important but not defining part of Sal’s character is that he has diabetes, and we see how that affects his life and choices in very concrete ways. Some of the characters, including a teacher, need to be educated on what having diabetes means. Once they get it, they see that although he has some limitations, Sal is a kid just like any other. Scratch that. He’s a talented magician who always has a trick up his sleeve, especially his GOTCHA! stamp. Oh, and he can also open portals into other universes.

What stands out most in the novel are the relationships. Sal’s classmate, Gabi, a future lawyer, is a fantastic character who wears her feminism proudly and literally (all her T-shirts bear inspiring lines from women). The friendship she and Sal build is tentative at first, but cements over the course of the novel. It’s a beautiful thing to witness these two resilient and utterly delightful young people join forces to help each other. The relationships they have with their families are also wonderfully rendered. Sal lives in a big house he calls the Coral Castle with scientist Papi and principal American Stepmom who likes to say, “Phew!” Gabi spends a lot of time with her mother and her many Dads (an entertaining lot!) at the hospital, where her baby brother is in the NICU. I loved the interactions between these families as well. It’s all so intriguing, in fact, that whatever cosmic danger is brewing due to not-closing portals seems to take a back seat. And despite the book’s title, nothing catastrophic actually happens.

One word of caution: Sal’s mother passed away some years ago and he misses her so much that sometimes he inadvertently brings back an alternate Mami, who he calls Mami Muerta. If you are considering giving this to a child who has lost a parent or someone else close, you may want to consider how that particular child will respond to this aspect of the story. On the one hand, it’s maybe comforting, and mind-expanding, to think your loved one exists in other universes, just slightly different. On the other, it could be a little unnerving. Sal’s grief over his late mother is very real and sympathetic, as are his conflicted feelings about wanting her back while also knowing that his father has moved on and is very much in love with his new wife, who happens to be a lovely woman.

There is a lot of compassion to go around in this novel. Even the bully gets a chance to show there’s more to him than what meets the eye. Carlos Hernandez has created a universe infused with possibility, with love, and with acceptance. It’s a place that holds both true sadness and genuine laughs. This debut is an engaging and fun-filled read for middle schoolers.

Carlos Hernandez's pictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carlos Hernandez has published more than thirty works of fiction, poetry, and drama, most notably a book of short stories for adults entitled The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. He is an English professor at City University of New York, and he loves to both play games and design them. He lives with his wife, Claire, in Queens, New York.

 

 

 

PlummerABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondista and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and works as an acquiring editor at an independent publisher in New York City. Toni lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.

 

Review: The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie by Frederick Luis Aldama, illus. by Chris Escobar

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

SUMMARY FROM OHIO STATE PRESS: In their debut picture book, Frederick Luis Aldama and Chris Escobar invite young readers along on the adventures of Chupacabra Charlie, a polite, handsome, and unusually tall ten-year-old chupacabra yearning for adventure beyond the edge of los Estados Unidos. Little does Charlie know when he befriends a young human, Lupe, that together, with only some leftover bacon quesadillas and a few cans of Jumex, they might just encounter more adventure than they can handle. Along the way, they meet strange people and terrifying danger, and their bravery will be put to the test. Thankfully, Charlie is a reassuring and winsome companion who never doubts that he and Lupe will return safely home.

With magical realism, allegory, and gentle humor, Aldama and Escobar have created a story that will resonate with young and old readers alike as it incorporates folklore into its subtle take on the current humanitarian crisis at the border.

MY TWO CENTS: Based on real and imagined tales, The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie, tells the story of a young Chupacabra whose life at the border is full of adventure, if you dare to follow. Charlie lives in the attic of a Bordertown in Mexico. He tells the reader about how, although considered a monster and sometimes feared, he is a kid who is looking for adventures. He tells us about his family life, and we see and read about the importance of family, education, and creativity. For example, the author and illustrator provide a wonderful scene of Charlie’s family dinner, the long tradition of family storytelling and the importance of listening to and learning from these stories. The story provides a great, balanced view of the value of learning in formal and informal settings and of using our imaginations to solve problems. The storyline always warns us about forgetting those family values and how that sometimes leads into negative stereotypes that can affect an entire community. While this is a children’s story, the writing and illustrations help young readers see how the poor choices of a few bad apples can impact the welfare of others.

Despite some of the obstacles and negative perceptions that Charlie faces, this story is about a voyage of bravery, and the meaning of friendship, even with people who do not look like you. We can choose to share life together. Charlie’s new friend, Lupe, becomes Charlie’s partner in an adventure that provides more than a thrill for them; indeed, their mission becomes to free children al otro lado of The Wall, who have been kept in cages. This young readers’ book is refreshing in the way it incorporates life at the border, through bilingualism and storytelling rooted in Latin American traditions such as Realismo Mágico.

One thing that catches our attention is the use of Spanish. While it only incorporates a few words and phrases, it only writes them in italics once, and if the word or phrase is used again, it uses the same font as the rest of the story. This is significant, in my view, because it allows the reader—who may or may not be bilingual—to pause, but then it expects them to learn and normalize bilingualism. Indeed, much of what this book presents are topics that are often complex or controversial and frequently void of the human perspective. More specifically, in the thinking about The Wall that separates the U.S. and Mexico, accepting people’s use of Spanish as part of who they are, and the reality of family separation at the border, which includes putting young kids in detention centers that are cage-like, often times, we forget to broadly think about how real people are deeply affected by all of this. The book tackles those topics in a way that is natural and promotes acceptance and heroism, as we dare to imagine that we can all do something to make someone else’s life a little or a lot easier.

Lastly, the illustrations are detailed and complement the storyline beautifully. I like how the images pay attention to details of city and rural life, highlighting cultural and geographical markers with care, such as el paletero, los nopales, the Wall, and even the flying car and the jar of pickles.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frederick Luis Aldama is Irish-Guatemalan and Mexican Latinx. His mamá was a bilingual elementary school teacher in California. As a kid, he couldn’t get enough of his abuelita’s stories of El Chupacabra, La Llorona, and El Cucuy. Today he is a Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University. He is the author, coauthor, editor, and coeditor of 36 books.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Chris Escobar is a printmaker and cartoonist currently living in Savannah, Georgia. He has an MFA in Sequential Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Chris has created illustrations for the comic anthology Floating Head and editorial illustrations for Dirt Rag magazine, among other publications.

 

ABOUT 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. She is also producer and host of Ohio Habla.

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 14: Ernesto Cisneros

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 14th 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 Ernesto Cisneros.

Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. Efrén Divided is his first book. He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that. You can visit him online at www.ernestocisneros.com.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger siblings Max and Mía feel safe and loved.

But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. His worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.

Now more than ever, Efrén must channel his inner Soperboy to help take care of and try to reunite his family.

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Ernesto Cisneros

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

A long, long time ago, during my senior year in high school, my teacher Sharon Saxton invited Helena Maria Miramontes to speak with our classroom about her anthology, The Moths and Other Short Stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone else saw the world through a similar lens as me—same Latinx lens. Her story made me feel connected, grounded. This was the first time that the idea of being a writer ever entered my mind. It also served as my motivation for writing my first short story—which I am now turning into my very own YA novel, entitled: The Writing on the Wall.

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

After giving up on a career writing screenplays, I decided to drop writing altogether and began teaching instead. The itch to write proved to be to powerful. I began writing short stories that served as prompts and writing samples for my students which they began to really enjoy. Before long, my students began pushing me to write. Eventually, I joined SCBWI and met a handful of individuals who helped me find my way.

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

There so many fantastic middle grade novels out there, but the ones I turn to every time I need further encouragement are: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli because of they way it deals with serious issues of race, running away, and mental health in a way that’s accessible to young children. There’s also Operation Frog Effect by Sarah Scheerger. I love the way she captures the voices of such diverse characters in an entertaining fashion—makes it all seem so effortless, although I know better.

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

My advice is to believe in myself and to value my heart. It is easily my most important asset I have because it definitely seeps its way into everything I write.

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

…they reach children while they are still at work shaping their views of the world. I feel that books can serve as moral compasses that can help instill morals, characters, and empathy—all things the world really needs.

 

 

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 is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 13: Loriel Ryon

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 13th 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 Loriel Ryon.

Loriel Ryon is an author of middle grade fiction. She spent her childhood with her nose in a book, reading in restaurants, on the school bus, and during every family vacation. Her upbringing in a mixed-heritage military family inspires much of her writing about that wonderfully complicated time between childhood and adulthood. Also a nurse, she lives in the magical New Mexico desert with her husband and two daughters. Her debut middle grade novel is Into the Tall, Tall Grass with Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass releases April 7, 2020.

 

Cover_IntotheTallTallGrassHere is the publisher’s description:

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her abuela, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her abuela, who will she have left?

When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that Wela needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.

Loriel Ryon

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

I have always written on and off throughout my childhood and adolescence, though not seriously and completely terrified someone might actually read what I wrote. I’d never imagined that I could actually finish a project. I’m a science-geek, and though I have always loved to read, I never thought I was a very good writer. I did okay in my English classes, but always struggled with reading and writing about the classics, not finding that I could really connect with them emotionally.

After I became a mother, and a mostly stay-at-home one, at that, I found that I needed something for myself. The day-to-day monotony of motherhood was really starting to get to me. So, being the crazy person I am, I gave myself homework that I would do every single day during nap time. It started with: write one chapter. Then: write the first 25% of it. Then: Finish it. Even if it’s bad. Even if you mess up. Just finish it. And so I did. I wrote a YA novel. And it was broken and unfixable, but it taught me two things. 1. I could finish something if I made it a goal, and 2. That I needed to do it again. And so I did, and that is where I got the spark to try my hand at a middle grade novel and what sparked the idea for my debut middle grade Into the Tall, Tall Grass.

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

I find the time between childhood and adolescence, specifically that upper middle grade/tween age to be the age I like to write for. That time is full of massive changes in physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Kids are becoming more and more aware of the expanding world around them and how they fit (or don’t fit) in. It was the age where I switched from reading children’s books to adult books, that I may not have been quite ready for content-wise. I wish there would have been more books that dealt with the issues I was dealing with at that age: friends, first crushes, family, finding yourself, puberty, all of it.

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

TUCK EVERLASTING is one from my childhood that I will never forget. It is one of the few classics that I really connected with and loved and has definitely inspired me in my debut. More recent ones that I’ve read that I have loved are FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, STAND UP, YUMI CHUNG by Jessica Kim, and THE MOON WITHIN by Aida Salazar. They all sucked me in and left me changed by the end of it.

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

Be yourself and be okay with it. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t try to be someone else. Own who you are and try (as hard as it is) to just be you. You are going to spend a good portion of your life trying to figure it out anyhow, might as well start now.

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

…they show us that it’s okay to make mistakes and come out the other side changed.

 

 

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 is 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.