Book Review: Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

 

25982606Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Goodreads): Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept. Burn Baby Burn releases March 8 from Candlewick Press. It has been named a Junior Library Guild Selection and has received a starred review from Kirkus.

MY TWO CENTS: Meg Medina follows up her Pura Belpré winner Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass with another story of a girl in Queens just trying to survive high school and family drama. Burn Baby Burn takes place in the summer of 1977, and the larger struggles of New York City grappling with a serial killer, power outages, and arson parallel the way the protagonist Nora is trying to cope with a threatening older brother, an absent father, and a traditional mother who protects family and men at the cost of everything else.  Medina perfectly captures the stifling atmosphere that drives Nora to hide her struggles from her best friend and love interest. I just wanted to give Nora a hug and say please, tell someone about what’s going on at home, but I also understood how her pride and shame drove her decision making. Medina carefully builds the suspense, never taking the easy way out of resolving a conflict. You will be holding your breath by the end of the book, hoping desperately that Nora will triumph.

TEACHING TIPS: The historical setting makes this a good fit for a history or sociology class. Classes studying serial killers, cities in transition, or class and racial tension will find this a compelling read. Medina’s incorporation of the feminist movement and in particular her nod to how it left out women of color is a great place for a class to start a discussion.

photographer, Steve Casanova

photographer, Steve Casanova

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction. She is the 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré medal and the 2013 CYBILS Fiction winner for her young adult novel, YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS. She is also the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal winner for her picture book TIA ISA WANTS A CAR.

Her most recent picture book, MANGO, ABUELA AND ME, a Junior Library Guild Selection, has earned starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and  is included in the 2015 American Booksellers Association’s Best Books for Young Readers Catalog.

Meg’s other books are THE GIRL WHO COULD SILENCE THE WIND, a 2012 Bank Street Best Book and CBI Recommended Read in the UK; and MILAGROS: GIRL FROM AWAY.

Meg’s work examines how cultures intersect through the eyes of young people, and she brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls. In March 2014, she was recognized as one of the CNN 10 Visionary Women in America. In November 2014, she was named one of Latino Stories Top Ten Latino Authors to Watch. 

When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Burn Baby Burn, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Here is the official book trailer for Burn Baby Burn:

 

Cackley_headshotCecilia 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.

Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina

Photo of me & blond girls from class

My Cuban Evolution

By Laura Lacámara

Growing up Cuban-American in suburban Southern California, I teetered back and forth between feeling different, like I didn’t belong, and feeling exotic and special.

The feeling different part came mostly when I was little.

We spoke Spanish at home, while all my friends spoke English.

We ate lechón (roast pork), black beans, and plantains on Christmas eve (nochebuena), instead of turkey, stuffing, and yams on Christmas night.

Then, there was that same embarrassing question asked by all my friends who came over to the house: “Why are your parents fighting?”

“They are not,” I would respond, “they are just talking about what they want for dinner.”

In high school, being Cuban meant getting an easy “A” in Spanish. By the end of high school, being a Spanish-speaking Cuban had gone from totally embarrassing to super cool. I was the “exotic” one among my group of white suburban friends. (I knew I wasn’t really exotic, but I didn’t contradict them because I liked feeling special!)

Me on hood of carFinally, in college, came exploring my roots, and ultimately embracing (and being proud of!) my Cuban-American identity.

Of course, the whole Cuban roots and identity thing comes with the inevitable responsibility to comment on Fidel Castro.

So, when asked that obligatory question by my white, non-Cuban friends: “Don’t you think it’s great that Castro’s revolution has given every Cuban citizen access to a pair of shoes and an education?”

Rather than launching into a big political discussion about the whole embargo thing (which I am totally in favor of lifting, by the way), I now offer the following joke:

“Comrades, what are the three great successes of the revolution? Healthcare, education, and sports. What are the three failures? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Politics aside, being Cuban remains a very personal thing for me. Sometimes it has felt like missing pieces I can only catch glimpses of here and there, but never quite own.

As a Cuban-American author writing stories inspired by growing up in my Cuban family, I’ve been able to explore some of these pieces and the quality of what Cuba, or being Cuban means to me.

Yes, I have lived in the U.S. most of my life, and I can express myself (verbally and on paper) better in English than in Spanish.

But, deep-down, that Spanish-speaking part of me, the one that finds “home” in a plate of black beans and rice with a slice of my mom’s homemade flan, will always be Cubana!

Dalia Cover    Floating

Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiCuban-born Laura Lacámara is the award-winning author and illustrator of Dalia’s Wondrous Hair / El cabello maravilloso de Dalia (Piñata Books), a bilingual picture book about a clever girl who transforms her unruly hair into a vibrant garden.

Laura also wrote Floating on Mama’s Song / Flotando en la canción de mamá, a bilingual picture book inspired by her mother, who was an opera singer in Havana. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales and published by HarperCollins, Floating on Mama’s Song was a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2010 and was a Tejas Star Book Award Finalist for 2011-2012.

You can learn more about Laura’s work at her official website.

 

Cheeseburger by Day, Guayaba by Night

Juan Medina and LIdia Metauten wedding_NEW copy

Meg Medina’s parents at their wedding

By Meg Medina

My parents left Cuba as part of the political exodus in the early sixties. I was the first person in my family born in the United States. I learned Spanish from my mother and English from Romper Room. I grew up biculturally: Cheeseburger by day, guayaba by night, so to speak. All to say that I find that I am Cuban to Americans. To Cubans, I am from the US.

When I consider Cuba, I can only rely on black and white photos and on dreamlike stories – perhaps even the obsessions – of my family. I cut my teeth listening to yarns about a place where you wore only a sweater in the winter, where mangos the size of softballs were heavy with sweetness. It was a place of rivers and beautiful ocean waters where you could see your toes. It was the place of tobacco on their fingertips, a place where my family was happiest and the place that broke their hearts.

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Two of Meg’s relatives on the streets of Havana

My own memories are these: Months of waiting for letters to arrive on thin airmail paper and my aunt’s voice reading the words aloud. A box of old photographs that arrived decades later, the images bored through by insects, and how those photos made my old mother cry. The odd catch in my chest when I see how dire need somehow got recycled into kitschy tourists waving from the seats of classic American cars.

People often ask: “Have you been to Cuba?”

I have never set foot on the island, but in a way, I have been there every day of my life. But how do we talk about Cuba as phantom limb? And, more important, how do we knit ourselves back together – los de aquí y los de allá – and move forward in search of new and better times?

 MANGO_jacket_for_Meg  Tia Isa

ad6df-yaquiMeg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction.

She is the 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré medal and the 2013 CYBILS Fiction winner for her young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She is also the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal winner for her picture book Tia Isa Wants a Car.

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Petite Shards Productions

Her most recent picture book, Mango, Abuela, and Me, a Junior Library Guild Selection, has earned starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and  is included in the 2015 American Booksellers Association’s Best Books for Young Readers Catalog.

Meg’s other books are The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, a 2012 Bank Street Best Book and CBI Recommended Read in the UK; and Milagros: Girl From Away.

Read a wonderful write-up on the Cuban inspiration of Meg’s newest book, Mango, Abuela and Me, at her blog, where you can also find information on her speaking schedule and much more.

The Comadres and Compadres Latino Writers Conference

Pano_Manhattan2007_amk

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Writers workshops and symposiums are every place you look, but only The Comadres and Compadres Latino Writers Conference is specifically geared toward the interests of Latin@ writers. I attended the conference last year and found not only wisdom for the writing life, but also an amazing level of mutual support and enthusiasm for networking among my fellow attendees. Another of the conference’s major strengths is the accessibility of the presenters. The roster of speakers includes authors, editors, agents, and other members of the literary and publishing industry with keen interest in increasing Latin@ representation in books.

My co-blogger Cindy L. Rodriguez wrote about her experience at the 2014 conference, and the year before, Yadhira Gonzalez Taylor shared a recap of the sessions she attended.

This year, on October 3, the 4th Annual Comadres and Compadres Writers Conference will be held at The New School, in Manhattan. The New School is also a co-sponsor of the event.

Adriana Dominguez, of Full Circle Literary, is one the conference founders and organizers. Speaking of this year’s line up, she says, “We will have some amazing editors in attendance on the children’s side, which represents an amazing opportunity for Latino authors in particular! This is the only conference that focuses specifically on Latino writing, and as the numbers of Latino authors (and editors and agents) have dwindled in recent years, we know that our work is more important than ever.”

Please note that the deadline for the lower registration fee ($125) and to sign up for one-on-ones with agents and editors is 9/16, so best to sign up now, while you can still get a one on one, and before the fee goes up to $150 on site!

Cristina Garcia collageThis year’s keynote speaker is Cristina García,  the bestselling author of Dreaming in Cuban and other important books.

Meg Medina, best known for her Pura Belpré prize-winner, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, will lead the children’s writing workshop. Other panelists of note include Angela Dominguez, author-illustrator of many adorable picture books, such as Knit Together, and Daniel José Older, writer of the highly acclaimed YA novel Shadowshapers. You can learn more about the conference program and registration details at the Las Comadres website.

Comadres panelists

The Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference Offers Great Panels & Intimate Setting

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago

Once, I attended a large conference for educators, and when I approached the keynote speaker to ask a question, handlers surrounded her and ushered her away. I bring this up because the Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference was the opposite experience. The conference, held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn on September 27, was an intimate affair, meaning the well-known agents, editors, and authors were *right there* and accessible. Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago posed for pictures. Meg Medina paused in the hallway to sign books. Conference-goers lunched at small tables with Stacy Whitman from Tu Books and Adriana Dominguez from Full Circle Literary. How cool, right?

The conference, in its third year, was developed by Dominguez, Marcela Landres, and Nora de Hoyos Comstock, the founder of Las Comadres para las Americas to “provide unpublished Latino writers with access to published Latino authors as well as agents and editors who have a proven track record of publishing Latino books.” The one-day event offered panels, one-on-one critiques, a pitch slam, and a lunch-time speech by keynote speaker Esmeralda Santiago, who told her own publishing story and emphasized the discipline needed to be a professional writer. Books of all the presenters were also available from La Casa Azul, a New York City bookstore that specializes in Latino Literature.

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Author Meg Medina

Here were some of the highlights:

Author Meg Medina, winner of the Pura Belpré Award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, emphasized the importance of diversity in children’s literature. “We’re looking at a diverse set of kids in the (school) seats, so we need a diverse set of books.” She added that Latin@ books are not only for Latin@s: “Our books matter to all kids of all cultures.”

In terms of craft, Medina told writers to put their efforts into creating great work, not a great platform. The writing comes first. She also said she is not a methodical planner. Instead, she follows her character–she lets the characters speak to her–as she is writing and often asks, “What are you really afraid of? What’s really the problem?” When creating an antagonist, writers should “create a worthy opponent, a layered opponent. Don’t create a stereotype, especially for the bad guy.”

Medina spoke at a later panel with our own Lila Quintero Weaver, author of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. During that session, moderated by Shelley Diaz, Senior Editor of School Library Journal’s reviews, Lila spoke about her non-traditional publishing route that led her to become an accidental author. Her graphic novel was originally a college project that eventually landed on the desk of the University of Alabama Press editors. Lila said she couldn’t think of a single disappointment in publishing so far and encouraged writers to see the process as an opportunity to grow, not just get published.

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Meg Medina, Lila Quintero Weaver, and Shelley Diaz

Here are Lila’s thoughts after the conference:

“One of the exceptional values of conferences like Comadres is what they offer over social media alone. You can share a table at lunch, laugh together, chat about life beyond writing, and listen to the same speaker in the same moment. It’s the magic of synergy, which in the case of Latin@s comes with extra simpatico in the sauce! I returned home with a pocketful of business cards, and my Twitter feed lit up with Latin@ conversations on multiple topics. Let’s not forget the opportunity to discover new writers. My Goodreads update will soon reflect that fact. I wasn’t seeking representation or editorial feedback, but those opportunities were present at the conference too, another BIG reason for attending. So yes, my experience boils down to making great connections with Latin@ writers, the kind that endure if you work on them.”

For those seeking representation and editorial feedback, we have good news. Agents and editors said they want more diverse titles, but they said they’ve seen too many memoirs and depressing stories cross their desks. They would, however, like to see more young adult manuscripts with Latin@ protagonists. Nancy Mercado, editorial director at Scholastic said she’d love a Latino Cheaper by the Dozen, and Johanna Castillo, vice president and senior editor at Atria/Simon & Schuster, said she’s hoping to see rich stories about immigrant children raised without their families in the U.S.

Organizers said attendance at this year’s conference doubled from last year, a great sign that the event will be around for years to come.

Click here for another report on the conference, and click here for more  information about Las Comadres.

Illustrator Joe Cepeda Talks to Latin@s in Kid Lit, Part 2

By Lila Quintero Weaver

We’re continuing a fascinating conversation with acclaimed illustrator Joe Cepeda. His work graces many Latin@-themed children’s books. Did you miss the first installment? Go here.

Lila: When did your interest in art begin? How did you train for a career in illustration?

Joe: When I was young, I enjoyed drawing enough that my mom enrolled me at the Los Angeles Music and Art School in East Los Angeles, a small jewel of a place where I first tried painting. By my teens, though, I stopped going and after graduating high school found myself headed to college to study engineering. It took me awhile before I changed all of that. Initially, I thought I’d be an editorial cartoonist, but as soon as I got a brush back in my hand, I realized I wanted to do something that had an artfulness to it as well. Illustration afforded the perfect combination of content and creative articulation for me.

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To be honest, my training was largely guided toward editorial work. I sort of fell into children’s books. Creating a piece for a magazine article is much like doing work for a cover. There is a certain amount of seduction employed in influencing a magazine reader to stop and read an article, much the way you’d want someone to pick up a book off a shelf. A combination of abstraction, mystery, emotion, and information might play a role in creating that single image that will lure the audience in.

From the books I’ve illustrated, I pretty much taught myself sequential image-making and continue to do that. With a portfolio largely lacking any real samples that reflected page-turning sensibilities, it was very fortunate that I was signed up to illustrate those first books. I believe that it was an inclination to write a picture as much as illustrate one that may have been evident to my first editors and art directors. They seem to have responded to that and took a risk. I’m grateful to them for doing so.

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Lila: Most of us have no idea how an illustrator goes about his work. Can you give us a tour of the process?

Joe: In many ways, the real work is done throughout the sketch phase. For editorial work, I usually create a few alternate ideas for a director to choose from. The sketches need to be tight enough for the director to envision the finished art.

For books, the sketch process is more comprehensive. The first sketches are thumbnails in which I mostly brainstorm, trying to find the basic rhythm, character introduction, action, choreography of the story, etc. The second phase of sketches, laid out as a dummy (a design/template that allows you to see the whole book planned out) focuses on the essential content of the story, as well as soundly composing the images. This is the working plan to be shared with editors and art directors. It’s important to understand that this design is as much for others as it is for oneself. This is where mistakes are caught.

Finally, in the last draft of sketches, details are included to a more specific degree. The emotions of your images many times are expressed in the details of your illustrations. It’s where things become funny, scary, thrilling, suspenseful, etc. This shouldn’t be confused with complexity—a simple picture has as much power as an ornate one. Once the dummy is okayed, it’s on to the finished work. Almost all of my books have been executed as oil paintings over acrylic under-paintings on illustration board. A recent book I illustrated was delivered as digitally rendered finishes. Whatever your medium of choice, the more confident you are of your plan, the more enjoyable the last part of the process will be. I leave color out of the initial plans because I prefer to be responsive when it comes to that, leaving a level of spontaneity for the end.

Milagros_jacket_finish72Lila: Let’s close out this conversation by returning to a book cover, the one you recently did for the e-book version of Meg Medina’s Milagros: A Girl from Away. It’s breathtaking, truly exceptional. I know Meg was thrilled with it!

Joe: Thanks for the kind words. Milagros is a great story and it was a wonderful opportunity to illustrate the cover of the e-book. After reading the manuscript, I couldn’t help responding to Milagros as a girl between two worlds. It’s the “between” part that intrigued me as a source for creating a provocative image. Milagros is not only traveling from one place to another, as she does in the story, she’s also between the clarity of a wide-open sky and the deep mystery and profundity of the ocean. The magical realism of the story, in my mind, calls for a more symbolic and open-ended image. Alternative ideas depicted Milagros closer to the viewer, larger in the design. This would emphasize Milagros more. A reader might respond to that kind of image, “That girl looks like me, i want to read about her.” It’s certainly popular to create covers that are more character-based, but, I’m glad that we decided to go the other way, that is, emphasizing the mystery, the peril of the journey, and the hopefulness and optimism of Milagros’ spirit. A reader here might ask, “Where is that girl going? What is she facing? Is she lost? Is she on her way somewhere? Is she safe? Will she get there? What will she find? Keeping her small in the design also helps the reader ask, “Who is she?” My first sketches didn’t include the manta ray, inclined to depict Milagros navigating her way alone, but, as we discussed, it’s a central part of the story. I’m glad mantas are such mysterious and, perhaps, very poetic creatures. I wanted it to have an ambiguous posture… is it a threat to her, or is it a witness, or, even something more? For me, the more questions you ask when looking at a cover, the better a cover does its job.

“““““““`

To learn more about Joe’s craftsmanship and illustration technique, see this extensive interview by Kathleen Temean.

Want to see Joe in his studio and hear more of his story? Here’s a video interview, worth the double click-through!

 

Diversity in Kid Lit was ‘On Fire’ at National Latino Children’s Literature Conference

My signed conference poster! The gorgeous artwork comes from Laura Lacamara's new book, Dalia's Wondrous Hair.

My signed conference poster! The gorgeous artwork comes from Laura Lacamara’s new book, Dalia’s Wondrous Hair.

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Let me float down to earth, grab a keyboard and pound out a report about the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. That was my self-talk on March 15. The two-day conference, held at the University of Alabama and headed by mover-and-shaker Dr. Jamie Naidoo, had wrapped up at 4 pm the previous day.

Sixteen hours later, my whole being still felt tingly with the residual vibrations of what we’d experienced: great dialogue, stimulating talks, and warm connections with people passionate about the same thing, increasing diversity in children’s books. And it’s amazing how many presentations referenced last year’s incendiary New York Times article on minority characters in kid lit. The conference stirred my juices, but before I could touch my keyboard to write about it, Marianne Snow posted a great recap on her blog. There’s no way that I could improve on her account. 

That’s not the end of the story. Over the same weekend, The New York Times published a pair of essays from prize-winning YA author Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher, an author-illustrator of note, on the scarcity of characters of color in children’s books. Spine tingling, timely, and powerful. Clearly, diversity in children’s books is a topic on fire!

And now, back to the conference. Since Marianne’s recap covers only the second day, here are select quotes and highlights from the first day:

NLCLC LogoLiterary agent Adriana Dominguez outlined some of the challenges facing Latin@ children’s literature: “Many editors think about Latino books as niche or institutional.” Neither of these spells the huge sales figures that the industry has become hungry for. She pointed to the Harry Potter phenomenon as a watershed moment in children’s publishing. Previously, marketing departments targeted libraries and schools, but the commercial success of Harry Potter and other blockbusters has shifted the dynamics.

Members of the audience asked how to best advocate for Latin@ children’s literature. Librarians can push these books, Dominguez said. She cited the late Rose Treviño as a personal mentor and a role model in the field of library services to children. Ms. Treviño was a beloved Houston public librarian who served the local Latin@ community and brought Latin@ books to the attention of a wider audience. Her passionate advocacy was captured in this extensive interview by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Someone else asked, would more Latinos on the “inside” of publishing help to balance the equation? Yes, Dominguez said, because “you’re a stronger advocate for something you truly believe in.” She pointed out that graduate programs in publishing are recruiting zones for the “big five.”

In her keynote, recent Pura Belpré winner Meg Medina raised the topic of universal themes, those that address the experiences of all children, regardless of demographic labels. She reminded us that “Latino” is a uniquely American concept. Many Latin@ children grapple with the additional challenges of biculturalism. She shared that in her work, she strives to present a range of Latin@ characters, a “whole tapestry,” not merely those that the public has come to expect. (In her Monday post, Meg offered a terrific conference recap of her own.)

7789203Author-illustrator Laura Lacámara gave the day’s final keynote. Her journey into publishing has taken some interesting turns. She was first an illustrator of children’s books. Then came her debut as a writer, Floating on Mama’s Song, a story inspired by her mother’s devotion to opera. But Laura didn’t illustrate it; Yuyi Morales did. Now, hot off the presses is Laura’s newest book, her first to write and illustrate, the delightful Dalia’s Wondrous Hair (see the conference poster image, above). Count on a book talk in the near future!

The variety of breakout sessions boggled the mind. Thursday, I sat in on Lettycia Terrones’s illuminating talk on image-making in Latin@ children’s literature, followed by Araceli Esparza’s “Roots of Race in Chicano/Latino Picture Books,” another enriching experience. The next day, I heard an expert presentation by Catalina Lara on the Latin@ child and language.

Social media is an excellent tool, but let’s not forget the value of face-to-face meetings. They spark connections like nothing else. Next time you hear about a conference that addresses diversity or Latin@ children’s books, consider attending.