Spotlight on Pura Belpré Winners: Illustrator Stephanie Garcia for Snapshots from the Wedding

 

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpé Awards. Starting in the spring, we began shining a spotlight on the winners. This post features the beautiful and imaginative illustration work of Stephanie Garcia for Snapshots from the Wedding, a delightful picture book written by Gary Soto, and the winner of the 1998 Pura Belpré Illustration Award.

 

 

Review by Lila Quintero Weaver

snapshots-cover-2DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Meet Maya, Isabel’s flower girl, as she describes in vivid detail the exciting wedding day. Maya introduces us to Danny, the ring bearer; Aunt Marta, crying big tears; Uncle Trino, jump-starting a car in his tuxedo; and Rafael, the groom, with a cast on his arm. Of course, the big day also includes games, dancing, cake, and a mariachi band that plays long into an evening no one will ever forget.

Snapshots from the Wedding captures the unique moments of a special occasion—the big scenes as well as the little ones—that together form a rich family mosaic.

MY TWO CENTS: Snapshots from the Wedding is a lightly humorous story told through the eyes of a young girl named Maya. Gary Soto delivers this joyous narrative of a traditional Mexican boda in lyrical and rhythmic language.

By casting Maya in the role of narrator, Soto allows the reader the same view of the festivities as a member of the wedding party. From her position, Maya observes and comments on the assembled guests, the bridal procession, the photographer at work, and the moment when the couple exchanges vows at the altar. Afterward, at the reception, Maya revels in the mariachi band, the pinning of paper money to the bride’s skirt, and the couple’s departure beneath a shower of rice. As her gaze travels across each scene, she stops to focus on details ranging from the ring bearer’s slicked-back hair, to a boy whose tongue wiggles through the space left by newly lost baby teeth, and to the eye-popping spectacle of a towering wedding cake.

In Soto’s words, “Here’s the wedding cake, seventh wonder of the world, from Blanco’s Bakery, with more frosting than a mountain of snow, with more roses than mi abuela’s back yard, with more swirls than a hundred turns on a merry-go-round.”

Stephanie Garcia, the Pura Belpré-winning illustrator, depicts Maya’s wide-eyed experience of the wedding as something remembered through a series of winsome snapshots. Yet, in one of the most surprising and original aspects of this book, Garcia brings the scenes into sharp relief through exquisitely constructed dioramas that defy all expectations for a story conceived around the idea of photographs.

Each of the three-dimensional illustrations is a miniature stage that sits within a shallow wooden box. The overall effect is that of a dollhouse whose rooms brim with texture and engaging detail, and which cry out to be touched and played with, in order to fully appreciate the tactile gifts they offer. Using a wide range of materials that includes fabric, clay, paint, and found objects, Garcia populates her scenes with individually rendered characters, furnishings, and backdrops. Fashioned from Sculpy clay, each human figure bears distinct facial features and expressions. The skin tones come in varied shades of brown, and each is dressed in clothing suitable for that person’s role in the wedding.

By leaving the diorama’s rough wooden edges in full view and by dressing some of the wedding guests in homespun fabrics, the book hints at the deeper, economic realities of life in a working-class Mexican community. Yet, the momentous social importance of weddings often leads families to go all out for the occasion, evidenced here by the elaborate costumes of the mariachi band and the satin-and-lace gowns of the bridal party.

In nearly every spread, Garcia employs a clever frame-within-a-frame concept that plays with the passage of time. In these instances, select characters appear inside a gilt-edged frame, like mannequins propped in a store window, even as the activity of the moment continues to swirl around them. This approach suggests a future glimpse of the photos being taken. Appropriately, the photographer himself appears in one of the dioramas, snapping his shutter just as the bride and groom are about to kiss.

Garcia’s attention to individual characters complements Soto’s depictions. In one of my favorite vignettes, little Maya and another young lady try their best to snare the bouquet as the bride tosses it. But the bouquet is “caught by the tallest woman there, my cousin Virginia, a college basketball player, with a three-foot vertical leap.” Garcia gives Virginia a mint-green bridesmaid’s dress, with low-heel pumps dyed to match, and a long reach that ensures her effortless catch. We can easily imagine Virginia in a basketball uniform, putting her vertical leap to good use in a different context.

With such singular moments, Soto and Garcia illuminate a range of experiences not often captured in portrayals of Mexican culture. Through its engaging text and rich dioramas, this picture book offers charming views of an important social occasion as seen through the delighted eyes of a little girl who feels at home within this community. And this wedding is an occasion she’ll remember for years to come through its album of snapshots.

Note: We were not able to secure permission from the publisher to share images from the book’s interior pages. Please locate a copy and see them for yourself! 

Portrait of Stephanie GarciaABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Stephanie Garcia is an illustrator, graphic designer, art director, and design consultant, with a wealth of experience in the corporate world and the classroom, where she shares her knowledge with others. Learn more about her in this publisher profile.

 

 

Image result for GARY SOTOABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gary Soto is the author of multiple picture books, including the Chato series, which won the Pura Belpré illustrator award for Susan Guevara. He also published many novels for youth, as well as books of short stories for young readers, and collections of essays and poems. His awards include the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, the Andrew Carnegie Medal, and the National Book Award. Learn more at his official website. See some of our coverage of Soto’s work in this review and in a post about his decision to stop publishing children’s literature.

 

Lila 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. Her next book is a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in 2018 (Candlewick). 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.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Winners: Spotlight on Illustrator Susan Guevara

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The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Susan Guevara, the winner of the 1996 Pura Belpré Illustration Award for Chato’s Kitchen and the 2001 Pura Belpré Illustration Award for Chato and the Party Animals.

Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER:

Chato’s Kitchen: Chato can’t believe his luck. Not only is he the coolest low-riding cat in East L.A., but his brand-new neighbors are the plumpest, juciest, tastiest-looking family of mice to move into the barrio in a long time. So Chato and his best friend, Novio Boy, get out the pots and pans, the tortillas and the beans–everything you’d need for a welcoming feast, except for the main dish, and the guests of honor. Of course, in Chato’s mind they are one and the same thing. But the mice are bringing a surprise guest of their own, who may be more than a cool cat can swallow.

Chato and the Party Animals: Chato, the coolest cat in el barrio, loves to party–but not his best buddy, Novio Boy. Birthday parties always make him blue. “I’m from the pound,” he tells Chato. “I don’t know when I was born. I never knew my mami. I never even had a birthday party, or nothing.”So Chato plans the coolest surprise party for Novio Boy, inviting all of el barrio, and cooking up a storm. But he forgets the most important thing–inviting Novio Boy! Luckily, just as everyone starts remembering all the things they used to love about their long-lost friend, the birthday boy arrives with his own surprise–himself! In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Chato’s Kitchen “Wickedly funny…Guevara’s cats are delicious send-ups of barrio characters, and Soto’s words glisten with wit. Salud to this magical pairing of talents.”

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MY TWO CENTS: Susan Guevara won the Pura Belpré award for illustration in 1996 and 2001 for her work with Gary Soto in Chato’s Kitchen (1995) and Chato and the Party Animals (2000). Soto introduces readers to the coolest cat in the East Los barrio. In Chato’s Kitchen, Chato plans an elaborate scheme to get some delicious ratoncitos to come over for dinner and serve as the main course. Chato’s plan is foiled when his invited guests bring their friend Chorizo, a low-riding dog, to dinner with them. In Chato and the Party Animals, Chato throws an amazing birthday bash for his best cat friend Novio Boy, who has never had a birthday party of his own because he doesn’t know his date of birth since he’s from the pound. Through her illustrations, Guevara gives life to Soto’s sueve characters.

Guevara’s illustrations depict Chato as the cool cat Soto created him to be. Guevara draws Chato with a green baseball hat worn to the back, a single gold hoop earring, a gold tooth, a thin mustache, and a goatee. Guevara also creates a barrio full of hip vatos, carnales, and homeboys. Novio Boy wears a red wrapped bandana around his head with a seemingly plaid shirt only buttoned at the first button with a white plain shirt underneath. Papá ratoncito wears what appears to be a guayabera and Mamá ratoncito wears a traditional white rebozo with rose appliques. These seemingly minute details give the story a genuine East Los Angeles feel that might resonate with many barrios across the country.

Guevara’s personification of Chato and his friends make it easy for readers to connect with the characters specifically because these characters’ traits resemble that which we might see in our own relatives and neighbors. Pachuco, Chicano, and cholo histories are significant cultural aspects of Mexican/Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. This is evident in the aesthetics, like fashion, language, and mannerisms, which have been passed on from generation to generation that are characteristic of Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano culture. That is, Guevara’s illustrations signal an extensive history of Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano identity in East Los Angeles through the characters’ fashion and gestures. Furthermore, Guevara’s artistic choices to illustrate the characters wearing clothing that have been represented by society as having cultural attributes, that have also been read as criminal, also indicates a history of resistance evident through fashion.

Scholar Catherine Ramirez calls this resistance “style politics[1]” as a way to demonstrate that fashion can serve as tool to challenge oppressive systems. In other words, while the backwards hat, piercings, bandanas, baggy pants, pompadours, etc. have cultural and historical significance and attachment to Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano people, in this case, these same fashion choices have also been maligned by dominant society to represent criminality, deviancy, and otherness. The prevalence of these fashion statements today despite their negative associations and Soto and Guevara’s representations of these markers in their stories are indicators of resistance against dominant narratives.

Resistance is an evident theme in Guevara’s illustrations. While this resistance may be subtle for readers quickly glancing through the illustrations, they have a great impact once we realize that these moments are there. For example, in Chato’s Kitchen there’s a scene where Chato is illustrated kissing his fruits and vegetables as he prepares dinner for his guests. Guevara makes the bowl holding the food the center of this illustration with Chato on the side. The banana has a sticker that reads “Sangre de Honduras.” Stickers on bananas normally promote the brand or company associated with it. Through this detail on the banana, Guevara points out the violent role the US has played in Central America as made evident by the introduction of banana republics and banana wars.

Another example of resistance in the illustrations is seen in Chato and the Party Animals during the scene when Chato and his friends are looking for Novio Boy to take him to his surprise birthday party. Guevara gives us a bird’s-eye view of a Chato’s barrio and with careful attention the reader can see that there are murals on some of the buildings. One of the buildings has a mural of Che Guevara with the quote “We are not a minority” next to it, a quote that appears in the next scene as Chorizo howls and the quote is seen throughout the sky. Another wall depicts a cat with a cap and gown with the words “Si Se Puede.” There is also a mural of la Virgen de Guadalupe. The tiny murals represented in these books serve as a source of empowerment because they challenge dominant narratives that seek to oppress barrios similar to Chato’s.

Guevara’s illustrations in the Chato books have several layers that might be missed during the first read of the story that are definitely worth returning to and taking the time to notice all the important details. A reader can get lost just looking at Guevara’s illustrations, and that’s certainly a sign of a great artist.

TEACHING TIPS:

  • For younger readers: After having read the story, ask younger readers to choose their favorite illustration. Have them look at the illustration and make a list of all the items and characters they see on the page. This can be done individually, in small groups, or as a class. Have them share their reason for choosing their illustration and their list of items they found. See if anyone notices the ninja turtles in the mercado or if they notice that Baby ratoncito’s stuffed animal is a black cat.
  • For middle grade readers: Ask middle grade readers to choose an illustration and create a new story based on what they see. Encourage them to change the character’s name and his purpose. In illustrations with more than one character, encourage them to create a dialogue or exchange of sorts. Have a discussion with students about the significance of illustration in children’s picture books. Ask them to consider the benefits and challenges of reading stories, like children’s illustrated books, that offer both written and visual perspectives.
  • For young adult readers: Ask young adult readers to discuss Chato and his friend’s fashion sense. Deconstruct stereotypes associated with clothing like the zoot suit, baggy clothes, hoodies, etc. Ask them to contemplate their fashion choices as a form of resistance. Ask them to consider if what they wear or what they post online is a form of resistance. If it is, what are they resisting and how? If it is not, then why? What does resistance look like? Consider asking them if selfies, for example, can be a form of resistance.

[1] Ramirez explores the concept  of “style politics” in her book The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (2009) and while she analyzes this form of resistance as it relates to women donning the traditional Pachuco Zoot suit in the 1940s and 1950s, it also has relevance in Soto’s and Guevara’s representation of Chato.

Photo by Norman Mauskopf

Photo by Norman Mauskopf

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (from her website): Susan Guevara is a visual storyteller. She tells her tales with illustrations, paintings, drawings and sculptures. For 27 years her work as a children’s picture book illustrator has been recognized many times, often for its contribution to literature set in Latino culture. Her recognition includes a 2005 New York Times Ten Best Illustrated books of the Year recipient, a two time Pura Belpré Illustrator Award winner, the first Tomás Rivera Award winner and most recently, a Pura Belpré Honor Award winner for her last book, “Little Roja Riding Hood” by Susan Middleton Elya. Her illustrations for “Chato’s Kitchen” by Gary Soto contributed to the book being recognized as one of the Best 100 Books of the Last 100 Years by the New York Public Library.

 

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She also teaches poetry to 6th graders and drama to 2nd graders as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her middle grade book. Follow Sonia on Instagram @latinxkidlit

A Note For Authors on Jumping Genres

By Stephanie Guerra

Writing in a new genre after successfully publishing a book (or books) can be intimidating; why change what works? Some agents and publishers actively discourage genre-hopping, while others are interested in quality rather than consistency or brand-building.

TORNI debuted in 2012 as a YA author of realistic fiction (Torn) and followed up in 2013 with a 90-degree turn to humorous, heavily-illustrated middle grade: Billy the Kid is Not Crazy. I have two more YA coming out next year and I’m finishing a picture book.

If you’re a writer drawn to similar genre shifts, I encourage you to follow your gut. The process can be both freeing and useful in developing range. You may have to rebuild your audience from scratch, which is intimidating. But you’ll end up with a broader audience, a reward in itself.

Billy the KidYou’ll also need to adjust your voice and mentality for your new audience. Transitioning from YA to MG, I had to get in touch with my booger-fart-joke side (it wasn’t that hard) and cut all edge out of my writing (a touch harder). Again, the work builds its own reward: increased range.

But I want to focus a spotlight on the positives, which I believe are the real essence of shifting genres. It’s a form of creative stretching, a way to access a different age or voice inside you, and a way to reengage with the “play” of writing. A YA author may discover a new sense of fun in MG or picture books. An MG author may find freedom in exploring the romance or more mature content possible in YA. A picture book author used to practicing economy with words may relish stretching out into a luxurious novel.

Consider one of the most beloved Latin@ authors of our times, Gary Soto. He’s produced excellent picture books, poetry, middle grade and YA novels, short stories, and adult works. Pam Muñoz Ryan, another Latin@ star, has ranged from picture books to award-winning YA. Jack Gantos, my personal hero, has created picture books, delightful middle-grade (Joey Pigza!), adult novels, and urban memoir.

Some other marvelous children’s authors who’ve changed genres: Madeleine L’Engle, Mark Twain, Roald Dahl, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Literary superheroes like E. B. White jumped from Charlotte’s Web to One Man’s Meat. Roald Dahl dabbled in memoir, adult short stories, suspense, erotica, and of course, children’s fiction. And C. S. Lewis wrote everything short of picture books. What better models could we have?

I like to view jumping genres, too, as an act of defiance to The Market. Conventional wisdom has it that it’s savvy to develop a brand and stick with it, to build an audience and churn out book-clones at the rate of one per year. Many authors do this very successfully, and there’s nothing wrong with it, if it’s fulfilling to the artist in question. But I’m unsettled by branding as a lens for the arts and as a concept imposed on authors by publishers. Branding seems to compete with the essence of what art is or should be. So I advocate stretching the brand. Or better yet, losing the term altogether.

I’d like to share a short (30 second) video of a really articulate 11-year-old reviewing my MG. Thank you, Garrison. Your review gives me confidence that jumping genres was the right choice.

Book Review: My Little Car by Gary Soto

MyLittleCarCoverBy Sujei Lugo

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Teresa’s grandfather—her abuelo—gives her a fantastic little car for her birthday and she can’t wait to show it off to everybody. The car is so cool that the other bikes on the sidewalk part for her and even grown-ups turn their heads as she goes by. Teresa promises she’ll always take care of her beautiful carrito, but some promises are hard to keep. When Teresa’s abuelo comes to visit, will he even recognize his beautiful present?

MY TWO CENTS: Through a shiny book cover of a girl riding a little car with a big smile, Gary Soto and Pam Paparone introduce us to a Chicana first-grader named Teresa. Her confidence and pride are enhanced when she receives a toy lowrider for her birthday, a customized car originated by Chicanos in California. Paparone’s bright acrylic illustrations strongly complement Soto’s words to project the subculture surrounding lowriders and other features distinctive of some Chicano and Latino neighborhoods and their communities.

When we first meet Teresa she is feeling embarrassed by her tricycle, thinking that it was a toy for “little kids.” For her birthday, she receives a beautiful lowrider with a personalized plate from her abuelito, giving her an immediate sense of independence and the confidence of being recognized as a big girl. Through this gift and Teresa’s relationship to it, Soto presents us with two important themes: the obvious one is the importance of taking responsibility and care of your belongings and the second one is presented in a more nuanced way, and perhaps silently aimed to parents: how easy it is to break the “gendering” of toys and roles.

Once Teresa receives her carrito, she pedals non-stop down the sidewalk, around her neighborhood, and she even takes it to the playground car show, where she wins first place. But as the days pass, she becomes careless with her carrito: she leaves it out in the rain, it gets pooped on by birds, it’s crushed by her dad’s truck, and it even gets sticky from spilled soda. Her mother and grandfather get preachy and stern while teaching Teresa the importance of taking responsibility of her belongings and the preaching works: in the end she learns her lesson.

Interestingly, the book never gets preachy when dealing with the gender stereotyping of toys. We live in a society where we are constantly presented with gender-stereotyped toys in books, movies, TV shows, commercials, and stores. In this book we have a Chicana girl who disrupts the gender norms around cars as toys solely for boys, and who challenges the machismo present in Latino communities. Gary Soto shows formidable restraint by not including a single line in the book that says that girls should or shouldn’t do certain things. He just provides us with a story that normalizes girls liking toy cars by showing Teresa being happy with her gift and using it without any limits. Surely this portrayal is one that car-loving kids from any gender will identify with.

TEACHING TIPS: This picture book works well as a read aloud for parents, guardians, and librarians. It can be used to teach about responsibility and ownership, while at the same time, children can learn some words in Spanish. The book includes a glossary of the few words in Spanish incorporated throughout the story.

Spanish and Language Arts teachers (Pre-K-2nd grade) can use the text to not only teach Spanish words, but also to develop classroom activities, such as sequence of events, vocabulary, and alternate endings to the story. It is also useful to incorporate Mexican-American Studies to elementary school classrooms.

LEXILE: N/A

AUTHOR: Gary Soto is a Mexican-American author, who has written picture books, chapter books, poetry collections, young adult books, plays and novels. Soto, raised in Fresno, California, has a B.A. in English from Cal State and a M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine. He has received several awards, including the 1977 Bess Hokin Prize, the Levinson Award, the Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Andrew Carnegie Medal from the American Library Association and the Beatty Award for his book, Baseball in April. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the California Arts Council, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to his work as a writer, Gary Soto has taught English to Spanish-speakers as a volunteer. He divides his time between Berkeley, California and his hometown of Fresno.

Some of his selected books are: The Skirt, Pacific Crossing, Chato and the Party Animals, Baseball in April and Other Stories, Neighborhood Odes, Too Many Tamales, Chato’s Kitchen, Taking Sides, Off and Running, Cat’s Meow and Chato Goes Cruisin’.

ILLUSTRATOR: Pam Paparone is an illustrator of many books for children, such as: Raindrop Plop by Wendy Cheyette Lewison, I Like Cats by Patricia Hubbell, Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move by JoAnn Early Macken, The Tattletale by Lynn Downey and Of Number and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by D. Anne Love. She is also the author and illustrator of Cinco Patitos/Five Little Ducks and Who Built the Ark?  Her paintings have appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. Pam Paparone lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

My Little Car was one of commended titles of the 2007 Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. For more information about My Little Car visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out WorldCat.org, Indiebound.org, Goodreads, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The Kid Lit World Needs Gary Soto and Others Like Him

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

When Gary Soto’s book, the one attached to the Marisol Luna American Girl doll, was released in 2005, I was in my fourth year of teaching middle school and attending graduate courses. In other words, I was buried in essays–correcting them and writing them–and was clueless that Soto’s book about a 10-year-old Chicago girl had sparked negative national media attention, protests, and harassing phone calls to the author’s home. For more information on the original story, click here.

The 2005 book-and-doll release is old news, but only a few months ago, eight years later, Soto wrote this piece in the Huffington Post, explaining why he has has stopped writing children’s literature.

I’m not going to rehash the Pilsen vs. Des Plaines debate, and I’m not going to say it was right or wrong for Soto’s fictional family to decide they wanted to move because the neighborhood was too dangerous. Those debates were had in 2005.

This post is about Gary Soto, an award-winning, prolific Mexican-American writer, leaving a business that needs him and many others like him. Gary Soto has written picture books, chapter books, poetry, and novels for middle school, high school, and adults. In the often-referenced New York Times article about the lack of Latin@ books in classrooms, Gary Soto is listed as one of the exceptions.

“While there are exceptions, including books by Julia Alvarez, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Alma Flor Ada and Gary Soto, what is available is ‘not finding its way into classrooms,’” said Patricia Enciso, an associate professor at Ohio State University.

Do we need more Latin@ books, written by a variety of authors, in classrooms? Yes. But, Soto and the others are already there, on the shelves, in students’ hands. I’ve read his short stories with my students, and a colleague recently read Buried Onions with her eighth graders based on my recommendation. He is in anthologies and on school book lists. Soto, along with a handful of other Latin@ authors have paved the way, and now he has vowed not to write any more children’s literature.

This comes at a time when 53 million Hispanics live in the U.S., according to the 2012 census. Hispanics are the second largest race or ethnic group (behind non-Hispanic whites), representing about 17 percent of the total population. Meanwhile, a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported the number of children’s books with multicultural content has not increased in 18 years.

Soto’s retirement from the kid lit world saddens me, as a reader, writer, and supporter of Latin@s in kid lit. We have lost a giant in the business, and I worry that what happened to Soto could discourage writers from including Latin@ characters in their manuscripts. Writers have legitimate fears about “getting it right” and not offending readers, especially if they are crossing into territory–gender, race, religion, ethnicity, culture, sexuality–that they do not understand first-hand. Think about it, Soto, a member of the Latin@ community, was at odds with members of the Latin@ community, over a Latina doll and her story. What does this mean for other writers, especially non-Latin@s who want to write Latin@ characters? Should they not bother? Should they use made-up locations to avoid referencing a specific community? Are the subjects of poverty and crime off limits?

I hope writers aren’t scared away from including Latin@ characters, and I hope Gary Soto reconsiders his retirement from kid lit. Also, wherever we each stand on the Pilsen-Mattel issue, I hope we all can at least tip our hat to Soto for his contribution to Latin@ literature.

Too Many Tamales   Chato Goes Cruisin'   Baseball in April and Other Stories   Buried Onions   The Afterlife

Through Reading, Anything Is Possible

 

For our first set of posts, each of us will respond to the question: “Why Latin@ Kid Lit?” to address why we created a site dedicated to celebrating books by, for, or about Latin@s.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

Our house was an oasis in the Chicago neighborhood crumbling around us. The house on the left was torn down after Old Man Louie died. The building on the right was bulldozed after some kids set it on fire. Inside our little haven, my parents encouraged me to read. Through books, I left that neighborhood to meet interesting characters in beautiful places who were struggling with life, love, and purpose, and who were trying to become free mentally, physically, or spiritually.

Dr. Seuss3My parents moved us into better neighborhoods. Books moved me into a broader world of ideas and possibilities. A love for literature has made all the difference in my life. Now, I teach and write because I want children from all kinds of backgrounds to realize that, through literacy, anything is possible.

This may sound naïve, simplistic, or overly optimistic, but I honestly believe it.

I understand the challenges young people face because I’ve worked with middle and high school students for thirteen years. I’ve met the tattooed freshman girl whose education was interrupted because her mom had to move from place to place. At age fourteen, she had the reading level of a sixth grader. But guess what? She earned all As and Bs, joined a sport, and quickly became a leader in our school.

I’ve met the sixteen-year-old freshman boy who earned an in-school suspension for verbally and physically confronting a female teacher during the first week of school. He continued to struggle, earning Ds and Fs in his classes. But guess what? He read a book independently for the first time ever. He said he knew the teachers cared about him, and once he came to talk to me, tears streaming down his face after his girlfriend broke up with him via text message. He had made a collage with movie tickets and other mementos for their one-year anniversary that would never happen.

I’ve also met the jaded seventh-grade boy who asked me straight-out one day, “Why are you the only minority teacher in our school?”

All of these students are young Latin@s. They need safe places, trusted people to talk to, and answers to their questions. As a teacher who sees them for forty-five minutes a day, I do my best, and one of the most significant things I can do is encourage them to read. I can’t solve their problems at home or with their friends, but I can pass along my belief—given to me by my parents—that literacy is important and life-changing.

I want my students to develop the skills needed for academic and professional success. I also want them to enjoy a lifetime of beautiful places and interesting characters. I want them to have access to lots and lots of books with characters who look, speak, and act like them. Previous posts have outlined why it’s crucial for readers to “see themselves” in literature. But I also want them to see beyond their current selves. I want them to see realistic and fantastical futures.  I want them to realize anything is possible.

Yes, you can be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Here, read a picture book about Sonia Sotomayor.

Yes, you can “escape” for a while and travel through the depths of the afterlife to save your best friend’s soul. Here, read Sanctum by Sarah Fine.

Yes, you can be a civil rights activist. Here, read biographies about César Chávez and Delores Huerta.

In the very distant future, if you discover you are a clone created to keep someone else alive, remember this: you will still have an identity and choices. For now, though, question whether science fiction will someday become nonfiction. Here, read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.

Yes, you will survive your teen years. More than that, you will thrive. You’ll learn about love and family and friendship and acceptance and perseverance and integrity. Here, read Margarita Engle, Alex Sanchez, René Saldaña, Jr., Gary Soto, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall.

I’m involved with Latin@s In Kid Lit because I believe all children should have books in their hands, even when they’re too young to turn the pages, and they should all be told again and again, “Oh, the places you’ll go.”

Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice    Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers    The House of the Scorpion (Matteo Alacran, #1)    Sanctum (Guards of the Shadowlands, #1)    Buried Onions   Bait