Book Review: The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

 

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

Review by Mimi Rankin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 11: Rebecca Balcárcel

 

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.

Today, we highlight Rebecca Balcárcel.

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.

The Other Half of Happy is her debut middle grade novel.

It was released August 20, 2019!

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

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.

 

 

Rebecca Balcárcel

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!

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy 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 FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: Margarito’s Forest/El bosque de don Margarito

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

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.

MORE INFORMATION:

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.

 

Book Review: The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly he knows: Miguel, his cousin and best friend, is dead.

Everyone in Jaime’s small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a powerful gang that’s known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed—like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There’s only one choice: Accompanied by his cousin Ángela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother in the United States.

Inspired by true incidents, The Only Road tells an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better life. It is a story of fear and bravery, love and loss, strangers becoming family, and one boy’s treacherous and life-changing journey.

MY TWO CENTS: A recipient of a Pura Belpré honor, Alexandra Diaz’s The Only Road is chilling and heart-wrenching in the best possible way. From the moment that Jaime’s beloved cousin Miguel is killed by a local gang, the Alphas, it is evident that this book is going to take its reader on a perilous journey, tagging along with Jaime as he flees his small town in Guatemala for the United States.

As the novel opens, gang members—angered by Miguel and Jaime’s refusal to submit to the capricious whims of the Alphas—brutally beat Miguel to death in a park that the boys had once considered safe. Jaime, spared a similar fate because he’d stayed home sick that day, soon discovers that Miguel’s murder is just the beginning of the Alphas’ reign of terror. Not only do they intend to force Ángela, Miguel’s sister, to be the ‘girlfriend’ of one of the gang members, but they also plan to make Jaime one of their thugs. The nightmare of such a desolate future under the rule of the Alphas spurs Jaime and Ángela to travel north—and as is true for many undocumented children, the promise of a better future on the other side of the border far outweighs the terrible risks of the journey.

Marketed as a middle-grade novel, this story may lead some to question whether Diaz went too far in portraying the dangers of undocumented immigration and whether such knowledge is appropriate for pre-teen readers. To those concerned, I argue that Diaz’s book is a must-read because of its grittiness. Considering how divided our country is over issues of immigration, seeing undocumented immigrants as humans and understanding the horrible realities that they are escaping seems vital for readers of all ages. As undocumented minors, Ángela and Jaime face unique trials and tribulations along their journey, and Diaz strives to make their story as realistic as possible. She explains in her Author’s Note that though “Jaime and Ángela are fictitious characters, their story is similar to millions of real immigrants,” since “in recent years there has been a huge wave of children traveling alone from Central America” (280). In support of this, Diaz includes a bibliography of the sources that informed her book. This bibliography includes multiple articles about the rise of undocumented and unaccompanied minors crossing the border.

Jamie and Ángela’s experiences may be unapologetically realistic, but they also demonstrate the resiliency of the human spirit. Ultimately, these cousins and the other adolescent border-crossers they meet along the way “‘want the freedom to make [their] own choices and to be in control of [their] future’” (92). As informed readers, we recognize that that future is tenuous; even if these characters successfully enter the U.S., there is no guarantee that they will elude detection and manage to thrive in such a new and foreign environment.

Though much of this story may be new terrain for its readers, Diaz tempers this foreignness with familiar stylistic choices and tropes of children’s and middle-grade texts. From its large print and short chapters, to the straightforward, albeit lyrical language, this text remains easily accessible to young readers. Moreover, Diaz plays upon the trope of an animal helper/guide by including a dog, Vida, who accompanies Jaime and Ángela on their journey. After rescuing her from a fighting ring, Jaime and Ángela nurse the aptly named Vida back to health, and Vida repays their devotion by saving them on multiple occasions. After they get separated from their group of traveling companions, it’s Vida who finds them. Later, she alerts them to the presence of la migra, and even distracts an ICE helicopter while Jaime and Ángela attempt the dangerous swim across the Rio Bravo. The inclusion of Vida often serves as a relief to Jaime and Ángela’s tragic circumstances. The vivaciousness and tenacity that this dog demonstrates act as a beacon of hope for Jaime and Ángela, who emulate her will to survive.

After Jaime and Ángela cross the Rio Bravo, Diaz leaves her ending relatively ambiguous, which left me conflicted. I wanted to know what happens to Jaime and Ángela after their journey, yet felt overall pleased with the open-endedness of this narrative and the hope that it represents. I recognized that we do not need all of the answers—and Diaz’s narrative is better because she does not artificially create some great happily-ever-after for Jaime and Ángela.

Regardless, perhaps the most captivating motif of The Only Road was Jaime’s artistic abilities. Initially, Jaime regards his craft and beloved sketchbook as a connection to home, but as the novel unfolds, they become so much more. Containing images of Miguel, his parents and abuela, and other scenes from Guatemala, the sketchbook acts as Jaime’s catharsis and savior. During a confrontation with la migra, the sketchbook is seized by an intimidating officer. Jaime fears that his art will identify him as an undesirable Guatemalan immigrant, but the officer is too preoccupied with the wonder of Jaime’s skill to question his nation of origin, and merely rips out a sketch of a lizard before walking away. In moments like these, the sketchbook becomes Jaime’s social currency; and when he and Ángela need more money to pay a coyote to get them across the Rio Bravo and into Texas, Jaime sells sketches to white tourists. Art is such a strong analogy for freedom and self-representation; but, most importantly, art becomes integral to Jaime’s very existence. When he almost loses his sketchbook during the crossing of the Rio Bravo, Ángela scolds him; but he explains, “‘It’s not just a book. It’s my life’” (259). In writing the experiences of these children, Diaz explores ways in which art becomes integral to defining the worth of one’s life, and by elevating the journey of these characters, Diaz makes clear that their lives–and the lives of those like them—truly matter.

To put it simply, The Only Road is a must-read. It is beautiful and heartbreaking and so timely. Diaz’s characters are tremendously dynamic and sympathetic; watching them grow as the story progresses made this book difficult to put down, and I found myself staying up way past my bedtime to finish it. Fair warning: if you are a crier, like me, you might want to keep tissues handy while reading! Though the story ends on a bright note, it bears the weight of so many undocumented immigrants whose journeys were less successful—a weight that will leave you breathless even long after the book is finished.

TEACHING TIPS: The Only Road contains multiple supplemental materials that could be used as teaching tools. Diaz includes a glossary of Spanish terms (along with definitions and connotations for “the language enthusiasts”); a list of “Further Reading for All Ages,” which includes children’s and young adult book recommendations about undocumented border crossings and the Latinx experience; as well as a bibliography of her resources, which she cautions some “may not be suitable for young readers” (283, 309). However, these materials could be useful to parents, teachers, and librarians in helping young readers understand the complex issues faced by undocumented immigrants—primarily, those coming from Central and South American countries. Incidentally, Diaz’s research model for this text may be a good way to introduce students to in-depth research for larger projects.

Cultural contexts portrayed in The Only Road could also prove useful toward enhancing appreciation for the ethnic richness that exists across Central America. As this novel shows, Central Americans are not monolithic, and The Only Road does a good job of illuminating distinctions between mestizo and indigenous Central Americans, as well as other variables that mark the countries of this region. For advanced Spanish classes, The Only Road could be used to illustrate variances in Spanish as it is spoken throughout Central and South America, particularly by paying close attention to colloquialisms. Teachers of Spanish may prefer the Spanish-language version, which is available under the title El Único Destino.

ABOUT THE AUTHORAlexandra Diaz is a Cuban American writer with half a dozen young adult novels to her credit, including the Pura Belpré Honor book reviewed here, as well as Good Girls Don’t Lie, the Roller Girl series, and When We Were. Alexandra has lived in England, New Mexico, and other parts of the U.S. Learn more about her work by visiting her official author site.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.

Guest Post: How My Life With a Guatemelan Street Dog Became a Children’s Book

DOLEY Cover PRINTBy Jill Brazier

Use your senses and pay attention to what’s around you. You never know where inspiration might strike! These are two of the lessons that I focus on when presenting my bilingual children’s book, Doley the Guatemalan Street Dog: The Sounds of San Marcos, to students. I never would have imagined that my time living in a treehouse above Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and my special friendship with a starving little street dog, would direct the course of my life for years to come.

At 20 years old, I traveled by land from Seattle to Guatemala. The trip took over a year, with stops along the way to find work when the money ran out. Guatemala was never on my list, but I loved my time in Mexico and wanted to continue south. I joined up with a traveling companion for a long, bumpy, chicken-bus ride from Chiapas, Mexico, to Panajachel, Guatemala. An immediate and special feeling for this country struck me. I was determined to find a way to stay in this beautiful land.

I found a work/trade in a meditation center in the little village of San Marcos La Laguna, one of twelve villages around Lake Atitlan. There was no electricity there at the time. We lit our way with candles, stars and moonlight. My home was a simple bamboo treehouse with one room, a doorway, two windows, and gauze curtains for privacy. At night, I would sit in my treehouse and listen to the many sounds of San Marcos. The breeze blew in, offering constant connection with the lush natural environment.

One day, I was preparing a meal in the community kitchen when a tiny, frantic puppy ran in and looked at me with desperation. She had one bright blue eye and one brown eye. After I instinctively gave her a tiny piece of bread, this little puppy visited me daily. She had mange, a belly full of worms, layers of ticks in her ears, and malformed legs which made it difficult for her to walk. I took care of all of these problems, one by one. I wrapped half an ace bandage around each of her legs so that she could walk without her legs buckling, and fed her eggshells to strengthen her bones. Over time, she healed and followed me everywhere I went. Soon, this Guatemalan street dog had a name: Doley. This was the beginning of our fourteen-year friendship as best friends and travel companions.TenderHowling

Doley would sleep in the treehouse with me at night, cuddling right into the crook of my stomach. Often, she would wake up to the sound of other street dogs howling and barking, and insist on being taken down from the treehouse, to run and howl with the other dogs. All of these real life experiences, which Doley and I shared during our time together in Guatemala, appear in the book.

The Sounds of San Marcos, was released independently in 2012. The theme of sounds emerged as I wrote the story and reflected on Doley’s acute sensory awareness of everything around her as a street dog, and our rich, sensory experience of living a treehouse in Guatemala. Readers learn the importance of listening – a vital lesson for students and young people! I further developed the idea to make Doley a series based on the five senses.

With beautiful artwork by Nicaraguan artist Marcio Diaz, the story comes to life in the vivid color of Guatemalan and Latin American culture. After looking for the right artist for many years, I finally discovered Marcio, whose ability to express profound feeling with bold color evokes the look and feel that I wanted. Marcio says, “In the brushstrokes of a painter, lays the history of his people.”

I want to FlyIt can feel like a daunting task to create something new and find a place for it in the world! There are many ways to share our stories and creative visions. For this project, I chose to publish independently in order to create the books in exactly the look and feel that I wanted. There are many ways to publish these days, and advantages and disadvantages to each. Artists and authors can choose which path to take according to the particular project, goals, intentions, budget, and timeline.

Publishing independently was the right place to start for Doley, and I am thrilled with the result. Everything about it is true to my vision and meets my standards of excellence. Moving forward, I will find a strategic partner to maximize the potential of the Doley series and accompanying reading guides.

Brown and BlueThe Read with Doley Reading Guide, developed according to the National Common Core Standards (K-2 Literature), consists of 134 bilingual questions and answers, designed to engage students in language learning and encourage them to think beyond the text, and is available to download for free on my website. Doley believes in education!

The next book in the series, Doley the Guatemalan Street Dog: The Caravan of Colors, will be released in September 2015 and also features the remarkable artwork of Marcio Diaz, along with its own reading guide. The story is inspired by some traveling performers I met in Guatemala and my own love of trapeze. The Caravan of Colors gives Doley the chance to explore the world around her through the sense of sight, and provides lessons about perseverance and friendship along the way.

It is always a joy to share Doley and the inspiration for the book with students – and to remind them to listen carefully and pay attention. You never know where inspiration will strike or where it may lead you! I am so grateful for where inspiration has taken me.

For purchasing options, and additional information, please visit Jill’s website,

JillWhen Jill Brazier isn’t writing about Doley, she works at a charming Italian restaurant in Seattle. She is a traveler, fitness enthusiast, yoga practitioner, and amateur trapeze artist. After Doley, Jill’s heart belonged to a 12-year old abandoned Husky. They spent three happy years together until she passed away at the age of 15. Jill remains without a dog for now, until the next one chooses her.

 

Book Review: Caminar by Skila Brown

Caminar

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

On Monday, we interviewed first-time author Skila Brown about her novel in verse, Caminar. Check out the Q&A for information about her research and writing and her decision to tackle a subject outside her own racial/ethnic experience. Today, we celebrate her debut.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet–he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist.

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her…Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

MY TWO CENTS: Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse tells the heartbreaking story of Carlos, who is forced from his devastated village and treks up a mountainside to save his grandmother and her neighbors from a similar fate.

One thing that struck me most was Brown’s ability to create a touching coming-of-age narrative set in such tragic events. The novel is not graphic, although the topic is brutal. And while it is a civil war, fueled by politics, Brown does not support or condemn any side. Instead, more than anything, it’s about the ability of the human spirit to survive and persevere even after an unexpected, horrific loss.

A moment that grabbed me by the heart was when Mama tells Carlos to go into the woods and then find her later. He does so, obediently, but we just know there won’t be a later, that this is her last protective act as his mother. Another was when the children wave at the passing helicopter, as children will do when they see something interesting, but they don’t grasp the imminent danger signaled by this flying machine’s presence. From the novel:

They flew

over our village many times, searching the mountains for

something. We didn’t care,

just reached our arms as high as we could, stretched

toward the sky, wanting

to be seen.

We did not know to be

afraid, did not know they were a storm

of death, searching

for a place to rain.

Brown brilliantly combines history, fiction, and poetry in this novel, which she dedicates to the “memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996.” These numbers are staggering, and I often questioned while reading Caminar why I didn’t know more about this 36-year civil war. This is definitely a book I will have on my classroom shelf and recommend to my middle school social studies and language arts teacher-friends.

TEACHING TIPS: Caminar would fit perfectly into a middle school social studies or language arts curriculum. Students could read this in addition to nonfiction articles or essays about the war and its effects on Guatemalan villages. Students could then compare the nonfiction pieces to Caminar to determine what’s history in the novel and what’s fiction.

In a social studies class, this book could be used in a unit about the causes of war and its effects on a country. Students could read other, similar novels or essays and compare the experiences.

Any of the individual poems could be read closely multiple times to discuss word choice and the use of figurative language in poetry.

Students could write a short story in poems to learn first hand the difficulty involved with writing individual poems that also tell a story when read together.

LEXILE: N/A

skilaAUTHOR: Skila Brown has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Caminar is her debut novel. She lives in Indiana with her husband and their three children.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Caminar, visit your local library or book store. Also, check out Candlewick PressIndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.

 

We are giving away two copies of Caminar!! Go to a Rafflecopter giveaway to enter for free. You can enter once per day through this week. Two winners will be selected Saturday morning.