Review: The Fresh New Face of Griselda by Jennifer Torres

 

Review by Clarissa Hadge

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Griselda “Geez” Zaragoza has a love for beautiful things, like her collection of vintage teacups and the flower garden she and her dad planted in the front yard. But when his business fails, Griselda loses not just her home, but also her confidence and her trust in her unflappable parents.

Tagging along with big sister Maribel, who postponed college for a job selling Alma Cosmetics, Geez dreams up a way to reclaim the life she thinks she lost. If she can sell enough tubes of glistening, glittery Alma lip gloss, she’ll win a cash prize that could help jump start her dad’s business.

With ups and downs along the way, Geez will discover that beauty isn’t just lost or found, but made and re-made.

MY TWO CENTS: Griselda “Geez” Zaragoza and her family have fallen on hard times. Her dad has lost his landscaping business, forcing the family to move from their home to Griselda’s Nana’s house. Her mom, a former TV reporter from before Griselda was born, picks up hours as an assistant at Griselda’s Tia Carla’s salon. Griselda’s big sister Maribel has postponed going off to college to stay home and help the family by selling cosmetics door-to-door as a saleswoman for Alma Cosmetics. Griselda spends the summer before starting sixth grade following Maribel through her rounds.

After one of these sales calls, Griselda sees an ad in her sister’s cosmetic brochure that reads, “Are you between the ages of 12 and 19? Join Alma Cosmetics as a Junior Associate.” The ad promises Junior Associates who sell 500 tubes of Alma’s new Fairytale Collection lip gloss a chance to win $5,000, and the opportunity to be the “Fresh New Face” of the cosmetics line.

In the moment, Griselda tosses the brochure away, her mind heavy with thoughts about her family’s finances. The only thing that seems to bring her happiness anymore are her collection of First Lady teacups, found at various yard sales through the years, searching long and hard with her Nana. Maribel gives Griselda a lip gloss, for helping with their last sale.

A fashion forward classmate notices Griselda holding the lip gloss at lunch on the first day of school, and realizes that it’s a color that is from a new line. Griselda initially offers to give it away, but then she realizes that she could instead sell it to the classmate. The classmate eagerly buys the new gloss, and other girls notice, asking Griselda if she has other colors. An idea starts formulating in Griselda’s mind – that she could maybe become a Junior Associate with Alma Cosmetics, and potentially win the $5,000 prize. Griselda knows that $5,000 isn’t going to get her house back, or her dad’s job, but she knows that it can help her family in some way. After a starting boost from Maribel, she gains traction in her cosmetic sales. With more and more classmates excited about the new colors and styles, and their eager willingness to pay, Griselda’s popularity grows.

But though she is on her way to winning the cash prize, and maybe becoming the “Fresh New Face” of Alma, Griselda’s rise is not without its obstacles. She might be able to sell lip gloss and nail polish, but at what expense? Her friends? Her relationship with her family? Though her intentions are honorable, Griselda will learn a valuable lesson in what it takes to be at the top.

Jennifer Torres’s middle grade novel is a sweet tale of one girl trying to help her family. I appreciated the way that the novel dealt with class differences, Griselda’s introspection about her family’s situation, and what she could do to make things easier for all of them. Though the Zaragozas are not without a physical roof over their heads, and have the privilege of never going without food, Torres captures the turmoil a tween might undergo, of wanting to help, but not being quite old enough to make a significant difference. Griselda’s relationship with her Nana was one of my favorite parts of the novel, and with seamless Latinx references throughout the text – Griselda eating pan dulce with her Nana before school in the morning, the breezy inflections of her Nana calling her mija – I was reminded of my own childhood moments with my Granny.

The secondary character of Griselda’s best friend Sophia was fleshed out without being stereotypical. My heart broke as Griselda has less and less time with Sophia and have an inevitable falling out at the mall. The scene is supposed to be celebratory, as they are there to spend their birthdays together, but it ends in disaster. Griselda’s worry over money comes to a head when she internalizes all of her anger and sadness as she sees Sophia spending money, without having to care about how much everything costs, as Griselda does. The scene is poignant, both girls angry at each other for all the wrong reasons, but not realizing no one is really to blame in the moment.

I especially loved the details about Griselda’s First Lady tea cups, with each chapter starting with a quote from a First Lady. This characteristic of Griselda felt unique. I have to admit I searched online to see if these existed, and while it doesn’t appear as though a matching set exists in our world, I’d like to think that Griselda eventually finds all of the cups to make a full set.

 

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Torres is the author of Flor and Miranda Steal the Show, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, and Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música. A graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Westminster, London, her background is in journalism. She has worked for The Record newspaper in Stockton and now lives with her husband and two little girls in Southern California.

 

 

 

CH headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Clarissa Hadge is a Chicanx transplant from sunny Southern California who now lives in the less-than-sunny Northeast. A graduate of Simmons University, her background is in writing for children. An advocate for more inclusive literature for children and young adults, she is the bookstore manager and children’s book buyer at an independent bookstore in Boston and the current co-chair of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council (NECBA).

Review: The Sarai Books by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illus. by Christine Almeda

 

Review by Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez

In the past year I have been immersed in numerous early readers and transitional chapter books as part of a research project that examines representations of Latinx characters in these kinds of texts. The Sarai book series has been one of my favorites to read!

While the short format of early readers and chapter books can sometimes limit how much character development and details authors can offer, the Sarai books don’t fall short on these aspects. Sarai is free spirited, caring, creative, confident, and as a reader I got to know her personality (and her sisters’ personalities as well) through her interactions with others and her many ventures.

The following are reviews for books 2, 3, and 4 of the series. Read our review of Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome (Sarai Book #1). All books in the series are now available in Spanish as Saraí #1: Saraí y el Significado de lo Genial, Saraí #2: Saraí en Primer Plano, Saraí #3: Saraí Salva la música, and Saraí #4: Saraí y la Feria Alrededor del Mundo.

 

Sarai in the Spotlight (Sarai Book #2)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Sarai’s best friend suddenly moves away, Sarai has to navigate school – and the unfriendly girls in the cafeteria – all by herself. Then, new girl Christina moves to town and the teacher volunteers Sarai to show her around. But Sarai thinks Christina is not at all like her–she never wants to play at recess, she’s always got her head in a notebook, and she’s so shy! But when Christina writes Sarai a spoken-word poem for her to recite at the class talent show, Sarai learns that sometimes winning teams are made from unlikely pairs!

MY TWO CENTS: Sarai’s awesomeness continues in this second installment of the series. Her affirmation of being awesome continues in this book, especially when she shares with her family that some of the girls in her class bother her during recess (38). This demonstration of confidence continues when she stands up for herself during an incident with the same group of girls, doing so without putting anyone down. And that is the beauty of Sarai’s proclamations of confidence: they highlight how awesome she is and feels without making anyone else feel bad about themselves. Further, she also shows a little bit of self-doubt, which is to be expected of a child growing up. She is finding herself and becoming her own person.

This book focuses on how Sarai deals with her best friend moving away and then how she slowly befriends the new girl, Christina. They don’t have many things in common yet, which makes Sarai miss her friend Isa. However, Sarai is respectful about their differences and open to learning more about her new friend. As a result, they collaborate for the school’s talent show, creating together a wonderful performance.

Sarai’s blossoming friendship with Christina is as delightful to witness as her relationship with her sisters, Josie and Lucía. As she explains, they might sometimes fight and disagree, but they all stick up for each other. Each sister has a distinct personality, and we learn little bits about them throughout the story. For example, we learn that Lucía has a little bit of a temper, (11), and is also very empathetic: “Lucía used to have her own cafeteria card, but she kept buying food for everyone who she thought didn’t have enough money to eat…” (16). We also continue to learn about Josie, who attends a different school from her sisters, wears cochlear implants, and communicates through a combination of signs and words. The sisters — along with their cousins Juju, Javier, and Jade — are part of the Super Awesome Sister-Cousin Fun Club, where they come up with awesome ideas.

With so many fun activities happening in Sarai in the Spotlight (like the kids’ game of Rainbow Art Paint Tag) and all the relatable experiences Sarai goes through, readers will definitely enjoy this second book in the series.

TEACHING TIPS: Because this book introduces a new character, there is a good use of descriptions that help readers get to know her. In addition, readers learn more about Sarai, her sister, and her friend Isa. Teachers, then, can use the book to teach about character development through descriptions. Students can create profiles for the different characters in the book and then they could create and develop their own characters.

 

Sarai Saves the Music (Sarai Book #3)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: They’re cutting funding at Sarai’s school and her band program is the first to go. That is totally not okay with Sarai. She decides to organize a benefit concert to raise money! When she and her bandmates promote the concert on their video channel, it catches the attention of Sarai’s favorite singer, Sparkles Sanchez! Can Sarai save the music?

MY TWO CENTS: I have to admit that, while I enjoyed all four books in the Sarai series,  this one is my absolute favorite! In the third installment of the series, we witness how Sarai and Christina’s friendship continues to grow, as they support and empower one another. When some of the girls at school keep teasing Sarai, Christina suggests that they are jealous because Sarai is “so smart, and because you’re you!” (11).  Equally helpful are Sarai’s neighbors and family, who continue to support the kids’ many ventures. This is particularly evident when everyone bands together to help Sarai help save her school’s music program.

It is this aspect that makes this book especially poignant. For one, it depicts the precarious state of the U.S. education system, where programs are being cut and teachers are losing their jobs. When Ms. Cruz — Sarai’s music teacher– shares the news with the class that the school district is cutting the funds for elementary music programs, students are understandably upset. More so, they are worried about what this means for their teacher. When Sarai asks Ms. Cruz if she will lose her job, the teacher can’t help but cry. This takes Sarai and the students aback, as they have “never seen a teacher cry before” and they “feel worried” (36). I truly appreciate the honesty from both Ms. Cruz and the students that is depicted here. Often, teachers are not encouraged to show vulnerability, even when their livelihood might be in danger, so Ms. Cruz’s moment of honesty with her students allows them to understand her situation better– and in turn, readers can better understand the realities many of their own schools and their own educators might be facing.

“Isn’t there anything we can do? Fundraise? Protest? Sign petitions?” Sarai asks, as the students try to figure out what they can do to save the music program and Ms. Cruz’s job (36). Sarai, always having something up her sleeve, mobilizes her classmates, her family, and her community to effect some change. Through her new venture, Sarai’s Garage Chat, a TV show she records with her sisters and cousins from their own garage, Sarai and her classmates are able to spread the word about the benefit concert they are organizing. It is important to note that Sarai takes action and mobilizes, but she creates a community and involves them. It is not a solo project. Everything is motivated and planned by the kids, and the adults are there to support them. One of the most moving moments in this book takes place when students are recording their plea to the community to attend their benefit and donate to the music program: each child made an argument about why music programs are so crucial.

In addition to its depiction of activism and empathy, this book continues showing readers all the awesome personalities in Sarai’s group of friends and family. There is something with which readers can connect– whether it is the games and fun ideas Sarai and her family come up with or her obsession with Stephanie Sparkles Sanchez (who gave me major Selena Quintanilla vibes and I loved it!). Through her contagious upbeat personality, Sarai is following her musical idol’s advice to “Spread the Sparkle!”

TEACHING TIPS: Teachers can use this early chapter book to discuss how the students in Sarai’s school worked together to try to solve a problem and could ask students to identify an issue in their school or community they would like to address. They could propose ideas and consider what steps they would need to take toward making improvements. Teachers can also use this book to focus on argument writing; as each student in Sarai’s class makes an argument for saving the music program, they put into practice appeals to logic and emotion.

 

Sarai and the Around the World Fair (Sarai Book #4)

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Sarai outgrows her bike, she worries she’ll never get to travel anywhere. But when Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary hosts their first Around the World Fair, Sarai learns that with a little imagination you can go anywhere you want!

MY TWO CENTS: In this fourth installment there is no “big problem” that Sarai needs to or wants to solve. Rather, we continue to see her character development, getting to know her and her family. Mainly, Sarai’s empathy and understanding of her family’s needs come through again. This time, she has been eyeing a bicycle, yet Sarai understands her parents’ financial struggles and doesn’t ask for expensive things, including the new bike she really wants. Her inventive and resourceful Tata — her grandfather — however, decides to fix an old bike for Sarai. And though she is reluctant at first, not sure what the end product would be, Sarai ultimately enjoys helping her Tata fix the old bike and appreciates how great it turns out to be.

I found her reluctance to be relatable and so important to include. She is such a positive and upbeat character, and a wonderful role model for children, but I also appreciated that we get to see Sarai upset. Seeing a range of emotions (like frustrations and being upset) can be helpful for young readers, and it is especially important to show them that it is okay to feel upset and then demonstrate how they can deal with their different emotions. After Sarai has some time to work through her frustrations with Tata and the old bike he is trying to fix, she apologizes to him, and Tata apologizes to her as well.  This exchange not only shows that she is human– experiencing and expressing a range of emotions– but it also shows that adults need to understand what children are experiencing and show them they matter.

At school, Sarai must decide what country to research and present at the Around the World Fair. Embracing her parents’ two countries — Peru and Costa Rica — she would love to feature both. She decides to do some “research to make an informed decision” (42). Funny as she is, Sarai, after doing some research, tells her friend Christina that one day, when they are “really old, like twenty” they could travel to Ireland, Peru, and Costa Rica, where their families are from. In the end, Sarai is able to present on her chosen country (I won’t tell you which one). At the end of the book, readers will find a recipe and a step-by-step guide for making empanadas, like the ones she shares at the fair.

This fourth, and hopefully not the last, book in the series is truly delightful!

 

Sarai GonzalezABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sarai Gonzalez became an overnight sensation after appearing in Bomba Estero’s, “Soy Yo,” a music video about embracing yourself and loving your flaws. The video garnered over 75million views and The New York Times called Sarai a Latina icon. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome is the first book in her new chapter book series inspired by her life. Sarai is now 13 years old and lives in New Jersey with her family.

 

monica6Monica Brown is the award-winning author of super awesome books for children, including the Lola Levine chapter book series, Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, and Waiting for the Biblioburro. She is a professor of English at Northern Arizona University, specializing in Latinx and African American Literature. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, with her husband and her dogs, Lola and Finn. Visit her at www.monicabrown.net.

 

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Christine Almeda is a Filipino-American freelance illustrator from NJ / NYC. She graduated from Montclair State University, earning a BFA and an Award for Excellence in Animation & Illustration, focusing on children’s media. She believes in the power of storytelling and that art has the ability to make life a little more beautiful. You can learn more about her work at https://www.christinealmeda.com/about.

 

 

 

headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

 

 

Book Review: The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

 

On Thursday, we posted a Q&A with debut author Rebecca Balcárcel. Today, Mimi Rankin reviews her novel, The Other Half of Happy.

Review by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

MY TWO CENTS: I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of The Other Half of Happy at TLA from Michaela at Chronicle Books (Thank you!). Although a normal Middle Grade length, I breezed through Quijana’s story without noticing time pass. Quijana is delightfully normal in the best way possible, and yet she still feels wholly developed, along with the other characters throughout the book. By the time I reached the end, I knew these characters as fully realized, multidimensional people in my own life.

My bias as an adult reader of children’s lit is that although I can remember being twelve, I am not reading this as a twelve year old, so I am truly not reading in the perspective of a child. Likewise, I am not a mother, so while I can empathize with Quijana’s mom, I also cannot read accurately through a shared lens of a parent. Still, even with this disclaimer, Balcárcel’s writing allowed me to have both pairs of eyes; to step back into that horribly awkward preteen skin and empathize with the adult woman whose world is crashing around her as she’s spinning ten plates at once.

Quijana’s story is a beautiful yet fairly simple story of a twelve-year-old girl. She has crushes, she is figuring out her passions, and she struggles with certain school subjects. But there are so many layers to Quijana’s story that many middle schoolers may resonate with; layers that they may think no one else could possibly understand. From having a sibling with sensory sensitivities and developmental delays, to losing a loved one for the first time, to one of the most poignant parts of the story for this reviewer, understanding what it means to be a third culture kid, Balcárcel combines the personal with the universal into a story that is likely to be felt deeply by preteens far beyond the Latinx community. Quijana loves her father but feels a barrier of culture in her own home; the culture she is growing up in is not that of her father’s upbringing. Finding her own balance of defining her identity on her own terms is something she will have to decipher on her own, and I find that to be a compelling and inspiring piece of this book.

Another favorite moment was Quijana’s solidarity with other Latinx kids at the bus stop; Quijana’s perspective guesses that they are Mexican. She tries to strike up a conversation with the little Spanish she knows only to be ridiculed by another student at the bus stop who is assumed to be non-Latinx. This moment bonds together the Latinx students at the bus stop, Quijana included, although it’s made clear that they are not all Guatemalan as Quijana is. This brings up a fascinating idea of unity among Latinx communities in the US; there is some bond beyond differing cultures based solely in language and the experience of the immigrant, of coming from somewhere else.

“That’s what it’s really like being twelve. Everything rolling toward you.” -Page 1

Balcárcel effortlessly brings huge conversations about cultural identity and disabled children to a very real and very simple discussion: life as a twelve-year-old girl. When you’re twelve, everything seems monumental, even if it may not seem that way in nostalgic hindsight. Thanks to Rebecca Balcárcel and Chronicle Books for a wonderful read that brought me back to middle school!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

 

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

 

 

 

Book Review: Sci-Fu: Kick It Off by Yehudi Mercado

 

Review by Marcela Peres

Sci-Fu Vol 1 Kick It Off GNDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Thirteen-year-old Wax’s life may not be perfect. But that doesn’t stop him from spinning some of the sickest beats on their Brooklyn block… but he’s a better DJ than he thinks.

One night, while making a mixtape for his crush, Wax scratches the perfect beat and responds to an interstellar challenge that transports him and the entire block to the robot-filled planet of Discopia. Mistaken by the locals for a master of the futuristic, sound-bending martial art known as SCI-FU, Wax finds himself on the wrong side of a showdown against the Five Deadly Dangers and their leader, Choo Choo.

With help from the sci-fu master Kabuki Snowman and Wax’s crew—including his best friend Cooky P, his sister The D, and even his crush, Pirate Polly—Wax has to become a sci-fu master or risk losing Earth forever!

MY TWO CENTS: Sci-Fu is a love letter mixtape to all things 80s hip hop that can be appreciated by middle grade readers and adults alike. It’s a book that demonstrates the power of graphic novels to speak to the senses: the colors and lettering, heavily influenced by graffiti art and 8-bit video game graphics, are so vibrant and kinetic that you can almost hear the music popping off the page. At the end, writer-illustrator Yehudi Mercado includes a link to a Spotify playlist of iconic old school hip hop that will make you want to re-read the book while listening—and actually, I’d recommend it.

Main character Wax moves through his hero’s journey against a psychedelic sci-fi background, first in a diverse, multilingual 1980s Brooklyn alive with cool characters, fashion, and of course, sick beats, and then on to Discopia, the alien robot planet Wax has to save. He dreams of becoming the best DJ in the universe, but also struggles with normal kid problems, like fending off bullies and finding the courage to talk to his crush. Under the tutelage of his alien Sci-Fu sensei, Kabuki Snowman, and support from his friends and family, Wax faces off against a team of fantastical villains that, in classic hip hop fashion, are clearly sampled from some of the best of 80s pop culture. He’ll learn the skills he needs to save the universe and come into his own as a DJ and a person in the process, learning valuable lessons about hard work, friendship, and standing up for oneself.

There is a lot to love about Sci-Fu, especially its cast of interesting supporting characters. Pirate Polly escapes the typical love interest trope with an exciting side plot and destiny, and smart, take-charge little sister The D deserves a spin-off series of her own. Sidekick Cooky P is a loyal friend who pushes Wax to keep improving, and ice cream-truck driving guardian Uncle Rasheed provides some comic relief in the form of dessert-flavored expletives. The villains rap, in a fun twist on typical superhero-fight banter, and bring their own surprise swerves to the storyline and its eventual resolution.

Many elements, from the plot to the characters to the visual style, are clear homages to music, films, and even other comics. Perhaps strongest here is the “boys adventure” plot type, like the classic Stand by Me or modern throwback show Stranger Things. However, refreshingly, here we get a kids adventure with a mix of genders and backgrounds, and a plot firmly rooted in African-American and Afro-Latinx culture. This is not the 1980s of frizzy perms and synthesizer pop. This is tracksuits and sweatbands, Pan-African pendants, chunky hoop earrings and roller skates, and De La Soul. And the best part is, it’s only Book One.

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Writing: Students could be encouraged to write raps (and rhymes) about their own lives in alternating pairs, just like many of the tracks we hear from Wax and Cooky P.
  • Using onomatopoeia to tell stories: Many of the sound effects in Sci-Fu are examples of onomatopoeia (click, BOOM, whing) or in the Sci-Fu martial art, slang words (wiggedy wack) can be used as attacks. Ask students to illustrate scenes using onomatopoeia sound effects to bring their stories to life.
  • Kung-Fu: One aspect of Sci-Fu that could be better explored is the major influence of kung-fu and martial arts. Research the history of kung-fu and martial arts in American culture, especially in film and its impact on Black culture (for example, on breakdancing).
  • History of hip-hop: Learn about the history of hip hop, especially around when Sci-Fu takes place. Visit online collections such as The Cornell Hip Hop Collection and the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute to see examples of early intersections between hip hop and visual culture (graffiti, DJ flyers, zines). Create zines or flyers inspired by these works.

 

YehudiABOUT THE AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Yehudi Mercado is a self-proclaimed Pizza Laureate, cartoonist, writer and animator living in Los Angeles by way of Austin, Texas. Yehudi spent many an afternoon in detention during his formative years and credits that “thinking about what you’ve done time” for his unstoppable imagination. As a latchkey kid, Yehudi would choreograph elaborate kung-fu fight scenes set to his Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys records, thus providing the foundation for Sci-Fu. His projects as writer-illustrator include Rocket Salvage, Hero Hotel and Pantalones, TX.

 

 

 

MarcelaABOUT THE REVIEWER: Marcela was born in Brazil and moved to the U.S. at the age of three, growing up in South Florida. She is now the Library Director at Lewiston Public Library in Maine. Marcela holds a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she concentrated on community informatics and library services to teens. She is a copy editor for NoFlyingNoTights.com, has served on the Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants for Libraries jury, and speaks about comics in libraries at library conferences and comic conventions. She can be found on Twitter @marcelaphane and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: Ugly Cat and Pablo by Isabel Quintero

 

Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Ugly Cat is dying for a paleta, or ice pop, and his friend Pablo is determined to help him get one by scaring a little girl who is enjoying a coconut paleta in the park. Things go horribly wrong when, instead of being scared, the little girl picks Pablo up and declares that he would make a great snack for her pet snake. Oh and there’s also the small problem that Ugly Cat may have inadvertently swallowed Pablo in all of the commotion!

Ugly Cat and his impeccably dressed mouse friend, Pablo, are an unlikely and dynamic duo who will win young readers over with their ridiculously silly antics and their search for tasty treats.

MY TWO CENTS:  As Pablo likes to say “Oh my galleta!” What a charming, silly, delightful book! I was captivated by Ugly Cat and Pablo from the very first page. They are a fantastic odd couple, one pre-occupied with food and the other with adventure. Quintero’s dialogue is snappy and if some of the vocabulary is a little above the average elementary reader, it makes it a great read-aloud and vehicle for introducing new words in both English and Spanish. I appreciate that the Spanish isn’t italicized and all the characters go back and forth between both languages, so no one is singled out as the ‘Other’.

Quintero slips in some good lessons about being kind to friends, listening, and using your words when there’s a misunderstanding. This book falls squarely in the genre of buddy animal comedy, with tons of kid appeal. The setting of an urban park is well chosen and readers will be almost as hungry as Ugly Cat by the time they finish reading the descriptions of all the great street food. Best of all, this is a series, so students who fall in love with Ugly Cat and Pablo will soon have more adventures to giggle over.

Extra points to Scholastic for great book design and back matter! Ugly Cat and Pablo each have their own font for their dialogue, giving a comic book sensibility to the pages that don’t have any word bubbles as part of the illustrations. There are pictures on almost every page to lend support to visual learners, a glossary at the back that translates the Spanish, and even a recipe for Ugly Cat’s favorite treat, paletas.

TEACHING TIPS: The strong characters and specific setting make this a great choice for elementary school book groups. Students can discuss the motivations each character, their misunderstandings and predictions for what will happen at all the cliff-hanger chapter endings. Students could also write their own endings for some of the book’s incidents and make different choices for the characters.

Another great project would be to compare the friends in this book to other animal books with friends, such as classics Frog and Toad or George and Martha, or more contemporary stories such as The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems. Students could also compare the parks and streets of Paris in Diva and Flea to the parks and streets in Ugly Cat and Pablo.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Isabel Quintero is a writer and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She was born, raised, and resides in the Inland Empire of Southern California. She earned her BA in English and her MA in English Composition at California State University, San Bernardino. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces from Cinco Puntos Press, her first novel, is the recipient of several awards including the 2015 William C. Morris Award for Debut YA Novel and the California Book Award Gold Medal for Young Adult. In addition, the book was included on School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2014, and one of Kirkus’ Best Teen Books of 2014, among other lists. The first in her series of chapter books for Scholastic, Inc. Ugly Cat and Pablo, was released in Spring 2017. Her first graphic novel, a biography about photographer Graciela Iturbide, released by Getty Publications in March 2018. In addition to writing fiction, she also writes poetry and her work can be found in The Great American Literary Magazine, Huizache, As/Us Journal, The Acentos Review, The Pacific Review, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @isabelinpieces or visit her website laisabelquintero.com.

 

 

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: 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.