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

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Interview by Romy Natalia Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS: 

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

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

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Image of Romy Natalia Goldberg

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

Book Talk: Stella’s Stellar Hair by Yesenia Moises

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Welcome to another Book Talk, which can be found on our new YouTube channel!

Here, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Dora M. Guzmán talk about STELLA’S STELLAR HAIR by Yesenia Moises.

ABOUT THE BOOK: It’s the day of the Big Star Little Gala, and Stella’s hair just isn’t acting right! What’s a girl to do?

Simple! Just hop on her hoverboard, visit each of her fabulous aunties across the solar system, and find the perfect hairdo along the way.

Stella’s Stellar Hair celebrates the joy of self-empowerment, shows off our solar system, and beautifully illustrates a variety of hairstyles from the African diaspora. Backmatter provides more information about each style and each planet.

Click here to learn more about the author-illustrator: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/12/06/spotlight-on-latina-illustrators-lulu-delacre-cecilia-ruiz-yesenia-moises/

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Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches college courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is currently a doctoral student with a major in Reading, Language, and Literacy. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!

Book Review: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi

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Reviewed by María Dolores Águila

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DESCRIPTION OF BOOK: Fourteen-year-old Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi sets out to win the ultimate date to homecoming in this heartfelt and outright hilarious debut.

Parvin Mohammadi has just been dumped – only days after receiving official girlfriend status. Not only is she heartbroken, she’s humiliated. Enter high school heartthrob Matty Fumero, who just might be the smoking-hot cure to all her boy problems. If Parvin can get Matty to ask her to Homecoming, she’s positive it will prove to herself and her ex that she’s girlfriend material after all. There’s just one problem: Matty is definitely too cool for bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Parvin. Since being herself hasn’t worked for her in the past (see aforementioned dumping), she decides to start acting like the women in her favorite rom-coms. Those women aren’t loud, they certainly don’t cackle when they laugh, and they smile much more than they talk.

But Parvin discovers that being a rom-com dream girl is much harder than it looks. Also hard? The parent-mandated Farsi lessons. A confusing friendship with a boy who’s definitely not supposed to like her. And hardest of all, the ramifications of the Muslim ban on her family in Iran. Suddenly, being herself has never been more important.

Olivia Abtahi’s debut is as hilarious as it is heartfelt – a delightful tale where, amid the turmoil of high school friendships and crushes, being yourself is always the perfect way to be.

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MY TWO CENTS: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi is a hilarious, fun, fast-paced yet surprisingly deep read; long after I read it, I found myself thinking about the themes hidden under the shiny veneer of the Rom-Com label. 

Parvin, pronounced PAR-veen with a hard A, not Par-vin, is about to start high school with a boyfriend she met while playing pranks on the beach during summer vacation, and she can’t wait to flaunt him to her friends, Ruth and Fabián, who may or may not believe he is a delusion. But Wesley is real, and at their high school orientation, he dumps her for being “too much” in front of everyone and the shock leaves her lying on the linoleum, with her friends scrambling to resuscitate her with an empty Hot Cheetos bag. Later, she muses:

Who cared if my friends and family like my ‘amazingness’? If potential boyfriends didn’t, then what was the point? What Wesley told me yesterday was right: I was too much…I was Parvin ‘Loud’ Mohammadi. It seems like everyone knew it but me.” 

After running into Wesley and his perfect new girlfriend, Teighan, who is “everything I was not”, and finding out they are going to Homecoming together, Ruth and Fabián try to cheer Parvin up with an emergency sleepover at which they watch The Little Mermaid, The Princess Bride, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. After watching these films, Parvin “finally cracks the code for why I’d never had a boyfriend before, and why the one I did have dumped me so quickly…I was too chatty for a love story of my own.” Ruth and Fabián try to convince Parvin that she should find someone who likes her the way she is, but Parvin’s set on the idea that she must change herself into a “leading lady” in order to find a new boyfriend and make Wesley regret dumping her. 

She stops wearing the sparkly silver eyeshadow Ameh Sara taught her how to apply via Skype. She stops wearing her favorite clothes. She stops playing pranks and eating Hot Cheetos. She straightens her “…curls that are ‘loud’ in their own way.” She argues with her parents about going to Farsi lessons, even though there’s a cute Iranian boy that seems to like all the things Parvin is trying to change, because she’d rather spend her weekends like a “normal high schooler”.  

The friendship between Parvin, Fabián, and Ruth is the backbone of the story and carries us through the plot to the resolution. Fabián and Ruth are more than just Parvin’s friends – they’re fully realized characters with their own desires, goals, and arcs that intersect, complement, and at times, even oppose Parvin’s. Fabián is a gay Mexican American Tik Tok star who uploads amazing dance videos and whose parents are always busy with their jobs at the Mexican Embassy. Ruth is a pansexual crafter with a demanding Mom who is a professor at Georgetown University, and she’s not sure how to tell her mom about the girl she has a huge crush on. They both urge Parvin to embrace who she is and their friendship becomes strained as Parvin stubbornly clings to the idea that she needs to change. 

A secondary plot is the relationship with Ameh Sara, Parvin’s aunt, who lives in Iran, Skypes with her almost daily, is Parvin’s closest confidant, and is supposed to visit her in the fall. As Parvin’s plans begin unraveling and falling into chaos, Parvin desperately believes that if she can just hold out until Ameh Sara comes to visit her, she can still prevail with her “leading lady” plan. But Trump’s Muslim Ban complicates Ameh Sara’s visit. 

As Parvin gradually and subtly begins losing herself in her quest to become a “leading lady” and snag a date for Homecoming, sacrificing pieces of herself, she must decide: is it worth changing herself for someone else?

Avid romance readers will be able to spot the resolution of various romantic arcs quickly, but it doesn’t take away from the story in the slightest. It still feels fresh, fun, and unexpected.

Where Perfectly Parvin shines is the narrative voice – Parvin’s actions, thoughts, relationships, desires, problems, and mistakes feel authentic and appropriate to that of a fourteen-year-old high school freshman. It was refreshing to read a YA Novel on the younger side of the YA spectrum, especially since around that age, many adolescents are questioning who they are and who they want to be, and Perfectly Parvin explores the answer in all its glorious messiness. Loud, rebellious girls who may not relate to the shy and introverted heroine trope often found in YA literature will connect to Parvin and her struggle to become quiet and demure. There’s something deeply cathartic about reading someone experiencing something you’ve considered doing yourself. 

In the end, the reader is told a powerful message through Ameh Sara, “Just be yourself. I know people always say that, but only you get to decide what that means.” 

In Perfectly Parvin, Olivia Abtahi skillfully explores themes of racial identity, womanhood, family relationships, Western beauty standards, friendship, politics, and first love in a way that never feels heavy-handed or didactic. In fact, it discusses these concepts in such a way that you don’t realize exactly how deep the book is until you’ve finished it and you’re thinking about it later. I highly recommend reading the Author’s Note, as it really ties together why Abtahi made the narrative choices she did. Readers who enjoyed From Little Tokyo with Love by Sarah Kuhn and Made in Korea by Sarah Suk or fans of On My Block and Never Have I Ever on Netflix, will likely be delighted with Perfectly Parvin.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Olivia Abtahi is a film director and writer based in Denver, Colorado. Born to an Iranian father and an Argentine mother, she is a melting pot of distinct cultures. Olivia holds a BFA from NYU’s School for Film and Television, as well as a Masters in advertising from VCU Brandcenter. From print to video to all things online, Olivia enjoys using different mediums to tell better stories for brands, causes, and communities.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: María Dolores Águila is a Chicana writer based in San Diego, California. She writes picture books, middle grade and young adult novels celebrating and exploring the nuances of Chicanx culture and identity. She’s also a moderator of Kidlit Latinx, a writing group dedicated to supporting and amplifying Latinx voices in Children’s Literature. She has a forthcoming picture book coming in 2024. She is represented by Lindsay Auld of Writers House Literary Agency. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.

January 2022 Latinx Book Releases!

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We are an affiliate with Indiebound and Bookshop. If If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission.

In addition to listing 2022 titles by/for/about Latinx on our master list, we will remind readers of what’s releasing each month.

CONGRATULATIONS to these Latinx creators. Let’s celebrate these January book babies!

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Cover for Camila the Dancing Star

CAMILA THE DANCING STAR by Alicia Salazar, illustrated by Thais Damiao (Picture Window Books, January 1, 2022). Early Reader. Camila’s dance camp is holding a dance competition. She and her partners are working hard and hoping for a win. Their steps, turns, and twirls look great! But when Camila falls, she twists her ankle and ends up on crutches. Are Camila’s dancing days over for now?

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Cover for Camila the Gaming Star

CAMILA THE GAMING STAR by Alicia Salazar, illustrated by Thais Damiao (Picture Window Books, January 1, 2022). Early Reader. Camila wants to buy some new video equipment, so when she hears about a video game tournament, she sees her chance to win big money. Her brother and sister help her perfect her gaming skills, but will it be enough to make her into a winning video game star?

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Cover for Camila the Singing Star

CAMILA THE SINGING STAR by Alicia Salazar, illustrated by Thais Damiao (Picture Window Books, January 1, 2022). Early Reader. Camila has entered a singing competition and she knows that she wants to sing her family’s favorite song; but when it comes to actually competing Camila is very nervous about the size of the audience and being in the spotlight–but Camila knows her family is there and that she can use that knowledge to overcome her stage fright. Includes artistic activity.

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Cover for Camila the Talent Show Star

CAMILA THE TALENT SHOW STAR by Alicia Salazar, illustrated by Thais Damiao (Picture Window Books, January 1, 2022). Early Reader. Every year Camila’s school has a talent show, and Camila wants to sing her favorite song; but Ruby, a new girl, has already signed up to sing the same song and Camila is so mad she decides not to compete at all–until Ruby suggests that they sing together, and Camila discovers sometimes two voices are better than one. Includes suggestions for creating your own talent show.

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Cover for The Doomed Search for the Lost City of Z

THE DOOMED SEARCH FOR THE LOST CITY OF Z by Cindy L. Rodriguez, illustrated by Martín Bustamante (Capstone Press, January 1, 2022). Graphic Novel. Percy Fawcett was a mapmaker and an adventurer. In the early 1900s, he spent years mapping out the jungles of South America. Fawcett became obsessed with the idea of a lost city of gold hidden deep in the jungle. At the age of 57, Fawcett, his 21-year-old son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell left on a quest to find the Lost City of Z. The three men were never heard from again. Untangle the clues they left behind.

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Cover for Karma's World #1

KARMA’S WORLD #1: The Great Shine-A-Thon Showcase! by Halcyon Person, illustrated by Yesenia Moises (Scholastic, January 4, 2022). Chapter Book. Meet Karma Grant! Karma and her friends are totally stoked for the MC Grillz concert in their neighborhood, Hansberry Heights! But when the famous rapper’s bus breaks down and the show is canceled, it’s up to Karma to make the best of some bad luck. Will Karma be able to put on her own concert, the Shine-a-Thon, with her friends or will the pressure prove to be way too much?

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Cover for Smooch

SMOOCH: A Celebration of the Enduring Power of Love by Karen Kilpatrick, illustrated by Germán Blanco (Genius Cat Books, January 4, 2022). Picture Book. Both humorous and endearing, Smooch is a fresh take on the expression of love that is relevant, relatable, and reassuring. Showcasing diverse family structures and characters through bright, colorful artwork, Smooch engages young readers through familiar circumstances and humor and caregivers through touching sentiment. Perfect for showcasing the permanent bond of love in a fun way, or for children dealing with any kind of separation anxiety. 

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Cover for The Year We Learned to Fly

THE YEAR WE LEARNED TO FLY by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López (Nancy Paulsen Books, January 4, 2022). Picture Book. On a dreary, stuck-inside kind of day, a brother and sister heed their grandmother’s advice: “Use those beautiful and brilliant minds of yours. Lift your arms, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and believe in a thing. Somebody somewhere at some point was just as bored you are now.” And before they know it, their imaginations lift them up and out of their boredom. Then, on a day full of quarrels, it’s time for a trip outside their minds again, and they are able to leave their anger behind. This precious skill, their grandmother tells them, harkens back to the days long before they were born, when their ancestors showed the world the strength and resilience of their beautiful and brilliant minds.

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Cover for We Play Soccer

WE PLAY SOCCER by René Colato Laínez, illustrated by Nomar Perez (Holiday House, January 11, 2022). Picture Book. Two boys, an English speaker and a Spanish speaker, are on the same soccer team. They have their uniforms and their cleats. They can both juggle the ball. At first, the boys must wait on the bench. But when the coach lets them in the game, both Joe and José score goals. “We win,” says Joe. “Ganamos,” says José.

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Cover for Where Wonder Grows
Cover for Donde Las Maravillas Crecen (Where Wonder Grows) (First Concepts in Mexican Folk Art)

WHERE WONDER GROWS/Donde Las Maravillas Crencen by Xelena Gonzálezillustrated by Adriana M. Garcia (Cinco Puntos Press/Lee & Low, January 4, 2022). Picture Book. When Grandma walks to her special garden, her granddaughters know to follow her there. Grandma invites the girls to explore her collection of treasures–magical rocks, crystals, seashells, and meteorites–to see what wonders they reveal. They are alive with wisdom, Grandma says. As her granddaughters look closely, the treasures spark the girls’ imaginations. They find stories in the strength of rocks shaped by volcanoes, the cleansing power of beautiful crystals, the mystery of the sea that houses shells and shapes the environment, and the long journey meteorites took to find their way to Earth. This is the power of Grandma’s special garden, where wonder grows and stories blossom. Releases simultaneously in Spanish.

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Cover for Who Was the Voice of the People?

WHO WAS THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE? Cesar Chavez: A Who HQ Graphic Novel by Terry Blas, illustrated by Mar Julia (Penguin Workshop, January 11, 2022). Graphic Novel. Follow Cesar Chavez and the National Farmworkers Association as they set out on a difficult 300-mile protest march in support of farm workers’ rights. A story of hope, solidarity, and perseverance, this graphic novel invites readers to immerse themselves in the life of the famous Latino American Civil Rights leader.

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Cover for Sofía Acosta Makes a Scene

SOFÍA ACOSTA MAKES A SCENE by Emma Otheguy (Knopf Books for Young Readers, January 25, 2022). Middle Grade. It’s a good thing Sofía Acosta loves dreaming up costumes, because otherwise she’s a ballet disaster—unlike her parents, who danced under prima ballerina Alicia Alonso before immigrating to the suburbs of New York. Luckily, when the Acostas host their dancer friends from Cuba for a special performance with the American Ballet Theatre, Sofía learns there’s more than dance holding her family together. Between swapping stories about Cuba and sharing holiday celebrations, the Acostas have never been more of a team.

Then Sofía finds out about the dancers’ secret plans to defect to the United States, and makes a serious mistake—she confides in her best friend, only to discover that Tricia doesn’t want “outsiders” moving to their community. Now Sofía wonders what the other neighbors in her tight-knit suburban town really think of immigrant families like hers. Sofía doesn’t want to make a scene, but if she doesn’t speak up, how will she figure out if her family really belongs?

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Cover for Star Child

STAR CHILD: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler by Ibi Zoboi (Dutton Books for Young Readers, January 25, 2022). Acclaimed novelist Ibi Zoboi illuminates the young life of the visionary storyteller Octavia E. Butler in poems and prose. Born into the Space Race, the Red Scare, and the dawning Civil Rights Movement, Butler experienced an American childhood that shaped her into the groundbreaking science-fiction storyteller whose novels continue to challenge and delight readers fifteen years after her death.

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Cover for The Keeper

THE KEEPER by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. (HarperCollins, January 25, 2022). Middle Grade. James’s new house has a history. None of the kids who’ve lived there have ever survived. No sooner have he and his family arrived in their “perfect” new home in their “perfect” new town than he starts getting mysterious letters from someone called the Keeper. Someone who claims to be watching him. Someone who is looking for “young blood.”

James and his sister, Ava, are obviously in danger. But the problem with having a history of playing practical jokes is that no one believes James—not even his parents. Now James and Ava need to figure out who is sending the letters before they become the next victims in their neighborhood’s long history of missing children.

Because one thing is clear: Uncovering the truth about the Keeper is the only thing that will keep them alive.

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Cover for Tía Fortuna's New Home

TÍA FORTUNA’S NEW HOME: A Jewish Cuban Journey by Ruth Behar, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth (Knopf Books for Young Readers, January 25, 2022). Picture Book. When Estrella’s Tía Fortuna has to say goodbye to her longtime Miami apartment building, The Seaway, to move to an assisted living community, Estrella spends the day with her. Tía explains the significance of her most important possessions from both her Cuban and Jewish culture, as they learn to say goodbye together and explore a new beginning for Tía.

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Celebrating 25 Years of the Pura Belpré Award: Book Talk About Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

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The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

We have been marking the award’s 25th anniversary in different ways on the blog. Today, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Dora M. Guzmán talk about Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh. The book won the 2015 Pura Belpré Illustration Honor Award.

Cover for Separate Is Never Equal

ABOUT THE BOOK: When her family moved to the town of Westminster, California, young Sylvia Mendez was excited about enrolling in her neighborhood school. But she and her brothers were turned away and told they had to attend the Mexican school instead. Sylvia could not understand why—she was an American citizen who spoke perfect English. Why were the children of Mexican families forced to attend a separate school? Unable to get a satisfactory answer from the school board, the Mendez family decided to take matters into its own hands and organize a lawsuit.
 
In the end, the Mendez family’s efforts helped bring an end to segregated schooling in California in 1947, seven years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools across America.
 
Using his signature illustration style and incorporating his interviews with Sylvia Mendez, as well as information from court files and news accounts, award-winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh tells the inspiring story of the Mendez family’s fight for justice and equality.

You can find our book talks on our new YouTube channel!

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Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches college courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is currently a doctoral student with a major in Reading, Language, and Literacy. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!

Book Review: Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

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We are an affiliate with Indiebound and Bookshop. If If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission.

Review by Leslie Adame

Cover for Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Living in the remote town of Tierra del Sol is dangerous, especially in the criatura months, when powerful spirits roam the desert and threaten humankind. But Cecelia Rios has always believed there was more to the criaturas, much to her family’s disapproval. After all, only brujas—humans who capture and control criaturas—consort with the spirits, and brujeria is a terrible crime.

When her older sister, Juana, is kidnapped by El Sombrerón, a powerful dark criatura, Cece is determined to bring Juana back. To get into Devil’s Alley, though, she’ll have to become a bruja herself—while hiding her quest from her parents, her town, and the other brujas. Thankfully, the legendary criatura Coyote has a soft spot for humans and agrees to help her on her journey.

With him at her side, Cece sets out to reunite her family—and maybe even change what it means to be a bruja along the way.

MY TWO CENTS: Cece Rios has lived under the scrutiny of her small desert town ever since she was “cursed” by the criatura Tzitzimitl when she was seven. Compared to her perfect sister Juana, Cece considers herself a disappointment and a shame to her entire family. So it is no surprise she feels the need to prove herself when her sister is taken by the criatura El Sombrerón after an argument between the two sisters. But to get to her sister, Cece must become a bruja to obtain access to Devil’s Alley— the home for all criaturas. 

But becoming a bruja is no easy feat. The condition for becoming one requires Cece to gain control of a criatura of her own and win the Bruja Fights. Hearing this, Cece is convinced she’s lost the one opportunity to save her sister, until she rescues the criatura Coyote from Cantil Snake. Indebted to her, and seeing that she’s not malicious like other brujas, Coyote promises to help Cece win the Bruja Fights and save her sister. They form a bond of trust and loyalty, which is non-existent between brujas and criaturas, as the role of brujas is typically to enslave criaturas. Without realizing it, Cece is changing what it means to be a bruja, all while making new friends and obtaining the confidence she needs to save her sister. 

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls is a beautiful story that combines some of our most favorite Latin American urban legends and places them all in a world set up very eloquently. Although the beginning may be a little slow for younger readers, it is necessary to understand the world Cece Rios comes from. As the story picks up, the reader will fall in love with Cece and root for her success as she ventures on this journey to find her sister as well as herself. The relationship between Cece and her family is a realistic one, and middle grade readers with siblings will come to relate to Cece’s troubles to be seen, as she is constantly compared to her older sister.

Readers will also come to love Coyote, a grumpy but loyal partner whose mysterious backstory will compel the reader to unravel it. The parallels between Cece and her long missing Tía were alluring as well, and it was a joy to unpack her backstory. Overall, Rivera did an amazing job creating a beautiful world with intriguing characters that pull you in from the start. Fans of stories born from urban legends and mythology such as the ones written by Rick Riordan, J.C. Cervantes, and Roshani Chokshi should pick up Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls at their local libraries or book stories. It is truly a treat to read.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kaela Rivera was raised to believe in will-o’-the-wisps and el chupacabra, but even ghost stories couldn’t stop her from reading in the isolated treetops, caves, and creeks of Tennessee’s Appalachian forests. She still believes in the folktales of her Mexican and British parents, but now she writes about them from the adventure-filled mountains of the Wild West. When she’s not crafting stories, she’s using her English degree as an editor for a marketing company (or secretly doodling her characters in the margins of her notebook). Her biggest hope is to highlight and explore the beauty of cultural differences—and how sharing those differences can bring us all closer.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Leslie Adame is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Film, Television, and Digital Media. Along with writing books herself, she invests most of her time mentoring historically marginalized students and preparing them for a higher education. She strongly believes in the importance of representation in books, and has volunteered in events like the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival to put a spotlight on Latinx/e authors. Leslie grew up in the Inland Empire, specifically Ontario, California. She hopes to one day publish a middle grade fantasy centered around a first-generation protagonist and her undocumented parents.