This is the third and final installment in a roundtable conversation with some of the reviewers on our team. It can’t be said too often: we’re overflowing with THANKS for the hard work and wisdom they pour into their reviews! Still, we figured they’d have more to say on the topic of children’s and YA lit, so we posed a few questions.
Latinxs in Kid Lit: Tell us about yourself as a child reader. How do those experiences color your impressions of the books you read now?
Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries. I was an avid reader as a child and have very fond memories of Scholastic Book Fairs. My dad, who was a teacher, was one of my biggest literacy advocates. He would bring home piles of books and advanced reader copies that his colleagues shared with him. As a Mexican immigrant, he was mostly happy that these books were in English. It made for a really diverse set and rarely included bestsellers. Today, I still look for diversity in genres and aim to search for hidden gems. I also tend not to read bestsellers until years after their release.
Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach with The Butterfly Series. As a bi-cultural child (Cuban immigrant father/Jewish American mother) growing up in a majority white neighborhood in the 1960 and 70s, I did not have any books that reflected my Latinx heritage. As a result, it was very challenging for me to articulate my identity. My father, who spoke English with a heavy accent, chose not to teach us Spanish. That further compounded my confusion as child named “Maria Diana Ramos” who did not speak or understand Spanish.
Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist, creator of puppet theater, and a children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC. I was a voracious reader as a child and it has been a huge part of my identity since I was about six or seven years old. In elementary school, I mostly read historical fiction—I didn’t get into fantasy or sci-fi until I was in middle school. I read a lot of what we term the ‘canon’ like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, etc and only as an adult have I realized that I never read a chapter book about a Latinx character as a kid. Even though I went to a dual immersion school, most of the Spanish books in the library were translations of things like the Little House series. I work hard to hold onto the mindset of a kid when I read, especially when reading books about Latinx characters and try to imagine how they would have affected me if I had read them earlier in life.
LiKL: What is your reviewing process like? Do you take notes throughout your reading time? Are there sticky flags involved? Are there sticky fingers involved (because: sugary snacks)?
Cecilia: I usually read a book through once and often I’m not sure if I’m going to be the person reviewing it. Since I’m a book buyer, I’m reading most books about six months ahead of publication date and my first thought is always for whether or not I’ll purchase this book for the store and what short blurb I can write to get a customer interested in it. Once I know I’m reviewing it for the blog, I make a list of points that I thought were especially interesting about the book and I read it a second time, paying close attention to those elements.
Maria: I tend to read a book and then sit with it for a bit before writing. I like to see what it makes me think about. I don’t typically take notes or use sticky flags and I avoid eating when I write because I find it distracting (I take a dedicated break when I eat). I really don’t like people who earmark pages in books or who write in books with pen, so I avoid doing both. Over the course of a few days, I might jot down some phrases to jog my memory for when I do sit down to write. I prefer an organic flow on the page to the pre-outlined, thoughtful preparation. I’m that way in a lot of my life –not just writing (spontaneous versus planned).
Araceli: Most of my reading happens during my long commute on the Boston T, so I keep tools to a minimum. Before writing a review, I keep a document on my phone filled with notes by categories — overall thoughts, teaching connections, and related readings. I make a note of quotes and page numbers that speak to me and my Latina identity. On my happiest reading days, I sit on my couch next to my dog. Unfortunately, this means keeping my snacks to a minimum.
LiKL: Your work as an educator, youth librarian, scholar of children’s literature, or author of books for young readers is bound to affect your work as a reviewer. Help us understand the professional perspective you bring to the evaluation of texts.
Cecilia: I used to be a third grade teacher and now I am a bookseller (I still teach art as a freelancer). My number one goal has always been to give kids and teens books they will love, books that will give them a greater understanding of the world and books that will reflect their own experiences. However, as a bookseller, I’m focused on selling, and I try to figure out who the audience is for the book and the best way to describe it in order to move it off the shelf. I’m not a trained critic and haven’t studied literature in an academic way, so a lot of how I approach books is from the point of view of “Who will read it?” and “How do I sell it?”
Maria: In my youth, I worked a lot with kids who had severe challenges (sexual abuse, emotional disturbance, severe physical disability). I always had an acute awareness of how dependent children are on adults, and how the information we provide them, including the stories we tell, influences their development and sense of self. I never wanted to betray any child’s trust, so in my evaluation of texts I look for honesty and stories grounded in truth. I had my own children later in life, age forty and forty-two, and that perspective is what guides me most as a reviewer. I want a book that I would feel good reading to my two sons; I want a book that will make them think; I want a book that has characters that look like them.
Araceli: As a librarian, I try to be open-minded. While I may sometimes find fault with the story line or characters, that does not make a book bad. It just means it may not be for me! Reading is all about finding the right fit for yourself. I don’t believe there are people who aren’t readers, I just think they haven’t found the right literature yet. With so many formats, genres, book lengths, and topics, the possibilities are endless. With this perspective, I try to think about what type of reader each book is aimed for and highlight what they would find the most interesting.
LiKL: Let’s draw up a wish list for authors and publishers. Which genres, storylines, locations, representations, or other considerations do you pine for in books for children or teens?
Maria: I am the daughter of a mother who came out as a lesbian when I was fourteen. That was in 1976 and there were no books that I knew of then that spoke to my circumstance or to my changing family construct. I love that there are books on alternative families now, but I also want characters who are racially and culturally mixed. I want layered characters and I also want strong feminist characters.
Cecilia: Central-American representation, PLEASE! I live and work in a city where the majority of the Latinx community has ties to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Across the river in Virginia, we have a huge Bolivian community. I almost never see these kids represented in books, especially by authors who share their heritage.
LiKL: Now let’s flip the coin. What are your reading pet peeves? Specify the tired tropes, stereotypes, or overused plot machinations that cause you to roll your eyes—or to slam a book shut.
Cecilia: Books that treat Dia de los Muertos like Halloween, books where everyone from Latin America lives in a little village, books where all the Latina characters are the “tough girl,” books where all the Latinx characters are poor or in a gang.
Maria: I’m tired of girl meets cute boy and they have a crush. I know that sells, but there are many other realities related to sexual orientation that are non-binary and gender fluid. That is a huge challenge for kids and I’d like to see more fluidity in the gender roles and stories.
LiKL: What is your current hot read and which books are at the top of your to-be-read list?
Maria: Someone just sent me a copy of Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run The World. It’s not a book I would have bought for myself, but I found it interesting and think it’s a good read — especially for young adult women. Also, two dear friends of mine Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy wrote the book Yes! We are Latinos (2013) and gifted me a copy. I absolutely love that young adult book because it does exactly what I’ve always wanted in a book: share a diverse grouping of stories about the many different ways to identify as Latinxs. I wish I’d had a copy when I was growing up, but having it now is healing something inside of me.
Cecilia: I’m about to start WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE by Tehlor Kay Mejia and I’m super excited for it!
Unfortunately, not every current or recent contributor was available to respond to this Q&A. Here’s a list of those reviewers–mil gracias to each one!
Chantel Acevedo reviewed Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad.
Dora M. Guzmán loves covering picture books. Here are her thoughts on Alma and How She Got Her Name/Alma y como obtuvo su nombre.
Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros supplied great insights on Jabberwalking.
Christa Jiménez did an excellent round-up review of baby books from indy publishers.
Marcela Peres provided her insights on Sci-Fu: Kick it Off.
Lettycia Terrones gave us a breakdown of The First Rule of Punk.