This is the eighth in a series of posts spotlighting Latinx illustrators of picture books. Some of these artists have been creating children’s books for many years, while others will have their first book out soon. They come from many different cultural backgrounds, but all are passionate about connecting with readers through art and story. Please look for their books at bookstores and libraries!
Juliet Menéndez is a Guatemalan American author and illustrator living between Guatemala City, Paris, and New York. While working as a bilingual teacher in New York City’s public schools, Juliet noted the need for more books that depicted children like the ones in her classrooms. She studied design and illustration in Paris and now spends her days with her watercolors and notebook. Latinitasis her first children’s book.
Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist?
A: My family is full of art and artists. My grandmother was a poet, my grandfather was a painter, my father is an architect, my mother is an art enthusiast who lined all of our walls with bookcases full of art books, and I have aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides of my family who are musicians, photographers, designers, and filmmakers. So, I have been surrounded by art for as long as I can remember.
But I do have a particular memory of when I started to feel like an artist myself.
When I was four, my older sister bought me a little easel with paints on one side and pastels on the other. It was immediately my favorite toy and when friends would come over I would ask them to “play easel.” Most of my friends insisted that it wasn’t a game, but one little boy, my best friend at the time, was happy to “play easel” with me and we would have so much fun painting together, adding little things to each other’s drawings, and timing each other to see what we could come up with before the timer went off. It sounds so incredibly nerdy, but we loved it.
I think that is really when I began thinking of art as something I could do. And the idea of art being a form of play has stayed with me. Even now, illustrating sometimes for 14 hours at a time, I still try to make it feel a bit like a game, giving myself the chance to experiment and “play.”
Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium–why you like it, when you first learned it, etc.
A: The work I do now is all done in watercolor. I wouldn’t say I ever really learned watercolor technique and it probably shows. The only ones I use now are Old Holland and they are really more like gouache than watercolors and I use them that way.
I had always worked with mixed media before: inks, pens, collage, oil pastels. But on a freezing cold day walking to the subway in New York, I popped into the art store to warm up. I stumbled upon these adorable Old Holland watercolors locked away in a fancy glass case. I think I must have been staring at them like pastelitos and a sales assistant asked me if I needed him to open the case. I really didn’t have the money to be buying anything at all, but somehow I said yes and picked out four little tubes and walked out with them in a tiny paper bag.
To be honest, I thought about returning them. But the colors… rose, emerald, honey yellow, and manganese blue were just so beautiful. They reminded me of the painted signs, advertisements, menus, and sun bathed street murals in Guatemala. I don’t know if it was the memories of being warm that made me keep them, but once I used them, I was hooked.
Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”
A:…they are children’s first windows into worlds outside of their own and connection to the people in it.
Juliet Menéndez’s debut is Latinitas. Click on the cover for more information.
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Cecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc
Reviewed by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Pulga has his dreams. Chico has his grief. Pequeña has her pride.
And these three teens have one another. But none of them have illusions about the town they’ve grown up in and the dangers that surround them. Even with the love of family, threats lurk around every corner. And when those threats become all too real, the trio knows they have no choice but to run: from their country, from their families, from their beloved home.
Crossing from Guatemala through Mexico, they follow the route of La Bestia, the perilous train system that might deliver them to a better life–if they are lucky enough to survive the journey. With nothing but the bags on their backs and desperation drumming through their hearts, Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña know there is no turning back, despite the unknown that awaits them. And the darkness that seems to follow wherever they go.
In this striking portrait of lives torn apart, the plight of migrants at the U.S. southern border is brought to light through poignant, vivid storytelling. An epic journey of danger, resilience, heartache, and hope.
OUR TWO CENTS: In We Are Not from Here(2020) Jenny Torres Sanchez tells the story of three Guatemalan teenagers Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña who, despite their loving families, are surrounded by danger in their pueblo, Puerto Barrios. The narrative voice switches between Pulga and Pequeña. At the beginning of the novel, Pequeña is about to give birth while also experiencing extreme rancor towards the baby and the baby’s father. Chico and Pulga are best friends, brought together by tragedy. After witnessing a horrific act of violence against a local store attendant, Chico and Pulga agree that it is best to risk the journey traveling to the United States than either work for or die at the hands of the local gang leader, Rey. Pequeña, who’s also afraid of Rey and desperate to escape, decides to join Chico and Pulga. The three flee wearing layers of clothes and their backpacks containing what’s left of their lives on what seems to be a never-ending and grappling journey aboard La Bestia, the fast-pace train known as the route most (im)migrants take to cross from Mexico to the United States. La Bestia is dangerous, and one wrong move may cost them their lives. The three of them travel from Guatemala to cities in Mexico like Ixtepec, Lecheria, and Guadalajara under extreme conditions. Their journey is full of new dangers and violence. Their commitment to one another and to a better life is what gives them hope and strength on their trek to the United States.
With We are Not From Here, Torres Sanchez makes an important contribution to existing conversations around immigration through Mexico and into the United States. In the last decade, Central Americans have made up the majority of (im)migrants attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico. In the U.S. popular imaginary, immigration at the U.S./Mexico border is often conflated with the Mexican experience. However, when we read and watch in the news about the babies, children, and parents in cages at the border, we cannot willfully ignore the fact that the majority of them are Central Americans fleeing the violence created by U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, it is also necessary to recognize the violence Central Americans experience at the hands of the Mexican state while journeying through Mexico. Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña experience these multiple levels of violence as they journey to the United States.
One of the most significant aspects of this novel is the subtle critique of the violence Central American (im)migrants experience while traveling through Mexico. About half way through the novel, Pulga says, “‘Some don’t want us here […] We are to Mexico what Mexico is to the States” (Torres Sanchez 153). Later in the novel, Pulga adds, “Mexico doesn’t want us any more than the United States does. You’d be an immigrant here, Chico. If you try to work here, live here, whatever, Mexico will deport you right back, too” (Torres Sanchez 210). In both of these passages, Pulga points out the systemic violence they experience as Central Americans that is symptomatic of the U.S. empire. These young people in We Are Not From Here are very much aware that their subjectivity puts them at risk anywhere they go. All of this is not to say that Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña don’t experience kindness in Mexico–because they do. They stop at shelters who care for them, there are other Mexicans on La Bestia who try to guide them, and they make connections along the way that will help them further on. However, these individual acts of kindness do not erase the state-sanctioned violence against Central Americans in Mexico that needs to be addressed. Torres Sanchez touches on these topics with great care. There isn’t an overt, political critique but instead she allows her characters to make observations and share knowledge about the reality around them–which in and of itself is a political move.
Torres Sanchez’s attention to language and voice captures the emotional turmoil of making this journey. The repetition of certain words or phrases helps emphasize the uncertainty and extremity of situations. For example, when the trio begin their journey, they have trouble with their sense of direction. Despite having had collected as much information as possible about the route, Pulga feels helpless: “And Pequeña and Chico are looking to me for answers. But I don’t know. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know why I thought I could do this. I don’t know” (Torres 126.) Here the repetition reveals the anxiety Pulga feels at having been named the leader of the group without having a real sense of how to make the journey safely–never having done it before. The repetition also reminds the reader that the characters are young people making this journey on their own–there are no guides, just children risking their lives for a better one. The repetition of phrases, images, and memories are constant throughout the novel.
Additionally, the emphasis Torres Sanchez places on the characters’ internal thoughts allows readers to experience the roller coaster of emotions these young characters feel as they travel. In one instance, for example, Pulga and his friends are emotionally and physically exhausted as he narrates his thoughts: “I imagine I am an animal. Skulking through the darkness. Keen. Instinctive. Alert. Alive. Some don’t make it. But some do. Why not me? Why not us? I hold on to this thought as we walk. Why not me? my feet say with each pound to the ground. Why not us?” (Torres Sanchez 159). Pulga’s determination to continue walking, to push past exhaustion, demonstrates the inner strength needed to survive this journey. There are several, powerful moments like this throughout the novel where the characters must find individual strength and where they need to remind one another of that courage. That Pulga asks, “Why not me? Why not us?” is another example of Torres Sanchez’s talent with language because not only is Pulga trying to convince himself to keep going but these questions also force readers to question the value (or lack thereof) our society places on (im)migrant lives.
We Are Not From Hereis a multi-layered story and Torres Sanchez tries to give space, not just to tell the story of the trio, but to also tell the story of a community and of many more unaccompanied minors. However, the character who stood out to us the most is Pequeña. Only the reader and the ghost bruja that appears to Pequeña every once in a while are witness to the sexual violence she endures in her hometown in Guatemala. When readying to join Pulga and Chico on their journey north, Pequeña chops off her long hair to pass for a boy because she knows of the violence women experience on this journey. After buying supplies at the market, she reflects:
I wonder if it’s coincidence that the razors and the switchblades are in the same area of the pharmacy as the birth control and morning after pills. At night, I go to sleep thinking of ways to be deadly. How to cover my body in razors. I imagine them covering my body like scales. I imagine anyone who touches me being cut and sliced and pierced. A warning. Nobody come near me.
(Torres Sanchez 87)
The razors, the blades, and the contraceptives serve as ways for Pequeña, and young women like her, to protect her body because she knows that the world won’t–she knows from experience. This scene shows Pequeña’s pain and agency. She reveals to the reader the cruel reality of violence against women in different settings–at home and while (im)migrating. She indicates that this has happened to her. But by imagining herself covered in razor blades, she arms herself against patriarchal domination. She is readying herself to fight and survive at all costs. That she needs to live this way in the first place is terrible, but that she won’t surrender is a form of empowerment.
There’s no denying that the trek on La Bestia through Mexico is traumatizing on various levels. But it’s also important to point out that this novel is also full of hope. One passage that stands out happens between Soledad, a woman in charge of a shelter in Mexico, and Pequeña. Soledad says, “You must always remember your name. Say it to yourself. You cannot forget who you are. La Bestia, the wind, a lot of people on the other side, they will try to make you forget. They will try to erase you. But you must always remember” (Torres Sanchez 208). Soledad ends this affirmation by repeating Pequeña’s given name. The act of remembering one’s name is also tied to family history, to culture, and to a sense of self. Soledad reassures Pequeña that what she knows about being an outsider is true–there will be those who “will try to erase you.” But she also encourages Pequeña that as long as she knows who she is, erasure is not an option. This naming scene is in contrast to an earlier scene in the novel, part of Torres Sanchez’s magic with repetition, where Pequeña comments on how the world tries to make her small, even her name is small (Torres Sanchez 12). Having Pequeña declare her given name and leave her nickname behind is an act of defiance to society’s attempt to make her small or to erase her entirely.
Torres Sanchez has created tender and vulnerable characters with Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña. The authentic and harsh reality of this story is one of i(m)migrants fleeing violence and enduring violence for the sheer hope of a different possibility. We Are Not From Hereis a beautiful and powerful must-read. Torres Sanchez tackles the story of three Guatemalan unaccompanied minors with compassion and fortitude.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: (From her website) Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.
ABOUT THE REVIEWERS: Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.
Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Young René’s mother has sent him a new pair of shoes from the United States. He loves his new shoes. “They walk everywhere I walk. They jump every time I jump. They run as fast as me. We always cross the finish line at the same time.”
René—with his new shoes—and his father set off on the long journey to meet his mother in the United States. He says goodbye to his friends in El Salvador, and “Uno, dos, tres, my shoes and I are ready to go.” The trip is difficult. They take buses and walk across El Salvador, into Guatemala and then into Mexico. His brand-new shoes lose their shine, turning dirty and gray. They become elephants, pushing against the wind; race cars, fleeing hungry dogs; swim shoes, escaping floods; and submarines, navigating through sticky mud. When holes appear on the soles of his shoes, his father won’t let him give up. “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá.”
Sharing his own experiences, René Colato Laínez’s moving bilingual picture book brings to life the experiences of many young children who make the arduous journey from Central America to the United States in search of a better life.
MY TWO CENTS: This picture book was inspired by the author’s own journey as a child. This book is very similar to his book My Shoes and I(2010), but different in that it is a bilingual book and is the author’s journey as he crossed borders as a child. The English text in this book has been modified, and the Spanish version has been added. The text is simpler and intended for young readers. The book begins when, for Christmas, René receives a pair of shoes from his mother, who lives in the U.S. The book details the journey that René and his father take by focusing on what the shoes go through in traveling across three countries.
The book does not overtly describe the dangers in crossing borders, but there are some instances where hardships are described. One example of this is when René describes having to live in a dark trailer because his father loses his wallet in Mexico City. Another example is when they are crossing the Mexico/U.S. border and René states that the water comes up to this stomach and then to his shoulders. René and his father travel through El Salvador, Mexico, and finally cross the border into the U.S. where his mother is waiting.
The focus on the shoes throughout the book allows the author to tell about the journey, but not go into the arduous, dangerous details. The resiliency of the young boy is shown throughout the book as he continues his journey to be with his mother. In one case, Papá encourages him, “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá. We won’t give up” (n.p.).
This book would be a great addition to a classroom unit about immigration. It specifically focuses on the border crossings and the long journey that families embark on to search for a new life. The book also addresses the desire that families have to be together and the dangers that families endure in search of a better life. The reprint of this book is timely as immigration, border crossings, and the journeys that children embark on continue to be scarce in children’s literature.
The author’s note at the end of the book tells the reader that this story is actually based on his life. René Colato Laínez shares some of the details that inspired him to write the book, such as the fact that this mother sent him a pair of shoes for his journey. The author also shares that, along with his father, they had to leave El Salvador due to the civil war in that country. At the end, René shares that he wrote this book to “tell readers about the hard journey that immigrant children and families face. They are escaping from violence and crime. Their journey is not a choice but a necessity to look for a better place, where they can accomplish their dreams”
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR: I reached out to the author via social media to see if he would answer some questions about the book. Here are René’s responses to my questions:
This book is very similar to your wonderful book My Shoes and I. How is this one different?
René: Many children cross borders around the world everyday. They are escaping war, crime, or violence. It is hard to leave a country and your loved ones. As an author who had to cross borders, I want to give voice to the voiceless. I also want to tell readers that their journey is not a choice, but a necessity.
Many teachers shy away from having discussions focused on what are perceived as “difficult” topics. Why is it important for teachers to discuss issues such as immigration in the classroom?
René: In the news, children watch about numbers and politics, but they also need to know about real experiences. I think that children’s books are great for children to see what is beyond their windows and horizons. By telling children about immigration and other hard topics, we can build empathy in our children.
Please share anything else that you would like others to know about your new book?
René: I am so happy that this book is back in print and now it is bilingual. I hope that this book can touch the hearts of many readers.
Teachers can visit the website below for information about the book
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website): I am René Colato Laínez, the Salvadoran award winning author of many bilingual/ multicultural children’s books. I have a master’s degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults.
My goal as a writer is to produce good multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States. Do you want to know more about me? Please read my long biography.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mimi 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.
We are back from our summer break with lots of great, new interviews, book reviews, and events planned. We start today with a Q&A with middle grade author Rebecca Balcárcel, who is celebrating the recent release of her debut novel The Other Half of Happy.
By Cindy L. Rodriguez
This is the 11th in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.
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.
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.
Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
A. Storytellers, books, and teachers! My father is an entertaining storyteller, and I absorbed much from his natural sense of drama and comedic timing. He’ll also suddenly quote a poem with misty eyes and point out the beauty of Spanish sounds. All of this gave me a heightened awareness of language’s power. Books served as my dearest friends throughout childhood. From the magic of picture books before bedtime to full novels, I loved being transported to fictional worlds. I always dreamed of creating that experience for others. I still read to apprentice myself to great authors and learn their craft. And a shout out to my third grade teacher, Miss Valentine, who read Where the Red Fern Grows aloud to us chapter by chapter after lunch. I cried in school, but it was worth it! Later teachers encouraged me to write, and their confidence in me helped me take my writing seriously.
Q: Why did you decide to write a middle grade novel?
A: Can you believe that when I started writing, I didn’t know that this book was middle grade, nor that it was a novel?! Trained as a poet, I started writing prose poems in the voice of a bi-cultural twelve-year-old. She had a lot to say, and in one summer, I created about 40 little scenes. I wasn’t sure, though, if this was an adult looking back or a true MG project. It was my agent who said, “I think this would sing as a middle-grade novel.” I decided to go for it! It took two years of revision and rewriting to turn my stack of poems into a novel. It turns out, I love writing middle grade. That age is a time of deepening self-knowledge and broadening world-knowledge, the pivot point between child and adult. So much of who we are emerges in those years. It’s a psychologically rich moment to write about.
Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?
A. So many! The classics, like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia, still make me cry. But I’m thrilled to be reading many new novels of worth. This year, I’ve especially enjoyed Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn, which has a child with autism like my book does, and the just-released For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama Lockington, whose main character straddles two cultures, as mine does. I’ve sought out Latina writers, and have found an amazing community. Las Musas Books (https://www.lasmusasbooks.com/) is an entire collective of new YA and MG novelists! I’ve also loved Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes and Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres. And let’s not leave out this year’s Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Great books!
Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?
A. Don’t be embarrassed by what moves you! If a song or an idea touches your heart or blows your mind (in a good way), keep exploring in that direction. That’s the direction in which you will find kindred spirits, true friends, and your own growth. Ignore the people that pooh-pooh your music, your style, or whatever you geek out on. Fly that freak flag and own your joy!
Q. Finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…
A. . . . they inspire us to be our best selves!
Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Margarito’s Forest, a bilingual book in English and Spanish with excerpts in K’iche’, is based on the life of Don Margarito Esteban Álvarez Velázquez as told by his daughter, Doña Maria Guadalupe. It is a story of Maya culture and wisdom passed from one generation to the next. As the devastating effects of climate change become clear, Don Margarito’s life and the ways of the Maya offer timely wisdom for a planet in peril.
MY TWO CENTS: Margarito’s Forest/El bosque de don Margarito is a nonfiction account of a Guatemalan man’s extraordinary devotion to the forest he loved. In addition to offering a heroic and memorable story, this picture book also enriches the range of Latinx representation in U.S. children’s literature. The story takes place in the central highlands of Guatemala, among the K’iche’ people and includes phrases in the K’iche’ language. Margarito’s Forest also expands the range of truth-telling by taking on a reality I’ve never seen acknowledged in a children’s book: Guatemala’s dirty war, which brought tremendous suffering to many Guatemalans and was especially devastating for the country’s indigenous peoples. The book makes these contributions while focusing on introducing young readers to the late Margarito Esteban Álvarez Velásquez, an unsung warrior for the environment. This humble man dedicated his life to maintaining the forest near his Guatemalan home as a place of nourishment, beauty, and ancestral significance. Don Margarito often labored alone, saving trees even as many others in the region cleared them for the sake of crop cultivation, and his story offers a powerful example of the impact one person can have even when facing obstacles and indifference.
Based on oral histories shared by Don Margarito’s daughter, María Guadalupe Velásquez Tum, the narrative is set up as a conversation between Doña Guadalupe and her young grandson, Esteban. As Doña Guadalupe makes clear, her deep knowledge of the forest came from Don Margarito, who received it as a boy from the village holy man, Don Calixto. By emphasizing this chain of communication, the text also elevates the importance of transmitting family lore and practical wisdom to younger generations. It also offers valuable opportunities to recognize bodies of knowledge and practice that are often marginalized or belittled in mainstream narratives.
Engaging Difficult Histories
As mentioned, the story also touches on a deeply troubling passage in Guatemala’s recent history. For thirty-six years, beginning in 1960, Guatemalans endured a “dirty war” in which government military forces were deployed against citizens. During this protracted horror, indigenous peoples suffered disproportionate losses at the hands of government soldiers, including deaths now classified as genocide. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, the Guatemalan government often scapegoated Maya communities, and this was the precise fate suffered by the village where Doña Guadalupe and Don Margarito lived. Tragically, when Guatemalan forces raided their home village, Don Margarito was among those killed.
Doña Guadalupe, who witnessed the raid, describes her harrowing experience to Esteban in honest terms, yet sparing details that might disturb young readers: “While your father was still a baby, the army came and destroyed our village. They burnt our homes down to the ground and they dug up our crops.” She and her two children fled to the forest, where her father’s lessons on edible plants and healing herbs proved critical to their survival. Needless to say, this is an age-appropriate version of the story, but as Doña Guadalupe makes clear, Esteban will learn the rest later: “When you are a little older, I will tell you more about those days and the dirty war that tore us apart.” This approach carefully balances honesty with consideration for the age of readers, offering a compelling example of how to speak truthfully to young audiences about difficult topics.
Words and Images
Margarito’s Forest is also interesting in its layered approach to word and image. Incorporating the translation work of multiple contributors across three languages, the book is a multilingual text. English and Spanish sections appear on the same page along with embedded instances of K’iche’. (Adult readers may know this language by its former spelling, Quiché.) Although the presentation of K’iche’ phrases sometimes feels a bit forced and ungainly, its inclusion is a positive step toward unmaking the assumption that Spanish is “the” language of Central America by foregrounding its linguistic diversity. In fact, K’iche’ remains Guatemala’s second most widely spoken language after Spanish, and it is one of numerous surviving members of the Mayan language family.
(Images are the work of Allison Havens, used here by permission from Hard Ball Press)
The illustrations in Margarito’s Forest are multimedia collages by Allison Havens, a native of Chicago who now resides in Guatemala. Her original art is central to each collage and often appears as black-and-white graphite figures framed by a patchwork of full-color elements. The collages incorporate photography, scraps of textiles, and drawings made expressly for the book by children from the village of Saq Ja’.
In sum, Margarito’s Forest offers a tender glimpse into the life of a visionary, a courageous individual who followed his heart and acquired immense wisdom without the benefit of a formal education. Although the story makes clear the tragedy of Don Margarito’s death during the dirty war, it also demonstrates the enduring impact of his passionate devotion to the forest. Thanks to his daughter’s account—and to those who took pains to preserve it—his beautiful legacy lives on as the subject of this absorbing picture book.
According to the website for Hard Ball Press, Margarito’s Forest received the following distinctions: Most Inspirational Children’s Book by Latino Book Awards, a Commended Title in the 2017 Américas Award from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, and a Best Book of 2017 by the Bank Street College of Education.
The final pages of the book provide study questions for educators, librarians and parents. There is also a generous author’s note, detailing how the story came to his attention, and a section about the illustrator’s collaboration with the schoolchildren of Don Margarito’s village.
For those using this book with older readers, or for parents and educators who would like to be better prepared to answer young students’ questions, it may be important to engage with the role played by the U.S. in training Guatemala’s military, including in the notorious School of the Americas, a U.S.-backed training site that played a pivotal role in violent repression in Latin America. The commission report on the Guatemalan dirty war specifically identifies the U.S. as a source of extreme and abusive military techniques that had “significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.”
For further reading on Latinx activists working to save the environment, see this article.
And don’t miss this post by Marianne Snow Campbell about reading kid lit as an ecocritic.
Finally, experience the beauty K’iche’ as spoken by a native speaker.