Book Reviews: Lucía the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza; illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez and ABC Pasta by Juana Medina

 

LUCÍA THE LUCHADORA

Review by Dr. Sanjuana Rodriguez

Lucia the Luchadora CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Lucía zips through the playground in her cape just like the boys, but when they tell her “girls can’t be superheroes,” suddenly she doesn’t feel so mighty. That’s when her beloved abuela reveals a dazzling secret: Lucía comes from a family of luchadoras, the bold and valiant women of the Mexican lucha libre tradition. Cloaked in a flashy new disguise, Lucía returns as a recess sensation! But when she’s confronted with a case of injustice, Lucía must decide if she can stay true to the ways of the luchadora and fight for what is right, even if it means breaking the sacred rule of never revealing the identity behind her mask. A story about courage and cultural legacy, Lucía the Luchadora is full of pluck, daring, and heart.

MY TWO CENTS: The cover of the book is flashy with a larger than life young girl in a luchadora outfit. The story begins with Lucía playing on the playground where there are two other boys. Lucía tries to play with the boys, but they are not interested in playing with her. One of the boys tells Lucia that “girls can’t be superheroes” and she gets angry that they have told her this. That’s when Lucia’s abuela whispers a secret to Lucía. Abuela shows Lucia her cape and mask and tells her about the Mexican lucha libre tradition. She shares that she was a luchadora as a young girl and tells her that “a luchadora has moxie. She is brave and full of heart, and isn’t afraid to fight for what is right.” The next day, Lucia goes back to the playground wearing her luchadora cape and mask. Everyone notices Lucía, but she does not reveal her identity to the kids. One day when she is playing she notices another luchadora dressed in pink. She hears the boys telling her the same thing, “girls can’t be superheroes! Girls are just made of sugar and spice and everything nice!”. Lucía remembers when her abuela told her that “a real luchadora must fight for what is right” and reveals that she is a girl. When others start clapping, she notices that there are luchadoras all around her who also reveal their identity. She continues to play without her mask and tells herself the following with her grandmother smiling as she watches her play, “I am still the best kind of superhero. I am Lucía the Luchadora, mask or no mask.”

This book is a rare jewel–it features a strong Latina girl as a superhero! This book sends a clear message to all kids to be courageous in the face of injustice. Lucía does not reveal who she is until she understands that it will help another little girl who is going through something similar. In the end, Lucía realizes that she does not need a mask to be a hero. The book also shows the importance of inter-generational relationships in the Latinx culture.  Lucía’s abuela is the one who shares her own experience and shares with her the mask and the cape. The last picture shows abuela smiling as Lucía plays with the other luchadoras on the playground.

The illustrations in this book are beautiful and bright. My favorite illustration shows Lucía when she gets angry.  In a full page spread, red and orange peppers surround Lucia to show that she is “spicy mad. KA-POW kind of mad.” The illustrations are very detailed and show careful attention to the depiction of cultural artifacts and symbols such as rosary beads and the abuela’s perfume.

TEACHING TIPS: At the end of the book, the author included a note on luchadoras, luchadores, and lucha libre in which the author discusses luchadores in Mexico and the history of lucha libre.

The author worked with an educator to create a curriculum guide to go along with Lucía the Luchadora. The guide includes questions, lesson ideas, and information about the author and illustrator.

http://www.cynthialeonorgarza.com/curriculum-guide-download-for-lucia-the-luchadora/

The following is an article of an interview with the author, Cynthia Leonor Garcia.

http://www.chron.com/entertainment/books/article/Luc-a-the-Luchadora-author-wants-more-11056270.php

This guide titled “Lucha Libre and Mexican Culture for Kids” features information about lucha libre as well as other picture books about this topic:

http://www.spanishplayground.net/mexican-culture-lucha-libre/

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Lucía the Luchadora, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): I’m a writer and write all sorts of things. My debut picture book Lucía the Luchadora was published in March 2017. I’ve written essays for The Atlantic, commentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered and am an alum of the VONA/Voices writer’s workshop. I’m also a journalist and have worked as a reporter for several newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I graduated from Rice University and have a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I was born and raised in South Texas and currently live with my husband and two young daughters in Nairobi, Kenya. Reach me via Twitter or at luchalady [@] gmail.com

Photo by Mark Cowles

Photo by Mark Cowles

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (from her website): As a born and bred New Yorker, my recent move to Tasmania has led me to discover a limitless wellspring of inspiration in the form of an urban and rural coalescence.  My artistic framework stems from my undergraduate and graduate degree courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where I studied illustration, computer animation and interactive media. Illustration is my main form of communication and memory keeping, and I believe that even the smallest life experiences can be the greatest asset to inspired creations. To me, art is a powerful motivator which equips me with the ability to transcribe my imagination into something tangible. I hope to direct those who view my work into a deeper experience with curated colour, delightful subject matter and professional craftsmanship.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

 

ABC PASTA: An Entertaining Alphabet

Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE  BOOK:
A is for angel hair acrobat
M is for Macaroni the Magician
and T is for tortellini trapeze artist.
It’s an ABC circus that’s good enough to eat

MY TWO CENTS: We all know pasta is delicious, but who knew it could be so colorful and informative? After focusing on depicting animals in her last delightful concept book 1 Big Salad, Juana Medina adds human limbs, features and accessories to various pastas and other ingredients to create an engaging circus alphabet. Her lines are bold and sketchy, with splashes of color for cheeks and clothing added to create a beautiful, balanced effect. Medina has told me that Quentin Blake was a huge influence on her art, and it’s really visible in these energetic drawings. She constantly changes the way she incorporates the photographs of the different kinds of pasta (plus a few herbs and cheeses), sometimes using it for the body of the character, sometimes the head or the hair, and occasionally for wheels, instruments or hoops. This is a delicious concept picture book that readers of many ages will be thrilled to pick up.

TEACHING TIPS: This is a book that rewards careful observation, and teachers can use it with preschool and kindergarten classes as a fun read aloud for introducing the alphabet. For slightly older students, a scavenger hunt would be a fun way to create an activity to go with the text, asking kids to find letters that use the pasta for different effects, or count how many letters include an instrument. Medina’s vocabulary is very sophisticated for an alphabet book, making this a good choice for a language lesson explaining words like ‘spectator,’ ‘invincible,’ or ‘zestful.’ Art teachers can use this alongside Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s found object art to spark ideas for student drawings using pasta or other items. I’d also like to point out that unlike many other circus themed books, Medina focuses solely on the humans, with no animals included at all. Now that the Ringling Bros circus has closed, most circuses in the U.S. have retired the elephants and seals and instead feature an incredible range of acts from acrobats to jugglers to clowns. It was nice to see those acts introduced to young people in this book.

Photo: Silvia Baptiste © 2013ABOUT THE AUTHORJuana Medina was born in Bogotá, Colombia, where she grew up, getting in a lot of trouble for drawing cartoons of her teachers. Eventually, all that drawing (and trouble) paid off. Juana studied at the Rhode Island School of Design – RISD (where she has also taught). And she has done illustration & animation work for clients in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe. She now lives in Washington, D.C., where she teaches at George Washington University. She is the illustrator of Snick! by Doreen Cronin and the author and illustrator of 1 Big Salad, Juana and Lucas (which won the Pura Belpré Award) and the upcoming picture book Sweet Shapes.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find ABC Pasta, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Click here for a post about a studio visit with Juana Medina.

 

Cackley_headshotABOUT 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: 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.

Spotlight on Pura Belpré Winners: Illustrator Stephanie Garcia for Snapshots from the Wedding

 

PuraBelpreAward
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpé Awards. Starting in the spring, we began shining a spotlight on the winners. This post features the beautiful and imaginative illustration work of Stephanie Garcia for Snapshots from the Wedding, a delightful picture book written by Gary Soto, and the winner of the 1998 Pura Belpré Illustration Award.

 

 

Review by Lila Quintero Weaver

snapshots-cover-2DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Meet Maya, Isabel’s flower girl, as she describes in vivid detail the exciting wedding day. Maya introduces us to Danny, the ring bearer; Aunt Marta, crying big tears; Uncle Trino, jump-starting a car in his tuxedo; and Rafael, the groom, with a cast on his arm. Of course, the big day also includes games, dancing, cake, and a mariachi band that plays long into an evening no one will ever forget.

Snapshots from the Wedding captures the unique moments of a special occasion—the big scenes as well as the little ones—that together form a rich family mosaic.

MY TWO CENTS: Snapshots from the Wedding is a lightly humorous story told through the eyes of a young girl named Maya. Gary Soto delivers this joyous narrative of a traditional Mexican boda in lyrical and rhythmic language.

By casting Maya in the role of narrator, Soto allows the reader the same view of the festivities as a member of the wedding party. From her position, Maya observes and comments on the assembled guests, the bridal procession, the photographer at work, and the moment when the couple exchanges vows at the altar. Afterward, at the reception, Maya revels in the mariachi band, the pinning of paper money to the bride’s skirt, and the couple’s departure beneath a shower of rice. As her gaze travels across each scene, she stops to focus on details ranging from the ring bearer’s slicked-back hair, to a boy whose tongue wiggles through the space left by newly lost baby teeth, and to the eye-popping spectacle of a towering wedding cake.

In Soto’s words, “Here’s the wedding cake, seventh wonder of the world, from Blanco’s Bakery, with more frosting than a mountain of snow, with more roses than mi abuela’s back yard, with more swirls than a hundred turns on a merry-go-round.”

Stephanie Garcia, the Pura Belpré-winning illustrator, depicts Maya’s wide-eyed experience of the wedding as something remembered through a series of winsome snapshots. Yet, in one of the most surprising and original aspects of this book, Garcia brings the scenes into sharp relief through exquisitely constructed dioramas that defy all expectations for a story conceived around the idea of photographs.

Each of the three-dimensional illustrations is a miniature stage that sits within a shallow wooden box. The overall effect is that of a dollhouse whose rooms brim with texture and engaging detail, and which cry out to be touched and played with, in order to fully appreciate the tactile gifts they offer. Using a wide range of materials that includes fabric, clay, paint, and found objects, Garcia populates her scenes with individually rendered characters, furnishings, and backdrops. Fashioned from Sculpy clay, each human figure bears distinct facial features and expressions. The skin tones come in varied shades of brown, and each is dressed in clothing suitable for that person’s role in the wedding.

By leaving the diorama’s rough wooden edges in full view and by dressing some of the wedding guests in homespun fabrics, the book hints at the deeper, economic realities of life in a working-class Mexican community. Yet, the momentous social importance of weddings often leads families to go all out for the occasion, evidenced here by the elaborate costumes of the mariachi band and the satin-and-lace gowns of the bridal party.

In nearly every spread, Garcia employs a clever frame-within-a-frame concept that plays with the passage of time. In these instances, select characters appear inside a gilt-edged frame, like mannequins propped in a store window, even as the activity of the moment continues to swirl around them. This approach suggests a future glimpse of the photos being taken. Appropriately, the photographer himself appears in one of the dioramas, snapping his shutter just as the bride and groom are about to kiss.

Garcia’s attention to individual characters complements Soto’s depictions. In one of my favorite vignettes, little Maya and another young lady try their best to snare the bouquet as the bride tosses it. But the bouquet is “caught by the tallest woman there, my cousin Virginia, a college basketball player, with a three-foot vertical leap.” Garcia gives Virginia a mint-green bridesmaid’s dress, with low-heel pumps dyed to match, and a long reach that ensures her effortless catch. We can easily imagine Virginia in a basketball uniform, putting her vertical leap to good use in a different context.

With such singular moments, Soto and Garcia illuminate a range of experiences not often captured in portrayals of Mexican culture. Through its engaging text and rich dioramas, this picture book offers charming views of an important social occasion as seen through the delighted eyes of a little girl who feels at home within this community. And this wedding is an occasion she’ll remember for years to come through its album of snapshots.

Note: We were not able to secure permission from the publisher to share images from the book’s interior pages. Please locate a copy and see them for yourself! 

Portrait of Stephanie GarciaABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Stephanie Garcia is an illustrator, graphic designer, art director, and design consultant, with a wealth of experience in the corporate world and the classroom, where she shares her knowledge with others. Learn more about her in this publisher profile.

 

 

Image result for GARY SOTOABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gary Soto is the author of multiple picture books, including the Chato series, which won the Pura Belpré illustrator award for Susan Guevara. He also published many novels for youth, as well as books of short stories for young readers, and collections of essays and poems. His awards include the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, the Andrew Carnegie Medal, and the National Book Award. Learn more at his official website. See some of our coverage of Soto’s work in this review and in a post about his decision to stop publishing children’s literature.

 

Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Her next book is a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Author David Bowles on his Garza Twins Series and the Pura Belpré Honor

 

By David Bowles

When my three kids were younger, we had a tradition of reading YA fantasy and sci-fi series together. Harry Potter was a big deal for many years, followed by His Dark Materials, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and so on. I even read the Twilight series with my oldest daughter, if you can believe it.

This shared reading was fantastic. We shed tears, laughed aloud, and had many deep conversations. One thing we kept coming back to—as Mexican-American fans of speculative fiction—was the lack of people of color in most of the books we read (beyond secondary, less important roles). Typically these series boasted a team of what amounted to Anglo young people facing off against European or Western legendary beings, gods, or dilemmas.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” we often mused, “to open one of these books and find a Chicana facing off against Aztec deities or Mexican monsters?”

Venting this frustration to writer friends of mine, I was answered by an idea that should have been obvious from the beginning:

“You’re a writer, David. This matters to you. Why not develop such a series yourself?”

It was a no-brainer, clearly. Tan obvio. The trick now was to hit on the right story. I was hasta el cuello en research into Aztec and Maya literature at the time, and it occurred to me that a journey through the nine levels of Mictlan/Xibalba (the Mesoamerican Underworld) would make for a great hero quest. I cast about for the right characters for a while, until I started paying close attention to the fantastic friendship between my youngest son and middle daughter. With a few tweaks to age and interests, they became templates for the Garza twins.

But who were the Garza twins? What was special about them? Why would they travel through the Underworld? The answers became clear to me one morning when I stepped outside to find a dead jackrabbit in my backyard. An image suddenly overlaid the scene in my head: my daughter, asleep in the grass, the jackrabbit between her hands. I knew in that instant that the twins were naguales, shapeshifters, and the rest fell into place.

Once the book was written, it was rejected by many agents and publishers before finding a nice home with the Australian press IFWG Publishing, who treated the project with a good deal of love, even agreeing to allow one of my very talented daughters to design the cover. Reviewers and young readers alike responded positively to The Smoking Mirror, and I was delighted to have added to the body of diverse YA literature.

When the request came for us to submit copies to the Pura Belpré Award, I was floored, truly overwhelmed at the idea that these incredible advocates for Latino books would be reading my novel. Then, months later, I got the call from the committee—they’d selected The Smoking Mirror as one of two Pura Belpré Author Honor Books.

Very seldom am I at a loss for words—ni en inglés ni en español—but I found it hard to catch my breath and thank them profusely. It’s a humbling yet fulfilling sensation, seeing a project you believe so strongly in get this level of recognition, and I am eternally indebted to all the people who believed in Garza Twins at every stage of its development.

28484604Of course, this is only the beginning for me and the twins. Book two, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, will be out in late April. This time, Johnny and Carol Garza find themselves plunging deeply into the Pacific Ocean to stop a renegade prince of the merfolk and his allies—among them the water elementals the Aztecs called tlaloqueh—from recovering the Shadow Stone, a device that can flood the planet.

Garza Twins will last for five volumes, and Kingdom ratchets up the tension and stakes, introducing cool new characters and laying the foundation for future conflicts. As with The Smoking Mirror, the normal life of the Garza family is explored; the twins grapple with problems facing many modern Latino teens, and the courage and compassion with which they resolve those issues bleed into their supernatural encounters as well. But, as with me in my writing endeavors, they can’t triumph alone. Family and friends are vital to the success of their mission.

You see, I think the biggest myth in our culture, and perhaps the most dangerous, is that of the lone hero. Each of us is part of a greater community, a web of support and lore without which we could not survive. If there is a message at the heart of Garza Twins, I think that’s it.

Unidos podemos. Together, we can.

 

me 6-3-14A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas Associated Press, he has written several books, most notably the Pura Belpré Honoree The Smoking Mirror. His work has also been published in venues such as BorderSenses, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Asymptote, Translation Review, Huizache, Metamorphoses and Rattle.

It’s Not So Scary! The Day of the Dead and Children’s Media

 

By Cris Rhodes

deadfamilydiazWith the Day of the Dead this weekend, I am reminded of recent children’s media, like P.J. Bracegirdle’s The Dead Family Diaz and Jorge Gutierrez’s film The Book of Life, that juxtapose the fraught topic of death against the colorful backdrop of the Day of the Dead. Through their fanciful visuals, full of lush, opulent colors and whimsical and endearing skeleton figures, books and films for children about the Day of the Dead repurpose traditionally scary imagery and repackage it as a beautiful celebration of both death and Mexican culture. While skeletons and death are often regarded as nightmare fuel in children’s literature and media, Day of the Dead narratives embrace the terrifying and show their readers and watchers that these spooky things aren’t so scary after all.

In recent years, for many Mexicans living in Mexico and abroad, Day of the Dead celebrations have come to symbolize something integral to the Mexican cultural identity. The Day of the Dead epitomizes Mexico’s complicated relationship with death and the afterlife, a tradition that finds its roots in the pre-Colombian celebrations of the days of the dead that allowed for the agrarian Mesoamericans to appeal to their bygone ancestors for a fruitful crop. The celebration as it manifests itself today comes from a blending of cultures; while many of the more traditional elements still pay homage to their Mesoamerican foundations, it’s becoming increasingly more common to find hybridized Day of the Dead celebrations throughout the U.S.

cocoFurthermore, mainstream American media have even started a push to officially recognize the Day of the Dead and its unique qualities, as evidenced by the forthcoming Disney/Pixar film Coco, directed by Toy Story 3’s Lee Unkrich with Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz acting as a cultural advisor. Despite Disney’s ill-fated bid to trademark the Day of the Dead in 2013, the company has persisted in making a Day of the Dead-themed film, which stands to be Disney/Pixar’s first film to feature a Latino protagonist. While very few details about Coco have been released, I choose to be optimistic and hope that it, like so many other Day of the Dead narratives, use the potentially terrifying images of skeletons and the similarly scary as reclaimed images that celebrate Mexican culture and its myriad qualities.

While many people tend to conflate the Day of the Dead and Halloween (as evidenced by the released dates of both Day of the Dead-centered films, Coco and The Book of Life, in either October and November), the two are entirely separate celebrations. But the Day of the Dead’s proximity to Halloween, and Halloween’s typically more frightening imagery, often makes the Day of the Dead guilty by association. However, Day of the Dead picture books and films erase fear of the dead through their bookoflifeheart-warming and endearing depictions of living children and their interactions with their deceased loved ones. In these books and the film, The Book of Life, skeletons act as a bridge between the living and the dead. While they epitomize death, skeletons (or calaveras) also connect to the living—take for example Erich Haeger’s Rosita y Conchita—in this bilingual picture book, the Day of the Dead allows the living Conchita to interact with her deceased, and skeletal, twin sister, Rosita. Skeletons also
hint to the inherent festive nature of the Day of the Dead, like the dancing skeletons in Richard Keep’s Clatter Bash! Or the festival-attending skeleton family in Bracegirdle’s The Dead Family DiazMost importantly, in these Day of the Dead narratives, none of the characters are ever truly afraid of the dead or of death. Skeletons become a common occurrence in Day of the Dead narratives, and they act as a motif throughout these texts and in The Book of Life.

By introducing the child viewer to books and to films like The Book of Life, any negative emotions connected to death are suspended. In the film’s afterworld, called the Land of the Remembered, a new world for death is created in the colorful landscapes and festive atmosphere. The Land of the Remembered is a place where memory acts as a source of life. By invoking the positivity of memory even in the absence of death, The Book of Life emphasizes that death is nothing to be feared. In this world, death is not scary nor is it a definitive ending. In the Land of the Remembered, Manolo, the film’s protagonist, is reunited with his immediate family and his ancestors. He sees his death as a necessary event that will allow him to exist with his true love, Maria. It is only after he learns that Maria has not really died and is not in the Land of the Remembered that the festivity of this place is temporarily lost, but it is regained once La Muerte, a goddess of death, and the other gods restore Manolo’s life at the end of the film.

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Ultimately, what these narratives illuminate for their young audiences is that death and all of its tenants are nothing to fear. Though other children’s books and films that explore themes related to death are often viewed as controversial (like the often-banned Bridge to Terabithia, or books that are purposefully frightening like the Goosebumps series), the celebratory nature of Day of the Dead stories provides a positive counter-narrative to the scary and off-putting norm. Teachers and librarians could and should encourage their readers to pick up Day of the Dead books like these, because they explore death and Mexican culture in a positive way. As we gear up to celebrate our own loved ones passed on this Day of the Dead, it would behoove us to take a look at Day of the Dead picture books and The Book of Life, or to eagerly anticipate Coco, as an apt way to celebrate this unique holiday.

 

CrisRhodesCris Rhodes is a graduate student at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi where she divides her time between working on her thesis project about Chicana young adult literature, teaching first year composition to her beloved students, and working at her university’s Writing Center. She received her B.A. from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia, where she discovered her love of children’s literature and began her journey studying Latino children’s and young adult literature through an independent study of the stereotypical depictions of Latinos in young adult literature.