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.

Book Review: Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “I see reality in another way with a camera. Looking through the lens, I peer into another world…”

Born in Mexico City in 1942, Graciela Iturbide wants to be a writer, but her conservative family has a different idea. Although she initially follows their wishes, she soon grows restless. After tragedy strikes, she turns to photography to better understand the world. The photographic journey she embarks on takes her throughout Mexico and around the globe, introducing her to fascinating people and cultures, and eventually bringing her success and fame. With more than two dozen photographs by Iturbide herself, Photographic explores the question of what it means to become an artist.

MY TWO CENTS: Photographic is a lively and compelling celebration of the life and work of critically acclaimed Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. Young readers and fans of nonfiction graphic novels will devour it. I certainly did. Written by poet-novelist Isabel Quintero and illustrated by Zeke Peña, this slender graphic novel from Getty Publications tells its stories through an arresting blend of text and photocomics. Not many graphic novels attempt Photographic‘s approach—that is, placing reproductions of Iturbide’s camerawork alongside Peña’s pen-and-ink drawings. Then again, Photographic is no routine examination of an artist’s life. Guided by Quintero’s lyrical narrative, it also offers a powerful and disarming time capsule of Mexico’s cultural and social glories, as encountered by Iturbide during her photographic journey.

Photographic‘s pictorial narrative crisscrosses decades, allowing readers to peer through Iturbide’s lens as she traverses the geographic spine of Mexico, ventures across the border into Latinx communities in the United States, and on to international settings. The story flows from present-day views of Iturbide to flashes of her youth, when her father buys her a Brownie camera. It resumes in young womanhood, as she studies under photography master Manuel Álvarez Bravo. From there, we witness the continuing evolution of the artist as she undertakes a series of photographic projects.

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

Iturbide possesses a selective eye, one that ennobles the disregarded and humble. This is most evident in her deeply humanizing portraits of people found along the margins of society. Such subjects include young men in Tijuana whose tattooed bodies read like a codex, as well as Juchitán’s “muxes, who are both men and women at the same time,” as Quintero explains in the text.

Iturbide’s range of subjects is wide. She occasionally photographs mammals and reptiles, but birds dominate this area of interest. In her photos, they appear singly and in flocks, on perches and in flight, as living creatures and as dusty, feathered bodies. Echoing this passion, Quintero skillfully adopts avian motifs to express some of the most elusive aspects of Iturbide’s photographic instinct.

Each time I look through the viewfinder I see myself…

I use my bird sight to see the fragments. The camera as mirror as bird eye.

And I with eyes to fly.  

Always midflight.

I look to the skies.

Birds like shifting stars and all of them speaking to one another—telling different stories. Wings spread and reverberate until silence.

Courtesy of Getty Publications

 

Although Iturbide resists being labeled magical or surrealist, her art unquestionably plays along the edges of reality. Even when photographing everyday objects, the images she captures teem with mystery and questions. A notable example is her work at Casa Azul, the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. There, in the bathroom, which was sealed after Kahlo’s death for fifty years, Iturbide’s camera brings our attention to porcelain fixtures, detached leg braces and corsets. Although composed of ordinary objects, these tableaus wordlessly communicate Kahlo’s physical suffering and bring into sharper relief the triumph of her immense contributions.

Iturbide’s portraits of uncelebrated women are among her greatest achievements. In one striking photograph, four young women from East Los Angeles pose in front of a mural devoted to Mexican revolutionary and political figures Zapata, Juárez, and Pancho Villa. In their defiant expressions and unapologetic stances, these women testify to the subversive spirit that lives on in their community. Even more startling is Iturbide’s documentation of Juchitán, a city in Oaxaca whose inhabitants are chiefly Zapotec, and where for generations, women have called the shots. “In Juchitán, women drive commerce, and men ask for an allowance.” Out of this matriarchal setting comes one of Iturbide’s most unforgettable photographs, a portrait of a market vendor wearing a crown of live iguanas. Zobeida, as she is identified, is rendered mythical, regal, an image for the ages, La Medusa Juchiteca. Yet Zobeida is a flesh-and-blood woman, making a living selling her wares and not anyone seeking immortality as a goddess. Iturbide’s camera lens frames these dual realities. She has learned how to see what many others miss— a reflex she cannot help but exercise in one after another iconic photograph.

And now, Photographic has brought Iturbide’s empathetic, ennobling, and powerful art to young readers and fans of the graphic novel. It’s no small order to synthesize a lifetime of artistic growth and achievement, but this book delivers, thanks to the wonderful collaborative work of Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña, who are impressive artists in their own right, with rich futures in their respective fields.

TEACHING TIPS: For middle school or high school, Photographic could be used as a supplementary text for the study of Latinx/Mexican culture and sociology, as well as in biographical examinations of artists and their working methods.

In addition to its broader classroom potential, Photographic suggests fresh approaches to the teaching of photography. Borrowing from themes found in its pages, here are some shooting assignments to consider: 1. Go on the hunt for a naturally occurring still life (not staged). 2. Locate a striking landscape or urban-scape that most people would pass by without noticing. 3. Scour your world for intriguing human faces—not necessarily pretty ones—and take care to photograph them with respect and dignity. 4. Include a self-portrait. For inspiration, examine Iturbide’s revelatory photos of herself, which offer strong and original counterpoints to the superficial selfie.

In addition, every frame of Iturbide’s work demonstrates principles of design and composition. Ask students to study her photos for their use of negative space, symmetry, asymmetry, minimalism, close ups, and judicious cropping—then have them pull out their cameras and emulate.

Finally, the wonderful teaching blog Vamos a Leer has published a preview of Photographic, which includes links to many resources, including interviews with Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña. Don’t miss it!

ABOUT THE SUBJECT: Graciela Iturbide lives and works in Mexico City, where she was born. Her photography enjoys worldwide acclaim and has received major international prizes. It is often the subject of solo exhibitions at heralded art centers, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Paul Getty Museum, and the Centre Pompidou. Learn more about Iturbide’s life and view galleries of her work by visiting her official website.  Photo by Christopher Sprinkle

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Isabel Quintero is a poet and novelist of Mexican heritage, born in California. She is best known for her trailblazing Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Punto Press, 2014), winner of the 2015 William C. Morris Award for YA Debut Novel and many other distinctions. It was reviewed on Latinx in Kid Lit by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez. Follow Isabel’s writing journey on her blog.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Zeke Peña is a comics artist and illustrator from El Paso, Texas. Among his many book covers, Zeke is the artist behind the powerful cover of Gabi, a Girl in Pieces. Explore his illustration and painting galleries at his website.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver (no relation to Isabel Quintero) is one of the founding bloggers of Latinxs in Kid Lit. She wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and will release My Year in the Middle, her first children’s book, on July 10, 2018. Learn more about her work here.

 

Book Review: Evangelina Takes Flight

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: It’s the summer of 1911 in northern Mexico, and thirteen-year-old Evangelina and her family have learned that the rumors of soldiers in the region are true. Her father decides they must leave their home to avoid the violence of the revolution. The trip north to a small town on the U.S. side of the border is filled with fear and anxiety for the family as they worry about loved ones left behind and the uncertain future ahead.

Life in Texas is confusing, though the signs in shop windows that say “No Mexicans” and some people’s reactions to them are all-too clear. At school, she encounters the same puzzling resentment. The teacher wants to give the Mexican children lessons on basic hygiene! And one girl in particular delights in taunting the foreign-born students. Why can’t people understand that—even though she’s only starting to learn English—she’s just like them?

With the help and encouragement of the town’s doctor and the attentions of a handsome boy, Evangelina begins to imagine a new future for herself. But will the locals who resent her and the other new immigrants allow her to reach for and follow her dreams?

MY TWO CENTS: Diana J. Noble’s Evangelina Takes Flight is timely to a startling degree. As a work of historical fiction, Noble’s portrayal of upheaval in Mexico caused by the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa’s raids on farming villages remains relevant to this day. In confronting the racism and xenophobia rampant at the border, where shops display signs declaring “’No Dogs! No Negroes! No Mexicans! No Perros! No Negros! No Mexicanos!’,” Evangelina’s story parallels contemporary struggles for racial equality (92). As racial tensions build both in the text and in real life, Evangelina’s stand to keep her school desegregated feels remarkably current, and in its demonstration of child activism, Evangelina Takes Flight holds up a powerful example.

Though Noble doesn’t spend much time explaining the political situation of Mexico during the early twentieth century, the book doesn’t suffer from this lack of context. Indeed, told from the first-person point of view of Evangelina, the text should not offer details outside of her awareness. The book begins mere days after Porfirio Díaz was ousted as president of Mexico, an event that certainly would not have reached the secluded rancho where Evangelina lives, let alone Evangelina herself. Yet, as we journey along with the tenacious and imaginative Evangelina from her fictional Mexican town of Mariposa to the United States to escape the violence wrought by Villa, Noble invites the reader to watch Evangelina grow and mature. She might not be able to foment resistance in her native Mexico, but she certainly can in the United States, and eventually does when called upon to stand up for her right to an education.

Though Evangelina is still a child, at least by modern conceptions of childhood (she turns fourteen during the course of the book), she is entrusted with great responsibility, much of it in the field of medicine—leading her to dream of one day becoming a nurse or even a doctor. While this dream defies the limitations put upon her by her race and her gender, Evangelina does cling to some, perhaps stereotypical, tenets of Mexican femininity. She’s excited for her upcoming quinceañera, and she longs for the attention of boys—one boy, in particular: Selim. Evangelina’s blossoming relationship with Selim is doubly interesting because he is Lebanese—a fact that would likely cause some waves among her traditional Mexican family. Though Noble keeps their relationship chaste, the potential of an interracial relationship adds intrigue, and I wish there was more to it. Understandably, however, Evangelina and Selim’s feelings for each other are overshadowed by an upcoming town hall meeting, which will decide if foreign-born students will be allowed to attend school with their white peers.

Though Evangelina Takes Flight confronts historical (and contemporary) racism with aplomb, it still contains some troubling tropes about marginalized peoples, namely the White Savior figure. Evangelina has multiple encounters with the local doctor, Russell Taylor, whose compassion transcends race. Unlike his neighbors, Dr. Taylor is more than willing to help the Mexicans and goes out of his way to treat Evangelina’s Aunt Cristina when she gives birth to twin sons, one of whom is stillborn. Because of his position as the town doctor, Dr. Taylor holds sway with those who seek to segregate the school. He attempts to act as a mediator between the Mexican families and white townspeople, who are led by the mean-spirited Frank Silver. But Dr. Taylor’s intercession strays into White Savior territory when he is the one who discovers a secret that discredits Silver. After revealing Silver’s secret, Dr. Taylor parades Evangelina in front of the crowd at the town hall meeting, ostensibly to demonstrate her intelligence and humanity; but in a moment such as this, she actually becomes less of a humanized figure and more of a token. Additionally, it is not her own words that sway the townspeople to keep the school unified, but her ability to quote from the Bible, in English, that persuades them. While it is possible to read Evangelina as a key activist figure in spite of Dr. Taylor’s intervention, his role in this scene is a little disappointing, coming as it does in a text that otherwise offers so much in regards to racial equality.

Regardless, this book resonated with me on multiple levels. Evangelina’s struggle for independence, respect, and acquiring her own voice is something that many young Latinas, myself included, face today. Noble’s poetic yet accessible prose allows the reader to slip into Evangelina’s world and understand that problems can be overcome with perseverance and bravery. Though the book is at times slow moving and the plot is occasionally sparse, I would argue that such components allow the industrious reader to dive deep and think critically about Evangelina’s circumstances. However, these characteristics may also make this book difficult for reluctant readers. As a result, though this book is marketed as a middle grade novel, it may be more appropriate for experienced or older readers. Even if some parts were troublesome, I still found Evangelina an intriguing and captivating read,. Ultimately, for those looking for a book that faces contemporary issues through the lens of historical fiction, Evangelina Takes Flight certainly fits the bill.

TEACHING TIPS: Evangelina Takes Flight would pair well with other books about school de/segregation or child activists, such as Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation   or Innosanto Nagara’s A is for Activist. In addition, because of its historical setting, Evangelina would also be useful in teaching about the Mexican Revolution, the history of Texas, or historical race relations in the United States.

Evangelina Takes Flight offers lessons on metaphor and imagery, especially in its use of the butterfly as a symbol of resilience. When Evangelina’s grandfather tells her the story of the migratory butterflies for which her hometown of Mariposa is named, she starts to see the butterfly as an image of strength. Students could be guided to find passages where butterflies are mentioned to see how Noble constructs this extended metaphor. Students may also be encouraged to deconstruct the representations of butterflies on the cover of the book in a discussion about visual rhetoric.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Diana J. Noble was born in Laredo, Texas, and grew up immersed in both Mexican and American cultures. Her young adult novel, Evangelina Takes Flight, is based loosely on her paternal grandmother’s life, but has stories of other relatives and memories from her own childhood woven into every page. It’s received high praise from Kirkus Reviews, Forward Reviews (5 stars), Booklist Online and was recently named a Junior Library Guild selection. [Condensed bio is from the author’s website.]

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.

 

Book Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family’s livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck’s unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tia Perla.

MY TWO CENTS: Jennifer Torres doesn’t waste any time introducing the readers to Stef and the people in her life, including Papi and her best friend Arthur in the first scene outside of their Catholic middle school. She notices Papi in his taco truck – known as Tia Perla for the rest of the book – and she gets angry because he had originally promised to let her meet him at a nearby gas station. This is the first of many conflicts Stef has with her parents about maturity at the seventh-grade level. The conflicts are about issues that come up in many houses of middle school students.

One of my favorite scenes of the book is in chapter 3, when Stef reminisces about the early stages of Tia Perla being in her family’s life. From what Torres describes as “kitchen-table whispers” about the kinds of beans and salsa it’ll feature (“nothing from a jar,” insists Mami) to learning the origin of the name (Stef’s pick), the entire scene was sweet and a key part of the story. The chapters in the entire book are short but detailed enough for readers of any age to get a glimpse into Stef’s life.

Despite the joy Tia Perla once brought to Stef, she feels anything but joy about the beloved truck as the book goes on. She tries to be nice to former-friend-turned-popular-girl Julia by offering her a ride home in Tia Perla, but Julia turns around and calls Stef the “Taco Queen” behind her back. This comes after Julia makes a scene before the start of their English class by announcing she has tickets to see local pop sensation Viviana Vega in concert. Torres then takes the readers into more of Stef’s life at Saint Scholastica School – trying to fit in and leave Tia Perla in the dust. Stef’s favorite day of the week is Tuesday, which she realizes is not common, because it’s when she has her art class. “And in art class,” Torres writes, “I never hear Mami’s voice telling me I’m too young, or Papi’s nagging me to be careful. I am in charge of the blank piece of paper in front of me, and I can turn it into something as vivid and adventurous or as quiet and calm as I want.” This part of the story stuck out to me because of the way Torres compares making art with wanting independence.

Stef spends every Saturday helping her Papi and Tia Perla during their busiest day of the week. They travel to farmers markets, parks, and other outdoor common areas in their city to feed the crowds with the scrumptious food they’re known for. Even though Papi seems grateful every time Stef helps him out, she still wants nothing to do with Tia Perla, especially when it gets in the way of her independent life she’s trying to create.

During a stop on one of Tia Perla’s routine Saturdays, Stef visits her other best friend, Amanda, after her soccer game. While the two are cooling off with the help of strawberry soda, they listen to the radio and eventually win concert tickets to see Viviana Vega. Stef is cautiously optimistic about her parents letting the two attend the concert alone – until they say no, despite her papi giving her a cell phone she thinks is to check in with them at the concert.

The book then turns its focus to two more complex and meaningful issues previously introduced before Stef’s blowup with her papi. Stef and her classmates decide to work together in a unique way to get more art supplies (hint: a school-wide event is included). And, in a move that impacts Stef more than she realizes, Papi’s business (and Tia Perla) is threatened by new proposed city rules that would impact all food trucks in the area, specifically the taco trucks. Stef seems more mature than others her age when she mentions translating important notes for her papi and others from English into Spanish.

The book ends with a couple of different twists that I didn’t see coming, but I believe both twists worked really well to help bring the story to a close. Stef learns to love all of the parts that make up her identity – even Tia Perla.

Torres does a wonderful job describing the characters and each place they’re in throughout the book. I felt like I was following Stef and her family and friends through their adventures. The book addresses many important topics that may be tough for some kids and families to discuss, but I believe the issues were written in a way that kids can understand. I felt for Stef during some of the scenes with her parents.

There are some basic Spanish words and sentences in the book, most of which are italicized except for one – Orale! That word appears several times in the book with several different meanings, which I loved. It helped set the tone for each of the different chapters, especially when Stef described each way it was written for each scene.

Overall, Stef Soto, Taco Queen is a wonderful read. It’s recommended for kids in grades 4-7 (ages 9-12), but I would suggest it to anyone looking for a story about a girl trying to find herself in this crazy world.

TEACHING TIPS: This book could be used to discuss the idea of working together to help solve problems, especially in the face of adversity. Stef’s art teacher, Mr. Salazar, helped his class raise money to bring in more art supplies, even though he was skeptical about their idea at first. The book could also be used in a way to discuss local politics for students. Not many middle-school students get involved with politics in such a way that Stef did, but I believe the book would be a good way to teach students how to make a difference in their community.

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book’s back cover): Jennifer Torres was 17-years-old–a senior at Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, California—when the first time a story of hers was published in a newspaper. The story was about making tamales with her family, but it was also about love and tradition and growing up. She went on to study journalism at Northwestern University and the University of Westminster. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and is the author Finding the Music, a picture book from Lee & Low. Jennifer lives with her husband and two little girls in central California. Stef Soto, Taco Queen is her debut novel.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

assertABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

American Stories of Opportunity, Hope, and Ambition: A Guest Post by Author Jennifer Torres

 

By Jennifer Torres

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and be a college math professor.

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and become a college math professor.

Escalon is a Spanish word that means “step” or “stepping stone.” It is also a small town in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley, surrounded by dairies and almond orchards. Just off Main Street there, across from American Legion Post 263, is the library where Melissa, an eighth grader, volunteers to read to younger children, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish.

“I think it’s important to read to kids because they get to know new things when they read a book,” she told me. Melissa’s own favorite books, she said, are mystery and fantasy novels. “It’s like a whole new world.”

Just like Melissa, many of the children who visit the Escalon Library are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants, families who saw, in the United States, a step toward opportunity and who courageously took it.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverThose stories are American stories, and I hope that readers will recognize them in Stef Soto, Taco Queen.

The fictional Stef Soto, like millions of very real children in the United States who have immigrant parents, is a first-generation American.

Just like Melissa, Stef sometimes translates for her mom and dad.

Just like Stef, Melissa has parents whose hearts thunder with hope and ambition for their daughter.

“I want her to remember where she comes from, but her future is here,” Melissa’s mom, Adriana, told me in Spanish as she helped her daughter lead an arts-and-crafts project at the library. (She credits the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s Migrant Education department for encouraging her to become an advocate for Melissa’s learning). “I want her to graduate, to go to college, to have a better quality of life.”

She and her husband have encouraged Melissa to begin investigating colleges, to think about what she wants to study, who she wants to be.

“I’ve decided I want to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Melissa said, braces glinting. “I think that’s a good one for what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is teach math. When I asked her what grade, she hesitated, sheepish about correcting me.

Finally, she shook her head. “No, I want to be a math professor. Like at a university.”

Just like I did—in a family that includes first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans, as well as some who still live in Mexico—Stef is growing up speaking and listening to a vibrant mix of English and Spanish. We both find comfort in friends and family and warm tortillas, smeared with butter.

And just like all of us, I think, she is trying hard to figure out exactly where she belongs. Too often, for too many, it can feel like a here or there question.

But as I have learned, as students like Melissa remind us, and as characters like Stef discover, our stories are so much richer than that.

“I get to have both cultures,” Melissa said. “And I want people to know that immigrants are people—smart people—who want a better future, and so they came to this country. I think it’s really brave of them.”

jtorresFrom the author’s website: Hi there. I’m Jennifer. I live with my family in California’s Central Valley, and I write stories. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, writing stories about real people, whose lives told us something about our world and maybe about ourselves. Now, I write books for young readers—books with make-believe characters whose stories, I hope, are just as full of life and truth as the real ones.

Check out my picture book, Finding the Music, published by Lee & Low Books, and look out for my debut middle-grade novel, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, coming January 2017 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Award Winners: Spotlight on The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales

PuraBelpreAward

The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone was marked on Sunday, June 26, during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. In honor of the award’s anniversary, we have been highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Viola Canales, the winner of the 2006 Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for The Tequila Worm.

 

Review by Cindy L. Rodriguez

The Tequila Worm CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Sofia comes from a family of storytellers. Here are her tales of growing up in the barrio, full of the magic and mystery of family traditions: making Easter cascarones, celebrating el Día de los Muertos, preparing for quinceañera, rejoicing in the Christmas nacimiento, and curing homesickness by eating the tequila worm. When Sofia is singled out to receive a scholarship to an elite boarding school, she longs to explore life beyond the barrio, even though it means leaving her family to navigate a strange world of rich, privileged kids. It’s a different mundo, but one where Sofia’s traditions take on new meaning and illuminate her path.

MY TWO CENTS: The Tequila Worm begins as vignettes and then moves into a more traditional narrative when Sofia, the Mexican-American protagonist, is a fourteen-year-old high school freshman. In the beginning, a younger Sofia relays special family-centered moments–some downright hysterical and others more poignant–such as her First Communion, making cascarones for Easter, and celebrating both Halloween and Día de los Muertos. Throughout these moments, Sofia learns about her culture and, at times, is torn between her tight-knit community and the “American” world beyond her barrio in McAllen, Texas. After trick-or-treating in her neighborhood and then in another, wealthier part of town, Sofia has this conversation with her father:

“I wish I lived on the other side of town,” I said, looking out the window at the darkness.

“Why, mi’ja?”

“Because they live in nice houses, and they’re warm.”

“Ah, but there’s warmth on this side, too.”

“But…it’s really cold at home, and most of the houses around us are falling apart.”

“Yes, but we have our music, our foods, our traditions. And the warm hearts of our families.”

Another example is when Sofia is verbally bullied, called a “Taco Head” by students when she eats her homemade lunch at school. First, she is embarrassed and avoids the cafeteria entirely, spending that time on the playground or eating inside a stall in the girls’ bathroom to avoid ridicule. With the help of a P.E. teacher, Sofia returns to the lunch room, proudly eats her tacos in public, and is given the advice to get even, not by kicking the bully (which Sofia wants to do) but by kicking her butt at school.

Sofia, indeed, excels in academics and is offered a scholarship to St. Luke’s Episcopal School, a prestigious boarding school in Austin. Sofia’s family doesn’t understand why she wants to leave her home. When her mother asks, “But what’s wrong with here?” Sofia responds, “Nothing. But the Valley is not the whole world…I just want to see what’s out there.”

Eventually, Sofia’s family allows her to attend St. Luke’s, as long as she promises to remain connected and learn how to be a good comadre to her sister Lucy and cousin Berta. In the place she calls “Another Mundo,” Sofia learns to appreciate her family’s stories and traditions, understanding how they have shaped her and connected her to a community rich in other ways. The young girl who once hid after being called a “Taco Head,” grows into a young adult who is “brave enough to eat a whole tequila worm” and who confronts a classmate who writes a note telling Sofia to “wiggle back across the border.” Sofia responds by saying, “My family didn’t cross the border; it crossed us. We’ve been here for over three hundred years, before the U.S. drew those lines.”

The novel’s end leaps ahead in time, with Sofia as an adult, a civil rights lawyer living in San Francisco, who fights to preserve her changing neighborhood and who often visits to happily participate in the traditions she questioned as a child.

The novel’s main events are closely connected to the author’s life, as she, too, was raised in McAllen and attended a prestigious boarding school before attending Harvard University. Many of Canales’s own experiences, portrayed through Sofia, would be easily recognizable to younger Latinx readers who straddle two cultures and find value in each as they come of age.

TEACHING TIPS & RESOURCES: The Tequila Worm naturally lends itself to lessons that explore Mexican-American culture–specifically cascarones, quinceañeras, and Día de los Muertos–as well as broader literary elements, such as character development and universal themes. For classroom ideas, check out these links, starting with this fabulous, thorough Educator’s Guide created by Vamos a Leer: Teaching Latin America through Literacy

A Study Guide created by teacher Bobbi Mimmack: https://sites.google.com/a/chccs.k12.nc.us/bobbi-mimmack/the-tequila-worm-by-viola-canales

An author interview in Harvard Magazine: http://harvardmagazine.com/2006/01/the-beauty-of-beans.html

Viola Irene CanalesABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the Stanford Law School website): Early in her career, Viola Canales served as a field organizer for the United Farm Workers and an officer in the United States Army, where she was tactical director at a Brigade Fire Distribution Center overseeing Patriot and Hawk missile systems in West Germany, and before this, a platoon leader at a Hawk missile battery. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she practiced law at O’Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles (while also serving as a Civil Service Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles, to which she was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley) and San Francisco, and then headed up the westernmost region of the Small Business Administration under the Clinton Administration. Her book of short stories, Orange Candy Slices and Other Secret Tales, was published by the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press; her novel The Tequila Worm, published by Random House, was designated a Notable Book by the American Library Association, and won its Pura Belpré Medal for Narrative, as well as a PEN Center USA Award. El Gusano de Tequila – her Spanish translation of the novel – was published in 2012 by KingCake Press. Her bilingual book of poems The Little Devil & The Rose (El Diabilito y La Rosa) was published in 2014 by the University of Houston.

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She was born in Chicago; her father is from Puerto Rico and her mother is from Brazil. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU and has worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.