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.

Book Review: Love, Sugar, Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

 

Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.

Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.

And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?

MY TWO CENTS: While we’ve had a strong list of Latinx YA fantasy and magical realism books building for some time, most middle grade books by Latinx authors tend to fall into the genres of realistic fiction or historical fiction. So I was absolutely delighted to read this series opener by Anna Meriano which gives a traditional literary fantasy arc a Latinx, and specifically Mexican-American, voice. Meriano riffs on so many tropes here, including the family with a secret, the youngest child who is desperate to be included, and the sorcerer’s (here, bruja’s) apprentice whose attempts at magic go awry.

One of my favorite things about this book is how the author creates a protagonist who doesn’t speak Spanish (her abuela, who looked after her older sisters and taught them Spanish, died when she was little) and uses it as an obstacle that drives the plot. Magic spells are written in Spanish, so it makes sense that Leo struggles with following them—but also that she perseveres and sees them as her birthright. Not all Latinx kids in the US speak Spanish, for a variety of reasons, and I loved seeing that incorporated into the narrative.

The family relationships in this book are just outstanding. Each sister is individual, and the conflicts between them feel real and lived. I would read an entire book about Marisol and her journey. Meriano doesn’t take the easy way out by having the parents absent or conveniently clueless for most of the narrative, instead making Leo sneak around, constantly worried that her magical efforts will be found out. Of course she is wrong, and the consequences are my favorite part of the book. Leo has to work to fix her mistakes. There is no waving a wand or finding the right words or having a mentor pick up the pieces. She has help, (some of it from an…interesting…source) but she has to do the heavy lifting and figure out the steps to reverse the effects of her spells. Magic systems are tricky to write, and I appreciate that Meriano has created a world with clear rules and expectations, even if they can be bent or broken occasionally.

I would go so far as to say this book is a textbook example of a story that includes specific cultural details, holidays, and language without having them be the focus of the book. So much pop culture centered around Latinx characters uses the Day of the Dead celebrations as an entry and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it gets old after awhile. I loved how Meriano uses the Day of the Dead festival as a set piece, (it’s nice to see how the Logroño family aren’t outsiders in their town), but the book itself isn’t about Day of the Dead. Being a bruja has nothing to do with Day of the Dead. Being Mexican-American is about more than Day of the Dead, a fact that some in the media have yet to grasp.

My favorite line in this book is what Mamá tells Leo when she asks what it means to be a witch.

“A witch can be anyone. A bruja is us. And what does it mean to be a bruja? That’s like asking what it means to be a Texan, or a girl, or curly haired. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s part of you. Then you decide what it means.”

I’m so thrilled that young kids, just hitting middle school, struggling with their identity, will have Leo and her family to make them laugh and guide them to a better understanding of who they are who they want to be in the world.

TEACHING TIPS: There is so much to unpack here for a literature circle or book group at a school. Leo makes lots of choices, which have consequences for many different people, so students can have a field day debating what she should or shouldn’t have done at many different points in the story. Spanish classes, start translating some of those spells! Students could test some of the recipes in the back of the book and bring in their efforts to share with classmates (there is even a gluten-free option). The fantasy elements of the book provide a means for students to write personal narratives imagining themselves into that world: what magical power would you like to have? What are the pros and cons of Isabel’s power versus Alma and Belén’s?

Image result for anna merianoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Meriano grew up in Houston with an older brother and a younger brother, but (tragically) no sisters. She graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis on writing for children from the New School in New York. She has taught creative writing and high school English and works as a writing tutor. Anna likes reading, knitting, playing full-contact quidditch, and singing along to songs in English, Spanish, and ASL. Anna still lives in Houston with her dog, Cisco. Her favorite baked goods are the kind that don’t fly away before you eat them.

RESOURCES: 

Interview with us about being a middle grade author: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/01/05/spotlight-on-middle-grade-authors-part-3-anna-meriano/

Interview on BNKids blog: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/kids/baking-brujas-interview-anna-meriano-love-sugar-magic-dash-trouble/

Excerpt on EW: http://ew.com/books/2017/06/29/love-sugar-magic-dash-of-trouble-excerpt/

Pitch America interview: https://pitchamerica.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/interview-with-anna-meriano-author-of-love-sugar-magic/

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: All the Way to Havana written by Margarita Engle, illus. by Mike Curato

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Together, a boy and his parents drive to the city of Havana, Cuba, in their old family car. Along the way, they experience the sights and sounds of the streets–neighbors talking, musicians performing, and beautiful, colorful cars putt-putting and bumpety-bumping along. In the end, though, it’s their old car, Cara Cara, that the boy loves best.

MY TWO CENTS: I really enjoyed the trip this picture book takes through the Cuban countryside and into the city of Havana. It is easy to identify with the narrator, as he gets squashed in the backseat by all the passengers! Engle makes the question of whether or not the narrator and his father can get the car to work a suspenseful one, but as the journey gets underway, we don’t feel pity for the family for having an old car, but rather excitement for everything they see along the road to Havana. The bright colors of the cars alongside the blue of the sky and ocean make the pictures very attractive and illustrator Mike Curato adds plenty of detail to the vehicles and the scenery in Havana. The figures in the pictures can sometimes look a little flat, but it was nice to see an Afro-Latinx family featured—an unfortunate rarity in a lot of picture books. Both the author and illustrator include notes at the end talking a little about the background of the story and the process of researching the illustrations.

TEACHING TIPS: As might be expected, this is a perfect story time book, especially for kids around ages 2-4 who are usually VERY into cars, trucks, and trains (so much that many bookstores have a separate section just for those books). The sounds the car makes invite call and response with story time or classroom listeners. The way the narrator talks about how Cara-Cara looks compared to all of the other cars might be a good lead in to having students draw their own imaginary car, including what it would look like and what sounds it would make. The context of traveling to a family celebration is also a good discussion point, where children can talk about their own trips to visit relatives and various family celebrations.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find All the Way to Havana, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Margarita Headshot

ABOUT THE AUTHORMargarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots. Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist as well as a poet and novelist. She lives in central California with her husband.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Mike Curato loves drawing and writing almost as much as he loves cupcakes and ice cream (and that’s a LOT!). He is the author and illustrator of everyone’s favorite polka-dotted elephant, Little Elliot. His debut title, Little Elliot, Big City (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Macmillan), released in 2014 to critical acclaim, has won several awards, and is being translated into over ten languages. There are now four books in the Little Elliot series: Little Elliot, Big City; Little Elliot, Big FamilyLittle Elliot, Big Fun; and the latest addition, Little Elliot, Fall Friends. Meanwhile, Mike had the pleasure of illustrating Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, and contributed to What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends. He is working on several other projects, including What If… by Samantha Berger and his first graphic novel. Publishers Weekly named Mike a “Fall 2014 Flying Start.” In the same year he won the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Founder’s Award.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Alma and How She Got Her Name/ Alma y come obtuvo su nombre, by Juana Martinez Neal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming to a shelf near you on April 10, 2018!

Reviewed by Dora Guzman

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: If you ask her, Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela has way too many names: six! How did such a small person wind up with such a large name? Alma turns to Daddy for an answer and learns of Sofia, the grandmother who loved books and flowers; Esperanza, the great-grandmother who longed to travel; José, the grandfather who was an artist; and other namesakes, too. As she hears the story of her name, Alma starts to think it might be a perfect fit after all — and realizes that she will one day have her own story to tell. In her author-illustrator debut, Juana Martinez-Neal opens a treasure box of discovery for children who may be curious about their own origin stories or names.

MY TWO CENTS: What is in a name? A name is a gift given to you at birth and you carry it through all your stages of life. Parents and guardians spend months deciding on their baby’s name, sometimes even long before a baby is in the picture. But what if your name doesn’t fit on your paper because of its length?

In a world where we tend to question our differences, this story does quite the opposite. Growing up in the United States, one tends to have a single first name, maybe a middle name, and just one last name. However, this differs in certain other countries, including in Latin American, where it is not out of the ordinary to have more than one name.

Meet Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela, the main character of this story. Yes, her name is long. However, wondering about the length is what leads Alma on the journey to discover the story behind her name. Throughout the book, we learn the rich history and origins of each of Alma’s names. Many of her names were inspired by her ancestors and their humble traits and contributions to the world. The people behind her names influence Alma’s passions and character, even as she embraces each person and the love they gave her as a baby. She quickly learns that those same traits are present in her everyday life, and she rightfully claims that name through her affirmation of “I am____”. Alma soon learns that with claiming her name comes a lot of love and culture. She will now be able to contribute those gifts to the world. As Alma declares, “I am Alma, and I have a story to tell.”

This story wonderfully illustrates how to embrace YOU and the name you carry throughout life. In this story, Juana demonstrates that our name is a spotlight on not only our ancestors and the imprints they left on our lives, but also a forever part of us and what we can give to this world.

This picture book illuminates an essential connection to ancestors. Inspired by her own name, Juana reminds readers that our names are not just our own, but a reflection of our culture as well.

I am always amazed at Juana’s illustrations, especially in this picture book. The beauty of the main character connecting to her past is captured in colors and soft shades that will delight the reader’s eye. Juana also brings attention to each name through the addition of colorful accents and font styles. In page after page, the illustrations offer a collective reflection of everything that Alma’s ancestors represent, forming a visual reminder that who we are is a collection of everyone who came before us.

TEACHING TIPS: Teachers of all grade levels can use this picture book to illustrate our Latinx identity. This book is a perfect addition to an identity unit, where readers can delve into their own names and family trees. Teachers can also use this book as a reading mentor text around the main character’s learning process, as well as understanding the author’s message. The Spanish version is authentic to the Spanish language and perfect for bilingual/dual language classroom settings. Alma and How She Got Her Name/Alma y como obtuvo su nombre is a definite must add to all libraries in classrooms and homes!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Juana Martinez Neal is an award-winning illustrator and artist. Her passion for art started as a child and led her to study at one of the best schools in fine arts in Peru. Her journey as an illustrator led her to the United States, where she continues to illustrate a variety of children’s books. For updates on her art, follow her on Instagram @juanamartinezn. Juana’s official website can be found at http://juanamartinezneal.com/

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches college courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is currently a doctoral student with a major in Reading and Language. 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: The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

 

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Marcos Rivas yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood, away from his indifferent mom and her abusive boyfriend—which seems impossible.

When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program, he meets Zach and Amy, whose friendship inspires Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself. The Closest I’ve Come is a story about traversing real and imagined boundaries, about discovering new things in the world, and about discovering yourself, too.

MY TWO CENTS: As a seasoned reader of Latinx young adult literature, I expect books that centralize male protagonists to fit within a particular, if unfortunate, macho framework; but I hoped that The Closest I’ve Come would buck tradition. While some parts of the book surprised me (like protagonist Marcos Rivas and his pals having a heart-to-heart at the end of the book), others conformed to the stereotypes I’ve grown used to—absent or abusive fathers, drug trafficking, and gratuitous violence.

Based on the book’s description, I anticipated The Closest I’ve Come would deliver a stereotype-busting journey of self-acceptance; but it’s not until the final fifty pages or so of this book that I was able to see this narrative coalesce. In the condensed space of this young adult novel, Aceves juggles quite a bit, sometimes to the detriment of his overarching goal of revealing how Marcos overcomes his circumstances and comes to accept himself. The plot is sprawling. It follows Marcos as he navigates the complex racial hierarchies of his poor, urban neighborhood, Maesta; through the hallways of his high school; into Future Success, the special program he finds himself enrolled in; and inside the four walls of his home, where he battles a tense relationship with his mother and abuse at the hands of her racist boyfriend. Though I had some difficulty keeping track of the plot, as well as the multiple characters corresponding to each subplot, each reveals a new facet of Marcos’s identity—his tenderness, his concern, and his desire to please.

Yet, whereas Marcos—via Aceves’s first-person narration—is fairly open about his feelings of inadequacy and his hopes for the future, he only shares these thoughts with the reader. Marcos longs for the love of his distant mother. He also vies for the attention of his non-traditional crush– Amy, a punk white girl. But he cannot share his feelings with either of the women in his life, nor can he truly connect with his other friends. It is clear from Aceves’s honest and lyrical prose that Marcos is bright and caring, but he is stunted by the cultural milieu of Maesta.

Though I found the book engaging and Marcos to be a sympathetic narrator, I was a little disappointed that The Closest I’ve Come proliferates the narrative that Latinxs (and other minoritized peoples, as the other residents of Maesta are African-American) are poor, destitute, and violence-prone. Eventually, Aceves undercuts this dominant paradigm by having Marcos reveal his true feelings to his mother, Amy, and his friends, but I worry that it comes too late to dispel the single story of tragedy that the rest of the book is situated within.

Nevertheless, in the end, Marcos realizes that to be truly happy, he must be honest, not just with himself, but with his friends and relatives. This message is so important, particularly within the scope of the emotion-suppressing machismo that pervades representations of Latinos in media and culture. The closeness Marcos and his friends share when they reveal their secrets to each other fosters a sense of community and family that had been missing from Marcos’s life. Aceves succinctly explains, “How lucky that I been tight with these guys all my life. With friends like these, who needs family?” (304). In emphasizing the family that Marcos chooses, rather than the terrible one he is born into, Aceves finally delivers on promise implied in the book’s description: to reveal how Marcos remakes himself.

While I am still unsure if this ending sufficiently subverts the other, more stereotypical traits of The Closest I’ve Come, I do think this book could serve as an important mirror for readers whose circumstances are similar to Marcos’s. In other words, though this book does perpetuate some stereotypes and questionable tropes relating to Latinxs, it may reach readers who, like Marcos and his time with Future Success, simply need the right experiences to turn their lives around.

TEACHING TIPS: Because of my reservations about the book, I might be hesitant to teach it as the central focus of a literature class, but for a language arts unit focused on linguistics, The Closest I’ve Come offers several possibilities. It could provide some examples of vernacular English, as Marcos often drops auxiliary verbs or uses double negatives. Students might also discuss Marcos’s disuse of Spanish (he barely speaks it at home and has trouble understanding it when it is spoken to him), which is particularly important within the context of official language debates.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fred Aceves was born in New York but spent most of his youth in Southern California and Tampa, Florida, where he lived in a poor, working class neighborhood like the one described in The Closest I’ve Come. At the age of 21, he started traveling around the world, living in Chicago, New York, the Czech Republic, France, Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico, his father’s native land. Among other jobs, he has worked as a delivery driver, server, cook, car salesman, freelance editor, and teacher of English as a second language. The Closest I’ve Come is his first novel.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.

Book Review: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

MY TWO CENTS: Much to my delight, there were a number of titles released in 2017 that filled me with pride and transported me back to my days as a middle school book worm. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora was among them. Arturo’s story possesses familiar hallmarks of coming of age tales, a first crush, a crummy summer job as a dishwasher (albeit at his family’s beloved restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla), and self-discovery. With equal measures of humor and heart, Pablo Cartaya’s middle grade debut is sure to leave readers anxious for an invite to the Zamora family Sunday dinners. What truly makes The Epic Fail special, though, is how Cartaya burnishes deeper themes like family, community, gentrification, and cultural identity with nuance and irresistible charm.

When Wilfrido Pipo, a villainous real estate developer, saunters into Canal Grove looking to build a luxurious high rise, Arturo and his family fear the move will drastically alter their Miami neighborhood. Pipo intends to buy the city-owned lot next to La Cocina, which the Zamoras also planned to bid on, hoping to expand their restaurant. In order to convince community members to back his development plan, Pipo throws fancy events and raffles off all-expenses-paid trips. Arturo senses Pipo’s duplicitous nature and is spurred into action by Vanessa, his activist cousin, and Carmen, his new crush. Together, they hatch plans, one involving a Hulk disguise, to further investigate Pipo’s shady background and resist his ambitions. Gentrification and activism are timely topics, but their weightiness can feel overwhelming and disheartening, especially in light of news about Dreamers, to name one example. Cartaya does his best to impart readers with some hope. Arturo and his family picket and attend public forums at city hall, actions which, whatever the ultimate result, display a sense of agency, a power Arturo realizes he possesses.

At one protest, Vanessa holds a picket sign reading “Family is Community-Community is Family,” a succinct summation of two overarching themes. For Cartaya, family is not just those related by blood, but those with whom you choose to spend time, and sometimes, inadvertently share space. We readily throw longtime friends under the family umbrella, but Cartaya implores readers to consider neighbors, even the most eccentric among them, as members of our extended families. La Cocina itself is an extension of the family’s dining room, where an array of regulars eat, local businesses build partnerships (the restaurant buys its meat and greens from area vendors), and everyone is welcome.

Cartaya’s portrayal of an ample list of secondary characters is one of his greatest successes. He depicts a variety of personalities using distinct and vivid details, bringing the community of Canal Grove to life. Whether it is Arturo’s best friend Bren, a hopeless dork perpetually trying to look and sound like Pitbull, or Aunt Tuti, who has a penchant for dramatics, but is a fierce defender of her family, readers will surely recognize at least one, if not many, of Cartaya’s characters. Arturo may be the hero of the story, but it is the people around him who inspire his actions and give his mission purpose. His fight to save the family restaurant is also a fight for the preservation of his hometown, a love he shares with the people of his community, who, in turn, make that community a place worth loving. In one passage, Arturo wonders where Pipo’s own family might be, “All that success and I never heard him talk about anyone who he cared about.” Arturo’s realization reminded me of Harry Potter’s own assessment of Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix, whom he pities for being equally rootless. A poignant message about community that traverses Hogwarts and Canal Grove.

As Arturo’s Abuela’s health declines, she gives Arturo a box of photos and letters from his Abuelo, which reference the poet José Martí. The poet is a link to his grandfather and his Cuban heritage. Arturo is pulled in by Martí, a figure emblematic of embracing multiple cultures and causes. Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he “sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.” Although awkward in many aspects of his life, Arturo moves through his multitudes with spectacular ease. The narrative of struggling to balance cultural identities has shifted. Of course, stories about cultural struggle are necessary, but it was wonderful to see Arturo just be himself. It allowed me to let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I was holding in.

I could go on and on about The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. How touched I was by the depictions of Abuela’s tenderness, his mom’s quiet struggle becoming matriarch of the family, Arturo’s admiration for Carmen’s colorful braces, and of course, the food (recipes included as backmatter). This novel was a true joy to read from beginning to end. A rare feat, even in children’s literature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by Viking. He is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. http://www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

 

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