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.

Debut Author Skila Brown’s Novel in Verse Centers on Guatemalan Civil War

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

CaminarI recently interviewed debut author Skila Brown for the Fearless Fifteeners site, which helps to highlight our debut author friends in the OneFour KidLit group. Most of the interview is reprinted here, but I added the final question in particular because of our audience and our mission. Skila is not Guatemalan, yet she wrote a moving narrative about a young Guatemalan boy in 1981 caught in civil war. The last question addresses the concern about writing with authenticity outside of one’s own ethnic/racial experiences.

First, a little about her novel, Caminar, which was released March 26.

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.

“Exquisitely crafted poems are the basis of an unusually fine verse novel…”

–Horn Book, starred review

“…a much-needed addition to Latin American-themed middle grade fiction.”

–School Library Journal, starred review

Me: Your bio says you lived in Guatemala for a bit. Did your experience there spark interest in this topic? Did anything else inspire you to write this particular story?

Skila: We moved to Guatemala after I’d finished the novel, though I revised it some while we were there. This novel actually came out, reluctantly and painfully, after I’d spent about a decade reading about Guatemala’s history, especially the history of the violence there that peaked in the early 80s. I had no intention of writing about it, but that’s what ended up happening. I certainly felt inspired by accounts of survival that I read, but also felt a real desire to make sure other people knew about what had happened there.

Me: How extensive was your research? Did you run into any roadblocks when seeking information?

Skila: My research started out very organically—I was reading for pleasure and interest, not with the intention of gathering facts to write a story. When the story began, I had some pointed research to do, specific questions about language and geography and other details that I hadn’t already absorbed. It was hard to track down first person accounts of rural Guatemala during this time.

Right away I faced a tough decision about language. Although Carlos would have spoken Spanish in school, it wouldn’t have been his first language; it’s not what he would have spoken at home with his mother. In an earlier draft I envisioned using an indigenous language in the text, as well as Spanish—which would have likely been the way that Carlos could have spoken to someone like Paco, for example—but I was worried about being able to maintain accuracy and authenticity if I wrote the story that culturally specific. I also felt that an English speaking reader might struggle with the mixture of over four different languages in the same story. Definitely trying to balance authenticity with a reader’s connection was a constant struggle.

Me: Is your protagonist Carlos linked to anyone you came across during your research or does he represent the young men who survived that time?

Skila: Carlos isn’t based on any one person. In fact, I had the story down before I had a character at all, but I knew early on the main character was a child, that this was really, at its core, a coming of age story. In violent conflicts all over the world, it’s not uncommon for a handful of people to survive an attack on a village such as this, having scattered away during the chaos. I’d read about children who survived and felt really drawn to that story—how scary it must for a child to be on his or her own, how resourceful that child would have to be.

Me: The physical layout of the poems adds to the narrative. I’m glad I read this one on paper instead of listening to it on audio. The visual really complements the content. Is that something you consider in the writing phase or is that developed in editing?

Skila: This was something I worked a lot on in revision. I wrote this story while I was a grad student and while I was working with poets Julie Larios and Sharon Darrow. Sharon, in particular, encouraged me to play around with shape and the placement of lines on a page. White space is a poet’s tool, and I liked thinking about how I could use it. Typically I draft a poem by hand and it has no shape or form in the beginning, I’m just thinking about the content and the words themselves. But as I revise that poem and before I’m ready to put it into the computer, I try to think about what shape would serve it best. It’s easy to play around with form and shape; it’s harder to use those both deliberately.

Me: Tell us about your publication journey. Some people get deals while still in grad school, while others query for years. What’s your story?

Skila: While I was in grad school, Candlewick was kind enough to offer me a scholarship award for a picture book text I wrote called Slickety Quick. It’s a non-fiction/poetry blend about sharks and it’s scheduled to be out with them in 2016. This really opened a door for me with them, as they also asked to see my novel. I think the key for writers is to submit away—but then put it out of your mind and dive into the next project. Good news comes faster when you’re looking the other way.

Me: Did you have any additional considerations while writing about something outside your racial/ethnic experience? Did you do anything in particular to “get it right” or did you approach it the same way you’d approach any other book project?

Skila: I was very concerned about this, Cindy. This concern kept the story in my head for two years, before I felt brave enough to put it on paper. This concern kept the finished manuscript on my computer for some time before I was ready to send it out to query. It’s something I’m concerned about still. Writing outside our cultures is a very risky thing for writers to do because it’s so easy to get it wrong.

However. Everyone this month is talking about The Study. And if only 6% of books published for kids in 2013 starred a character of color, then it’s past time for us to think about how to remedy that. If writers are going to play our part in addressing this problem, we need to look hard at how we can do this responsibly.

I approached this with a lot of research, a goal of authenticity, and a strong dose of humility. I had multiple people vet my story and offer suggestions. I thought hard about stereotypes and language and how best to portray the story with the most respect I could give it. I also tried to balance the “otherness” of Carlos with what will connect him to a reader today, what makes him the same as a twelve year old boy, reading this story in Chicago, for example. As adults we tend to notice the differences in characters and cultures, but kids are great about finding what’s the same and really connecting to the character. I hope they are able to do that with Carlos.

skilaSkila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana.

Come back on Thursday, when we will spotlight Caminar in our Libros Latin@s section!

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.