A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

As devoted fans of Francisco X. Stork, we were excited to learn about Disappeared, the latest in his growing collection of novels for young adults. Garnering acclaim from many corners of the book world, Disappeared brings to life the heart-pounding story of Sara and Emiliano Zapata, a pair of siblings from Juárez, Mexico, who are thrown into peril as Sara delves into the unsolved disappearances of young women and Emiliano stumbles into criminal activity.

At Latinxs in Kid Lit, we advocate for strong and authentic representation of Latinx characters. There is much to praise in Francisco’s body of work, which includes The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, The Memory of Light, and Marcelo in the Real World. When Francisco agreed to answer questions about Disappeared, as well as other aspects of his writing life, we could not have been more thrilled!

 

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Welcome, Francisco! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us!

Francisco X. Stork: Thank you! I’m delighted to be here.

LiKL: You have publicly stated that the creative impulse for Disappeared flowed partly from your response to the recent surge of anti-immigrant/ anti-Latinx sentiment taking place in the United States. In this novel, how did you manage the dual challenge of representing these often disheartening realities, yet offering young readers a gripping story?

FXS: It ultimately boils down to creating believable characters that readers identify with and care about. If the story is to work, that is, if the story is to pull the reader into its world, then there must be something in the characters and something in the adversity which speaks to or touches the reader in a personal way. Often this is a recognition that what the characters are experiencing is something that the reader has experienced also. It could be that the experience was hidden in the reader and he or she is putting words to the experience for the first time. Books about disheartening realities can be gripping if there are heroes in the story that we can identify with. And by “heroes” I mean frail human beings like us who struggle to muster up what is best in us.

LiKL: In Disappeared, your depiction of Mexico and, in particular, Ciudad Juárez, is likely to come as a revelation for many U.S. readers. While you do show characters engaged in activities widely associated with Latinx culture, such as a quinceañera, you also complicate the picture by placing them along a full range of economic classes and professions, including newspaper journalism and information technology. You also shine a spotlight on Mexico’s problems with criminal violence and corruption. Talk about incorporating these complex, and sometimes contradictory, elements in a tightly plotted novel.

FXS: The idea here was to be as true as possible to reality. The reality of Mexico happens to be very complex, just like the reality of the United States is complex. If I were to show only the good side of Mexico, or a simplistic view of Mexico, I would be doing a disservice to Mexicans, to the reader, and to myself. The best antidote to stereotype is complexity. Hatred reduces the person or the object hated to a caricature. The beauty of good literature is that it can destroy hatred by taking us to a place where caricature doesn’t work because it doesn’t keep our interest, it doesn’t keep afloat that “suspension of disbelief” that is needed to keep on reading. It’s wonderful how the literary and the moral join forces in a good book.

  

LiKL: You have made a big mark through your explorations of intersections between varied Latinx experiences and the difficult terrain of depression and other mental health challenges and cognitive differences. This is evident in Marcelo in the Real World, whose main character is on the autism spectrum, and in The Memory of Light, which is about a girl fighting the demons of suicidal depression. You are also one of the contributors to Life Inside My Mind: 31 Authors Share Their Struggles, an anthology of personal stories about mental health issues. Why is it important to you to write about mental health issues, and how do you as a creator stay focused on your projects, all the while managing the challenges of depression?

FXS: I decided to write about things like cognitive disorders and depression and suicide attempts only after I felt that I could do this in a hopeful way—in a way that would give me, if I were reading the book, the courage to keep on living. All my books are deeply personal, not necessarily in an autobiographical sense, but in the existential sense that through them I grapple with my own ultimate concerns about what it means to be a human being. I’ve always treasured the experience of finding the soul of the author behind the story that is being told—that sense of here is someone I can trust because she has felt what I am feeling. So that is what I hope the reader finds in the books that deal with mental illness. I am fortunate to have found, with the help of a doctor, the right medication and the right dosage that allows me to work and to try to be useful to others. Also, I have had many years to work on the right perspective on my illness, one that is a balance of acceptance and fight, of being kind to myself and challenging myself with realistic goals and ideals. A difficult balance that takes constant effort even if never fully attained.

LiKL: At Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, your editor was Cheryl Klein. It’s obvious that Cheryl loved working with you, because she often writes and speaks about the satisfying process of editing your novels. Check the index for her recently published The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults and you’ll see that Marcelo in the Real World is referenced 23 times! We would love to hear a bit from your side of the writer-editor equation. And for the writers among us, please throw in some tips regarding the writing life and the process of taking a book to the finish line.

FXS: Finding Cheryl Klein was either a blessing or very fortunate depending on your world view. Writing is both solitary and communal and on the communal side my writing got exactly what it needed when it got Cheryl. Her editorial genius complemented all my writing lacks while allowing me to remain true to my writing voice and my writing vision (and reminding me of that voice and vision when I strayed). Yes, there were many times when the editing process was very hard and even at times discouraging but I never lost faith that Cheryl wanted what was best for the book and for the future reader and that kept me going. What I would like to convey to young writers is that they do all they can to enjoy the actual process of writing, of being alone with the work, and have patience with regards to the results they hope to attain. Those results may or may not come, but the process of creating a work that is beautiful and true is still worth the effort. Most of all, find a way to tell your story that is unique to you. Finding that uniqueness takes a lot of honesty and it takes a lot of practice and all the mistakes and rejections that you get will only make you a better writer and a better person if you see writing not as the publication of a book or the recognition that comes with it but as a way of life you are called to live.

LiKL: What are you reading right now (YA or otherwise)? What YA books would you recommend to a writer who wants to write books for that age group?

FXS: I’m re-reading Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Ultima. Rudolfo Anaya is in many ways the father of Mexican-American literature and there is so much to learn from him about the presentation of the Mexican-American experience in a novel. One of my favorite books I always recommend to YA writers is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak because, well, there’s an author who found a way to tell an interesting story about a serious situation in a unique way. But I would also encourage YA writers to read all kinds of books, not just YA. Read fiction and non-fiction works that have nothing to do with what you are writing and you will be surprised by how they ultimately do. Read especially those books where the author’s soul touches yours.

LiKL: Lastly, we can’t let you go without asking what you’re working on next and when we can expect to see it in print.

FXS: I didn’t intend to do this when I was writing Disappeared, but I am interested in following Sara and Emiliano as they make their way in the current United States. I’m not sure when you will see it in print. I want to get it right and give the book all the time it needs.

Francisco X. Stork is the author of Marcelo in the Real World, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens and the Once Upon a World Award; The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which was named to the YALSA Best Fiction for Teens list and won the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award; Irises; and The Memory of Light, which received four starred reviews. He lives near Boston with his wife. You can find him online at franciscostork.com and @StorkFrancisco.

For more on Francisco’s books and writing life, check out the following interviews:

“One Thing Leads to Another,” YALSA 

An audio chat on Publishers Weekly KidCast

 

 

Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

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Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

This book talk is based on an uncorrected advance copy.

FROM THE PUBLISHER: School: failure. Romance: failure. Family: failure. Suicide: failure. There’s only one thing left to try: living.

When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital psychiatric ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But there she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experiences with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

MY TWO CENTS: Another fifteen minutes and the pills would’ve done their work, extinguishing all the bright, unrealized promise of 16-year-old Vicky Cruz’s life. Luckily, someone finds her in time. When she wakes up in the psychiatric unit of Lakeview Hospital, in Austin, Texas, her stomach has been pumped, and the first voice she hears belongs to Dr. Desai, a therapist whose guidance and fierce advocacy serve to pull Vicky away from the brink.

At Lakeview, Dr. Desai oversees the treatment of teens hospitalized with serious mental-health issues. Vicky becomes intimately acquainted with three fellow patients, who play integral roles in her healing journey and offer compelling stories of their own:

E.M. came to Lakeview after one of his violent outbursts resulted in court-mandated treatment.

Mona wrestles with bipolar disorder, which was recently compounded by trauma at home. Child Protective Services removed her little sister from the custody of their mom and stepdad.

Gabriel is a young mystic who initially withholds the exact nature of his mental illness from the others in the group. In Vicky’s eyes, he’s a tender soul who moves in and out of functionality.

Lakeview is the primary setting for much of the novel, but some scenes unfold during off-site excursions, including a stay at Dr. Desai’s working ranch, where the patients perform minor farm chores, and go on a wild-river adventure that nearly leads to tragedy but ultimately opens new avenues for transformation. And there are more wild rides as two of the characters plunge into distressing setbacks. Despite her own shaky condition, Vicky responds to others with empathy, leading her to find greater definition in her own life’s purpose.

Vicky’s road to recovery is far from smooth. Shortly after surviving “the deed,” as she calls her suicide attempt, she’s hard pressed to pinpoint what’s so unbearable about her life. But she’s certain she’ll try to escape it again. Strong clues lie in the hollowness of her family relationships. Her mother died of cancer six years before, and less than one year later, her father remarried. Throughout her mother’s illness and even after her passing, Vicky’s father and her older sister, Becca, detached themselves from the trauma. By contrast, Vicky was the sensitive and attentive child who felt her mother’s absence keenly. Afterwards, it was Juanita, the family housekeeper, who served as Vicky’s truest human connection. Unfortunately, Juanita’s arthritis is too disabling for her to continue working and she plans to return to her native Mexico.

Once Vicky leaves the chilly environment of home and enters the warmer climate of the treatment unit, she begins to entertain the idea that life may be worth living. After consulting with an outside therapist, Vicky’s father and stepmother try to convince her to return home and resume normal activities, including school—the general idea being to jump back on the horse after a fall. Vicky’s instinct tells her this won’t work. For one thing, “our house is not a good place to figure things out,” she realizes. Bit by bit, through flashbacks and in conversations in Dr. Desai’s office and with her new friends, we see that Vicky’s family may be well off, but it isn’t well. For example, whether born obtuse or blinded by unresolved grief, Mr. Cruz uses words as bludgeons, and for Vicky, these words and the attitudes behind them strip her of the sense that she is lovable.

Francisco Stork brilliantly depicts the intangibles of interior life, an ability that he ably demonstrated in his 2009 YA novel, Marcelo in the Real World. In The Memory of Light, Stork summons these powers to communicate the nature of depression. Here’s how Vicky tries to explain its mysterious operations to herself: “I imagine a whole bunch of little minerlike elves who live and work inside the dark tunnels of my brain. They wear flashlight hats of different colors and push clanging carts full of words on steel rails from one corner of my mind to another.”

Vicky experiences small, but important epiphanies during her hospital stay. In a particularly shining scene, Dr. Desai shares approaches to unlocking the vicious circle of obsessive thoughts. One of the nuggets from this conversation is a fable from Dr. Desai’s native India that illuminates the self-defeating nature of holding on to such thoughts.

All of the teen characters and many of the adults in this novel are Latin@s, representing a full range of personalities, social and economic classes, and occupations. The Cruz family belongs to the wealthy sector of Austin. Vicky, who attends an exclusive private school, is markedly aware of her privileged status—and of the fact that it doesn’t shield her from mental illness. Her exposure to the less-privileged lives of her new friends alerts her to her father’s snobbish attitude toward working-class Latin@s. She sees the hypocrisy, too. His own grandfather arrived in the United States from Mexico without a penny.

The Memory of Light is a compelling view of teens in crisis. It points the way toward life beyond depression, yet steers clear of romanticizing serious mental illness. Although it’s primarily Vicky Cruz’s story of dealing with suicidal depression and the agony of living in a family broken by loss and dysfunction, the intertwining narratives of the other young characters charge the novel with extra vitality and shed light on the many faces of mental illness.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Don’t miss Cindy L. Rodriguez’s timely reflections on how depression is viewed in the Latino community. Her article includes a list of YA novels featuring Latin@ characters wrestling with mental illness.

On his website, Francisco Stork features two blog posts related to the topic of depression and the writing of The Memory of Light. See them here and here.

In this article, a school psychologist offers tips for teachers on classroom strategies to help depressed students.

francisco_storkABOUT THE AUTHOR: Francisco X. Stork is a Mexican-born author of six novels for young people. Among these is the multiple award-winner Marcelo in the Real World. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he spent much of his law career working in the field of affordable housing. Learn more about Francisco and his books at his official author site.

 

 

 

IMG_1291Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Book Review: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

marcelo_coverFROM THE PUBLISHER:

The term “cognitive disorder” implies there is something wrong with the way I think or the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.

Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear — part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo’s differences, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer . . . to join “the real world.”

There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a picture he finds in a file — a picture of a girl with half a face — that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.

Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside.

MY TWO CENTS: Certain quirks cause 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval to stand out from the crowd. He fastens his shirt all the way to the top button, even when he’s not wearing a necktie. His speech can be overly formal, and he often refers to himself in the third person. Don’t ask him to catch the meaning of an eye roll or a smirk because his brain isn’t wired to interpret subtler forms of nonverbal language. Plus, he hears music that no one else can hear. Marcelo was born with a cognitive disorder resembling Asperger syndrome, a category of autism spectrum disorder often considered “high-functioning.” The syndrome’s most recognizable traits are difficulty with social interactions and the tendency to become preoccupied with special areas of interest. In Marcelo’s case, this is the study of religion.

Marcelo attends Paterson, a school for kids with disabilities. The summer before his senior year, he’s supposed to work at the school’s stables, helping with the therapeutic ponies, but his father, a lawyer, has a different plan. Arturo Sandoval thinks it’s time for his son to experience “the real world,” in the form of a summer job at the law firm. If Marcelo manages the job satisfactorily, he’ll be allowed to choose which school to attend in the fall—the safe and friendly Paterson he knows well, or Oak Ridge High, a regular school not structured around the needs of students with disabilities.

What Marcelo encounters on the job is far more complex and morally ambiguous than the simple mailroom duties he’s hired to carry out. The law firm’s other partner has a college-age son, Wendell, who is also working at the office over the summer. Arturo considers Wendell a good role model for Marcelo. Little does he know that Wendell is much more interested in checking out the female employees than in getting any work done, and Jasmine, Marcelo’s supervisor, is the main object of his lust. At first, Marcelo tries to ingratiate himself to Wendell, who holds considerable power in assessing Marcelo’s performance, but it becomes apparent that Wendell is a jerk who mocks Marcelo, objectifies women, and disregards Arturo as a “minority hire.”

Other workplace quandaries pop up. Marcelo discovers a photograph of a girl badly injured in a car crash, due to the failure of a windshield manufactured by one of the law firm’s most important clients. He begins to wonder about his father’s decision to protect wealthy corporations, instead of those who’ve been harmed by the corporation’s negligence and can’t afford legal help.

But this YA novel isn’t a legal thriller per se. It’s a variation on the coming of age story, one that visits romantic love and sexual intimacy, and repeatedly explores the idea of what is real. There’s the real music that everyone can hear and the internal music heard only by Marcelo. There’s the real world of the law firm and Oak Ridge High School, and the protected world of Paterson. And how about the distinction between a happy smile and a sarcastic smile, or the literal words that people use and the actual meanings behind them? Plus, who is the real Arturo: the father that Marcelo knows, or the lawyer who may have wandered into less than noble choices? Reality is tough to decode.

I am not qualified to comment in depth on Stork’s depiction of Marcelo’s cognitive disorder. As I read, I kept myself alert for any signals that the author had romanticized the character’s condition or imbued him with magical or savant abilities, as is often the case in cultural portrayals of people with autism spectrum disorders. I saw nothing approaching those errors. Luckily, Disability in Kidlit, a blog devoted to reviewing books about characters with disabilities, has also published a review of Marcelo in the Real World. Read S.E. Smith’s fine analysis here.

Stork presents the Sandovals as a cohesive, but realistic Latino family, with flaws intact. They stand apart from the most prevalent depictions of Latino families in fiction and film, where poverty, domestic violence, and trouble with immigration issues crop up frequently. Marcelo’s mother, Aurora, is a registered nurse. She and Arturo are educated, upper-middle class professionals of Mexican heritage who can afford to send their son to a specialized private school. Their other child, Yolanda, is enrolled at an Ivy League university. Judging by their achievements, the Sandovals are living the American Dream, but crass remarks by Wendell convincingly show the darker side of reaching the Dream, that even successful Latinos are subject to derisive questions about their legitimacy.

Francisco Stork is a brilliant writer. His characters breathe, his dialogue sings, and his depiction of Marcelo’s interior life sparkles with beautiful insights and revelations. In writing his main character as a Latino with a developmental disorder, he gives readers the rare opportunity to experience two seldom combined, yet richly portrayed worlds. In Stork’s hands, this intersection of culture and cognitive challenge becomes suffused with poetic tenderness, and the result is an unforgettable novel.

francisco_storkFrancisco X. Stork was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and moved to the United States at age nine. He studied at Spring Hill College, Harvard University and Columbia University, where he completed a law degree. Stork’s five published novels have received awards, honors and high praise from reviewers. Keep up with publishing news and events at his official author site.

 

 

TEACHING RESOURCES:

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

Autism Society of America

The official site of the autistic professor, speaker and author Temple Grandin

Equine Therapy Programs

Navigating Love and Autism,” a profile in The New York Times

In this video clip, comedian DL Hughley shares a touching story about his adult son with Asperger syndrome.