Book Review: Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

Reviewed by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

Shame the Stars CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Eighteen-year-old Joaquin del Toro’s future looks bright. With his older brother in the priesthood, he’s set to inherit his family’s Texas ranch. He’s in love with Dulceña and she’s in love with him. But it’s 1915, and trouble has been brewing along the US-Mexico border. On one side, the Mexican Revolution is taking hold; on the other, Texas Rangers fight Tejano insurgents, and ordinary citizens are caught in the middle.

As tensions grow, Joaquin is torn away from Dulceña, whose father’s critical reporting on the Rangers in the local newspaper has driven a wedge between their families. Joaquin’s own father insists that the Rangers are their friends, and refuses to take sides in the conflict. But when their family ranch becomes a target, Joaquin must decide how he will stand up for what’s right.

Shame the Stars is a rich reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in Texas during the explosive years of Mexico’s revolution. Filled with period detail, captivating romance, and political intrigue, it brings Shakespeare’s classic to life in an entirely new way.

MY TWO CENTSWhile a comparison to Romeo and Juliet may draw readers in, the iconic story compares very little to Joaquin’s story. As a young man trying to make sense of his adulthood, Joaquin has to grow up abruptly when the Mexican Revolution begins to take hold of South Texas. Political ideologies between their families divide Joaquin from his love, Dulceña, so they must find a way to continue their courtship, but the political climate grows and seeps into their lives creating more obstacles for them. Both Joaquin and Dulceña are politically conscious about the community conflict with the Texan Rangers and the plight of those fleeing the Mexican Revolution. But with that consciousness comes a responsibility of taking action to protect their communities and each other. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the couple battles to gain agency over their relationship and their surroundings making their story less of a tragic romance.

Shame the Stars does justice in presenting the multiplicity of identity that exists in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the community that arises from that multiplicity — one that was even more prevalent during a time of tension and reformation of identity after Texas’ addition to the Union. The book highlights that his American citizenship does not break the bond that Joaquin poses for his Mexican and Tejano identities and his brethren within these communities. The book is well researched and uses real events and incidents to drive the narrative of the story. Whether it be the tension that existed between Texan Rangers and Tejanos, the actions of Mexican Bandits, or racial injustices, the stories within Shame the Stars are a close reflection to life in South Texas. This book is an important read for students in not only presenting an overlooked part of American history, but also as a reminder that many connections, experiences, and relationships factor into the Latinx identity in the borderlands.

TEACHING TIPSShame the Stars can be used to discuss a variety of topics with students. The book can be used as supplemental material to a discussion of the annexation of the southern United States — the assimilations that occurred, the tensions that were present, and the political opposition that was present even years later, such was the case with the Plan of San Diego. The different responses among the del Toro family to the rise of conflict in Monteseco could be a jumping point to a discussion on identity in the Latinx community. Each member of the del Toro family felt a different connection or responsibility to the many political movements happening in Monteseco. These connections highlight not only political identities but also cultural and ethnic identities showing how it is never as clear cut to be on one side or another.

RECOMMENDED READING:

  • Anglos & Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1987 by David Montejano, University of Texas Press, 1987
  • From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America by Vicki L. Ruiz, Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans by Benjamin Heber Johnson, Yale University Press, 2005
  • River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands by Omar S. Valerio- Jimenez, Duke University Press Books, 2013
  • Canicula by Norma Elia Cantu, University of New Mexico Press, 1997
  • Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Oscar J. Martinez, University of Arizona Press, 1994

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Shame the Stars, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

author2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist, received the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011, among many other accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction award, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her poems for children have appeared in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in San Antonio.

 

professional-picABOUT THE REVIEWER: Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries.She has an MA in history and MLIS from Simmons College where she focused her studies on the role of libraries and archives in the cultural preservation of the U.S.-Mexican border. Additionally, she holds a BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University.  Her research is greatly influenced by her hometown of Laredo, TX which has led her to work in serving immigrants and underrepresented communities. Her current work involves exploring cultural identity through oral history in her project, Third Culture. You can find Araceli on Instagram. 

Poeta Rebelde: A Guest Post by Author Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

By Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Poetry is where I live. It is where I go when I am most wounded. Poetry is the place I hide when I am most vulnerable, but it is also the cloak I wrap around myself when I know I have to speak up because I have something important to say. Poetry gives voice to my fears. It allows me to express my concerns with bold and powerful words. I can say more with one line of poetry than I can with a paragraph because poetry lets me cut to the core.

Shame the Stars CoverPoetry is my corazón, my coraje, my fuerza. So it came as no surprise to me that when the child of my heart, my beloved Joaquín del Toro, the embodiment of the men in my life, my courageous father, my brave husband, and my own three daring sons, first spoke to me, he spoke to me in verse.

The night I read Dr. Benjamin Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas, I heard Joaquín’s voice for the first time. The first poem I wrote that night, among many others, was “Tejano,” which is the poem that opens my third novel, Shame the Stars. It is a poem that speaks to the anger and frustration the people of south Texas must have felt as they watched their families and friends being subjugated, suppressed, and supplanted.

It also came as no surprise to me when the first draft of the original manuscript developed in verse. Poetry was the best way I could express myself as I tried to tell the story of Joaquín and Dulceña. It was the only way I could deal with the atrocities committed against our community the summer of 1915, when Texas lawmen declared war against Mexicans and Tejanos, summarily rounding up, lynching, and fusillading them without the benefit of legal proceedings, a dark time that is now referred to as La Matanza (The Slaughter).

As I did more research, the things I learned helped expand and shape the storyline. My editor at Tu Books, Stacy Whitman, believed Joaquín’s voice was trying to break free of the constraints of the formatting. She was right about that. Poetry had created what my esteemed MFA professor at UTEP, Sasha Pimentel, calls “a very tight corset,” which I think is appropriate for a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, but which I have to admit, had become too restrictive for the novel.

As I revised Shame the Stars and Joaquín got wiser, as he became more outspoken, I had to cut him loose. Over a long period of months, I rewrote the entire novel-in-verse, turning the main narrative into prose. I let Joaquín breathe by allowing him access to the rest of the page. However, I just couldn’t let his poetic heart go unheard. So I left Joaquín’s most passionate poems intact and even created new, more rebellious poems to express his pain, his sorrow, his heartbreak.

I hope Joaquín’s poems live on for many years to come. I hope they enlighten, embolden, and emphasize just how important our voices are and let everyone know we must stand up and speak up if we want to be heard.

Poetry can be beautiful. It can be lyrical and magical and romantic, and that’s wonderful, but I hope my fans understand that poetry must also be strong and firm and sturdy if it is to bring us to light and to sight. A poem must have grit; it must push and shove and grind if it is going to propel us to change, to persist, to strive.

 

author2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist, received the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011, among many other accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction award, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her poems for children have appeared in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in San Antonio.

Book Review: Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

By Lila Quintero Weaver

FINALmariposas_cover_loDESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: When Odilia and her four sisters find a dead body in the swimming hole, they embark on a hero’s journey to return the dead man to his family in Mexico. But returning to Texas turns into an odyssey that would rival Homer’s original tale.

With the supernatural help of ghostly La Llorona via a magical earring, Odilia and her little sisters travel a road of tribulation to their long lost grandmother’s house. Along the way, they must outsmart a witch and her Evil Trinity: a wily warlock, a coven of vicious half-human barn owls, and a bloodthirsty livestock-hunting chupacabras. Can these fantastic trials help Odilia and her sisters prepare for what happens when they face their final test, returning home to the real world, where goddesses and ghosts can no longer help them?

Summer of the Mariposas is not just a magical Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey, it is a celebration of sisterhood and maternal love.

MY TWO CENTSSummer of the Mariposas tells the story of a road trip full of apparitions and supernatural interventions. Several elements of this novel caught my attention, beginning with the fact that it’s patterned after The Odyssey, yet is steeped in Mexican culture and mythology, including Aztecan figures and language.

Although mythical beings show up on a regular basis, the plot is grounded in the everyday life of a middle-class Texas family. The main characters are a lovable collection of cinco hermanitas, the Garza sisters, ages ten to fifteen. The first-person narrator is Odilia, the oldest sister, who with lots of prodding from her siblings—not to mention whispers from La Llorona—gets behind the wheel of a rusty car, bound for El Sacrificio, Mexico. There’s a dead body propped up in the backseat, next to the thirteen-year-old twins. The girls found the dead man floating in the Rio Grande, near their home in Eagle Pass, Texas. His wallet provides an address. A plastic bag in his boot contains enough cash to fund the girls’ self-appointed errand to keep him from the impersonal burial afforded the undocumented. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother is at work, blissfully unaware of her daughters’ border-crossing adventure. They expect to return home before she notices they’re gone. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty. But lovers of fantasy fiction wouldn’t have it any other way.

Guadalupe weaves in an array of fascinating details. Each chapter highlights a Lotería card and the riddle that goes with it. The Garza family used to play this popular Mexican game while their father was still around.  Odilia recalls that during one game, he held up the mermaid card and announced that La Sirena was “‘la mujer who wants to take your Papá away.” Prophetic words? Or was Papá already feeling the lure of the siren song? He abandoned the family a year before the story begins, and no one knows where he is now. The father’s disappearance is the heartache that throbs beneath the fantastical turns of the story. Along their journey, the girls acquire down-to-earth perspective and fortitude. It takes a series of supernatural encounters to bring these lessons home, but don’t discount more pedantic challenges, such as grueling travel conditions and hard knocks brought about by impetuous choices.

Summer of the Mariposas is a traditional prose novel, but Guadalupe’s command of poetic conventions is in full evidence. Sometimes she soothes with lyrical passages. Sometimes she unleashes horror:

“[The lechuzas] soared over us, ranting and raving and angrily flapping their wings. They circled and circled, creating a whirlwind, a dirt devil of debris and dark moldy hay that swirled all the way up to the ceiling. The miniature storm swirled and stood before us like a charmed snake, flicking our hair into our faces, wrapping it around our necks, choking us—stealing our breaths.”

I highlighted that paragraph with a note to self: “Nice writing!”

TEACHING TIPS: The publisher, Lee & Low Books, provides teaching material for Summer of the Mariposas on its site. A mythological glossary, which outlines parallels to The Odyssey and includes background information on the Aztec figures, is a fascinating read. You can also find discussion questions, a link to an educator guide by the blog Vamos a Leer and a book talk by the author.

Has it been a while since you read Homer’s The Odyssey? For a fun synopsis, check this cartoon presentation.

Here is a helpful summary of Tonantzin, the Aztecan deity which figures in this novel, and her connection to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

By all means, check out our interview with Guadalupe, right here on Latin@s in Kid Lit!

IMG_2964 (2)AUTHORGuadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist and received the Ellen Hopkins Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Teen Books of 2011 among many other honors and accoladesHer second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction Award, was an Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalist, and was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year.

Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals across the country and abroad, and her poems for children are included in The Poetry Friday AnthologyThe Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in the San Antonio area and lives in Somerset with her husband, Jim, 2 dogs (Baxter and Blanca), 1 cat (Luna), and her two (of three) college age sons, Steven and Jason.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Summer of the Mariposas, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.org, indiebound.orggoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

Q&A with Pura Belpré Award Winning Author Guadalupe Garcia McCall

By Lila Quintero Weaver

otherUNDERTHEMESQUITEtentativefrontcover3-18-10We’re excited to host a conversation with acclaimed author Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Her first book, Under the Mesquite, won the 2012 Pura Belpré Award and was a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. Her newest work is Summer of the Mariposas, a rich work of fantasy fiction doubly inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey and the mythology of Mexico.

Lila: Guadalupe, congratulations on your wonderful writing career! Welcome to Latin@s in Kid Lit! Let’s get started with a question you’ve probably heard before:

Under the Mesquite is a powerfully intimate coming of age story told in verse. It’s a quiet book. On the other hand, Summer of the Mariposas is a high-energy road trip full of other-worldly characters and action scenes. Describe the paths that led to these diverse creative choices.

Guadalupe: Interestingly enough, both books were born out of my classroom experiences. Under the Mesquite came about because I was teaching my students how to write poetry. I wrote for them, as a way of modeling how easy and accessible poetry is if they focus on using their memories to write poems full of life’s experiences. After many years of teaching poetry (and collecting my little poems in my poetry unit folder), I realized that I had a good size collection of poems about my childhood which I could submit for publication. With the help of Emily Hazel, my editor at Lee & Low Books, that collection eventually evolved into Under the Mesquite.

After Under the Mesquite, I was bouncing around ideas for my next book, not really committed to anything, when one of my female students made the comment that all the books we read in class (we were studying Homer’s Odyssey) were about men—men having adventures, men defeating monsters, and men becoming heroes. This really upset my female students, and on her way out of my classroom, that same young lady told her friend, “It’s not fair. We need our own Odyssey!”

And that was it. That was my “light bulb” moment. Actually, it was more like a giant, blinding spotlight cast over a dark, neglected corner of our classroom that I couldn’t ignore as I drove home that afternoon. My girls were right. They needed to see themselves in literature. They needed their own stories to show the world that they are strong, and courageous, and smart. So I took out the sticky notes and started plotting out a Girl-Power adventure story using the Hero’s Journey just for them, for my “muchachas.” But as I worked on it, something else came to mind. Why use the same old Greek gods and monsters? Why not use our own mythology? We have just as many great characters to choose from in Mexican lore. And so it began, the frenzied scribbling and joyous giggling that comes when you first start plotting out a story—the discovery, the freedom, the breakthroughs—it’s all very intoxicating! I have to admit, I had a lot of fun writing Summer of the Mariposas because I knew my girls were hungry to read something like it.

Lila: Along with its supernatural elements, Summer of the Mariposas carries an understated but clear message of feminine strength and resilience. You force your characters to confront family challenges and heartbreaks. What do you hope to give young readers through this story?

FINALmariposas_cover_loGuadalupe: When I started writing Summer of the Mariposas, I wanted to tell a fun female story. However, I also knew I wanted to showcase the strength and resilience that it takes for a young lady to come of age and embrace womanhood in our society. I wanted young girls to believe in themselves and trust that a female is just as equipped to take care of herself and her loved ones as her male counterpart. That they are lacking nothing—that all young ladies have the courage to take life by force and the wisdom to attain their goals.

Lila: I’m sure you’ve been attuned to the recent conversation on diversity in literature, especially in children’s and YA publishing, which has stirred up a lot of media attention. One article quoted Matt de la Peña as saying, “Where’s the African American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” As a Latina writer, you must have well-formed opinions on this topic. What are your concerns? And what are your dreams for diversity in kid lit?

Guadalupe: Matt and I must be on the same wavelength because I asked a similar question about a year and a half ago, and I posted it on Facebook in a conversation with my publisher about gaps in children’s literature. We were talking about genre-specific gaps, and I asked a question along the lines of “Where is the Mexican-American Johnny Tremain?” I think it is very important that we start answering these questions. Not with words, but through action.

Listen, this fence is about to crumble. It’s got so many holes in it. The change in the face of our nation (diversity in our classrooms) is not forthcoming. The Change is here. The Change is upon us. We “have” diverse classrooms—and our students are missing the sound of their voice in the narratives available to them. It’s too late to “think” about it or “research” it or “plan” for it. No. It’s time to take action. Publishers need to be addressing the fact that there are not enough diverse children’s and YA books to fill the huge gaps in children’s literature. They need to be actively seeking out new and existing talent and publishing the books that will fill those gaps.

Lila: In addition to authoring books with strong Latino themes, you’ve also taught middle school (and now high school) in Texas. What are your thoughts about turning young Latinos into readers and writers?

Guadalupe: There is this great attitude in South Texas, especially along the Rio Grande Valley, border area, and that is that books are amazing and that their creators, namely authors, are ROCK STARS! The teachers, administrators, district personnel, and especially the community have made it their mission to make books and their creators accessible to children. They seek out grants and special programs and make every concerted effort to continue to feature books and their authors in their schools. They see reading and writing as the greatest assets, the most important tools in their children’s toolbox. I really admire that. I wish that was the case with every teacher, every administrator, every district, and every community in the world. Life would be sweet if we were all about education. I know that I’m being very naive here (with all the other problems to be solved in the world), but I do truly believe in building life-long learners through reading and writing! Reading and writing make up the foundation of learning, and a good book can draw a child in as well as any electronic gadget if presented in the right light, with the right attitude, and with the same attention corporations give to marketing video games, apps, and cell phones. It would mean flipping a Goliath of a paradigm on its ear, and the willingness to take on the fight, but it can and should be done, for our children’s sake!

Lila: Let’s get practical. You work a full-time job and yet somehow manage to write complex novels. What are the habits that help you produce? Is there a piece of writing advice that a mentor gave you which still rings true? What have you discovered on your own that guides you in attacking a new project?

Guadalupe: My habits? Well, I sit down every day to tap at those keys. Sometimes I take a cup of coffee to the porch and write as the sun rises on the weekends. Sometimes, I write the minute I get home from work. And sometimes, I pull over on the side of the road and write in my vehicle on the way to the grocery store because I don’t want to lose that terrific line. Most often, though, I get up in the middle of the night and write in my jammies because that’s when my brain wants to create.

Whatever the case may be, it’s important for me to write every day, to “touch the work every single day!” I heard that somewhere, or maybe I read it. I’m not sure which, but it’s very true. I find that the longer I stay away from writing, the harder it is to get back in the groove of it. It’s like being an athlete. If you don’t keep working out, you lose muscle, and you won’t win any races or bring any trophies home if you don’t work out every day. So this is the advice I pass on to my students,” Work out those writing muscles every day. Read. Write. Read. Write. Read. Write. Oh, and don’t be afraid to catch the latest movie or keep up with your favorite TV show. It’s good research! ”

Lila: Speaking of new projects, you must be working on something. What can you share about it?

Guadalupe: I am working on a YA historical set in Texas during the Mexican Revolution, after the discovery of the Plan de San Diego and all the strife and conflicts of that time period on this side of the border. It’s something that is very close to my heart because I think it’s an important time in “our history” that hasn’t been explored or talked about much in our classrooms. The maltreatment and persecution of Mexican Americans in South Texas during that time is either ignored or glossed over in our textbooks and there is literally little to nothing in YA fiction that touches on the struggles Hispanics experienced during that devastating time period in American history. I really can’t share too much of the plot except to say that it is my attempt at filling in a gap and answering the questions, “Where is the Mexican-American Johnny Tremain? Where is our historical perspective, our ancestral Mexican-American voice?”

 

IMG_2964 (2)Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist and received the Ellen Hopkins Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Teen Books of 2011 among many other honors and accoladesHer second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction Award, was an Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalist, and was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year.

Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals across the country and abroad, and her poems for children are included in The Poetry Friday AnthologyThe Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in the San Antonio area and lives in Somerset with her husband, Jim, 2 dogs (Baxter and Blanca), 1 cat (Luna), and her two (of three) college age sons, Steven and Jason.

Changes I’ve Seen, Changes I Hope to See

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 Lila Quintero Weaver

Lila, the bookworm, way back in the day.

Lila, the bookworm, way back in the day.

1963, Small Town, Alabama: I’m an immigrant kid in the second grade, well in command of English by now and eighty percent Americanized. Nobody brown or trigueño whose last name isn’t Quintero lives around here. Matter of fact, we’re one of the rare foreign families in the whole of Perry County—a bit of exotica, like strange but harmless birds that show up in the chicken yard one day.

With our nearest relatives in Argentina, seven thousand miles removed, my mother’s best friend is a war bride from Italy whose nostalgia for the old country goes hand in hand with Mama’s pining for Buenos Aires. Their conversations are peppered with overlapping terms from the Romance languages of their backgrounds. My father has his own ways of navigating the cultural void. He’s no communist, but he listens to Radio Habana Cuba on the shortwave radio. Fidel’s propaganda is something to ridicule, yet nothing else on the dial delivers Spanish. And he craves Spanish. That’s what your native tongue does—transports you back to the place you sprang from.

In 1963, nobody uses the terms Latino or Hispanic. Diversity may be in the dictionary, but if anyone’s applying it to ethnic groups, it hasn’t reached these backwaters of the American South. And as far as I know, the word multicultural hasn’t been invented; for that, we’ll have to wait another twenty years.

When I, the second-grade immigrant kid, drop by the Perry County Public Library, it’s to a creaky old clapboard house whose floors sag under the weight of books. The library at my elementary school is much the same, dusty and clogged with outdated materials. Luckily, my dad’s faculty status at a local college gives me library privileges. There, a small but gleaming collection of children’s books entices me up to the second floor.

I’m a bookworm. I devour everything published for kids. The books I love best entrance me through the power of story, not by how well their characters reflect me. Even so, I can’t help but notice that none of the characters has snapping brown eyes and olive skin. The girls in the books I read have names like Cathy and Susan. No one stumbles over these girls’ surnames and their parents don’t speak accented English. The closest thing to a Latino character I come across is Ferdinand, the Bull. ¡Olé!

Thirty-eight years later, when my youngest daughter is in fifth grade, we read aloud together almost daily. In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, it’s wondrous to encounter a Latina character that feels like a real girl, not a shadow puppet with easy gestures that stand in for Hispanic. Fast forward to 2013, when Dora the Explorer is almost as well known as Mickey Mouse, and authors with names like Benjamin Alire Saenz and Guadalupe Garcia McCall show up in the stacks of the local public library with regularity. Compared to the Latin@ offerings of my childhood, this feels like an embarrassment of riches.

IMG_1291

Lila, the bookworm and author, today.

In March 2012, just after publishing my coming-of-age graphic novel, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, I find myself at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. There, my eyes are opened. I discover that the exploding population of young Latin@ American readers is still under served. On the whole, children’s publishing favors a model that reflects the Anglo world familiar to most editors, agents, and booksellers. The terms diversity and multiculturalism roll off the tongue easily now, but books about minority kids are still not rolling off the presses in sufficient numbers to match the need.

Through this blog, together with my younger collaborators— all of whom grew up in an era far more open to diverse cultures—I have the glorious opportunity to make a difference. I can celebrate the Latin@ characters that do exist in children’s books. I can help promote authors and illustrators who incline toward such stories or whose heritage broadcasts the message to Latin@ youth that they too can write and illustrate books. I can connect parents to new offerings in the biblioteca and hunt down librarians, scholars, and teachers eager to share their expertise with a non-academic audience. That’s what I’m here for—to dig out books, authors, and experts that affirm Latin@ identity and give them a friendly shove into the limelight.

 

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