Researching and Writing Historical Fiction with Gloria Amescua and Alda P. Dobbs

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Interview by Romy Natalia Goldberg

This past fall brought the publication of two fascinating books set during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), BAREFOOT DREAMS OF PETRA LUNA, a historical middle grade novel by Alda P. Dobbs (Sourcebooks Young Readers, September, 2021) and CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA, a picture book biography written by Gloria Amescua and illustrated by award winning illustrator, Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books for Young Readers, August, 2021). Both Texas-based authors took the time out of their busy debut schedules to talk to us about their processes for researching and writing children’s books based on historic events and real people. 

Romy Natalia Goldberg: Both your main characters, Petra and Luz, learn of their indigenous ancestor’s beliefs through their grandparents, who, in turn, learned from their own grandparents. Can you talk a little about researching beliefs and traditions, especially those that were predominantly passed down orally?

Alda P. Dobbs: First, I’d like to thank you, Natalia, for interviewing me. It’s an honor! A lot of the beliefs and traditions in the story were handed down orally by elders in my family. Others, I had to research. I found myself reading many books on curanderismo and stories that were recorded by Spanish priests who interviewed indigenous people during colonial times. Everything was so fascinating it was hard to choose what to include in the book while not bogging down the story.

Gloria Amescua: Thankfully, one of the important contributions Luz Jiménez made was to listen to and remember the mythologies and other stories that were passed down orally. The book Life and Death in Milpa Alta: A Nahuatl Chronicle of Diaz and Zapata (translated and edited by Fernando Horcasitas, from the Nahuatl Recollections of Doña Luz Jiménez) was one of my most important resources. Luz told Horcasitas what is in this book over time in Nahuatl. It included not only her childhood and things that she and the Nahua people of Milpa Alta experienced, their traditions and daily life, but also the stories that had been passed down orally. Horcasitas wrote it down phonetically. Milpa Alta hosted the First Aztec Congress, which mainly determined what written Nahuatl should look like in 1940.

What advice can you give for researching historical events? Anything you wish you’d known at the start of this process? 

Alda P. Dobbs: This is a great one! I wished I hadn’t been so shy and had asked librarians for help. I spent a lot of time trying to do the research on my own, which wasn’t bad, but I probably reinvented the wheel a couple of times. Having a physics and engineering background, I approached historical research as I would science, and I’ve learned that there’s a better and more efficient way. I would have saved myself time and frustration had I approached a librarian sooner.

Gloria Amescua: I wish I’d been more organized about gathering my information. My main advice is to make sure you get your sources down for everything. You may or may not use what you have read or taken notes on, but be sure to document everything. I keep meaning to learn about one of the several online organizers, but I haven’t yet. My advice is do better than I did. It will keep you from going back to find sources.

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Sanborn Map Company. San Antonio 1911 Vol 1, map, 1911; New York. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth549759/: accessed October 15, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

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Alda, I’ve heard you mention the importance of maps in your research before. Can you talk a little more about your source for maps and how they figured into your writing process? 

Maps were essential in my research. I used Sanborn maps, which are old insurance maps made in the 19th and 20th centuries that detail the types of buildings, their structure and use. I crossed referenced these maps with modern Google “street view” maps that allow me to see where the building once stood, or if I’m lucky enough, I could still see the same old building standing. I also used vintage photographs that allowed me to dig deeper into the research and find out where the photograph was taken. All these resources allow me to recreate a map that shows where my character lives, works, goes to school, shops, etc. I used Sanborn maps to recreate an old map of San Antonio, Texas that took up my entire office wall but gave me a sense of my character’s life there in 1913. 

What is your system for keeping information organized, easy to access, and backed up? 

Alda P. Dobbs: For my research, I kept both electronic files and physical divider tabs that were labeled with the following titles: photographs, maps, newspaper articles, academic papers, books, and of course, miscellaneous. I also kept a journal where I’d write everything down from research notes, to notes I’d take when speaking to librarians or historians. In my journal, I also jotted down ideas for scenes or dialogue or just plain brainstorming. I always backed up all my electronic files using a SSD hard drive.

Gloria Amescua: I wish I had a great system to tell you about. What I did was to create computer files that made sense to me. For instance, I have folders for my revisions by year. Other folders are for the language Nahuatl and images in which Luz appears with lists of all the artwork information and links. I copied articles from the internet as well as their links. Early on, I learned the hard way, since I had a certain link I had a difficult time finding again to an exposition featuring Luz in Mexico City. I used colored flags in my books.

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Alda shared a series of photos that inspired and informed PETRA LUNA on her social media platforms

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The internet has made research infinitely easier, but examining physical documents and visiting locations firsthand is still a part of the research process. I’m curious which parts of your research happened online and which was more useful or necessary “in real life.”

Alda P. Dobbs: I’d say both online research and “in-person” visits were essential for me. Almost every setting in my book took place in a location I had visited before, so I knew the way the terrain looked, the way it smelled and sounded. The old photographs, which many of them I found online, were essential in adding details to settings or constructing characters. 

Gloria Amescua: I didn’t get to visit any places in my book in real life. I would love to visit Milpa Alta and go back to Mexico City to see the murals I saw long ago that included Luz before I knew about her. Of course, without finding a pamphlet at the University of Texas in Austin that was about Luz Jiménez, I wouldn’t have known about her amazing life. The internet was definitely important because I found articles and images for Luz. I also wouldn’t have found my real resources, the books I used, including the one with Luz’s actual words. Through the internet, I also found Dr. Kelly McDonough, Professor of Native American and Indigenous studies at UT, who shared resources. She also introduced me to Luz’s grandson, Jesús Villanueva. Although we have yet to meet in person, Jesús and I corresponded through email. He was invaluable to me as he answered questions and shared booklets he was involved with writing about his grandmother and was part of my book launch!

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Jesús Villanueva, grandson of Luz Jiménez, participating in Gloria Amescua’s virtual book launch via The Writing Barn

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Gloria, Writing about real people, especially when there are living relatives involved, seems like an intimidating part of the biography process. Can you tell us a little about what it was like to approach and work with Luz’s grandson?  

Gloria Amescua: It was somewhat intimidating at first since it was my first book. I told him my qualifications as a poet, teacher, and studies in children’s literature, so he would know I was serious. Dr. Kelly McDonough, who volunteered to introduce us, is Jesús’ friend. They have worked together on projects, and I’m thankful for that gift of an introduction. Jesús Villanueva was as gracious as he could be and shared resources with me. He has few recollections of his grandmother since she passed away when he was very young, so his dedication has been to learn as much as he could. He has promoted her legacy through writing and presentations. He shared these with me. If I were to do it again, I would have kept in touch with him more frequently about the progress or lack of progress in the publishing journey since it took almost eight years.

Is there any one instance when you thought “Thank goodness for the internet!” or “Thank goodness I saw this in person!”? How did that experience improve your story and writing process?

Alda P. Dobbs: Yes, to both! My husband often traveled for work, and it was during the times when my kids napped or slept at night when I found myself doing most of my online searches. I’m also grateful to have met Mr. Tim Blevins, a librarian at the Pikes Peak Library system. He’s the one who introduced me to many wonderful research tools just when I was about to give up!   

Gloria Amescua: I’m sure it would have been next to impossible for me to write this story without the internet. I was able to find many of the images of Luz in art that I included in the text as part of what Luz learned as a child, weaving, twisting yarn with her toes, grinding corn, etc. It helped me weave details in the story early on that are echoed in the images of her as a model for artists as an adult. I love that it comes full circle.

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Double spread illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh for CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA

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The Mexican Revolution brings chaos and fear to the lives of your main characters. Featuring trauma in a children’s book is a delicate matter, made even more challenging when you’re dealing with real events. How did you choose to address the topic and why? What do you hope readers will take away from seeing Petra and Luz navigate the challenges they face? 

Alda P. Dobbs: I chose to write about the Mexican Revolution because it’s a topic that’s close to me and it’s also one I’d never seen presented in children’s literature. The conflict itself is very complicated and in it, women and children played many different roles. It was a difficult subject to write about for young readers but thankfully, there are many brilliant, wonderful books who tackle trauma masterfully, like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Avi’s Crispin, to name a few. 

Gloria Amescua: The Mexican Revolution changed Luz Jiménez’s life drastically. Her father and the other men were killed, their village destroyed, her education ended so that Luz and her remaining family had to find a way to survive in a new environment. I had to tell about it and not dwell on the hardships but move on quickly to how Luz overcame her struggles, how she found a new way of being herself, proud of being Nahua. The revolution created a powerful change in artists and how they wanted to honor the indigenous people and make art available to everyone in murals as well as paintings, photographs, statues. I hope readers will see how Luz’s strength was believing in herself despite the hardships she had to overcome. She realized her dream of being a teacher in a way she never expected. 

What books served as mentor texts for you? Along the same line, are there any authors or illustrators whose methods you found inspiring? 

Alda P. Dobbs: I named a couple of books in the previous answer, but other books that helped with structure, pacing, and dialogue were Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games book series and Kate Dicamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie

Gloria Amescua: I read many, many picture book biographies. I examined every aspect of each of them. A few include Bethany Hegedus and Arun Ghandhi’s Grandfather Ghandi and Be the Change, Melissa Sweet’s Balloons Over Broadway, Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal and Monica Brown’s Pablo Neruda and Waiting for the Biblioburro. I returned to these over and over as well as many others. They inspired me as I worked on mine, as I worked on structure, language, organization, etc. I especially loved the illustrations and the emotions expressed in the Ghandi books, the Mixtec style in Separate is Never Equal, and Pablo Neruda, where the illustrations include a river of words in trees, leaves, everywhere in English and Spanish. I wanted my book to be as beautiful and important as these books. 

Can you talk a little about what learning to read and write symbolizes to your characters, and by extension, what writing and sharing their stories means to you?

Gloria Amescua: Luz wanted to learn to read and teach future generations of “professors, priests, lawyers.” It was a way she could not only improve her life but also that of others. I am honored to share Luz Jiménez’s story because she brought to light the intelligence, beauty, and strength of the Nahua. I admire her resilience and pride in her culture. My writing this book means now many more people will know her and her contributions, her legacy. I hope it will lead readers to learn about other indigenous people as well.   

Alda P. Dobbs: Wow, what a great question! During the decade of the Mexican Revolution, in the 1910’s, only 20% of the Mexican population could read and write. My ancestors were part of the 80% who were illiterate. My grandmother, however, was determined to learn to read and write, and despite never having stepped inside a school, she taught herself how to read and write by the time she was twelve. I wanted to create a character with the same courage and determination my grandmother displayed throughout her life.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS: 

Gloria Amescua (Ah MES qua) has been a writer since she was a child, writing poems and stories throughout her life. She loves books that reach a young person’s heart, head, or funny bone and strives to do just that in her writing. She is an educator, poet, and children’s book writer. Abrams Books for Young Readers published her picture book biography in verse, Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua, August 17, 2021. Duncan Tonatiuh is the illustrator. An earlier version won the 2016 Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award. A variety of literary journals and anthologies have published Gloria’s poetry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published one of her poems in their national textbook literature series.  Gloria received both her B. A. and M. Ed. degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.  The grandmother of two amazing granddaughters, Gloria believes in children, pets, and possibilities.

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Alda P. Dobbs is the author of the novel Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. She was born in a small town in northern Mexico but moved to San Antonio, Texas as a child. Alda studied physics and worked as an engineer before pursuing her love of storytelling. She’s as passionate about connecting children to their past, their communities, different cultures and nature as she is about writing. Alda lives with her husband and two children outside Houston, Texas.

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Image of Romy Natalia Goldberg

Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, Other Places Travel Guide to Paraguay, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators.

Book Review: My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

 

Review by Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama, with Frederick Luis Aldama

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:  In a racially polarized classroom in 1970 Alabama, Lu’s talent for running track makes her a new best friend — and tests her mettle as she navigates the school’s social cliques.

Miss Garrett’s classroom is like every other at our school. White kids sit on one side and black kids on the other. I’m one of the few middle-rowers who split the difference.

Sixth-grader Lu Olivera just wants to keep her head down and get along with everyone in her class. Trouble is, Lu’s old friends have been changing lately — acting boy crazy and making snide remarks about Lu’s newfound talent for running track. Lu’s secret hope for a new friend is fellow runner Belinda Gresham, but in 1970 Red Grove, Alabama, blacks and whites don’t mix. As segregationist ex-governor George Wallace ramps up his campaign against the current governor, Albert Brewer, growing tensions in the state — and in the classroom — mean that Lu can’t stay neutral about the racial divide at school. Will she find the gumption to stand up for what’s right and to choose friends who do the same?

MY TWO CENTS: Lila Quintero Weaver’s My Year in the Middle (2018) might be set in 1970 and in an Alabama where racial lines continue to be drawn—and resisted and fought—but there’s much that speaks to a 12-year-old like myself. There’s the hallway chatter; catching those competitive sideways looks in gym; feeling those butterflies in the tummy when completing a math sum or a free write, knowing that your fave teacher will be grading it; avoiding those kids—the ones that push others around with looks and words—and occasionally with shoves; seeing in the cafeteria a sea that divides 6th from 7th and 7th from 8th graders; being the target of darting eyes of jealousy; getting caught sneaking a text—today’s way for us to pass notes.

Lila illustrated each chapter heading with a piece of emblematic spot art. Here’s a preparatory sketch for Chapter 46, used by permission of the author.

Quintero Weaver has a real ear and eye for description: the rotating sound of dialing an old phone as well as hand-drawn art of newspapers from the day. She breathes life into the main character Lu during this ‘70s period and southern region of the US. Quintero Weaver has an equally sharp ear for turns of phrases from this time and place, also adding to the realism of the story: “I don’t say a dadgum word”; “pretend not to give a plug nickel”; “boocoodles of people.”  Quintero Weaver is so good at conveying just how it feels for a middle-schooler like me to have someone come along and crush your hopes and dreams: “There I was, believing I was somebody, but now all kinds of darts are zigzagging back and forth inside my head” (24). And, Quintero Weaver really knows how to write about how someone like me struggles with being different. We see this with the food that Lu’s parents prepare (empanadas, for instance), the way her hair stands like “porcupine quills” (37), and the deep feeling of not wanting to stick out as a Latina in a world filled with hate. At one point in the novel, we learn that Lu’s mamá warns the older sister to be quiet about her progressive political views during a time of terrible racism and racial segregation. There are many times when those of us who are made to feel different—whether in the way we speak or look—are afraid to shout too loud.

A preparatory sketch for the spot art that appears in Chapter 26. Used by permission of the author.

As a middle-schooler in 2018, I can say that Lila Quintero Weaver has her work cut out for her. Why? Like many of my friends, we tend to reach for those high-octane novels like Divergent or fantasy novels like the Red Queen. When I first saw the novel with its stark black and white cover, I didn’t think I’d like it. It seemed like it might be boring. Once I began reading, I couldn’t put it down—and I understood why the cover had to be made up of those two big blocks: white and black, with a little girl caught in the middle. I can say that in the end, Lila Quintero Weaver pulls it off. She weaves together a story that I connected to. I can’t tell you how different I feel growing up in Columbus and attending a school where I am the only brown Mexipina kid. Much like other authors who choose not to go the action-suspense way (some of my faves include The War that Saved My Life and Red Umbrella), Quintero Weaver creates an engaging story that really shows what it feels like to grow up different—and this still applies to today. My Year in the Middle keeps you glued all the way till the end.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORLila Quintero Weaver is the author of My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel published in 2018 by Candlewick Press. She’s also the writer-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & WhiteDarkroom recounts Lila’s experiences as a child immigrant from Argentina to Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. The Spanish edition is now available, under the title Cuarto oscuro: Recuerdos en blanco y negro. Learn more about Lila on her website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads. To see background and educational material related to My Year in the Middle, visit this page.

 

 

IMG_7640ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama is a 7th grader at Jones Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, who likes to write and read fiction, watch movies, and do back handsprings. When it’s nice weather she likes to walk her two Shih-Tzus, bike to the local library, or swim at the local pool.

 

 

 

 

Happy Book Birthday to My Year in the Middle!

Happy book birthday to My Year in the Middle! What you are gazing at is my debut children’s book. It’s a middle-grade novel featuring a 12-year-old Latina character named Lu Olivera— a story of friendship, self-discovery, athletic challenges, and the courage to stand up to racism. 

Here is what Shelf Awareness wrote about My Year in the Middle: “Weaver, who previously published a graphic memoir called Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, writes vividly about the spaces in the middle, between black and white. Any reader who has struggled to find a safe and happy place between polarities will appreciate Weaver’s deep understanding of just how difficult–and rewarding–this can be.” (You can read the whole review here.)

And now, for a quick rundown of the story’s major points, follow this picture essay, complete with sticky notes and chalk dust.  

NOTE: Each chapter starts off with a pencil drawing that I created. I hope young readers enjoy the vintage touches these images bring.

 

And did I mention there’s running? One day in PE class, it hits Lu that she can run like the blue blazes! Field Day is around the corner—and with it comes the chance to race against a fierce and accomplished competitor.

Racial and political drama is everywhere—in the headlines, at the breakfast table, in the classroom. Based on historical events that I remember from my own youth, the gubernatorial primary playing out in the story’s background serves as a textbook case for nasty elections. Somehow Lu gets caught in this tangle.

Is there romance? Oh yes!

Also: MUSIC. Lots of timeless rock & roll and delicious soul music, just the way Lu and her friends dig it!

Okay, this is only a blitz tour! If you’d like to learn more about the novel itself and the story behind the story, please visit my website. There, you will find extensive information, including a downloadable discussion guide developed by education specialists at Candlewick Press, as well as links to early reviews—plus some My Year in the Middle extras for young readers!

Please ask your librarian to acquire My Year in the Middle for your community or school library! It’s also available for sale at many independent bookstores and all major national booksellers. It’s listed here in Candlewick’s catalog. 

One more thing: I wrote a from-the-heart guest post for Nerdy Book Club. Please check it out by clicking HERE—and while you’re there, enter their giveaway (time sensitive). Each of four winners will receive a copy of My Year in the Middle, plus one of the original art pieces I created for the book. Here’s an advance peek of what winners will receive.

 

Book Review: Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

Reviewed by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECOMMENDED READING:

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

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

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

 

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

Listening Latinx: An author’s audiobook experience

OutOfDarknessAudioCoverI have been listening to audiobooks for nearly three decades, so it was something of a dream come true to see Out of Darkness go into production shortly after it received a Printz Honor. Before production began, though, I found myself wondering if my strong opinions about narration, pronunciation, and the like would get in the way—or set me up for disappointment. What if the narrator’s voice didn’t match the texture or tone I’d imagined in writing?

I needn’t have worried. I loved how involved I got to be in the process with Listening Library. Executive producer Aaron Blank proved scrupulous in his attention to detail, from the pronunciation of my last name (yes, that accent mark means something, as I explain here) to the particulars of how to say “Cari” and “Beto,” the names of the twins in the novel. Yes, I might have sent him audio recordings of me pronouncing their names…

A few people have asked me if I wanted to narrate my own book. In general, I find that author-narrated audiobooks are rarely as effective as those narrated by actors. In particular, I have an aversion to the sound of my own voice on recordings, so that option wasn’t even on the table. (Although I would like brownie points for recording this brief introduction to Out of Darkness.)

WashAsJackie

Robinson: my image of Wash

Aaron shared my sense that it was important to cast a Latinx narrator or a narrator with exceptional Spanish and cultural competency. We also agreed that it would be important to find talent capable of handling the wide range of voices, including Henry’s oil field diction and Wash’s African American Vernacular. It’s possible that I sent Aaron YouTube videos to illustrate the flattening of vowels common among East Texans as well as examples of intonation for Southern accents and African American Vernacular that captured the particularity of speech without any whiff of caricature. And (*secret revealed*) since I always pictured Wash as a young Jackie Robinson, I had to send some footage of a film about Robinson, too.

I listened to many wonderful auditions, but Benita Robledo’s beautifully modulated voice stood out immediately. She settled quickly into the world of the novel, managing not only to capture the texture of Naomi’s experience but also the nuances of other point-of-view characters as well.

BenitaRobledo_ItsAWrap

Benita’s voice is as beautiful as she is. Sometimes you can feel that smile in the narration.

It’s a tremendous boon that, as director Tony Hudz noted, Benita gets “all the pronunciations, pitch- and letter-perfect.” But what Benita brings is more than that. Also a Texan, she grew up near Brownsville and (again quoting Tony) “knows this turf” emotionally and psychologically. In my listening, I hear the spark of connection, sincere animation of my words that comes in part from recognizing the silences that they seek to counter. Benita shared this about the experience of bringing Out of Darkness to sound:

In the still hush of the recording studio, with only my voice and my director to guide me, I would lose myself in Ashley Hope Pérez’s words. Sometimes I’d get so involved in the story, I wouldn’t realize a whole morning had passed and it was time for a break. She has an incredible talent for creating beauty even in the ugliest of times. For me, getting to live and breathe Out of Darkness, was nothing short of magic.

The admiration is mutual. Ditto regarding my feelings for Lincoln Hoppe, who masterfully renders the passages in the voice of “The Gang,” which captures the collective voice of the senior class. The Gang is a kind of ugly distillation of the thoughts circulating and is often thick with unexamined racism. Because of the character of these sections, and because it is the only first-person narration in the novel, we felt it should have a different narrator. (Benita does all the other chapters.) Here’s what Tony had to say about Lincoln’s role:

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Lincoln Hoppe

The first thing you have to know about Lincoln Hoppe is that he’s a 6’4″ puppy dog. With glasses. One of the sweetest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. It is thus a tribute and a testament to his professionalism and skill as a reader when I say that he captured full well the ugliness and evil of The Gang. God, he did a good, awful job. And I think the slightly husky/sometimes almost raw texture of his voice will play off beautifully against Benita’s relative sweetness and lightness.

And it does, friends, it does.

Benita and Lincoln’s voices animate the narrative world of my book. Benita captures the beauty and audacity of hope in the face of prejudice, and Lincoln distills the surprising lyricism of some of the darkest threads of human consciousness that I’ve ever tried to write.

A caveat: it’s hard to listen to the prologue of Out of Darkness. This is through no fault of Benita’s. The prologue is difficult to read on the page, too; I wanted it to be that way. As one reviewer noted, the prologue acts as “a litmus test to see if you can emotionally handle this haunting novel.” The prologue figures the tremendous loss of the New London school explosion, which left one in four children dead, and the terrible possibilities it unleashes in the imagined world of my novel. Hearing this part read aloud ups the ante as Benita’s voice evokes the human stakes of tragedy.

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Some of the lights that inspired the opening of the prologue.

It’s a difficult beginning for a difficult book. But it is a kind of difficulty that, I believe, we need to reckon with. It’s the kind of difficulty that helps us face, honestly, all that we are capable of in moments of great loss, the beauty and the horror of our humanity.

Want to listen to Out of Darkness on audio? It releases April 26. Pre-order it from Listening Library or Audible. You can also request it on CD at your local library or get a digital check-out through Overdrive.com.

And, PS, here’s the scoop on Out of Darkness, copy courtesy of the brilliant folks at Carolrhoda Lab:

“This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion the worst school disaster in American history as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

 

Book Review: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

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DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

OUR TWO CENTS: 

Cindy L. Rodriguez: As soon as I finished Ashley’s novel, I wanted to reread it as a writer. I want to pull it apart and study it because it’s that good. One of the things I appreciate most was the slow burn of the narrative. The novel opens with the explosion, and then flashes back to show how the characters’ live intersect before the event. The fuse lit in that opening scene coils through the narrative, gaining in intensity as the story leads back to the explosion and then its aftermath. The tension in Naomi’s home, school, and community is palpable throughout the story and increases slowly as we’re led into the heartbreaking climax.

Ashley masterfully balances the big picture and the smallest details. Her writing made me think of a photographer who could both go wide and capture a panoramic view and then zoom in for a close up and not lose anything in this process. She also beautifully balances the swoony magic of falling deeply in love for the first time and the absolutely brutal realities faced by African-Americans and Mexicans at this time in history. BRAVA!!

Lila Quintero Weaver: Ashley’s command of narrative is impressive! In Out of Darkness, she tells a story set in the American past and makes it feel of the moment. It holds all the markers of a historical novel, starting with the cataclysmic explosion of 1937 that looms with ominous eventuality over the characters we come to care about. Threaded with lively detail, the historical richness comes through in social customs, daily activities, and the speech patterns and cultural attitudes typical of 1930s east Texas. No easy feat. I detect a massive amount of research behind it all.

This devotion to authenticity translates into contemporary meaning through the story’s characters and the complicated problems they face. Naomi’s most serious problem is a predatory stepfather whose capacity for evil keeps her in a constant state of vigilance. There is no escape. She has no money or resources and she feels deep loyalty toward her two tender stepsiblings. Because Naomi is Mexican-American and lives in a part of Texas where Mexicans aren’t numerous, she has no community to fall back on and is looked upon by some white classmates as dirty and worthless. When she falls hard for Wash, a young black man who offers her a chance at true happiness, Naomi steps into the arena of forbidden love—one she must keep hidden from society and the stepfather who follows her every move with lecherous eyes. What a story!

Others agree with us, too! Out of Darkness received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. Here are some quotes and links with more information about and praise for the novel:

“The beauty of Perez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.” —Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Michael L. Printz Award Honoree

Teen Library Toolbox (an SLJ blog): http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/09/book-review-out-of-darkness-by-ashley-hope-perez/

Detailed review from The Midnight Garden (YA for adults): http://www.themidnightgarden.net/2015/08/outofdarkness.html

Q&A on NBChttp://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/out-darkness-latina-author-n419026

Diversity in YA post: http://www.diversityinya.com/2015/08/words-that-wake-us/

Q&A on our site earlier this weekhttps://latinosinkidlit.com/2015/09/09/qa-with-ashley-hope-perez-about-out-of-darkness/

And this post by Forever Young Adult nails the “casting call” for novel if it were made into a movie. Their picks of Christian Serratos as Naomi and Titus Makin Jr. as Wash were spot on! Nicely done, Forever Young Adult!

   

TEACHING TIPS: Although the New London, Texas, school explosion was the worst school disaster in our nation’s history, it’s one many (most) students have probably never learned about but should, as it has interesting implications concerning race and class worth exploring. Out of Darkness asks readers to think beyond the black and white dynamics of U.S. race issues by adding Latin@ children to the segregated schools system and portraying the daily concerns and realities of Mexicans who could or could not “pass” as white. Also, the violent consequences of marginalized romantic relationships isn’t often explored in curricula, but might be/should be considering the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. A book like Out of Darkness could help teen readers appreciate the long history of struggle and violence experienced by people who have wanted to live and love freely.

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE AUTHORAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Out of Darkness, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.