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.

Book Review: Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez, PhD

28957208DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: An eloquent and moving account of the tragic migrations of thousands upon thousands of children who are leaving their homes in Central America, often alone, to seek refuge in the United States. Why are they going and how does it feel to be one of them? What is this terrible trip like? What do their hopes and dreams for safety, a new life and a loving reception mean to them?

A refugee from El Salvador’s war in the eighties, Jorge Argueta was born to explain the distressing choice confronting young Central Americans today who are saying goodbye to everything they know because they fear for their lives.

This book is beautifully illustrated by master artist Alfonso Ruano.

MY TWO CENTS: Somos Como Las Nubes/ We are Like the Clouds is a moving collection of bilingual free verse poems. This is one of the few books that I have encountered about the heartbreaking experiences of children who leave their homes to embark on their journey to the United States. This collection of poetry begins with poetry depicting the experiences and sights of the children’s home countries. The poetry then shifts to the journey that children take to get to the United States. The author includes poems that describe the fears of traveling on La Bestia (a fast moving moving train that many migrants use to travel), discuss being accompanied by “coyotes,” and describe children’s feelings as they cross the deserts.  I’ll share one of the most powerful poems about the journey titled “Las Chinamas”. The word Chinamas refers to the border between El Salvador and Guatemala.

When we crossed

the border at Las Chinamas

I saw the river Paz.

Its water runs smiling

between the rocks.

Here the cenzontles (mockingbirds)

never stop singing.

 

I remembered

our schoolyard,

the gualcalchillas, (small songbirds)

and my teacher

Miss Celia.

 

I remembered my mother,

my brothers,

my sisters.

Who knows

when I will see them again.

I look at the sky

and think,

we are like the clouds.

 

What I loved about this book is that there is message of hope in knowing that children are resilient, but the author does not hold back in depicting the heartbreak that goes along with leaving a home country. The book allows the reader to the experience the treacherous journey to the United States through the eyes and wonder of a child. The pictures in this book are also stunningly beautiful. The pictures depict the children’s home countries, families crossing borders, and children laying on the soft sand in the desert. The final poems in the book offer hope. In the poem “Fear,” a mother tells her child in his dream, “This is not a dream, you are in my arms.” The child has arrived to his destination in Los Angeles.

I shed tears when I read this book. It is heartbreaking and it is a poignant reminder that children are children and that there are difficult decisions that children should not have to make. In my opinion, what makes this book even more powerful is that it is written by Jorge Argueta. The author’s note at the beginning of the book shares Jorge’s own experience of fleeing El Salvador and coming to the United States. He shares his inspiration for writing the book by stating, “Like the clouds, our children come and go. Nothing and no one can stop them”.

TEACHING TIPS: This book is an invitation to learn about the harsh realities that children face when they leave their homes and embark on the difficult journey to the United States. It would be a great addition to any classroom library. It would be an excellent book to add to text sets about immigration or refugees. Teachers can also use this book to teach children about writing through difficult situations. It can also be used to show students how illustrations can enhance poetry as this book is beautifully illustrated.

To find Somos Como Los Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Image result for jorge arguetaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jorge Tetl Argueta is a celebrated Salvadoran poet and writer whose bi-lingual children’s books have received numerous awards. His poetry has appeared in anthologies and textbooks. He won the America’s Book Award, among other awards for his first collection of poems for children, A Movie in My Pillow. He was the Gold Medal Award winner in the 2005 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) for Moony Luna/Luna, Lunita Lunera. His other works for children include Xochitl and the Flowers, 2003 America’s Award Commended Title, Trees are Hanging from the SkyZipitioTalking with Mother EarthThe Little Hen in the City and The Fiesta of the Tortillas.

 

Alfonso RuanoABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Alfonso Ruano was born in 1949 in Toledo, Spain. He studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid. He has published about 20 books for children and has received multiple awards for his work.

 

 

 

 

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.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Award Winners: Spotlight on Julia Alvarez

 

PuraBelpreAwardThe Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Julia Alvarez, the winner of the 2004 Pura Belpré Narrative Award for Before We Were Free and the 2010 Narrative Award for Return to Sender.

Reviews by Cindy L. Rodriguez

BEFORE WE WERE FREE

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her 12th birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have emigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared without a trace, and the government’s secret police terrorize her remaining family because of their suspected opposition of el Trujillo’s dictatorship.

Using the strength and courage of her family, Anita must overcome her fears and fly to freedom, leaving all that she once knew behind.

From renowned author Julia Alvarez comes an unforgettable story about adolescence, perseverance, and one girl’s struggle to be free.

MY TWO CENTS: Anyone who has read Julia Alvarez’s adult novels will enjoy the connections made in Before We Were Free to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. In Before We Were Free, Alvarez explores the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic through the eyes of Anita de la Torre, a 12-year-old girl in 1960 whose family slowly reduces in number during the novel. Some, like her cousins, the Garcias, flee the country, while others go missing or are arrested. In the beginning, Anita has little knowledge of politics and the underground movement to assassinate Trujillo. In fact, at the start of the novel, Anita looks to El Jefe’s picture at times when she needs strength. She slowly becomes more aware that life under Trujillo has become increasingly dangerous for many, including her own family members who are a part of the movement to kill the dictator.

One moment of shocking clarity comes when Trujillo attends a party and becomes attracted to her fifteen-year-old sister. The family goes into emergency mode and manages to get her sister out of the country before Trujillo can take her in every sense of the word. Anita’s increased understanding leaves her confused and literally shocked into silence. The once-talkative girl slips into silence, at times even forgetting words that were once simple and familiar. When Anita and her mother go into hiding after Trujillo’s assassination, she writes in her diary, but then erases the pages in case the secret police raid the home. She literally cannot say or write anything because of fear. At some point, Anita decides to write and not erase–or be erased. She wants someone to know she existed if she were ever taken away by the police.

Throughout the novel, Alvarez often refers to wings, birds, and flying in connection with the Mirabal sisters, the “Butterflies” who were murdered, and the fight for freedom that continued through Anita’s family and others. Anita not only takes flight from her home, but has to learn how to free herself internally, to spread her wings and fly despite her grief of losing family and everything she considered home.

A masterful storyteller, Alvarez makes a complex political situation accessible to younger readers through Anita, who faces political drama alongside normal 12-year-old milestones, like getting her period and having a first crush. Alvarez also sprinkles the narrative with other issues that she does not delve into deeper, but could be discussion starters for book clubs and students. For example, Anita’s family employs a black, superstitious Haitian maid. While she is loved like family, this dynamic should spark conversation about race and class issues within Latin American countries. Another example is when Anita begins school in New York City. She is placed in the second grade, despite her age, and her teacher calls her “Annie Torres.” This scene is like a one-two punch to the gut and should be examined further. Mental health is another issue touched upon that warrants further discussion. Anita talks about feeling empty and numb, and her mother takes tranquilizers to calm her nerves. The reader gets the idea that living under such conditions and surviving when family members did not will require years of emotional and psychological recovery.

TEACHING TIPS: Before We Were Free is a great option to include in a historical fiction unit in Language Arts or as a fictional option in a Social Studies class learning about different types of governments, Latin America, or under a theme such as “the fight for freedom.” Students often learn about the colonists’ fight against the British, but rarely learn about more recent struggles for democracy in other countries. The relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic could be explored, as well as the ideas mentioned above. Anita’s character development should be traced and analyzed, paying close attention to what triggers each of her changes and what finally prompts her to have the courage to embrace her new life.

RESOURCES:

Review from Vamos a Leer

Educator Guide from Vamos a Leer

Reader’s Guide from Penguin Random House

 

RETURN TO SENDER:

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm from foreclosure. Tyler isn’t sure what to make of these workers. Are they undocumented? And what about the three daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected to her American life. Her family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico. Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?

In a novel full of hope, but with no easy answers, Julia Alvarez weaves a beautiful and timely story that will stay with readers long after they finish it.

MY TWO CENTS: Although Before We Were Free and Return to Sender are set in different countries, they have similarities. In Return to Sender, Mari and her family are migrant workers on a Vermont dairy farm. She encounters a mix of acceptance and scorn from her classmates, the townspeople, and even Tyler, at first. The chapters are shared between Mari (first person, often written in letters) and Tyler (third person), who reveals that he is confused about being a proud, patriotic American and knowing that his father is breaking the law by hiring undocumented workers. In addition to dealing with the varied reactions of the locals, Mari’s family worries about the whereabouts of her mother, who returned to Mexico but is supposed to be on her way back via a coyote. She has been unreachable, however, for several months. The family is also under constant threat of deportation. Complicating matters, Mari was born in Mexico, while her two younger sisters were born in the United States, which splits their feelings about where is home and how they would feel if they needed to return to Mexico.

Like Anita in Before We Were Free, Mari ends up in hiding and writing in a diary, after a raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ends with her parents being arrested. Also like Anita, Mari needs to find her voice and, in her case, she has to find the courage to speak on behalf of her family to government officials. Read together, students could explore the different reasons for immigration, as the families in the two novels come to the United States for different reasons–political asylum versus employment–yet the underlying reason is always the same–more opportunities for their children.

Things that struck me as odd were Mari’s heavy accent (I listened to the audio book), her lack of understanding of English “sayings,” and her fond memories of Mexico, considering she moved to the U.S. when she was 4 and has attended American schools. Based on my experience with ELL students, these details would have made more sense if Mari had been in the U.S. for only a few years, not the majority of her life.

Still, Return to Sender does a great job of offering various viewpoints on immigration and migrant workers on struggling American farms, and I like that Alvarez places her migrant workers in Vermont, where the author lives, as we most often read and hear about migrant workers in border states.

TEACHING TIPS: As mentioned above, students could read both novels and compare/contrast the characters and their experiences, as both face personal, familial, and political challenges. Return to Sender also allows students to learn more about immigration and migrant workers, particularly in New England. The title was taken from a real government operation to find and deport migrant workers, so students can research that particular policy while reading this fictional account. Both books also lend themselves to deep questions about freedom, rights, and who has access to these.

RESOURCES:

Educators guide from Random House

TeachingBooks.net has interviews and several links with more information about Alvarez and her work.

 

Jilia Avaraz receiving a medal from Barack ObamaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Alvarez is an award-winning writer of poetry, essays, and novels and short stories for children and adults. Alvarez was born in New York City, but her family returned to the Dominican Republic when she was three months old. Her family became involved with the underground movement against dictator Rafael Trujillo. They left the country and returned to New York City in 1960. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and earned her master’s in creative writing from Syracuse University. She is currently the writer in residence at Middle College and runs a sustainable coffee farm/literacy center in the Dominican Republic.

Her novels for adults include How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, In the Time of Butterflies, iYo!In the Name of Salomé, and Saving the World. Her books for children include How Tía Lola Came to Visit/Stay, Before We Were Free, Finding Miracles, and Return to Sender. Alvarez has won numerous awards for her work, including the Pura Belpré and Américas Awards for her books for young readers, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. In this picture, she is receiving the National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by President Barack Obama.

Author Marie Marquardt On Immigration, Research, & Writing Fiction From A Broken Heart

 

By Marie Marquardt

A few years ago, I made a rather unusual decision for a sociologist of religion. I decided to write a romance for young adults – one that is, in many ways, linked to my academic research. I’m going to be honest: it wasn’t exactly a decision. It was something I sat down before dawn one November morning and started doing, despite the constant nagging feeling that this was a huge waste of time and energy because the story would never, ever be finished — much less published.

23848212The words I wrote in those pre-dawn hours eventually became my debut YA novel, Dream Things True. It tells of one Mexican-American family’s journey through immigration, settlement, adaptation, detention, and deportation. It’s told from the perspective Alma Garcia, an ambitious Latina on the verge of adulthood, and Evan Roland, the privileged Southern boy who falls in love with Alma, and who tries with all his might to help Alma preserve her humanity, her extraordinary individuality, andher dreams.

When I began to write Alma and Evan’s story, I was a published author of two non-fiction books on Latin American immigration to the United States, a full-time college professor, and a mother pregnant with my fourth child.  So, clearly, the decision was not one that I made because I needed a new project! I had plenty of projects.

What was I thinking?

Looking back, I see two reasons that I needed to write this story. I work as a researcher, advocate, and service provider with undocumented immigrants in the U.S. South, and because of that work, I often get asked to speak to groups about the contentious topic of undocumented immigration. After several years of standing in front of crowds and sharing great quantities of data and information, I came to a realization: It’s important to know the facts, particularly when so much misinformation is floating around about the causes and consequences of undocumented immigration. But what people long for is the personal connection, the human story.

I have come to believe that, in our polarized, fragmented society, we do not need more information.  Our lives are saturated with information (and misinformation). What we need – what humans long for – is connection. I have been granted the privilege of building friendships with undocumented immigrants, of being a part of their lives, and of caring deeply for them. I have seen the struggles they face not through media sound bites and political rhetoric, but instead through the eyes of love. I wanted to give others, who may not have these opportunities, a chance to enter intimately into the experiences of undocumented immigrants and the people who love them.

I wanted to build connection.

That’s the first reason I wrote Dream Things True. The second reason was one I would only grasp in hindsight. I started writing this book during a very difficult time for undocumented immigrants in the South – when families I knew and loved were being torn apart by detention and deportation. I joined several friends and colleagues to develop a non-profit that works with immigrants in detention and their families. This work is, I believe, the most important work that I do, but it also breaks my heart wide open almost every day. Writing fictional stories about immigrants in crisis allows me to affirm and celebrate their resilience. It also helps me to process the emotion of accompanying these families through very hard times.

I write fiction from a broken heart.

Along the way, I have discovered some surprising similarities between writing fiction and writing academic non-fiction. Both are very hard work. Whether we want to do it or not, authors have to sit down and put words on a page. The professional practice of most good fiction authors I know is much like the practice of good academics: they are inquisitive and creative, and also structured and disciplined. They exist not in solitude, but in a community of people who share their passion and who support their efforts.

Another shared quality is the need for rigorous research. When I began writing Dream Things True, I already had more than a dozen years of experience researching undocumented immigration and working with undocumented immigrants. Nevertheless, I had a great deal of additional work to do, if I wanted to get the story right. Perhaps it’s a sign of how profoundly complex immigration law is, but I consulted with several immigration attorneys and paralegals to ensure that the details of Alma’s story were correct. The story is “true” – not in the sense of reflecting one person’s actual experience, but in the sense of accurately characterizing the journey that Alma’s family would make through the labyrinth that is the U.S. immigration system.

It’s not easy to write a scene at a lawyer’s office or in a courtroom that is both emotionally compelling and accurate, but I do my very best. One of the most amazing compliments I have received was from a colleague who worked for thirty years as the head of immigration legal services for a large non-profit in Atlanta. She told me that the story was, indeed, accurate (yay!) and that she wanted to make it required reading for every incoming attorney at her agency. She believed that reading the story would help them to remember the full, complicated, and profound humanity of each of their clients.

This is the power of fiction.

So I will continue my work as a scholar, advocate, and service provider with undocumented immigrants. And I also will keep writing love stories, because I firmly believe that love is more powerful than fear, and that thorny issues are best solved not from a place of fear but from a place of love.

 

Below are six short videos of Marie Marquardt talking about her debut novel Dream Things True and her work with undocumented immigrants.

 

 

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. DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015) is her first work of fiction.  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.