Book Review: Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Hispanics featured in this collection come from many different backgrounds and from many different countries. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!

Poems spotlight Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez Wright, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Tomás Rivera, and Ynés Mexia.

MY TWO CENTS: This beautiful and memorable picture book once again showcases the partnership of creative luminaries Margarita Engle and Rafael López, following their award-winning collaboration on Drum Dream Girl. In Bravo!, Engle’s eighteen poems and López’s accompanying illustrations highlight notable Hispanics with strong connections to the United States. Some subjects are Puerto Ricans, while many are Latinx notables from the U.S. mainland. Quite a few came to its shores as immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A few are world-famous, like Tito Puente, César Chávez, and Roberto Clemente, but most are not. In fact, some individuals whose thrilling achievements should have earned them a prominent place in history have yet to receive their due, such as Cuban American Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot. (I eagerly anticipate the March 2018 release entitled The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book by Margarita Engle illustrated by Sara Palacios, which should go a long way toward filling that gap.)

The profiles are arranged chronologically, and each featured individual receives a double-page treatment consisting of a brief poem and a portrait illustration. The first spot belongs to Juan de Miralles (1713-1780), a Cuban supporter of the American Revolution, whose intervention helped save George Washington’s troops from scurvy. The final selection is Tomás Rivera (1935-1984), an influential teacher, poet, and University of California chancellor, who was also one of Margarita Engle’s creative-writing professors.

As with her novels in verse, Engle presents the stories of the characters through first-person-voiced poems that draw attention not only to that individual’s contributions to society, but also to the passions that drove them to action.

As mentioned earlier, most of these historical figures are not widely recognized. For example, how many readers in the U.S. are familiar with poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who advocated for her native Puerto Rico’s independence? In “My River of Dreams,” we learn of her poverty-stricken childhood and the natural world that she loved, as well as the heart of her advocacy:

I struggled to become a teacher

and a poet, so I could use words

to fight for equal rights for women,

and work toward meeting

the needs of poor children,

and speak of independence

for Puerto Rico.

Another selection, “Wild Exploration,” profiles Ynés Mexia (1870-1938), highlighting Mexía’s botanical studies in Mexico and South America, but also bringing out her bicultural origins, the anguish she suffered as the child of warring parents, and the fact that she discovered her true calling later in life than most:

But when I’m all grown up and really quite old,

I finally figure out how to feel useful,

Enjoying the adventure of a two-country life.

As with all eighteen of the profiled subjects, we can learn more about Ynés Mexía in the supplement “Notes About the Lives,” which explains that her career as a botanist began at age fifty-five and led to the discovery of five hundred new species.

In his bold, graphic portraits, Rafael López signals each person’s setting and historical period through carefully selected details in their apparel, the background scenery, and through visual symbolism that enriches the poetic text. One noteworthy example is in the profile of Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest whose ministry in New York focused on newly arrived Irish immigrants. In his portrait, Varela wears a clerical collar and holds an olive branch in his right hand, signifying the pacifism that set him at odds with his countrymen in Cuba. On the opposite page, a smaller and simply rendered three-leaf clover pays homage to Varela’s Irish parishioners.

Readers familiar with Margarita Engle, whose poetry often elevates the work of unsung Latinas, will not be surprised that the collection includes seven noteworthy women. In addition, a generous proportion of those featured are of African or indigenous ancestry, and this diversity is satisfyingly represented in López’s stunning portrait work. By showcasing extraordinary, yet under-represented achievers, Bravo! enhances their visibility and sends an affirming message to girls and children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. With that said, this collection would have felt more complete if it offered a wider representation of ancestral lands. Among the eighteen profiles, there are no Dominicans, and only one of each from Central America and South America. (Editors, please take note that Latinx people represent a broad sweep of nations and cultures.) Perhaps in recognition of the impossible task of selecting just eighteen subjects, a supplement at the back of the book entitled “More and More Amazing Latinos” provides a list of over twenty more Latinx achievers. These include Tony Meléndez, a Nicaraguan American guitarist; Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian American planetary geologist for NASA; and Jaime Escalante, a teacher of mathematics from Bolivia.

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics is jewel of a picture book. It offers children an introductory glimpse of important historical figures they may never otherwise hear about. And let’s face it: adults will learn a great deal from these pages, too. As members of the Latinx community, these history-makers represent a rich variety of educational and economic backgrounds, an impressive array of careers and causes, as well as a diverse range of racial and ethnic legacies. Taken together, the tributes in this beautiful book point to the depth, complexity, and durability of Hispanic contribution to culture, innovation, civic advances, and many other components of life in the United States.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. For more information, visit Margarita’s website.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City, is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. A children’s book illustrator, he won the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2012, he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival poster. He has been awarded the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, three Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards. The illustrations created by López bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Learn more on his website.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Book Review: The Go-Between by Veronica Chambers

 

Review by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: She is the envy of every teenage girl in Mexico City. Her mother is a glamorous telenovela actress. Her father is the go-to voiceover talent for blockbuster films. Hers is a world of private planes, chauffeurs, paparazzi and gossip columnists. Meet Camilla del Valle, or Cammi to those who know her best.

When Cammi’s mom gets cast in an American television show and the family moves to LA, things change, and quickly. Her mom’s first role is playing a not-so-glamorous maid in a sitcom. Her dad tries to find work, but dreams about returning to Mexico. And at the posh, private Polestar Academy, Cammi’s new friends assume she is a scholarship kid, the daughter of a domestic.

At first Cammi thinks that playing along with the stereotypes will teach her new friends a lesson. But the more she lies, the more she wonders: Is she only fooling herself?

MY TWO CENTS: Like many immigrants, Cammi came to her new home in Los Angeles by plane. But unlike most immigrants, her mother’s job security as a telenovela star and her family’s wealth made her transition much smoother. Cammi does share in the immigrant story and her experiences begin to overlap with those of many other Mexican immigrants. Unfortunately, it is the stereotyping and xenophobia that she encounters the most. She is judged by her wealthy classmates at her new private school, immediately labeled as a scholarship kid who is low-income with parents in low-paying and stereotypical jobs and in need of handouts.

For Cammi, this is a great departure from what she usually has to deal with. No one is vying to know her to get closer to her famous mother. Instead, her mother is not the center of attention and she leaves her paparazzi world behind. However, in search of an escape, Cammi begins to promote the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about Mexicans. So in looking out for herself, Cammi forgets about her community and her roots.

It takes long for Cammi to learn her lesson. If it wasn’t for other Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans who have to fight regularly to defeat the stereotypes and get others to see beyond them, she may not have known how her actions perpetuated racism. Albeit slowly, Cammi learns to understand her role not only as a Mexican, but as an immigrant and compatriota to her community.

TEACHING TIPS: Cammi brings into perspective that not all immigrants come into this country in the same manner or with the same opportunities. Some immigrants come with established work or educational opportunities, while others may have left those exact opportunities behind to immigrate to the United States. While Cammi is perhaps not the best role model for the majority of the book, she does allow us to question a diversity of immigrants and their experiences. In a time when our political discord says that immigrants from Mexico are the worst of the pack, what is Cammi bringing to light? Cammi’s story is merely one of many.

RECOMMENDED READING:

 

TransientABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Chambers is a prolific author, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Mama’s Girl which has been a course adopted by hundreds of high schools and colleges throughout the country. The New Yorker called Mama’s Girl, “a troubling testament to grit and mother love… one of the finest and most evenhanded in the genre in recent years.” Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, her work often reflects her Afro-Latina heritage.

She coauthored the award-winning memoir Yes Chef with chef Marcus Samuelsson as well as Samuelsson’s young adult memoir Make It Messy, and has collaborated on four New York Times bestsellers, most recently 32 Yolks, which she cowrote with chef Eric Ripert. She has been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Glamour. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latina heritage. She speaks, reads, and writes Spanish, but she is truly fluent in Spanglish. She is currently a JSK Knight fellow at Stanford University.

 

 

 

ABOUT 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. 

Book Review: Evangelina Takes Flight

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: It’s the summer of 1911 in northern Mexico, and thirteen-year-old Evangelina and her family have learned that the rumors of soldiers in the region are true. Her father decides they must leave their home to avoid the violence of the revolution. The trip north to a small town on the U.S. side of the border is filled with fear and anxiety for the family as they worry about loved ones left behind and the uncertain future ahead.

Life in Texas is confusing, though the signs in shop windows that say “No Mexicans” and some people’s reactions to them are all-too clear. At school, she encounters the same puzzling resentment. The teacher wants to give the Mexican children lessons on basic hygiene! And one girl in particular delights in taunting the foreign-born students. Why can’t people understand that—even though she’s only starting to learn English—she’s just like them?

With the help and encouragement of the town’s doctor and the attentions of a handsome boy, Evangelina begins to imagine a new future for herself. But will the locals who resent her and the other new immigrants allow her to reach for and follow her dreams?

MY TWO CENTS: Diana J. Noble’s Evangelina Takes Flight is timely to a startling degree. As a work of historical fiction, Noble’s portrayal of upheaval in Mexico caused by the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa’s raids on farming villages remains relevant to this day. In confronting the racism and xenophobia rampant at the border, where shops display signs declaring “’No Dogs! No Negroes! No Mexicans! No Perros! No Negros! No Mexicanos!’,” Evangelina’s story parallels contemporary struggles for racial equality (92). As racial tensions build both in the text and in real life, Evangelina’s stand to keep her school desegregated feels remarkably current, and in its demonstration of child activism, Evangelina Takes Flight holds up a powerful example.

Though Noble doesn’t spend much time explaining the political situation of Mexico during the early twentieth century, the book doesn’t suffer from this lack of context. Indeed, told from the first-person point of view of Evangelina, the text should not offer details outside of her awareness. The book begins mere days after Porfirio Díaz was ousted as president of Mexico, an event that certainly would not have reached the secluded rancho where Evangelina lives, let alone Evangelina herself. Yet, as we journey along with the tenacious and imaginative Evangelina from her fictional Mexican town of Mariposa to the United States to escape the violence wrought by Villa, Noble invites the reader to watch Evangelina grow and mature. She might not be able to foment resistance in her native Mexico, but she certainly can in the United States, and eventually does when called upon to stand up for her right to an education.

Though Evangelina is still a child, at least by modern conceptions of childhood (she turns fourteen during the course of the book), she is entrusted with great responsibility, much of it in the field of medicine—leading her to dream of one day becoming a nurse or even a doctor. While this dream defies the limitations put upon her by her race and her gender, Evangelina does cling to some, perhaps stereotypical, tenets of Mexican femininity. She’s excited for her upcoming quinceañera, and she longs for the attention of boys—one boy, in particular: Selim. Evangelina’s blossoming relationship with Selim is doubly interesting because he is Lebanese—a fact that would likely cause some waves among her traditional Mexican family. Though Noble keeps their relationship chaste, the potential of an interracial relationship adds intrigue, and I wish there was more to it. Understandably, however, Evangelina and Selim’s feelings for each other are overshadowed by an upcoming town hall meeting, which will decide if foreign-born students will be allowed to attend school with their white peers.

Though Evangelina Takes Flight confronts historical (and contemporary) racism with aplomb, it still contains some troubling tropes about marginalized peoples, namely the White Savior figure. Evangelina has multiple encounters with the local doctor, Russell Taylor, whose compassion transcends race. Unlike his neighbors, Dr. Taylor is more than willing to help the Mexicans and goes out of his way to treat Evangelina’s Aunt Cristina when she gives birth to twin sons, one of whom is stillborn. Because of his position as the town doctor, Dr. Taylor holds sway with those who seek to segregate the school. He attempts to act as a mediator between the Mexican families and white townspeople, who are led by the mean-spirited Frank Silver. But Dr. Taylor’s intercession strays into White Savior territory when he is the one who discovers a secret that discredits Silver. After revealing Silver’s secret, Dr. Taylor parades Evangelina in front of the crowd at the town hall meeting, ostensibly to demonstrate her intelligence and humanity; but in a moment such as this, she actually becomes less of a humanized figure and more of a token. Additionally, it is not her own words that sway the townspeople to keep the school unified, but her ability to quote from the Bible, in English, that persuades them. While it is possible to read Evangelina as a key activist figure in spite of Dr. Taylor’s intervention, his role in this scene is a little disappointing, coming as it does in a text that otherwise offers so much in regards to racial equality.

Regardless, this book resonated with me on multiple levels. Evangelina’s struggle for independence, respect, and acquiring her own voice is something that many young Latinas, myself included, face today. Noble’s poetic yet accessible prose allows the reader to slip into Evangelina’s world and understand that problems can be overcome with perseverance and bravery. Though the book is at times slow moving and the plot is occasionally sparse, I would argue that such components allow the industrious reader to dive deep and think critically about Evangelina’s circumstances. However, these characteristics may also make this book difficult for reluctant readers. As a result, though this book is marketed as a middle grade novel, it may be more appropriate for experienced or older readers. Even if some parts were troublesome, I still found Evangelina an intriguing and captivating read,. Ultimately, for those looking for a book that faces contemporary issues through the lens of historical fiction, Evangelina Takes Flight certainly fits the bill.

TEACHING TIPS: Evangelina Takes Flight would pair well with other books about school de/segregation or child activists, such as Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation   or Innosanto Nagara’s A is for Activist. In addition, because of its historical setting, Evangelina would also be useful in teaching about the Mexican Revolution, the history of Texas, or historical race relations in the United States.

Evangelina Takes Flight offers lessons on metaphor and imagery, especially in its use of the butterfly as a symbol of resilience. When Evangelina’s grandfather tells her the story of the migratory butterflies for which her hometown of Mariposa is named, she starts to see the butterfly as an image of strength. Students could be guided to find passages where butterflies are mentioned to see how Noble constructs this extended metaphor. Students may also be encouraged to deconstruct the representations of butterflies on the cover of the book in a discussion about visual rhetoric.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Diana J. Noble was born in Laredo, Texas, and grew up immersed in both Mexican and American cultures. Her young adult novel, Evangelina Takes Flight, is based loosely on her paternal grandmother’s life, but has stories of other relatives and memories from her own childhood woven into every page. It’s received high praise from Kirkus Reviews, Forward Reviews (5 stars), Booklist Online and was recently named a Junior Library Guild selection. [Condensed bio is from the author’s website.]

 

 

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.

 

Book Review: The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt

 

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

The Radius of Us CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Ninety seconds can change a life ― not just daily routine, but who you are as a person. Gretchen Asher knows this, because that’s how long a stranger held her body to the ground. When a car sped toward them and Gretchen’s attacker told her to run, she recognized a surprising terror in his eyes. And now she doesn’t even recognize herself.

Ninety seconds can change a life ― not just the place you live, but the person others think you are. Phoenix Flores Flores knows this, because months after setting off toward the U.S. / Mexico border in search of safety for his brother, he finally walked out of detention. But Phoenix didn’t just trade a perilous barrio in El Salvador for a leafy suburb in Atlanta. He became that person ― the one his new neighbors crossed the street to avoid.

Ninety seconds can change a life ― so how will the ninety seconds of Gretchen and Phoenix’s first encounter change theirs?

Told in alternating first person points of view, The Radius of Us is a story of love, sacrifice, and the journey from victim to survivor. It offers an intimate glimpse into the causes and devastating impact of Latino gang violence, both in the U.S. and in Central America, and explores the risks that victims take when they try to start over. Most importantly, Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us shows how people struggling to overcome trauma can find healing in love.

MY TWO CENTS: To write about unaccompanied minors fleeing to the United States from El Salvador, is to talk about violence, family separation, corruption and trauma.  The Radius of Us, written by Marie Marquardt, explores the trauma of assault, gang harassment, abandonment and diaspora in the lives of Phoenix, Ari and Gretchen. Phoenix and his young brother, Ari, flee El Salvador due to gang violence. On their journey to the States, they are kidnapped in Mexico and forced into slavery. When they finally arrived to the U.S., they are arrested and separated. Although the novel begins with Gretchen’s and Phoenix’s first person narratives, we quickly learn how their lives intersect. They both live in the same Atlanta suburb and, although they don’t know it immediately, they’ve experienced traumatic events in their lives that connect them. Indeed, they face their fear of crowds, heights, and learn that trauma cannot completely leave them, and that they cannot be who they once were, yet there is the promise of recovery.

The reader can guess that Phoenix and Gretchen will eventually end up together, but the story is not about their romance. The story centers on the impact of trauma and how each of these characters is able to help the other face their fears. The author slowly takes us through the lives of the main characters and each of the people that play a small or big part in their recovery. Phoenix lives with Sally and Amanda, a couple who takes care of Phoenix while his asylum status is determined.  Phoenix volunteers as a gardener in the “place without a soul”—as Gretchen and her friend Bree call it—a community garden for the residents of the subdivision. We learn quickly that Gretchen suffers from panic attacks. She is homeschooled as a result of this, and is finishing her high school senior year studying from home.  As Phoenix and Gretchen get closer, they both learn—as does the reader—about each other’s pasts: Phoenix’s attempt for a better life in the U.S. for himself and his little brother, his fear of heights and his current immigration status; Gretchen’s assault, which causes her to have panic attacks, and her now estranged college boyfriend. The author explores the issue of trauma slowly and carefully. We see how the characters, at different points, deal with the past by being each other’s support system. Sometimes they listen, they let the other vent, or they hold each other as they re-live or are triggered by a situation that takes them right to the place of trauma. We even see how trauma is expressed differently in different characters; for example, Ari is unable (or unwilling, the jury still out!) to speak, but can draw pictures to deal with his past. We see these drawings in the book, too. The drawings, and Phoenix interpretation of them, allow the reader to see the value of different types of expression, especially as it relates to trauma therapy.

Marquardt does not shy away from issues of xenophobia, and the misunderstanding that exists when someone is in limbo about their immigration status. However, she also shows us the kindness of people willing to lend a hand, and support and advocate for those who have been wrongly persecuted. We see this in the characters of Amanda and Sally, Sister Mary Margaret, and the couple that owns a tattoo shop. Similarly, we see how Phoenix is the person that helps Gretchen heal, while at the same time sacrifices his education and life for his brother Ari.

TEACHING TIPS: In my opinion, it is impossible to teach this novel without providing the reader with the historical context of unaccompanied minors. Whether this is novel used in high school or college classrooms, it is important to understand the devastating effects of poverty and gang violence in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and the difficult decision parents (if they are still alive) must make to send their children to a safer place. Another important topic to explore is the Bestia, the train that transport thousands of Central Americans to the U.S. and about the Mexican women known as Las Patronas who feed the migrants traveling on it.

Another unique element in this novel is the intersection of drawings and tattoos to tell a story. We see Ari’s drawings as memories of his past, the traumatic events that he remembers and his nostalgia for his home country. Although we do not see the tattoos, we know they are used as markers. Gangs use them to identify each other and to mark members as cattle. This, at times, helps Phoenix and Ari survive, but it also brings shame. In the end, the reader can see how these artistic expressions prove to be transformative.

Headshot-OfficialMarie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. She is currently working on a digital oral history collection about Latin@s in Ohio, which has been published as an eBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

On Fearlessness, and Writing to Change the World: A Guest Post by Author Marie Marquardt

 

By Marie Marquardt

“I am fearless, except when I’m not.”

This is how I describe myself, each time that I gather in a classroom of ESOL students to run writing workshops. It’s part of an exercise developed by Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy, in their fabulous resource Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Each person makes a statement about who they understand themselves to be, or maybe just about how they feel at that particular moment. The statements build together to create poetry – simple, beautiful, honest poetry.

This exercise was first introduced to me by Meg Medina, who has inspired me immensely with her practice of “literary citizenship.” One way that I strive to live into the identity of a literary citizen is by gathering with nascent speakers of English – teenagers full of ideas and energy, with incredible and often heart-wrenching stories to tell, yet struggling to put them into words that are not their first language – and, in some cases, not their second or third, either. I try to be fearless as I read to them from my own stories, but sometimes I’m not.

I worry about how they will evaluate me – the middle-aged white lady whose recent book features characters like many of them – kids who have run away from some of the most dangerous communities in the world, looking for a safe place to live and maybe – just maybe – to one day call “home”.

Group shots and selfies from a recent workshop with ESOL students in a Gwinnett County, Georgia High School.

My very best days as an author are these days, when eager students come rushing up to me after our workshop, asking for selfies; when they tell me about their favorite character; when they marvel at how I learned to cuss like a Salvadoran, or how much I know about making pupusas. I want so much for my books to resonate with them — Their stories inspire me to write young adult novels in the first place.

Because of how profoundly these young adults’ experiences have shaped me, every one of my books has at least one point-of-view character who is an immigrant from Mexico or Central America. For twenty years, as an academic researcher, advocate, and service provider in Latinx immigrant communities in the South, I’ve listened to teen immigrants’ stories, and I’ve seen them unfold. I consider it an honor to create characters inspired by the teens I have had the great privilege to know. They have trusted me with their stories and I feel a great responsibility to convey their truth onto each page.

This is not a process that I take lightly, so I don’t do it alone. I rely on consultants who identify with the cultural traditions and national-origin groups I am representing. They teach me about the nuances of the culture and language, and they help me get a deeper understanding so I can build more robust and honest characters on the page (in other words, they teach me such important skills as cussing like a Salvadoran!).  I also rely on sensitivity readers, and I take their feedback very seriously.

Equally important, I consider it my responsibility to support the work of #ownvoices authors by  mentoring young authors from marginalized communities. I have worked for two years as a volunteer with We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Dean Myers Grant committee, and this year, I’ve pledged to work with ESOL students, facilitating workshops that help them build their own authorial voices and tell their own powerful stories.

I recently read a short interview with Jacqueline Woodson, when she was honored with the Lambda Literary Visionary Award. She said something that I think is damn near perfect: “Write specifically and furiously. Write to change the world.”

I aim to write specifically.

The Radius of Us CoverI can only tell the stories that I know. In the case of The Radius of Us, I felt compelled to write the story of a young asylum seeker from El Salvador because of the relationships I have built with real young adults in similar situations. It has been one of my greatest honors to help run a non-profit called El Refugio, which works with detained immigrants and their families. As part of that work, I have experienced the heartbreak of building friendships with dozens of young asylum seekers from the northern triangle of Central America. I have spent countless hours visiting with these young men in detention, sitting across the glass from them, telephones pressed to our ears. Unlike my story’s protagonist, most of these young men never have the chance to leave detention, until they are deported.

I aim to write furiously.

I am desperate for more people to know and understand the stories of these young men, and I also am, indeed, furious. I have followed some of them back to El Salvador, to see how they are faring after deportation. I have seen the dire circumstances into which our courts return them. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that, in the immigration court that determines the fate of these young men, only 5% are granted asylum. I can’t bear the thought that, like our friend Moises, some of these young people are being sent back to die.

I write to change the world.

On good days (fearless days), I remind myself that writing these stories is an act of compassion. When I allow myself to dive into the experience of Phoenix – an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, or Gretchen – a white suburban girl who was the victim of assault – I practice compassion. I hope that by telling these stories, I can model compassionate action, and I also fervently hope that, once they are out in the world, my stories will open safe, compassionate spaces. I hope that they create opportunities for teen readers to speak honestly with one another, to recognize those insidious systems (like racism and xenophobia) that aim to keep us apart, and also to affirm the beautiful, fragile humanity that we share in common.

I believe that, with more compassion, our world would be a radically different place. Compassion compels us to walk alongside people in crisis, and not to turn away. Compassion drives us to seek mutual understanding, to find those human qualities and dispositions that we share in common, while also not dismissing the profound differences that shape our experiences. Compassion changes the world.

This is what drives me to be fearless (except when I’m not).

Marie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

Book Review: Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre Written by Rene Colato Laínez, Illustrated by Laura Lacámara

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez

Main_mama_the_alien_fc_hi_res_finalDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Sofía has discovered a BIG secret. Mamá is an alien–una extraterrestre! At least, that’s what it says on the card that fell out of her purse. But Papá doesn’t have an alien card. Does that mean that Sofía is half alien?

Sofía heads to the library to do some research. She finds out that aliens can be small, or tall. Some have four fingers on each hand, and some have big round eyes. Their skin can be gray or blue or green. But she and Mamá look like human people. Could Mamá really be an alien from another planet?

Filled with imagination and humor, Mamá the Alien/ Mamá la extraterrestre is a sweet and timely immigration story, and a tender celebration of family, no matter which country (or planet) you are from.

MY TWO CENTS: In this bilingual book, Sofía is bouncing a ball when she knocks her mother’s purse to the floor. In the purse, Sofia discovers a card with the word “ALIEN” at the top. Sofía begins to think that her mother is, indeed, an alien. She even thinks she must be half alien, “I started to put the puzzle together. Mamá was an alien. Papá didn’t have a card, so he was not an alien. That mean I was half alien.”

Sofia researches aliens and wonders how her mother has hidden the fact that she is an alien from her. As Mamá gets ready for her citizenship ceremony, Sofía sees a shadow of her mom with rollers in her hair and tells her parents her suspicion about Mamá being an alien. Sofía learns that the word alien can have different meanings.

Her mother explains, “Sofía, I’m not from outer space. What you saw was my old Resident Alien card. That card allowed me to live and work here in the United States.” The story comes to an end when Sofía’s mom becomes a citizen. This book provides a glimpse into one way a girl makes sense of a complicated immigration process. Few books allow the reader to understand the complexity of the immigration system in the United States through the eyes of a child. This book is an entrance into discussion of the complex process that families must go through to become American citizens.

The illustrations are large and beautiful. In particular, the illustrator, Laura Lacámara, provides vivid pictures of the imagined aliens with humans. It is through the illustrations that we learn that Sofía’s mother is from El Salvador. A picture shows Mamá standing on an outline of El Salvador on a map. The illustrations provided in the thought bubbles add to the story and help the reader understand what Sofía is thinking about.

The author’s note at the end of the book details his own story of coming to the United States and receiving his Resident Alien Card. The author ends the note with the following, “I want readers to know that immigrants may be referred to as aliens, but this only means that they come from other countries. We are all citizens on planet Earth.”

TEACHING TIPS: Author René Colato Laínez wrote a blog post for Lee and Low books titled “No More Illegal Aliens.” In this post, Laínez discusses the use of the term “illegal aliens” and why he advocates for the use of the term “undocumented immigrants. This blog entry could be used as a paired text with the book Mamá the Alien/ Mamá La Exraterrestre.

Also, Lee and Low has developed an extensive teacher’s guide for Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre. This guide includes vocabulary, discussion questions, specific activities for English Language Learners, and interdisciplinary activities.

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: René Colato Laínez is an award-winning Salvadoran author of many multicultural books. He is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. Rene is a bilingual elementary teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School, where he is known by the students as “the teacher full of stories.”

 

 

Here are other posts we’ve done about the author:

A Conversation with René Colato Laínez

Book Review: The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez


Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Laura Lacámara is a Cuban-born children’s books author and illustrator. Lacámara holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drawing and Painting from California State University, Long Beach and studied printmaking at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. Her love for writing and illustrating children’s books grew when she signed up for a children’s book illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of Floating on Mama’s Song/Flotando en la Canción de Mamá (Junior Library Guild Selection, Fall 2010 & Tejas Star Book Award finalist 2011-12) and illustrator of The Runaway Piggy/El Cochinito Fugitivo (winner of 2012 Tejas Star Book Award) and Alicia’s Fruity Drinks/Las Aguas Frescas de Alicia.

Here are other posts we’ve done about the illustrator:

Book Review: Dalia’s Wondrous Hair/El Cabello Maravilloso de Dalia

Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 2: Juana Martinez-Neal, Maya Christina González & Laura Lacámara

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.