Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Karla Arenas Valenti

.

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.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Karla Arenas Valenti.

Karla Arenas Valenti is an author of picture books and middle grade novels. She loves writing stories that take readers into unexpected places (emotionally and intellectually), pushing them to explore the boundaries of what they know about themselves and the world around them.  She also loves playing with magical realism, bending the worlds of her stories to create intriguing spaces for readers to explore.

Karla is the creator of the “My Super Science Heroes” series (Sourcebooks), an exploration of key historical figures depicting science as it truly is: an epic adventure with super heroes, super evil, and super science powers! Her picture book, Maria Mariposa (Chronicle) is a bilingual story about a girl who receives a gift from her home in Mexico on her first day of school in the U.S.—and how she finds a way to share the magic of that gift with everyone around her.

Karla’s debut middle grade novel, Loteria (Knopf) takes readers deep into the heart of Mexican culture, mythology, and lore in a story about free will and a simple game of chance with and life-and-death stakes. Karla lives in the Chicagoland area with her husband and three kids, two cats, and hundreds of books.

Here is the publisher’s description of Lotería, Karla’s middle grade debut, which just released on Tuesday!

HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY!!

Cover for Lotería

The turn of a card could change your destiny in this captivating middle grade adventure based on the Lotería card game and perfect for fans of Coco. While searching for her missing cousin, a young girl is transported to a mythical kingdom, becoming entangled in a perilous game of chance.

In the hottest hour of the hottest day of the year, a fateful wind blows into Oaxaca City. It whistles down cobbled streets and rustles the jacaranda trees before slipping into the window of an eleven-year-old girl named Clara. Unbeknownst to her, Clara has been marked for la Lotería.

Life and Death deal the Lotería cards but once a year, and the stakes could not be higher. Every card reveals a new twist in Clara’s fate—a scorpion, an arrow, a blood-red rose. If Life wins, Clara will live to a ripe old age. If Death prevails, she’ll flicker out like a candle. 

But Clara knows none of this. All she knows is that her young cousin Esteban has vanished, and she’ll do whatever it takes to save him, traveling to the mythical Kingdom of Las Pozas, where every action has a price, and every choice has consequences. And though it seems her fate is sealed, Clara just might have what it takes to shatter the game and choose a new path.

Karla Arenas Valenti weaves an adventure steeped in magic and mythology—gorgeously illustrated by Dana Sanmar—exploring the notion of free will in a world where fate holds all the cards.

.

Karen Arenas Valenti

1. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

I have always been a writer. In fact, I have been writing stories since I was in kindergarten. That said, I wasn’t able to truly focus on becoming an Author until about ten years ago. I loved writing, and I knew I had “some” talent. However, I still had a lot to learn about the craft of storytelling and kidlit publishing in general. SCBWI was invaluable in this regard, as was connecting with a community of writers (in my case through Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book Challenge).

2. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

I love writing for middle graders because they are in a wonderful phase of transformation where they are growing into a new self, conscious of how big the world is and how much more meaningful their role can be. This can be at once empowering, but also so terribly intimidating. To put a book in a reader’s hand at this point is to give them a tool of self-discovery that can have a great impact on their lives. I am honored to be a part of that process. I also love writing about middle graders, for they see a world that is at once real but also teeming with magic (magical realism!). This is my tribe.

3. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

This is a tough question to answer, so perhaps I can answer a slightly different one – favorite 2020 and 2021 MG novels? In no particular order, I loved WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER (Tae Keller), ECHO MOUNTAIN (Lauren Wolk, and also BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA which I am now reading), WOLF FOR A SPELL (Karah Sutton), MAÑANALAND (Pam Muñoz Ryan), RED, WHITE AND WHOLE (Rajani LaRocca), and THE NIGHT DIARY (Veera Hiranandani).

4. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

You’re right to feel confused and unmoored. This is a time of transition and growth. It will pass, and you will find a new version of yourself. Which is not to say this isn’t the most important thing happening to you right now! It is. You are in the middle of a momentous event: you are becoming.  

5. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

Middle grade novels are important because they allow readers to journey through experiences that challenge them to grow and evolve in important ways within the confines of a safe space. That safe space is crucial, because it gives readers the confidence to lose themselves and experiment with the new ideas, feelings, and selves that will shape them.

.

.

.

photo of Cindy L. Rodriguez by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned teacher and children’s author. She is a middle school reading specialist in Connecticut, where she lives with her family. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for three Jake Maddox books: Volleyball Ace (2020), Drill Team Determination (2021), and Gymnastics Payback (2021). Upcoming books are The Doomed Search for the Lost City of Z (Capstone, 2022), and Three Pockets Full: A story of love, family, and tradition (Cardinal Rule Press, 2022). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

         

(Left: The paperback cover of Sal & Gabi Break the Universe with the 2020 Pura Belpré Award sticker. Right: The sequel, Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe, released May 5, 2020.)

Review by Toni Margarita Plummer

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents a brilliant sci-fi romp with Cuban influence that poses this question: What would you do if you had the power to reach through time and space and retrieve anything you want, including your mother, who is no longer living (in this universe, anyway)?

How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?

When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.

Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken—including his dead mother—and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.

A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in his mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.

MY TWO CENTS: This is Carlos Hernandez’s first middle grade novel, published by the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney. The imprint publishes books which draw from the mythology or folklore of underrepresented cultures. Unlike other books they’ve published, and Rick Riordan’s own books, Sal & Gabi Break the Universe doesn’t involve a half-god protagonist and aloof or sinister gods. Hernandez isn’t drawing from any mythology for his fantasy world, but rather from science and the idea of parallel universes, which is really refreshing. The Cuban aspect is there, absolutely. The book is set in Miami and we see Cuban culture everywhere, from the language to the food to the mannerisms. Sal is the best and most charming narrator we can hope for, taking us on a vibrant journey as he starts at a new school in a new city.

Culeco Academy of the Arts is not Hogwarts. There’s no magic or super powers. But artistic and creative kids will be itching to enroll! Students take classes in Textile Arts (costumes!), Health Science and the Practice of Wellness (rock-climbing!), and Theater Workshop (dancing, puppets, kata!). Detention is one big educational party.

An important but not defining part of Sal’s character is that he has diabetes, and we see how that affects his life and choices in very concrete ways. Some of the characters, including a teacher, need to be educated on what having diabetes means. Once they get it, they see that although he has some limitations, Sal is a kid just like any other. Scratch that. He’s a talented magician who always has a trick up his sleeve, especially his GOTCHA! stamp. Oh, and he can also open portals into other universes.

What stands out most in the novel are the relationships. Sal’s classmate, Gabi, a future lawyer, is a fantastic character who wears her feminism proudly and literally (all her T-shirts bear inspiring lines from women). The friendship she and Sal build is tentative at first, but cements over the course of the novel. It’s a beautiful thing to witness these two resilient and utterly delightful young people join forces to help each other. The relationships they have with their families are also wonderfully rendered. Sal lives in a big house he calls the Coral Castle with scientist Papi and principal American Stepmom who likes to say, “Phew!” Gabi spends a lot of time with her mother and her many Dads (an entertaining lot!) at the hospital, where her baby brother is in the NICU. I loved the interactions between these families as well. It’s all so intriguing, in fact, that whatever cosmic danger is brewing due to not-closing portals seems to take a back seat. And despite the book’s title, nothing catastrophic actually happens.

One word of caution: Sal’s mother passed away some years ago and he misses her so much that sometimes he inadvertently brings back an alternate Mami, who he calls Mami Muerta. If you are considering giving this to a child who has lost a parent or someone else close, you may want to consider how that particular child will respond to this aspect of the story. On the one hand, it’s maybe comforting, and mind-expanding, to think your loved one exists in other universes, just slightly different. On the other, it could be a little unnerving. Sal’s grief over his late mother is very real and sympathetic, as are his conflicted feelings about wanting her back while also knowing that his father has moved on and is very much in love with his new wife, who happens to be a lovely woman.

There is a lot of compassion to go around in this novel. Even the bully gets a chance to show there’s more to him than what meets the eye. Carlos Hernandez has created a universe infused with possibility, with love, and with acceptance. It’s a place that holds both true sadness and genuine laughs. This debut is an engaging and fun-filled read for middle schoolers.

Carlos Hernandez's pictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carlos Hernandez has published more than thirty works of fiction, poetry, and drama, most notably a book of short stories for adults entitled The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. He is an English professor at City University of New York, and he loves to both play games and design them. He lives with his wife, Claire, in Queens, New York.

 

 

 

PlummerABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondista and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and works as an acquiring editor at an independent publisher in New York City. Toni lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 13: Loriel Ryon

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 13th in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Loriel Ryon.

Loriel Ryon is an author of middle grade fiction. She spent her childhood with her nose in a book, reading in restaurants, on the school bus, and during every family vacation. Her upbringing in a mixed-heritage military family inspires much of her writing about that wonderfully complicated time between childhood and adulthood. Also a nurse, she lives in the magical New Mexico desert with her husband and two daughters. Her debut middle grade novel is Into the Tall, Tall Grass with Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass releases April 7, 2020.

 

Cover_IntotheTallTallGrassHere is the publisher’s description:

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her abuela, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her abuela, who will she have left?

When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that Wela needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.

Loriel Ryon

LorielRyonAuthorPhotoQ. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

I have always written on and off throughout my childhood and adolescence, though not seriously and completely terrified someone might actually read what I wrote. I’d never imagined that I could actually finish a project. I’m a science-geek, and though I have always loved to read, I never thought I was a very good writer. I did okay in my English classes, but always struggled with reading and writing about the classics, not finding that I could really connect with them emotionally.

After I became a mother, and a mostly stay-at-home one, at that, I found that I needed something for myself. The day-to-day monotony of motherhood was really starting to get to me. So, being the crazy person I am, I gave myself homework that I would do every single day during nap time. It started with: write one chapter. Then: write the first 25% of it. Then: Finish it. Even if it’s bad. Even if you mess up. Just finish it. And so I did. I wrote a YA novel. And it was broken and unfixable, but it taught me two things. 1. I could finish something if I made it a goal, and 2. That I needed to do it again. And so I did, and that is where I got the spark to try my hand at a middle grade novel and what sparked the idea for my debut middle grade Into the Tall, Tall Grass.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

I find the time between childhood and adolescence, specifically that upper middle grade/tween age to be the age I like to write for. That time is full of massive changes in physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Kids are becoming more and more aware of the expanding world around them and how they fit (or don’t fit) in. It was the age where I switched from reading children’s books to adult books, that I may not have been quite ready for content-wise. I wish there would have been more books that dealt with the issues I was dealing with at that age: friends, first crushes, family, finding yourself, puberty, all of it.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

TUCK EVERLASTING is one from my childhood that I will never forget. It is one of the few classics that I really connected with and loved and has definitely inspired me in my debut. More recent ones that I’ve read that I have loved are FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, STAND UP, YUMI CHUNG by Jessica Kim, and THE MOON WITHIN by Aida Salazar. They all sucked me in and left me changed by the end of it.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

Be yourself and be okay with it. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t try to be someone else. Own who you are and try (as hard as it is) to just be you. You are going to spend a good portion of your life trying to figure it out anyhow, might as well start now.

Q. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

…they show us that it’s okay to make mistakes and come out the other side changed.

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

Celebrating the Release of the Final Book in the Love, Sugar, Magic Series by Anna Meriano + A GIVEAWAY!

 

Today is the book birthday for the final installment of the Love, Sugar, Magic series by Anna Meriano.

To celebrate, our own Cecilia Cackley has created two pieces of artwork to go along with two of the recipes from the series.

.

First, here’s information about the newest book in the series: LOVE, SUGAR, MAGIC: A Mixture of Mischief

LoveSugar3_snap

It’s spring break in Rose Hill, Texas, but Leo Logroño has a lot of work to do if she’s going to become a full-fledged bruja like the rest of her family.

She still hasn’t discovered the true nature of her magical abilities, and that isn’t the only bit of trouble in her life: Her family’s baking heirlooms have begun to go missing, and a new bakery called Honeybees has opened across town, threatening to run Amor y Azúcar right out of business.

What’s more, everyone around her seems to have secrets, and none of them want to tell Leo what’s going on.

But the biggest secret of all comes when Leo is paid a very surprising visit—by her long-lost Abuelo Logroño. Abuelo promises answers to her most pressing questions and tells Leo he can teach her about her power, about what it takes to survive in a world where threats lurk in the shadows. But can she trust him?

.

Next, we have links to cool stuff:

If you CLICK HERE, you will see our post celebrating the release of Book #2, complete with a Q&A with the author and original character collages.

If you CLICK HERE, you will see our review of the first book.

And if you click on the blue link, you will access the educators’ guide for all three books, thanks to the publisher. LOVE SUGAR MAGIC TEACHERS GUIDE

.

Now, we have information on the author, Anna Meriano 

MerianoAnna ap1 cAnna Meriano is the author of the books in the Love Sugar Magic series, A Dash of TroubleA Sprinkle of Spirits and A Mixture of Mischief. She grew up in Houston, Texas, and earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in writing for children from the New School in New York. She has taught creative writing and high school English, and she works as a writing tutor. Anna likes reading, knitting, playing full-contact quidditch, and singing along to songs in English, Spanish, and ASL. Her favorite baked goods are the kind that open hearts. You can visit her online at www.annameriano.com.

.

Now, get ready to be amazed by the talents of Cecilia Cackley, and get ready to bake because these are real recipes!

 

Recipe1

Recipe2

AND THANKS TO WALDEN POND PRESS, WE HAVE ONE COPY OF BOOK 3 TO GIVE AWAY. ENTER TO WIN HERE:

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e39d5a2720/?

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

Celebrating the Love Sugar Magic series by Anna Meriano

190129-LSM2-blog-1

Words by Anna Meriano, Art by Cecilia Cackley

To celebrate the paperback release of Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano and the release of the sequel, Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, please enjoy these profiles of the main characters in the series, along with collage portraits by Cecilia Cackley. Look for the books at your local bookstore or library and try making some of the sweet treats that each of these characters loves! Happy reading and baking!

First, here’s information about the newest book in the series:

LOVE SUGAR MAGIC A SPRINKLE OF SPIRITS JACKET

Leonora Logroño has finally been introduced to her family’s bakery bruja magic—but that doesn’t mean everything is all sugar and spice. Her special power hasn’t shown up yet, her family still won’t let her perform her own spells, and they now act rude every time Caroline comes by to help Leo with her magic training.

She knows that the family magic should be kept secret, but Caroline is her best friend, and she’s been feeling lonely ever since her mom passed away. Why should Leo have to choose between being a good bruja and a good friend?

In the midst of her confusion, Leo wakes up one morning to a startling sight: her dead grandmother, standing in her room, looking as alive as she ever was. Both Leo and her abuela realize this might mean trouble—especially once they discover that Abuela isn’t the only person in town who has been pulled back to life from the other side.

Spirits are popping up all over town, causing all sorts of trouble! Is this Leo’s fault? And can she reverse the spell before it’s too late?

Anna Meriano’s unforgettable family of brujas returns in a new story featuring a heaping helping of amor, azúcar, and magia.

Now, here are the character profiles:

 

IMG_9046Isabel:

Age: 18

Power: Influence. First-born Isabel can manipulate the emotions of people around her, making them artificially happy, calm, or even scared. It’s a dangerous power to have, so she uses it carefully, except sometimes when she gets mad at Marisol.

Personality: Isabel is the oldest sister, and she takes on a lot of responsibilities both at home and at the family bakery. She’s patient with Leo and loves studying magic and adding decorative details to baked goods.

HP House: Ravenclaw

Favorite recipe: Tres Leches cake because it’s fun to make and decorate for different occasions. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8LpO047bXw)

 

 

IMG_9045Marisol:

Age: 16

Power: Manifestation. Second-born Marisol can pull small objects out of thin air, which comes in handy to stock up her makeup and nail polish collection. She can’t summon anything too large or heavy, but she comes up with a lot of creative ways to annoy Isabel or accomplish tasks with her power.

Personality: Cranky teen Marisol would much rather spend time with her friends than work at the bakery, either on everyday chores or on special magical recipes. She may not be the most patient sister, but she’s a strong ally when things go wrong.

HP House: Gryffindor

Favorite recipe: Payaso cookies because they’re easy and you can text while the dough freezes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgKJXDnlZKU)

 

 

IMG_9043.jpg

Alma & Belén:

Ages: 15 (Alma is one hour older)

Powers: Alma and Belén share their third-born power with each other and with their aunt Tía Paloma. All three can see and talk to ghostly spirits from the other side of the veil, and they can summon the spirits so that others can hear or even see them as well. It takes a lot of energy, so it’s good that they each have a partner to work with.

Personalities: Belén and Alma are usually in their own world, whether they’re inventing secret languages, dressing like their favorite fictional characters, or talking to ghosts. Still, they’re dedicated to their family and focused on honing their skills.

HP Houses: Alma: Slytherin (or Ravenclaw) Belén: Ravenclaw (or Slytherin)

Favorite recipe: Pan de muerto because it’s great for contacting spirits! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38Hu6afbEHQ)

 

 

IMG_9047Leo:

Age: 11

Power: Like the rest of her family, Leo can use her baking magic to make cookies that fly, bread that brings luck, and all sorts of pastries with supernatural side effects. But she doesn’t know yet what her special individual power will be. Those powers are usually based on birth order, but Leo’s the first ever fifth-born daughter, so her powers are still a mystery!

Personality: Leo is the baby of the family, which means she sometimes worries about being left out or kept in the dark. She is determined to prove herself as a baker and a bruja, but that determination can lead her to make decisions that aren’t always the best. Like, for example, the time she accidentally put a love spell on her friend and then shrank him!

HP House: Gryffindor

Favorite recipe: Puerquitos (also known as marranitos)! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2UNs9W7YUw)

 

 

IMG_9044Caroline:

Age: 11

Power: Leo’s abuela once told her that magic works in everyone’s life and provides them with a special ability or gift, the thing they’re meant to do. Caroline has a lot of talents, but she hasn’t figured out exactly what her special gift is yet.

Personality: Caroline is Leo’s best friend, a good student and clever plotter. Because of her family in Costa Rica, she can help Leo translate things to and from Spanish. She loves to read and always shows her appreciation for her friends.

HP House: Hufflepuff

Favorite recipe: roles de canela (cinnamon rolls) of all types, from the ones in the vending machine at school to the dry easy to eat ones from the bakery to the gooey delicious ones Leo makes at her house sometimes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgIHugi7TOI)

 

 

ANNA MERIANOABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Meriano is the author of the “Love Sugar Magic” series, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Shelf Awareness. A Houston native, she graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in writing for children from the New School. Anna works as a tutor and part time teacher with Writers in the Schools, a Houston nonprofit that brings creative writing instruction into public schools. In her free time, she likes to knit, study American Sign Language, and play full-contact quidditch.

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

 

Book Review: Love, Sugar, Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

 

Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.

Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.

And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?

MY TWO CENTS: While we’ve had a strong list of Latinx YA fantasy and magical realism books building for some time, most middle grade books by Latinx authors tend to fall into the genres of realistic fiction or historical fiction. So I was absolutely delighted to read this series opener by Anna Meriano which gives a traditional literary fantasy arc a Latinx, and specifically Mexican-American, voice. Meriano riffs on so many tropes here, including the family with a secret, the youngest child who is desperate to be included, and the sorcerer’s (here, bruja’s) apprentice whose attempts at magic go awry.

One of my favorite things about this book is how the author creates a protagonist who doesn’t speak Spanish (her abuela, who looked after her older sisters and taught them Spanish, died when she was little) and uses it as an obstacle that drives the plot. Magic spells are written in Spanish, so it makes sense that Leo struggles with following them—but also that she perseveres and sees them as her birthright. Not all Latinx kids in the US speak Spanish, for a variety of reasons, and I loved seeing that incorporated into the narrative.

The family relationships in this book are just outstanding. Each sister is individual, and the conflicts between them feel real and lived. I would read an entire book about Marisol and her journey. Meriano doesn’t take the easy way out by having the parents absent or conveniently clueless for most of the narrative, instead making Leo sneak around, constantly worried that her magical efforts will be found out. Of course she is wrong, and the consequences are my favorite part of the book. Leo has to work to fix her mistakes. There is no waving a wand or finding the right words or having a mentor pick up the pieces. She has help, (some of it from an…interesting…source) but she has to do the heavy lifting and figure out the steps to reverse the effects of her spells. Magic systems are tricky to write, and I appreciate that Meriano has created a world with clear rules and expectations, even if they can be bent or broken occasionally.

I would go so far as to say this book is a textbook example of a story that includes specific cultural details, holidays, and language without having them be the focus of the book. So much pop culture centered around Latinx characters uses the Day of the Dead celebrations as an entry and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it gets old after awhile. I loved how Meriano uses the Day of the Dead festival as a set piece, (it’s nice to see how the Logroño family aren’t outsiders in their town), but the book itself isn’t about Day of the Dead. Being a bruja has nothing to do with Day of the Dead. Being Mexican-American is about more than Day of the Dead, a fact that some in the media have yet to grasp.

My favorite line in this book is what Mamá tells Leo when she asks what it means to be a witch.

“A witch can be anyone. A bruja is us. And what does it mean to be a bruja? That’s like asking what it means to be a Texan, or a girl, or curly haired. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s part of you. Then you decide what it means.”

I’m so thrilled that young kids, just hitting middle school, struggling with their identity, will have Leo and her family to make them laugh and guide them to a better understanding of who they are who they want to be in the world.

TEACHING TIPS: There is so much to unpack here for a literature circle or book group at a school. Leo makes lots of choices, which have consequences for many different people, so students can have a field day debating what she should or shouldn’t have done at many different points in the story. Spanish classes, start translating some of those spells! Students could test some of the recipes in the back of the book and bring in their efforts to share with classmates (there is even a gluten-free option). The fantasy elements of the book provide a means for students to write personal narratives imagining themselves into that world: what magical power would you like to have? What are the pros and cons of Isabel’s power versus Alma and Belén’s?

Image result for anna merianoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Meriano grew up in Houston with an older brother and a younger brother, but (tragically) no sisters. She graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis on writing for children from the New School in New York. She has taught creative writing and high school English and works as a writing tutor. Anna likes reading, knitting, playing full-contact quidditch, and singing along to songs in English, Spanish, and ASL. Anna still lives in Houston with her dog, Cisco. Her favorite baked goods are the kind that don’t fly away before you eat them.

RESOURCES: 

Interview with us about being a middle grade author: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/01/05/spotlight-on-middle-grade-authors-part-3-anna-meriano/

Interview on BNKids blog: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/kids/baking-brujas-interview-anna-meriano-love-sugar-magic-dash-trouble/

Excerpt on EW: http://ew.com/books/2017/06/29/love-sugar-magic-dash-of-trouble-excerpt/

Pitch America interview: https://pitchamerica.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/interview-with-anna-meriano-author-of-love-sugar-magic/

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.