Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This review is by Lila Quintero Weaver and is based on an advanced reading copy.

From the publisher:

The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief. Sal discovers that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

My two cents:

The 2012 multiple prize-winning YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, delivered a spellbinding story of remarkable teen characters on the brink of self-discovery. Among its achievements, the novel provided positive and authentic representations of gay teens and Latinx families. Sáenz follows that feat with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, which subtly echoes themes in Aristotle and Dante and reaffirms the author’s virtuosity.

Seventeen-year-old Sal (Salvatore) lives in El Paso, Texas, with his adoptive father, a gay Mexican-American art professor named Vicente Silva. Vicente assumed responsibility for Sal after his mother died, when Sal was just three years old. (The connections between Sal’s mother and Vicente don’t become clear until late in the book, when Sal finally opens a letter his dying mother wrote and left in Vicente’s care.) Although Sal is white, the adoption secures his place in the heart of a loving Mexican-American family, which is headed by the matriarch Sal comes to know as Mima. As his adoptive grandmother, Mima refers to Sal as her “hijito de mi vida,” and the adoration is mutual.

The warmth of the Silva family magnetically pulls in two other teen characters. Sal’s best friend, Sam (Samantha), is locked in raging conflict with her mom. Another friend, Fito, suffers the effects of a drug-addicted mother and an absentee dad. In order to survive, Fito must hold down two after-school jobs.

Compared to the home lives of his friends, Sal’s family is golden. But for all the advantages he enjoys, Sal is a complex character, who on the surface, feels secure in his identity as a peaceful, self-confessed straight edger. He eschews cigarettes and alcohol (well, mostly), and is still a virgin. But he harbors a reactionary side. When a classmate utters a homophobic slur against Vicente, Sal resorts to violence that lands him in Principal Cisneros’s office. This impulse to lash out physically catches Sal by surprise, and it won’t be the last time.

Other big questions disrupt Sal’s world. His beloved Mima is diagnosed with late-stage bone cancer. Vicente’s one-time boyfriend, Marcos, reappears on the scene, bringing heartache and mistrust to the Silva house. There’s still that matter of the unopened letter from Sal’s mother, and then, major crises hit Sam’s and Fito’s families, radiating tremors in all directions. How fortunate for everyone that Vicente possesses finely tuned paternal instincts and the willingness to open the family circle even wider. Even so, don’t mistake this for a sentimental story. The struggles these young characters wrestle with are real and not easily resolved.

Although compelling plot developments push the story along, this novel also distinguishes itself through skillful characterization and crisp, realistic dialogue. The dialogue especially stands out during volleys between the teen characters. Sal and Sam, who’ve known each other since early childhood, share a platonic friendship that’s built on love and mutual respect, but that doesn’t keep them from ribbing one another mercilessly and butting into each other’s business. As Fito becomes a larger part of their lives, his comi-tragic flavor gets added to the mix. The verbal conversations and text messages these three engage in are, by turns, hilarious, poignant, revealing, laced with profanity, and true to the way teens speak in 2017. These exchanges reveal the intricate give-and-take of teen friendships, where mutual support is often coded as deprecatory banter.

The novel also takes on complex racial and ethnic dynamics, but it’s done with a subtle touch. In writing Sal as a white child adopted by a Mexican family, Sáenz makes a daring choice that reverses typical scripts of interracial or interethnic adoption. Much of Sal’s identity stems from Vicente, the man he considers his true father. In the Silva family, Mexican heritage is freely offered as a gift—one Sal knows he’s lucky to receive and absorb into his cultural makeup. But acceptance at home doesn’t extend to every corner of Sal’s world, and elements of race appear mostly around his role as a rare white kid in a setting dominated by Mexican and Latinx culture. At one point, a classmate drops the slur “pinche gringo” on him, leading to one of several bursts of violence on Sal’s part. On the flip side, Mexican American Sam teasingly refers to Sal as “white boy,” all the while fully aware that by virtue of his upbringing, Sal is more deeply ensconced in Mexican tradition than she is. Sal appreciates the irony and won’t let Sam get away with drawing false distinctions. This is a tricky point, but Sáenz successfully plays it with humor.

The question that persists almost to the end of the book is why Sal puts off reading his mother’s letter. He doesn’t understand his own reluctance, and this is part of the “inexplicable logic” referred to in the title. Could it be that Sal fears losing the rock-solid foundation offered by the family that raised him? Many writers would’ve dangled such a compelling object as catnip before their readers. But Sáenz uses uncommon restraint, allowing mentions of the sealed letter to bubble up in conversation or in Sal’s interior monologue sparingly, as if he’s holding that question just inside our peripheral vision while the characters occupy themselves with more urgent concerns.

In the writing itself, the author demonstrates other forms of restraint that recall his poetic side. He clips sentences and keeps chapters unusually short, suggesting the poetic habit of brevity. While his prose enthralls the ear, Sáenz’s mastery goes beyond the level of the sentence. He’s an accomplished storyteller who works magic with dialogue, gives characters muscle and breath, and creates intrigue through the subtle layering of reveals and building questions. Another satisfying aspect of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is the treatment of intergenerational relationships. We’re reminded that healthy family connections help us thrive, while their absence leaves us yearning. Above all, Sáenz crafts a narrative around things that deeply matter to teen readers: identity, belonging, and finding one’s place in the world—and he charges his characters with the drive to pursue these prizes.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a scholar, a teacher of creative writing, and a prize-winning poet and novelist. Along with other distinctions, his 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won the Pura Belpré Award, the Stonewall Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Our review is here. In 2013, National Public Radio featured Sáenz in a fascinating interview. Long based in El Paso, Texas, Sáenz retired from teaching in 2016. Keep up with him via Twitter.

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

12000020By Eileen Fontenot

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

MY TWO CENTS: This book is a four-time award winner–and well deserved! What a moving book. Even days after I finished it, I would still think of Ari and Dante and their friendship, which grows into deeper feelings–how much they influenced each other’s lives over the course of a year, with events tenderly captured by Sáenz. The romantic type of love is not the only one Sáenz touches upon; familial love is also an important topic in the book. Both Dante’s and Ari’s relationships with their families are as complicated as their relationship with each other.

The story is set in 1987 and told from the point of view of Ari–despite this, the reader gains a full picture of Dante. We learn of Dante’s sweet quirks (like his distaste of wearing shoes) and his passion for literature and art. When Dante and Ari meet, Ari is cut off from others. His parents won’t talk about the details of his older brother’s incarceration, and his father is still fighting his demons stemming from his time fighting in Vietnam. He has no real friends. Dante’s openness and delight in the simple pleasures in life helps Ari break out of his self-enforced wall, ostensibly to hide his confusing emotions.

Sáenz packs in so much emotion in such simple and spare dialogue that conveys so much. There are no superfluous words; Sáenz’s writing is lean and packs a powerful emotional punch.

TEACHING TIPS: I would recommend this book to anyone – whether teenager or adult – who ever felt different. And that it’s OK to be that way. This is a universal tale. But besides being just a beautiful love story, the book’s themes include dealing with the feelings that come with an incarcerated sibling, a parent with emotional scars from war, and the challenges that come with being gay, male, and Mexican American. This book is for anyone who feels as if there’s not enough compassion in the world.

If librarians and teachers want to try a writing exercise inspired by this book, I would ask teens who have read the book if they can attempt to reproduce Sáenz’s succinct writing style. You can tell them it’s kind of like writing dialogue on Twitter or that it’s very close to poetry. Ask them to communicate as much as they can with as few words as possible.

AUTHOR (DESCRIPTION FROM INDIEBOUND): Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an American Book Award–winning author of poetry and prose for adults and teens. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was a Printz Honor Book, the Stonewall Award winner, the Pura Belpré Award winner, and won the Lambda Literary Award for Children’s/Young Adult Fiction. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His first novel for teens, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His second book for teens, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the Southwest Book Award, and was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out WorldCat.orgIndieBound.orgGoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Eileenfontenot headshot Fontenot is a recent graduate of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. She works at a public library and is interested in community service and working toward social justice. A sci-fi/fantasy fan, Eileen was formerly a newspaper writer and editor.

Book Review: Stranger (The Change #1) by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

By Eileen Fontenot

16034526DESCRIPTION FROM GOODREADS: Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, “the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. “Las Anclas” now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.

Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

MY TWO CENTS: After finishing an ARC of this book, which was officially released 11/13/14, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that unlike many sci-fi/fantasy books I enjoy so much, this one left a very pleasant feeling and hope for the future and not a lurking doom cloud of worry about what humanity will be like once we destroy the environment/bomb ourselves silly/let computers take over. Yes, there are terrible creatures lurking in the desert, but Las Anclas has an abundance of people who are working together to protect each other from those dangers.

But yes, there is still bigotry among certain people in power against those with “the Change,” but all does not seem completely hopeless. There are some teenagers with their own Changes – along with respected adults – who are fighting for acceptance. As for non-traditional male/female relationships, the people of Las Anclas are quite easy going; being gay or considering polyamory is very normalized behavior. In addition to the variety of relationships and differences among the characters that contemporary readers would recognize, the racial diversity of the cast of characters is not tokenized and does not feel forced in any way.

Teens who may not see themselves represented very often in sci-fi/fantasy novels can surely find a character that speaks to them – whether they are in a non-traditional romantic relationship, physically disabled, or experiencing mental illness. Or just feeling out of place and out of step with the so-called “normals” favored in society.

TEACHING TIPS: Youth services/teen librarians and high school teachers and librarians can encourage readers to write their own short stories and experiment with different points of view, like this book does. Teens and their instructors can discuss what using this narrative technique does to a plot, setting, and character development.

For teachers with an artistic bent, get the teens to draw or write about the flora and fauna of the future. A good tie-in would be a conversation about the ecological implications of war and how that would change what animals and plants look like and how they would behave. The drawings and ideas can range from silly to serious.

And finally, it would be interesting to find out what teens felt about building a positive society in the face of such challenges – a kind of positive utopia that existed in this novel. What would they do to become effective leaders in a harsh world, with little resources? What compromises would they be willing to make?

AUTHORS: From Goodreads: Rachel Manija Brown is the author of all sorts of stories in all sorts of genres. She has also written television, plays, video games, and a comic strip meant to be silk-screened on to a scarf. In her other identity, she is a trauma/PTSD therapist. She writes urban fantasy for adults under the name of Lia Silver.

From cahreviews.blogspot.com: Sherwood Smith began her publishing career in 1986, writing mostly for young adults and children. Smith studied in Austria for a year, earning a masters in history. She worked many jobs, from bartender to the film industry, then turned to teaching for twenty years, working with children from second grade to high school. To date she’s published over forty books and been nominated for several awards, including the Nebula, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and an Anne Lindbergh Honor Book.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Stranger (The Change #1) visit your local public library, your local bookstore, barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, goodreads.com or indiebound.com.

 

Eileenfontenot headshot Fontenot is a recent graduate of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. She works at a public library and is interested in community service and working toward social justice. A sci-fi/fantasy fan, Eileen was formerly a newspaper writer and editor.

Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith on Collaborating & Bucking the ‘Received Wisdom’ of Publishing Diversity

By Eileen Fontenot

16034526This post-apocalyptic, western-tinged adventure is more character-driven than you may expect. A diverse group of teenagers in Las Anclas narrate the story in third-person point of view–Ross, the stranger in town, who has a valuable item coveted by several factions and experiences PTSD episodes after escaping death from a bounty hunter; Mia, the town engineer who helps Ross in his new life; Jennie, a Ranger that is “Changed,” that is, has some sort of superhuman powers; Yuki, a former prince that struggles with settling down in LA and with his boyfriend, Paco; and Felicite, a scheming climber, lusting after power but also hiding a secret of her own.

This narration style does not detract from the action scenes, which find the characters battling deadly–and extremely crafty–desert animals and a neighboring army, which has a bloody history with the city of Las Anclas. Co-authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, however, portray most of the characters as well intentioned; even the least sympathetic main character did merit some empathy by the end of the novel. Nearly all of LA’s citizens are trying to make their town a better place to live in the way they feel is best – even if they can’t agree on what course that will take. But one thing they are not prejudiced against is non-traditional relationships. Same-sex and polyamorous relationships are accepted; Change powers have become the new issue that divides the community. The book’s dearth of white main characters is noteworthy as well.

Smith, who has authored more than forty books and been nominated for several awards, including the Nebula and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and Manija Brown, TV, comic strip, urban fantasy and video game writer and PTSD/trauma therapist, were kind enough to answer a few questions about this and future writing they’ll share and getting diverse works published.

Eileen: I’ve really enjoyed reading Stranger, especially the five POV characters. Any particular reason why you decided to write the novel in this way? How do you feel this structure lends itself to this genre/setting, etc.?

Rachel: It has multiple points of view (POVs) because it’s about a community, not a lone individual. The post-apocalyptic town of Las Anclas is very community-oriented—for better and for worse—so we wanted the structure to reflect that.

We also thought it was fun, for both us and our readers. Different people notice different things, and speak in different voices. For instance, Yuki Nakamura, who loves animals, was born on a ship, and is very introverted, always notices the wildlife, thinks in nautical metaphors, and only focuses on the people he actually cares about. Felicite Wolfe is the mayor’s ambitious daughter, so she pays close attention to everyone around her in order to make a good impression on them, manipulate them, or gain some knowledge she might be able use later.

Sherwood: While Mia, the youngest town engineer in Las Anclas’s history, keeps getting locked inside her head, sometimes spinning around so much in questions that she doesn’t know how to act when it comes to socializing. Poor Mia! She was the most fun to write about.

Rachel: The POV characters rotate throughout the series. Ross, Mia, and Jennie have POVs in all four books, but the other POVs switch off, with old POV characters dropping out and new ones taking their place.

Eileen: You have a co-author, Sherwood Smith–how did you come to work with her? Did you experience any challenges/benefits working with a co-author? What was the process the two of you used to write the novel? Did you each take character(s) and only write their chapters?

20140830_154107

Rachel Manija Brown (l) and Sherwood Smith (r)

Rachel: We both used to write TV, and we met to collaborate on a TV series. It didn’t sell, but we enjoyed working together so much that we kept on writing together.

Both of us write all the characters. We outline the story in advance, then literally sit next to each other at the computer, one typing (usually Sherwood; she’s much faster than me) while we alternately dictate the story. Any given sentence may have been written by both of us.

Sherwood: I have done several collaborations, and enjoyed them all, though each is very different. The fun part of writing with Rachel is that we never get writer’s block, because as soon as one of us runs out of ideas, whether on a single sentence or in a scene, the other either picks up with it and zooms ahead, or we can talk it out. Sometimes act it out!

Eileen: I see that you are a PTSD/trauma therapist, and one of the characters appears to be experiencing PTSD. What are your thoughts on including a character struggling with a mental condition? For you, is it similar and as important as including many characters of diversity?

Rachel: I definitely think that mental conditions are an aspect of diversity. But that’s not all there is to it. Ross’s experiences with PTSD are largely autobiographical. I don’t mean that they’re based on my clients, I mean that they’re based on what I went through as a teenager. I wanted to show that you can go through a lot of trauma and have it affect you–even affect you a lot– and not have it ruin your life, or mean that you can never be happy or never find love.

Sherwood: I agree with Rachel. There are aspects of Ross that also come out of my own childhood experiences. Rachel and I discovered that though our lives were very different, we shared certain emotional responses to situations that can cause symptoms of PTSD. This, in turn, made me very aware of similar emotional responses in students during the years that I taught, and though I am not trained as Rachel is, experience caused me to read up on the subject, and to seek ways to help kids feel a sense of safety, and agency.

Eileen: Stranger is incredibly multi-racial and diverse in many ways. What are your thoughts on getting your book published? I know from reading you and Sherwood’s PW blog post that you had at least one agent request that this diversity be toned down somewhat. Can you tell our readers a bit how you overcame this? Any advice for other authors who are marketing their diverse book or trying to get it seen by agents/publishers?

Rachel: Yes, an agent had trouble with Yuki being gay. In general, we had difficulty with the fact that gay and lesbian romances are just as important as straight romances. It’s also extremely unusual for a YA dystopia to have all the POV characters be people of color. We really had to persist to make the book available to readers.

Sherwood: I think it’s important to note that we do not believe that any of the agents or editors who asked, or hinted, or expressed doubts, about the diversity of our characters are bigots or anti-gay. It’s just that there has been such a strong “received wisdom” in marketing that protagonists must be straight and white or the book won’t sell. And publishers are primarily in the business of selling books. This received wisdom was probably true in 1950, but we don’t believe it is true today.

Rachel: Persistence is the key. If you want to go the traditional publishing route, be incredibly persistent. If you choose to self-publish, hire someone skilled to do the cover, and research how keywords and other important self-publishing techniques work. And know that there are readers out there who will really, really want to read your book. Luckily, nowadays it’s much easier to get it to them.

Eileen: I have read that Stranger is Book One in a series. What’s the status of the series and can you give us any juicy tidbits about what’s to come? Are you working on anything other than this series?

Rachel: Stranger stands on its own, but it’s also the first of a four-book series.

Book two is Hostage, in which we spend time in Gold Point, the city ruled with an iron fist by King Voske, the villain of Stranger, and meet a surprising new point of view character. Book three is Rebel, in which Ross’s past comes back to haunt him. The new point of view character in this book is someone we met back in book one, but maybe not someone expected to get a point of view. Book four is Traitor, in which all the plot threads and characters from the first three books come together in a battle for the future of Las Anclas. The new point of view character is someone whose perspective you may have been waiting for.

I’m currently working on the third Werewolf Marines book, Partner. That’s urban fantasy for adults under the pen name Lia Silver. It’s also diverse and also involves PTSD, but contains too much sex to be suitable for younger readers.

Sherwood: I’m working on the sequel to Lhind the Thief, which is YA fantasy with a character not quite human. It’s called Lhind the Spy, and it explores questions like belonging, what love is, the consequences of power—but these are also meant to be fun, so there will be chases, and magical razzle-dazzle, and an elaborate dinner party for powerful people that goes very, very wrong. That will be published through Book View Café, a consortium of writers who have been publishing work that is difficult for New York publishing to categorize. For DAW, I have been writing A Sword Named Truth, which is the first of a series about teenage allies, many of them in positions of power, who have to try to overcome personal and cultural conditioning to work together against a very, very powerful enemy.

Rachel and I also have other projects planned, which we will write together.

Book Review: Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

20702546DESCRIPTION OF THE NOVEL:

July 24

My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

MY TWO CENTS: Isabel Quintero’s 378 page debut YA novel, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, is witty, exciting, and heart-felt. Through a diary entry narrative, the novel follows Gabi Hernandez through her senior year in high school. Gabi is a self-identified light-skinned, fat Mexican with an insatiable appetite for hot wings, tacos, sopes, and poetry. The novel opens with a fantastic obsession for hot wings and with Sebastian, Gabi’s best friend, coming out to her. In a small piece of paper Sebastian writes, “I’m gay,” which does not surprise Gabi. Instead, she is more concerned about his parents’ reaction. Cindy, Gabi’s other best friend, also confesses to Gabi that she had sex with German and might be pregnant. Gabi, who is still a virgin, is taken aback but comforts Cindy in her time of need and together they discover that Cindy is in fact pregnant. By the end of the novel, Gabi has had her first kiss, broken up with her first boyfriend, and has sex with her second boyfriend. To top it all off, the Hernandez family must also contend with the father’s meth addiction which ultimately kills him. Poetry and letter writing give Gabi an opportunity to process all of the difficulties that she and her friends endure throughout the year.

Gabi: A Girl in Pieces covers an array of themes, like sexuality, body image, addiction, coming out, writing, healing, and teen pregnancy, among others, that attempt to speak to the experiences of Latino youth in the United States. The opening lines of the novel reveal that Gabi’s mom had her out of wedlock and has since been shunned by the grandmother. The dichotomy of the “good girl/bad girl” is a burden that follows Gabi throughout the novel. Her naiveté about sex and relationships makes her susceptible to her mother’s and Tia Bertha’s religious banter about womanhood—good girls keep their legs closed and go to heaven. Gabi, however, is quick to question her mother’s indoctrination and to point out the contradictions in their own behavior and in what they expect from her brother. Gabi’s mother’s constant insistence to be a “good girl” is also tied to a rejection of American identity. In other words, Gabi’s mother suggests that having sex or going away to college, things “bad girls” do, is part of American culture and Gabi’s desire to participate in such behavior further distances her from their Mexican identity. The juxtaposition of how Latina women should behave in accordance to their culture and religion to how American women behave has been signaled as the key reason for why Latina teens are at a higher risk of attempting and committing suicide in the United States (see Luis Zayas). Research, national reports, and media coverage on the topic argue that there exists a generational tension between mothers and daughters of Latino descent in the US. This tension is said to lead to higher risk of depression, low self-esteem, and potential self-harm. While Gabi’s character does not follow that pattern, it is clear that the tension with her mother impacts the ways she sees herself.

There are many qualities that make Gabi stand out within the genre of Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. What I find specifically unique about this novel is the thorough engagement with drug addiction. Gabi’s entries capture the barrage of feelings of living with someone who is dependent on a drug. She explains that there are days, weeks, and even months, when they might not hear from her father because he’s on a high binge. They might also see him in the park getting high with the other drug addicts. As children, their dad took them along to pick up his meth. At the end, Gabi finds him overdosed and dead with a pipe on hand in the garage. The novel attempts to highlight how an entire family can be harmed by addiction. While the father’s backstory is never fully developed (because, obviously, he is not the focus of the story), the story suggests that drug addiction is a disease affecting many Latino communities and deserves further attention. That Quintero brings it up in her book provides an opportunity to discuss how children are impacted by a parents’ drug addiction.

Overall, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces is an extraordinary read with the potential to create various dialogues in and outside the classroom. Gabi struggles with body image because of her body type and light skin color, Cindy eventually reveals that she was raped by German, and Sebastian gets kicked out of his house for coming out. Gabi’s body image issues allow us to examine representations of Latino bodies in popular culture, cultural expectations on the body, and the centering of light skin bodies over darker skin ones in Latino culture. By the end of the novel, it is suggested that Cindy might seek counseling for what happened to her, but there is definite tension about whether her rape is an individual problem or one that should be addressed by a community. Without having anywhere else to go, Sebastian is forced to stay with his aunt, who believes religion will cure him of his queerness. And while Sebastian eventually joins the LGBTQ club in his school, there seems to be little support coming from his Latino community. Gabi is clever and sarcastic and extremely funny. It’s a book that details the inner thoughts and struggles of a young Latina on a journey to self-empowerment or a book about a young Latina’s long journey to Pepe’s House of Wings.

Reanna Marchman Photography

Isabel Quintero; Reanna Marchman Photography

TEACHING TIPS: The use of a diary style in Gabi presents a great opportunity to ask students to keep their own diary or journal while they read the novel. One way to approach this type of assignment would be to ask students to respond to each of Gabi’s entries. However, because so much of Gabi’s experience is concerned with sex education and sex, it’ll be important to establish conversation guidelines with the class. The opening diary entry reveals how sex ed. and sex is gendered. Gabi’s grandmother beats her daughter for getting pregnant, and, as a result, Gabi’s mom tries to impose those conservative and traditional views on Gabi. Students can respond to the opening entry by writing about the values that their families, communities, or the media have tried to impart on them regarding sex. When teaching Gabi, it is also important to be aware that many experiences with sex are closely tied to some sort of violence or trauma, as is the case with Cindy. When discussing and writing about Cindy’s rape, it’ll be extremely significant to steer away from conversations that blame the victim. A more productive approach would be to talk about ways to make communities accountable to issues of sexual assault and street harassment. A diary entry assignment will help students closely engage with the themes of the novel by allowing them to practice character analysis and by giving them a space to connect their personal experiences to what they read.

Another way to approach teaching a novel like Gabi is to talk about diary keeping as a genre. The use of the diary to tell a story has a very long literary tradition, so it will be important to talk with students about why this might be the case. In other words, consider why diaries have existed this long, what their purposes may have been (or if the purpose has changed), and why Quintero chose to write Gabi in this form. Discussing Facebook, Twitter, and other relevant social media might also create a fruitful discussion on diary keeping in the 21stcentury. An interesting digital media project might be to ask students what Gabi might be tweeting, posting, liking, etc., given what they know from her diary. A more literary approach would be to discuss other Latina/o children’s and young adult texts in this genre like Amada Irma Perez’s My Diary from Here to There. While My Diary is a children’s illustrated text, it nonetheless makes use of the diary form to capture a story of pain, struggle, and love.

Gabi also opens up a dialogue about addiction that can lead to many powerful discussions about substance abuse in communities of color. A few other Latina/o young adult texts that deal with issues of addiction include Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster, E.E. Charlon-Trujillo’s Fat Angie, and Gloria Velazquez’s Tyrone’s Betrayal. The young protagonists of these novels have some sort of relationship to addiction that influences their own understanding of drugs and alcohol and how they deal with pain and trauma. Conversations about addiction can be very difficult to have, so it will be important to discuss triggers and trigger warnings when broaching the subject. If students are not comfortable discussing the topic, then returning to the use of the diary form can provide a safe space for students to still engage the conversation. Students do not always have to provide a personal response but can instead think about Gabi’s actions and reactions to her father’s addiction. Gabi often expresses frustration at her mother for enabling or putting up with her husband’s addiction. Gabi’s younger brother feels unloved and eventually rebels because of the situation at home. Asking students what the family members’ different experiences reveal about addiction complicates popular understandings of what addiction looks like and how it can be cured.

AUTHOR (from the author’s website): Born and raised in Southern California to Mexican parents, Isabel Quintero always took home too many books from the library as a a child. Later, she married her husband Fernando in a library. In addition to writing young adult literature, poetry, and fiction,  she teaches English at a couple community colleges, freelance writes for the Arts Council of San Bernardino County, is a member of PoetrIE (a literary arts organization who’s working to bring literary arts to the communities of the IE), and an avid pizza and taco eater. You can read about why she writes in her first blog post, titled, “Why I Write.” Gabi: A Girl in Pieces has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.org, cincopuntos.comgoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

 

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Book Review: The Sowing: The Torch Keeper Series, Book Two by Steven Dos Santos

17342414By Eileen Fontenot

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: “This time, there are no choices. Lucian “Lucky” Spark leads a double life. By day, he trains to become one of the Establishment elite. At night, he sabotages his oppressors from within, seeking to avenge the murder of his love, Digory Tycho, and rescue his imprisoned brother. But when he embarks on a risky plot to assassinate members of the Establishment hierarchy, Lucky is thrust into the war between the Establishment and the rebellion, where the lines between friend and foe are blurred beyond recognition. His only chance for survival lies in facing the secrets of the Sowing, a mystery rooted in the ashes of the apocalyptic past that threatens to destroy Lucky’s last hope for the future.”

MY TWO CENTS: Wow. When I say, the action doesn’t stop, well, it just doesn’t stop. The reader is taken immediately to a dramatic fight a couple of months after newly minted Imposer Lucky finishes the trials, portrayed in the first book, The Culling. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the totalitarian Establishment, led by Cassius Thorn, really enjoys keeping Parish citizens downtrodden.

We continue to view the world through Lucky’s eyes – including struggle to protect his little brother, Cole, and the injustices he must now pretend to participate in, while actively working toward positive change. We can see that Lucky has grown and matured, but is weighed by his constant terror of losing Cole. As he is forced to return to the Trials, this time as an Incentive, he experiences old horrors in new ways – and we learn more about the mysteries of the first book as well. There are a couple shocking twists, that I won’t mention here, but suffice it to say, this is one entertaining read. And readers can see that a bigger story line is building – bound to shake up Lucky’s already precarious situation.

The amazing thing about this series, besides the edge-of-your-seat suspense that gives the reader inventively gory payoffs, is that the sexuality of the LGBTQ characters are treated totally matter of factly. In this horrific version of our future, at least society recognizes that love is love. I think LGBTQ teens who love dystopian thrillers like The Hunger Games will enjoy a similar story that focuses on sympathetic characters that just happen to be gay. Dos Santos doesn’t make a big deal out of his characters’ sexuality. Normalizing this aspect of society is a long time coming; I think today’s teens deserve to envision a future without a closet and this series supports that idea. Although it would be nice if the other parts of the future didn’t go down the drain!

This series would be great as a pick for a LGBTQ teen book group, whether for high school or in a public library. It’s an excellent counterpoint for LGBTQ books that are serious or that focuses on sexuality as the actual story. Teens will also understand Lucky’s growth and his love of family. But, most of all, it’s just a fun read.

AUTHOR: Steven dos Santos was born in New York City and raised in south Florida. He began writing at 7, but didn’t become a professional writer until after graduating with a communications degree and then spending time working in the field of law. The two books of The Torch Keeper series are his first professionally published works, and The Culling has been added to the 2014 ALA GLBTQ’s Rainbow Project Reading List. He’s currently at work writing the final book in The Torch Keeper series.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Dos Santos and The Sowing, visit your local library or bookstore. Online he can be found at stevendossantos.com, worldcat.org, goodreads.com, indiebound.org, barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

fontenot headshotEileen Fontenot is a recent graduate of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. She works at a public library and is interested in community service and working toward social justice. A sci-fi/fantasy fan, Eileen was formerly a newspaper writer and editor.