Listening Latinx: An author’s audiobook experience

OutOfDarknessAudioCoverI have been listening to audiobooks for nearly three decades, so it was something of a dream come true to see Out of Darkness go into production shortly after it received a Printz Honor. Before production began, though, I found myself wondering if my strong opinions about narration, pronunciation, and the like would get in the way—or set me up for disappointment. What if the narrator’s voice didn’t match the texture or tone I’d imagined in writing?

I needn’t have worried. I loved how involved I got to be in the process with Listening Library. Executive producer Aaron Blank proved scrupulous in his attention to detail, from the pronunciation of my last name (yes, that accent mark means something, as I explain here) to the particulars of how to say “Cari” and “Beto,” the names of the twins in the novel. Yes, I might have sent him audio recordings of me pronouncing their names…

A few people have asked me if I wanted to narrate my own book. In general, I find that author-narrated audiobooks are rarely as effective as those narrated by actors. In particular, I have an aversion to the sound of my own voice on recordings, so that option wasn’t even on the table. (Although I would like brownie points for recording this brief introduction to Out of Darkness.)

WashAsJackie

Robinson: my image of Wash

Aaron shared my sense that it was important to cast a Latinx narrator or a narrator with exceptional Spanish and cultural competency. We also agreed that it would be important to find talent capable of handling the wide range of voices, including Henry’s oil field diction and Wash’s African American Vernacular. It’s possible that I sent Aaron YouTube videos to illustrate the flattening of vowels common among East Texans as well as examples of intonation for Southern accents and African American Vernacular that captured the particularity of speech without any whiff of caricature. And (*secret revealed*) since I always pictured Wash as a young Jackie Robinson, I had to send some footage of a film about Robinson, too.

I listened to many wonderful auditions, but Benita Robledo’s beautifully modulated voice stood out immediately. She settled quickly into the world of the novel, managing not only to capture the texture of Naomi’s experience but also the nuances of other point-of-view characters as well.

BenitaRobledo_ItsAWrap

Benita’s voice is as beautiful as she is. Sometimes you can feel that smile in the narration.

It’s a tremendous boon that, as director Tony Hudz noted, Benita gets “all the pronunciations, pitch- and letter-perfect.” But what Benita brings is more than that. Also a Texan, she grew up near Brownsville and (again quoting Tony) “knows this turf” emotionally and psychologically. In my listening, I hear the spark of connection, sincere animation of my words that comes in part from recognizing the silences that they seek to counter. Benita shared this about the experience of bringing Out of Darkness to sound:

In the still hush of the recording studio, with only my voice and my director to guide me, I would lose myself in Ashley Hope Pérez’s words. Sometimes I’d get so involved in the story, I wouldn’t realize a whole morning had passed and it was time for a break. She has an incredible talent for creating beauty even in the ugliest of times. For me, getting to live and breathe Out of Darkness, was nothing short of magic.

The admiration is mutual. Ditto regarding my feelings for Lincoln Hoppe, who masterfully renders the passages in the voice of “The Gang,” which captures the collective voice of the senior class. The Gang is a kind of ugly distillation of the thoughts circulating and is often thick with unexamined racism. Because of the character of these sections, and because it is the only first-person narration in the novel, we felt it should have a different narrator. (Benita does all the other chapters.) Here’s what Tony had to say about Lincoln’s role:

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Lincoln Hoppe

The first thing you have to know about Lincoln Hoppe is that he’s a 6’4″ puppy dog. With glasses. One of the sweetest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. It is thus a tribute and a testament to his professionalism and skill as a reader when I say that he captured full well the ugliness and evil of The Gang. God, he did a good, awful job. And I think the slightly husky/sometimes almost raw texture of his voice will play off beautifully against Benita’s relative sweetness and lightness.

And it does, friends, it does.

Benita and Lincoln’s voices animate the narrative world of my book. Benita captures the beauty and audacity of hope in the face of prejudice, and Lincoln distills the surprising lyricism of some of the darkest threads of human consciousness that I’ve ever tried to write.

A caveat: it’s hard to listen to the prologue of Out of Darkness. This is through no fault of Benita’s. The prologue is difficult to read on the page, too; I wanted it to be that way. As one reviewer noted, the prologue acts as “a litmus test to see if you can emotionally handle this haunting novel.” The prologue figures the tremendous loss of the New London school explosion, which left one in four children dead, and the terrible possibilities it unleashes in the imagined world of my novel. Hearing this part read aloud ups the ante as Benita’s voice evokes the human stakes of tragedy.

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Some of the lights that inspired the opening of the prologue.

It’s a difficult beginning for a difficult book. But it is a kind of difficulty that, I believe, we need to reckon with. It’s the kind of difficulty that helps us face, honestly, all that we are capable of in moments of great loss, the beauty and the horror of our humanity.

Want to listen to Out of Darkness on audio? It releases April 26. Pre-order it from Listening Library or Audible. You can also request it on CD at your local library or get a digital check-out through Overdrive.com.

And, PS, here’s the scoop on Out of Darkness, copy courtesy of the brilliant folks at Carolrhoda Lab:

“This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion the worst school disaster in American history as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

 

Book Review: Nothing Up My Sleeve by Diana López

 

Reviewed by Marianne Snow Campbell

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Sixth graders Dominic, Loop, and Z stumble upon a new magic shop in town and can’t wait to spend their summer mastering cool tricks to gain access to the Vault, a key holders-only back room bound to hold all kinds of secrets. And once they get in, they set their sights even higher: a huge competition at the end of the summer. They work on their card tricks, sleights, and vanishing acts, trying to come up with the most awesome routines possible….Problem is, the trip is expensive, and it’s money that each guy’s family just doesn’t have.

To make things worse, the shop-owners’ daughter, Ariel (who just so happens to be last year’s competition winner), will do anything to make sure the boys don’t come out on top. Even pit them against one another. Will they make it to the competition? And if so, at what cost?

Diana López, author of Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, offers a story that’s just the right mix of heart, high jinks, and a bit of magic.

MY TWO CENTS: There’s a reason that magic trick kits sell so well at toy stores. Lots of kids love the thrill of stage magic – practicing illusions until they’re just right, creating mystery with visual puzzles, and tricking others with sleights of hand. Performing magic can help build kids’ confidence and give them a sense of agency when they might otherwise feel powerless. That’s certainly the case for Dominic, Loop, and Z, three friends who venture into the world of illusion at Conjuring Cats, the new magic store in Victoria, Texas. Each of the boys is facing a quandary that makes him feel powerless. Dominic’s parents are divorced and refuse to speak to each other, which frustrates him to no end. Meanwhile, Loop just found out that his father is actually his stepfather, and Z, the youngest child in a large family, always feels invisible. Their new magical hobby, however, leads to a summer of discovery that none of the friends expect.

One of the most valuable lessons I took away from Nothing Up My Sleeve is that hobbies are important. Once Dominic, Loop, and Z get involved in magic, they blossom. Sure, they encounter struggles along the way – jealousy, in-fighting, money troubles, family drama – but these difficulties only cause the boys to grow cognitively, socially, and emotionally. The teacher in me loves how practicing magic stimulates their critical thinking skills as they write patter (“what a magician says while performing a trick,” p. 134) for their routines and synthesize new tricks by putting their own personal spins on classic illusions. Really smart stuff! As the friends puzzle through magic, you can see how clever each boy is in his own way. This is the beauty of hobbies – kids expressing their intelligence and creativity through fun, personally meaningful activities.

OK, enough with the nerdy teacher musings. Another quality that I love about Diana López’s books is their attention to character development, and Nothing Up My Sleeve doesn’t disappoint. With magic as the backdrop, she conjures three well-rounded, realistic characters who face struggles and earn triumphs just like any real kid might. López creates a strong balance between the boys’ magical endeavors and their personal and home lives that gives this book the perfect blend of excitement and real world relevance.

Furthermore, I have to stress how much it means to me that López sets this book (and her other books) in South Texas. Catching references to places I know – Victoria, Refugio, Corpus Christi, and Houston – made me smile. Like me, a lot of young readers appreciate it when stories are set near their homes. A familiar setting can create a comfortable feeling, which, in turn, can make a book even more personally meaningful and engaging. With so many books, movies, and TV shows set in well known locales like New York and Los Angeles, it’s refreshing to find home in the pages of a book. Thank you, Ms. López for an enjoyable, relatable read!

TEACHING TIPS: As I read through Nothing Up My Sleeve, I couldn’t help thinking what a wonderful summer reading book it would be. Dominic, Loop, and Z’s adventures take place during the summer, and I can easily imagine kids soaking up this book on languid afternoons in June, July, and August. If you teach upper elementary or middle grades, consider putting it on your summer reading list.

Nothing Up My Sleeve is also an excellent book for classroom use. López fills her writing with various literary elements, which makes the book a solid model for student writing. Two particular elements that she focuses on in this book are metaphor – drawing comparisons between magic tricks and problems the boys face – and alternate perspectives. Each chapter assumes a different point, making the story richer and more complex. Unpacking these literary devices with students and encouraging them to incorporate the devices into their own pieces can really help them hone their creative writing skills.

Photo credit: Todd Yates

Photo credit: Todd Yates

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A former middle school teacher, Diana López has written several books for children, young adults, and adults, including Confetti Girl, Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, Choke, and Sofia’s Saints. Her writing has also been featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens. In 2004, she received a writing fellowship from the Texas Commission for the Arts and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation, and Emporia State University honored Confetti Girl with the William Allen White Award in 2012. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Houston—Victoria and serves as managing director for Centro Victoria, an organization that celebrates Mexican-American literature and culture. To learn more about her work, you can visit her website or check out her Twitter.

 

 

MarianneMarianne Snow Campbell is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, where she researches nonfiction children’s books about Latin@ and Latin American topics and teaches an undergraduate course on children’s literature. Before graduate school, she taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Texas, her home state. She misses teaching, loves critters, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 3: Sara Palacios, Claudia Rueda, and Tania de Regil

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This is the third in a series of posts spotlighting Latina illustrators of picture books. Some of these artists have been creating children’s books for many years, while others will have their first book out this year. Some of them live in the US, while others live overseas. They come from many different cultural backgrounds, but all are passionate about connecting with readers through art and story. Please look for their books at bookstores and libraries!

Interview answers from Claudia Rueda and Tania de Regil have been translated from Spanish.

Sara Palacios

Sara Palacios is an illustrator from Mexico. She studied Graphic Design at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico DF, School of Design, INBA  (National Institute of Fine Arts) Mexico DF, and Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, Mexico DF. She studied illustration at Academy of Art University, San Francisco CA, where she has been part-time faculty since 2014. She received the Pura Belpré Honor for illustration in 2012 and is the illustrator of the Marisol McDonald series by Monica Brown for Lee & Low, as well as numerous other books. Her newest picture book, One Big Family (written by Marc Harshman) will be published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers later this year.

Q: What inspired you to become an artist?

A: I always liked to draw, but I didn’t know that illustrators even existed until I was pursuing my Graphic Design degree in Mexico. I was invited to an illustration exhibition. That was the first time I became aware of what illustration was. I was in awe! and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. The same friend who invited me to the exhibition told me that one of the illustrators was looking for somebody to help him. My friend encouraged me to go to the interview and show my drawings and I got the job! I started washing brushes and cutting paper until little by little I was taught to paint in watercolor. That job was my first school of illustration and I’ve been doing that ever since. After finishing my degree in Mexico I went on to study for my BFA and MFA in illustration in the US.

Q: Tell us about your favorite artistic medium.

A: I don’t really have a favorite medium. The first technique I ever learned was watercolor and for years that was the only medium I used until I started working toward my BFA at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Through the classes, I began using gouache, acrylics , pastels, the computer etc. At first, I was afraid of mixing one technique with another, but I started experimenting on my own and I realized that what works best for me is mixed media. I also like collage, so all my illustrations are done with mixed media now. I use everything from colored pencils, watercolor, markers, gouache, digital. I don’t think I can just pick one technique.

Q: Please finish the sentence “Picture books are important because…”

A: They can bring some magic to children and adults alike.

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Claudia Rueda

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Claudia Rueda
 is a Colombian picture book author, New York Times Best Seller illustrator and a 2016 Hans Christian Andersen award nominee. Her books have been published throughout North America, Europe and Asia and have been translated into more than ten different languages. In the United States, she is best known as the illustrator of the series Here Comes theCat by Deborah Underwood. Her concept books for young readers have been published in Spanish by the publisher Oceano Travesia.

Q: What inspired you to become an artist?

A: I have always liked to draw, like all kids. And I’ve always liked to imagine things and create stories, also like kids when they are playing. Basically, when it was time to put away the colored pencils and imagination to become ‘grown up’ I decided not to do it.

Q: Tell us about your favorite artistic medium.

A: Graphite pencil on white paper is my favorite medium. The capacity for expression in the strokes, it’s simplicity and versatility goes very well with my creative process.

Q: Please finish the sentence “Picture books are important because…”

A: The combination of visual narration with the verbal enriches the experience of reading and allows the story to happen in the mind of the reader that combines the two languages.

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Tania de Regil

TaniaTania de Regil is an author and illustrator from Mexico City. When she was five, she moved to Stockholm, Sweden with her family, where she discovered her love of reading and decided that she wanted to be a professional author some day. Tania studied fashion design at Parsons School of Design in New York City and finished her studies in her home country of Mexico. Her work as a costume designer in film and television has helped to better grasp the art of storytelling through images. Tania’s illustration work is always filled with interesting details for children to discover. She uses a variety of media in her work, such as watercolor, gouache, color pencils, wax pastels and ink to create richly textured, engaging images. Tania’s debut picture book, Sebastián y la isla Tut, which she both wrote and illustrated, was published in November, 2015 by Macmillan Mexico.

Q: What inspired you to become an artist?

A: When I was a girl, my family and I went to live in Sweden. Since I didn’t know the language, what helped me the most was reading. My teacher gave me lots of books and among them were books by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake. In that moment, I fell in love completely with the stories and illustrations and I decided that one day I would be a great writer and illustrator like them. I was eight years old.

Q: Tell us about your favorite artistic medium.

A: I like watercolor a lot because I can never have complete control over it. It’s a medium full of surprises and makes it much more expressive and fun to use. I also like to mix it with other materials like colored pencil, oil pastels, gouache and ink. I liked to always continue experimenting with new materials but the basis of all my illustrations is watercolor.

Q: Please finish the sentence “Picture books are important because…”

A: They take you to worlds where the imagination never ends.

 

Books to Look For:

Brown, Monica. Marisol McDonald Doesnt Match

Brown, Monica. Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash

Harshman, Marc. One Big Family

Rueda, Claudia Is it big or is it little?

Thong, Roseanne Greenfield. Twas Nochebuena

Underwood, Deborah. Here Comes the Easter Cat

Underwood, Deborah. Here Comes Santa Cat

Underwood, Deborah Here Comes Valentine Cat

Book Review: Allie, First At Last by Angela Cervantes

 

Allie, First At Last (1)Reviewed by Marianne Snow Campbell

FROM ANGELA CERVANTES’S WEBSITE: Allie Velasco wants to be a trailblazer. A trendsetter. A winner. No better feeling exists in the world than stepping to the top of a winner’s podium and hoisting a trophy high in the air. At least, that’s what Allie thinks…. she’s never actually won anything before. Everyone in her family is special in some way—her younger sister is a rising TV star; her brother is a soccer prodigy; her great-grandfather is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. With a family like this, Allie knows she has to make her mark or risk being left behind.  She’s determined to add a shiny medal, blue ribbon, or beautiful trophy to her family’s award shelf. When a prestigious school contest is announced, Allie has the perfect opportunity to take first —at last. There’s just one small snag… her biggest competition is also her ex–best friend, Sara. Can Allie take top prize and win back a friend — or is she destined to lose it all?

MY TWO CENTS: Fifth grade can be a tough year – it certainly was for me.  As kids approach and enter adolescence, many begin to grapple with who they are and who they want to be. Meanwhile, they may fall out with longtime friends who are going through the same transitions. While experiencing these growing pains and periods of uncertainty, kids can find comfort in books. Reading about characters who are undergoing the same journeys and struggles can help young readers see that they’re not alone – it’s normal to feel out of place and unsure of oneself.

Allie Velasco is a fifth-grader trying her best to discover her identity and make her mark on the world around her. For Allie, that means being the best at something – not that she’s sure what that something is. While her siblings excel at acting, soccer, and community service, her mother has been voted Best News Anchor of the Year, and her great-grandfather is a war hero, Allie is keenly seeking out her niche and putting a lot of pressure on herself to “succeed.”

Frankly, I wish Allie, First at Last had existed when I was in fifth grade. Although it’s been a couple of decades since I experienced my own tween tribulations, it was almost therapeutic to revisit that stage of my life through Allie. And I’m certain there are plenty of young readers out there today who will relate to her as well. This book is sure to appeal to kids who are “finding themselves,” having friend problems, or feeling eclipsed by siblings.

But don’t go thinking that this book is all sadness and doubt! Angela Cervantes fills the pages with humor that’s sharp with hints of snark and sarcasm, but never mean. For example, Allie and her best friend write a song about her cat called “It’s Not Easy Being Fluffy.” I approve. Also, although Allie faces challenges and insecurities, she still demonstrates strength and self confidence by assertively confronting rude kids in her class, nurturing a loving relationship with her sister and bisabuelo, and demonstrating a deep, natural appreciation for her Mexican-American roots. A great role model indeed.

TEACHING TIPS AND RESOURCES:  Allie, First at Last would be a perfect choice for a middle-grade classroom book club. Teachers can provide students with a list of books (including this one), and students can then choose which book they’d like to read, form small groups with classmates who chose the same book, enjoy, and discuss. With its highly relevant themes and humor, Allie is certain to be a hit, and kids can make it their own as they connect it to their lives and respond collaboratively. Educators should be sure to stock this volume in their classroom libraries and media centers for self-selected reading time. There’s nothing like a fun, engrossing book for motivating kids to read!

Also, be sure to check out Angela Cervantes’s teacher resources, available on her website. She’s created printer-friendly activity sheets with writing prompts for both Allie, First at Last and her previous novel, Gaby, Lost and Found.  The prompts present great ideas for journaling, in-class discussions, and even research projects.  Enjoy!

Angela CervantesABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela was born and raised in Kansas. Most of her childhood was spent in Topeka, Kansas living in the Mexican-American community of Oakland. Her family also spent a lot of time in El Dorado and Wichita visiting a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins on weekends.

Angela graduated from the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) with a degree in English. After KU, she moved to Brownsville, Texas. In Brownsville, Angela was introduced to the music of Selena, ceviche, and learned to two-step. After Brownsville, Angela moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, where for two years she taught High School English and literature. In 2003, Angela returned to Kansas City, completed an MBA, co-founded Las Poetas, an all-female poetry group, and began working at an international children’s organization.

In 2005, Angela’s short story, “Pork Chop Sandwiches” was published in Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul. In 2007, she won third place for Creative Nonfiction in the Missouri Review’s audio competition for her story “House of Women” and Kansas City Voices’ Best of Prose Award (Whispering Prairie Press) for her short story, “Ten Hail Marys”. In 2008, she was recognized as one of Kansas City’s Emerging Writers by the Kansas City Star Magazine. In 2014, she was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.Com.

Angela’s first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found [Scholastic Press; 2013], won Best Youth Chapter Fiction Book in the International Latino Book Awards. Angela’s second middle-grade novel, Allie, First At Last, will be released Spring 2016. See FAQs about the author.

WE ARE GIVING AWAY A HARDCOVER OF ALLIE, FIRST AT LAST BY ANGELA CERVANTES, WHICH OFFICIALLY RELEASES 3/29/16.

CLICK HERE TO LINK TO THE RAFFLECOPTER GIVEAWAY!

 

MarianneMarianne Snow Campbell is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, where she researches nonfiction children’s books about Latin@ and Latin American topics and teaches an undergraduate course on children’s literature. Before graduate school, she taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Texas, her home state. She misses teaching, loves critters, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Guest Post by Angela Cervantes: Piñata Busters and Trailblazers

IMG_0149We’ve all met piñata busters and trailblazers. These are the extraordinary people who take on immense challenges to pave the way for others to succeed. These folks are determined, ready-to-bust-through-obstacle-types who put the “P” in perseverance and the “G” in ganas.

In my second middle grade novel, Allie, First At Last (3/29/16; Scholastic Inc.) ten-year old Alyssa Velasco wants desperately to make her mark and be a trailblazer like the rest of her family—a highly motivated group of trophy-winners and “first-evers.” However, in her determination to win something, she steamrolls through anyone she believes is trying to compete with her, including her ex-best friend, Sara, and new buddy, Victor Garcia.

Allie, First At Last (1)In short, Allie has no clue what it means to be a true trailblazer or piñata buster, but by the end of the book, she finds out the hard way.

I was inspired to write this book because I grew up in a close-knit, proud, Mexican-American community where we celebrated the accomplishments of people like Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to go to space (1993 Discovery mission); Henry Cisneros, the first Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio (Yay, Texas!); Tom Flores, the first Hispanic NFL head coach to win the Super Bowl (Go Raiders!).

Being raised in this community, I have always been inspired by the stories of individuals who, regardless of the obstacles before them, like racism, sexism, and poverty, could deliver a strong smack to the status quo and negative stereotypes.

As I wrote Allie, First At Last, I relished researching other Hispanic and non- Hispanic “piñata busters.” I couldn’t feature all of the piñata busters I wanted in my novel, but here are just a few I mention:

  • Katie Jurado – First Mexican actress to be nominated for an Academy Award in an acting category (1954)
  • Sonia Sotomayor- First Latina Supreme Court Justice (2009)
  • Gwendolyn Brooks –  The first African-American person to win a Pulitzer prize (1950)
  • Junko Tabei- First woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest (1975)
  • Billy Mills – First American to win the 10,000m at the Olympics (1964)

The thing about piñata busters/trailblazers is that sometimes we look for them in Hollywood films, Wikipedia, or our history books, but the truth is we don’t have to look that far. They’re all around us.

In Allie, First At Last, Allie’s new friend, Victor Garcia, is a true trailblazer. He is not concerned about a trophy shelf or being famous; he is simply trying to be the first in his family to graduate from high school and go to college someday. The obstacles in front of him are clear: his family is poor, and he will depend on scholarships to afford college. He is a child of immigrants and will be navigating the path to college by himself.

Regardless of the hurdles, Victor enters the game willingly and with one sole purpose: to gash a hole in the obstacles (the piñata) so that his younger siblings and entire family get the sweet rewards.

How many of us have been in Victor’s shoes or know of someone who has been the first in his/her family to go to college? Graduate from college? Start a business? Become a teacher? Publish a children’s book?

For me, Allie, First at Last, is a story celebrating generations of piñata busters and trailblazers.

I wrote it because I couldn’t get Allie Velasco out of my head. She had something to say, so I wrote it for her and for all the kids out there dealing with competition and finding their place in the world. I hope Allie’s story inspires children to explore trailblazers in their own families who have opened a path for them to reach their dreams. I hope they, just like Allie, decide that in their young lives, they won’t close doors behind them, but leave them wide open for others to enter, too.  And I hope, like Allie, they understand that, “true trailblazers are motivated not by glory, but by love for friends, family, and country.”

angela at libraryAngela Cervantes is a native of Kansas. Her achievements are manifold and include earning an MBA, co-founding an all-female poets group, teaching high school, and writing two middle-grade novels, Gaby, Lost and Found, and Allie, First at Last. To learn more, visit her website here.

 

 

WE ARE GIVING AWAY A HARDCOVER OF ALLIE, FIRST AT LAST BY ANGELA CERVANTES, WHICH OFFICIALLY RELEASES 3/29/16.

CLICK HERE TO LINK TO THE RAFFLECOPTER GIVEAWAY!

 

Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

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Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

This book talk is based on an uncorrected advance copy.

FROM THE PUBLISHER: School: failure. Romance: failure. Family: failure. Suicide: failure. There’s only one thing left to try: living.

When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital psychiatric ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But there she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experiences with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

MY TWO CENTS: Another fifteen minutes and the pills would’ve done their work, extinguishing all the bright, unrealized promise of 16-year-old Vicky Cruz’s life. Luckily, someone finds her in time. When she wakes up in the psychiatric unit of Lakeview Hospital, in Austin, Texas, her stomach has been pumped, and the first voice she hears belongs to Dr. Desai, a therapist whose guidance and fierce advocacy serve to pull Vicky away from the brink.

At Lakeview, Dr. Desai oversees the treatment of teens hospitalized with serious mental-health issues. Vicky becomes intimately acquainted with three fellow patients, who play integral roles in her healing journey and offer compelling stories of their own:

E.M. came to Lakeview after one of his violent outbursts resulted in court-mandated treatment.

Mona wrestles with bipolar disorder, which was recently compounded by trauma at home. Child Protective Services removed her little sister from the custody of their mom and stepdad.

Gabriel is a young mystic who initially withholds the exact nature of his mental illness from the others in the group. In Vicky’s eyes, he’s a tender soul who moves in and out of functionality.

Lakeview is the primary setting for much of the novel, but some scenes unfold during off-site excursions, including a stay at Dr. Desai’s working ranch, where the patients perform minor farm chores, and go on a wild-river adventure that nearly leads to tragedy but ultimately opens new avenues for transformation. And there are more wild rides as two of the characters plunge into distressing setbacks. Despite her own shaky condition, Vicky responds to others with empathy, leading her to find greater definition in her own life’s purpose.

Vicky’s road to recovery is far from smooth. Shortly after surviving “the deed,” as she calls her suicide attempt, she’s hard pressed to pinpoint what’s so unbearable about her life. But she’s certain she’ll try to escape it again. Strong clues lie in the hollowness of her family relationships. Her mother died of cancer six years before, and less than one year later, her father remarried. Throughout her mother’s illness and even after her passing, Vicky’s father and her older sister, Becca, detached themselves from the trauma. By contrast, Vicky was the sensitive and attentive child who felt her mother’s absence keenly. Afterwards, it was Juanita, the family housekeeper, who served as Vicky’s truest human connection. Unfortunately, Juanita’s arthritis is too disabling for her to continue working and she plans to return to her native Mexico.

Once Vicky leaves the chilly environment of home and enters the warmer climate of the treatment unit, she begins to entertain the idea that life may be worth living. After consulting with an outside therapist, Vicky’s father and stepmother try to convince her to return home and resume normal activities, including school—the general idea being to jump back on the horse after a fall. Vicky’s instinct tells her this won’t work. For one thing, “our house is not a good place to figure things out,” she realizes. Bit by bit, through flashbacks and in conversations in Dr. Desai’s office and with her new friends, we see that Vicky’s family may be well off, but it isn’t well. For example, whether born obtuse or blinded by unresolved grief, Mr. Cruz uses words as bludgeons, and for Vicky, these words and the attitudes behind them strip her of the sense that she is lovable.

Francisco Stork brilliantly depicts the intangibles of interior life, an ability that he ably demonstrated in his 2009 YA novel, Marcelo in the Real World. In The Memory of Light, Stork summons these powers to communicate the nature of depression. Here’s how Vicky tries to explain its mysterious operations to herself: “I imagine a whole bunch of little minerlike elves who live and work inside the dark tunnels of my brain. They wear flashlight hats of different colors and push clanging carts full of words on steel rails from one corner of my mind to another.”

Vicky experiences small, but important epiphanies during her hospital stay. In a particularly shining scene, Dr. Desai shares approaches to unlocking the vicious circle of obsessive thoughts. One of the nuggets from this conversation is a fable from Dr. Desai’s native India that illuminates the self-defeating nature of holding on to such thoughts.

All of the teen characters and many of the adults in this novel are Latin@s, representing a full range of personalities, social and economic classes, and occupations. The Cruz family belongs to the wealthy sector of Austin. Vicky, who attends an exclusive private school, is markedly aware of her privileged status—and of the fact that it doesn’t shield her from mental illness. Her exposure to the less-privileged lives of her new friends alerts her to her father’s snobbish attitude toward working-class Latin@s. She sees the hypocrisy, too. His own grandfather arrived in the United States from Mexico without a penny.

The Memory of Light is a compelling view of teens in crisis. It points the way toward life beyond depression, yet steers clear of romanticizing serious mental illness. Although it’s primarily Vicky Cruz’s story of dealing with suicidal depression and the agony of living in a family broken by loss and dysfunction, the intertwining narratives of the other young characters charge the novel with extra vitality and shed light on the many faces of mental illness.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Don’t miss Cindy L. Rodriguez’s timely reflections on how depression is viewed in the Latino community. Her article includes a list of YA novels featuring Latin@ characters wrestling with mental illness.

On his website, Francisco Stork features two blog posts related to the topic of depression and the writing of The Memory of Light. See them here and here.

In this article, a school psychologist offers tips for teachers on classroom strategies to help depressed students.

francisco_storkABOUT THE AUTHOR: Francisco X. Stork is a Mexican-born author of six novels for young people. Among these is the multiple award-winner Marcelo in the Real World. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he spent much of his law career working in the field of affordable housing. Learn more about Francisco and his books at his official author site.

 

 

 

IMG_1291Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.