Book Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family’s livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck’s unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tia Perla.

MY TWO CENTS: Jennifer Torres doesn’t waste any time introducing the readers to Stef and the people in her life, including Papi and her best friend Arthur in the first scene outside of their Catholic middle school. She notices Papi in his taco truck – known as Tia Perla for the rest of the book – and she gets angry because he had originally promised to let her meet him at a nearby gas station. This is the first of many conflicts Stef has with her parents about maturity at the seventh-grade level. The conflicts are about issues that come up in many houses of middle school students.

One of my favorite scenes of the book is in chapter 3, when Stef reminisces about the early stages of Tia Perla being in her family’s life. From what Torres describes as “kitchen-table whispers” about the kinds of beans and salsa it’ll feature (“nothing from a jar,” insists Mami) to learning the origin of the name (Stef’s pick), the entire scene was sweet and a key part of the story. The chapters in the entire book are short but detailed enough for readers of any age to get a glimpse into Stef’s life.

Despite the joy Tia Perla once brought to Stef, she feels anything but joy about the beloved truck as the book goes on. She tries to be nice to former-friend-turned-popular-girl Julia by offering her a ride home in Tia Perla, but Julia turns around and calls Stef the “Taco Queen” behind her back. This comes after Julia makes a scene before the start of their English class by announcing she has tickets to see local pop sensation Viviana Vega in concert. Torres then takes the readers into more of Stef’s life at Saint Scholastica School – trying to fit in and leave Tia Perla in the dust. Stef’s favorite day of the week is Tuesday, which she realizes is not common, because it’s when she has her art class. “And in art class,” Torres writes, “I never hear Mami’s voice telling me I’m too young, or Papi’s nagging me to be careful. I am in charge of the blank piece of paper in front of me, and I can turn it into something as vivid and adventurous or as quiet and calm as I want.” This part of the story stuck out to me because of the way Torres compares making art with wanting independence.

Stef spends every Saturday helping her Papi and Tia Perla during their busiest day of the week. They travel to farmers markets, parks, and other outdoor common areas in their city to feed the crowds with the scrumptious food they’re known for. Even though Papi seems grateful every time Stef helps him out, she still wants nothing to do with Tia Perla, especially when it gets in the way of her independent life she’s trying to create.

During a stop on one of Tia Perla’s routine Saturdays, Stef visits her other best friend, Amanda, after her soccer game. While the two are cooling off with the help of strawberry soda, they listen to the radio and eventually win concert tickets to see Viviana Vega. Stef is cautiously optimistic about her parents letting the two attend the concert alone – until they say no, despite her papi giving her a cell phone she thinks is to check in with them at the concert.

The book then turns its focus to two more complex and meaningful issues previously introduced before Stef’s blowup with her papi. Stef and her classmates decide to work together in a unique way to get more art supplies (hint: a school-wide event is included). And, in a move that impacts Stef more than she realizes, Papi’s business (and Tia Perla) is threatened by new proposed city rules that would impact all food trucks in the area, specifically the taco trucks. Stef seems more mature than others her age when she mentions translating important notes for her papi and others from English into Spanish.

The book ends with a couple of different twists that I didn’t see coming, but I believe both twists worked really well to help bring the story to a close. Stef learns to love all of the parts that make up her identity – even Tia Perla.

Torres does a wonderful job describing the characters and each place they’re in throughout the book. I felt like I was following Stef and her family and friends through their adventures. The book addresses many important topics that may be tough for some kids and families to discuss, but I believe the issues were written in a way that kids can understand. I felt for Stef during some of the scenes with her parents.

There are some basic Spanish words and sentences in the book, most of which are italicized except for one – Orale! That word appears several times in the book with several different meanings, which I loved. It helped set the tone for each of the different chapters, especially when Stef described each way it was written for each scene.

Overall, Stef Soto, Taco Queen is a wonderful read. It’s recommended for kids in grades 4-7 (ages 9-12), but I would suggest it to anyone looking for a story about a girl trying to find herself in this crazy world.

TEACHING TIPS: This book could be used to discuss the idea of working together to help solve problems, especially in the face of adversity. Stef’s art teacher, Mr. Salazar, helped his class raise money to bring in more art supplies, even though he was skeptical about their idea at first. The book could also be used in a way to discuss local politics for students. Not many middle-school students get involved with politics in such a way that Stef did, but I believe the book would be a good way to teach students how to make a difference in their community.

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book’s back cover): Jennifer Torres was 17-years-old–a senior at Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, California—when the first time a story of hers was published in a newspaper. The story was about making tamales with her family, but it was also about love and tradition and growing up. She went on to study journalism at Northwestern University and the University of Westminster. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and is the author Finding the Music, a picture book from Lee & Low. Jennifer lives with her husband and two little girls in central California. Stef Soto, Taco Queen is her debut novel.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

assertABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

American Stories of Opportunity, Hope, and Ambition: A Guest Post by Author Jennifer Torres

 

By Jennifer Torres

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and be a college math professor.

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and become a college math professor.

Escalon is a Spanish word that means “step” or “stepping stone.” It is also a small town in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley, surrounded by dairies and almond orchards. Just off Main Street there, across from American Legion Post 263, is the library where Melissa, an eighth grader, volunteers to read to younger children, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish.

“I think it’s important to read to kids because they get to know new things when they read a book,” she told me. Melissa’s own favorite books, she said, are mystery and fantasy novels. “It’s like a whole new world.”

Just like Melissa, many of the children who visit the Escalon Library are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants, families who saw, in the United States, a step toward opportunity and who courageously took it.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverThose stories are American stories, and I hope that readers will recognize them in Stef Soto, Taco Queen.

The fictional Stef Soto, like millions of very real children in the United States who have immigrant parents, is a first-generation American.

Just like Melissa, Stef sometimes translates for her mom and dad.

Just like Stef, Melissa has parents whose hearts thunder with hope and ambition for their daughter.

“I want her to remember where she comes from, but her future is here,” Melissa’s mom, Adriana, told me in Spanish as she helped her daughter lead an arts-and-crafts project at the library. (She credits the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s Migrant Education department for encouraging her to become an advocate for Melissa’s learning). “I want her to graduate, to go to college, to have a better quality of life.”

She and her husband have encouraged Melissa to begin investigating colleges, to think about what she wants to study, who she wants to be.

“I’ve decided I want to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Melissa said, braces glinting. “I think that’s a good one for what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is teach math. When I asked her what grade, she hesitated, sheepish about correcting me.

Finally, she shook her head. “No, I want to be a math professor. Like at a university.”

Just like I did—in a family that includes first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans, as well as some who still live in Mexico—Stef is growing up speaking and listening to a vibrant mix of English and Spanish. We both find comfort in friends and family and warm tortillas, smeared with butter.

And just like all of us, I think, she is trying hard to figure out exactly where she belongs. Too often, for too many, it can feel like a here or there question.

But as I have learned, as students like Melissa remind us, and as characters like Stef discover, our stories are so much richer than that.

“I get to have both cultures,” Melissa said. “And I want people to know that immigrants are people—smart people—who want a better future, and so they came to this country. I think it’s really brave of them.”

jtorresFrom the author’s website: Hi there. I’m Jennifer. I live with my family in California’s Central Valley, and I write stories. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, writing stories about real people, whose lives told us something about our world and maybe about ourselves. Now, I write books for young readers—books with make-believe characters whose stories, I hope, are just as full of life and truth as the real ones.

Check out my picture book, Finding the Music, published by Lee & Low Books, and look out for my debut middle-grade novel, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, coming January 2017 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Book Review: Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música by Jennifer Torres

 

finding the music coverBy Sujei Lugo

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Above Reyna’s favorite booth in her family’s restaurant hangs the old vihuela, a small guitar-like instrument, that belonged to her abuelito when he was in a mariachi band. Reyna has never heard the vihuela played, but her mamá treasures the instrument as a reminder of abuelito and his music. One noisy day in the restaurant, Reyna accidentally damages the vihuela. Determined to get it repaired before Mamá notices, Reyna sets out to search her neighborhood for someone who can help her fix the instrument. Little does Reyna know that along the way she will find herself growing closer to abuelito and to the power of his music.

MY TWO CENTS: From the winner of the 2011 Lee & Low Books New Voices Award, here we have a bilingual story filled with charm that showcases the power of music as an intergenerational unifier.

Every weekend, Reyna hangs out at her mom’s restaurant, Cielito Lindo, reading and enjoying the cast of characters that visit the place. One day, she accidentally breaks her grandfather’s precious vihuela that hanged on one of the restaurant’s walls. Reyna never met her abuelito, but her mother’s tales about him and the way he played the vihuela are near and dear to her. Reyna knows she must embark on a journey to fix her abuelo’s beloved instrument.

This journey will bring her to learn, first hand, about his legacy and the importance of music and the power of community engagement. Throughout each page, and Reyna’s conversation with different community members, her abuelo’s presence can be felt. Jennifer Torres uses Reyna’s journey as a great portrayal of how meaningful everyday life is for a community. The vihuela becomes a powerful artifact that jump-starts the memory of the past, the important history of the community that tends to be invisible but is so essential to understanding the present. The broken vihuela reveals other anecdotes from the past that will help Reyna see the bigger picture of who her abuelo was and how the community remains united through their shared past. And it is through oral history and the passing of this knowledge that Reyna becomes aware of the real importance behind the vihuela and why it was hanging on the wall. The breaking of the vihuela is not a tragedy, but the catalyst for Reyna to better understand where she came from and get closer to her mother and her community.

The realistic illustrations by Renato Alarcão, enhance the warmth of the tale and allow readers to see the characters’ expressions and feelings. Each image is filled with pastel colors and a consummated care to portray the connection and relations of the characters. The illustrations really echo a phrase said by Reyna’s mother at the beginning of the story, “these are the sounds of happy lives.” The illustrations truly convey the sounds of these lives.

Torres’s first picture book, Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música, is a solid work that is very much welcomed. The importance of oral history, the unifying qualities of music and the importance of preserving the artifacts that trigger the remembrance of who we were are all important concepts to help spark the curiosity of children among their own families and communities. We are in a constant search of adequate representation and we sometimes fail to see that in our own stories lie strong narratives that empower us and unite us.

*The book includes a glossary and pronunciation guide. The backstory of the Cielito Lindo and author’s note about mariachi music and band are also apprehended. Spanish translation by Alexis Romay.

musicstore
TEACHING TIPS: 
This bilingual picture book is recommended for children ages 4-9, and works well for early readers and as a read aloud with musical interventions as a bonus. Librarians, parents, grandparents, and caregivers can read with the young ones in English, Spanish, or both, while practicing or learning new vocabulary, identifying the different images and community components presented through the illustrations. It’s also a perfect book for a StoryWalk, given that our main character walks around her neighborhood finding some clues and stories about her abuelo. StoryWalk allows people to visit different points (parks, local stores, buildings) around the neighborhood where pages of the books are spread, they would walk to one point to another to follow the story.

Language Arts, Social Studies, Arts, and Music educators can collaborate in the development of different activities: vocabulary and writing activities, discussions and conversations regarding community, neighborhoods and Mexican, Chicano, and Latino history; the incorporation of drawings with writing activities; and the history of Mexican folk music. The author includes helpful activities for the Language Arts classroom: Story Map and Mini-Memoir. On the publisher’s website, you can access teaching guides developed for this book and other resources.

AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR:

Jennifer Torres is a freelance journalist, author, and coordinator of a community-wide literacy initiative at University of the Pacific, California. She studied journalism at Northwestern University, Illinois and at University of Westminster, London, England. Torres also worked as reporter for The Record newspaper, covering education, immigration, and other issues related to children and families. FINDING THE MUSIC/EN POS DE LA MÚSICA is her first picture book and her first middle grade novel, STEF SOTO, TACO QUEEN, will be published in Fall 2016.

Renato Alarcão is a graphic designer, illustrator and professor of visual arts. He studied in the Illustration as a Visual Essay program at the School of Visual Arts of New York and at The Center for Book Arts. In addition to his work as an illustrator, Alarcão has collaborated in different youth arts projects and has presented lectures on illustration, creativity, and artistic techniques. He has presented his work in exhibitions at the American Institute for the Graphic Arts, the American Society of Illustrators, the New York Public Library, the Skirball Cultural Center of Los Angeles, the Biennale of Illustrations in Bratislava, where he won the NOMA Prize for Illustrated Book. Some of his illustrated books: RED RIDIN’ IN THE HOOD: AND OTHER CUENTOS by Patricia Santos Marcantonio, SOCCER STAR by Mina Javaherbin, ROBERTO’S TRIP TO THE TOP by John B. Paterson & John Paterson, ELLA ENFEITIÇADA by Gail Carson Levine, Andiana Figueiredo.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out WorldCat.orgIndieBound.orgGoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.