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: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This review is by Lila Quintero Weaver and is based on an advanced reading copy.

From the publisher:

The first day of senior year: Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief. Sal discovers that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

My two cents:

The 2012 multiple prize-winning YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, delivered a spellbinding story of remarkable teen characters on the brink of self-discovery. Among its achievements, the novel provided positive and authentic representations of gay teens and Latinx families. Sáenz follows that feat with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, which subtly echoes themes in Aristotle and Dante and reaffirms the author’s virtuosity.

Seventeen-year-old Sal (Salvatore) lives in El Paso, Texas, with his adoptive father, a gay Mexican-American art professor named Vicente Silva. Vicente assumed responsibility for Sal after his mother died, when Sal was just three years old. (The connections between Sal’s mother and Vicente don’t become clear until late in the book, when Sal finally opens a letter his dying mother wrote and left in Vicente’s care.) Although Sal is white, the adoption secures his place in the heart of a loving Mexican-American family, which is headed by the matriarch Sal comes to know as Mima. As his adoptive grandmother, Mima refers to Sal as her “hijito de mi vida,” and the adoration is mutual.

The warmth of the Silva family magnetically pulls in two other teen characters. Sal’s best friend, Sam (Samantha), is locked in raging conflict with her mom. Another friend, Fito, suffers the effects of a drug-addicted mother and an absentee dad. In order to survive, Fito must hold down two after-school jobs.

Compared to the home lives of his friends, Sal’s family is golden. But for all the advantages he enjoys, Sal is a complex character, who on the surface, feels secure in his identity as a peaceful, self-confessed straight edger. He eschews cigarettes and alcohol (well, mostly), and is still a virgin. But he harbors a reactionary side. When a classmate utters a homophobic slur against Vicente, Sal resorts to violence that lands him in Principal Cisneros’s office. This impulse to lash out physically catches Sal by surprise, and it won’t be the last time.

Other big questions disrupt Sal’s world. His beloved Mima is diagnosed with late-stage bone cancer. Vicente’s one-time boyfriend, Marcos, reappears on the scene, bringing heartache and mistrust to the Silva house. There’s still that matter of the unopened letter from Sal’s mother, and then, major crises hit Sam’s and Fito’s families, radiating tremors in all directions. How fortunate for everyone that Vicente possesses finely tuned paternal instincts and the willingness to open the family circle even wider. Even so, don’t mistake this for a sentimental story. The struggles these young characters wrestle with are real and not easily resolved.

Although compelling plot developments push the story along, this novel also distinguishes itself through skillful characterization and crisp, realistic dialogue. The dialogue especially stands out during volleys between the teen characters. Sal and Sam, who’ve known each other since early childhood, share a platonic friendship that’s built on love and mutual respect, but that doesn’t keep them from ribbing one another mercilessly and butting into each other’s business. As Fito becomes a larger part of their lives, his comi-tragic flavor gets added to the mix. The verbal conversations and text messages these three engage in are, by turns, hilarious, poignant, revealing, laced with profanity, and true to the way teens speak in 2017. These exchanges reveal the intricate give-and-take of teen friendships, where mutual support is often coded as deprecatory banter.

The novel also takes on complex racial and ethnic dynamics, but it’s done with a subtle touch. In writing Sal as a white child adopted by a Mexican family, Sáenz makes a daring choice that reverses typical scripts of interracial or interethnic adoption. Much of Sal’s identity stems from Vicente, the man he considers his true father. In the Silva family, Mexican heritage is freely offered as a gift—one Sal knows he’s lucky to receive and absorb into his cultural makeup. But acceptance at home doesn’t extend to every corner of Sal’s world, and elements of race appear mostly around his role as a rare white kid in a setting dominated by Mexican and Latinx culture. At one point, a classmate drops the slur “pinche gringo” on him, leading to one of several bursts of violence on Sal’s part. On the flip side, Mexican American Sam teasingly refers to Sal as “white boy,” all the while fully aware that by virtue of his upbringing, Sal is more deeply ensconced in Mexican tradition than she is. Sal appreciates the irony and won’t let Sam get away with drawing false distinctions. This is a tricky point, but Sáenz successfully plays it with humor.

The question that persists almost to the end of the book is why Sal puts off reading his mother’s letter. He doesn’t understand his own reluctance, and this is part of the “inexplicable logic” referred to in the title. Could it be that Sal fears losing the rock-solid foundation offered by the family that raised him? Many writers would’ve dangled such a compelling object as catnip before their readers. But Sáenz uses uncommon restraint, allowing mentions of the sealed letter to bubble up in conversation or in Sal’s interior monologue sparingly, as if he’s holding that question just inside our peripheral vision while the characters occupy themselves with more urgent concerns.

In the writing itself, the author demonstrates other forms of restraint that recall his poetic side. He clips sentences and keeps chapters unusually short, suggesting the poetic habit of brevity. While his prose enthralls the ear, Sáenz’s mastery goes beyond the level of the sentence. He’s an accomplished storyteller who works magic with dialogue, gives characters muscle and breath, and creates intrigue through the subtle layering of reveals and building questions. Another satisfying aspect of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is the treatment of intergenerational relationships. We’re reminded that healthy family connections help us thrive, while their absence leaves us yearning. Above all, Sáenz crafts a narrative around things that deeply matter to teen readers: identity, belonging, and finding one’s place in the world—and he charges his characters with the drive to pursue these prizes.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a scholar, a teacher of creative writing, and a prize-winning poet and novelist. Along with other distinctions, his 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won the Pura Belpré Award, the Stonewall Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Our review is here. In 2013, National Public Radio featured Sáenz in a fascinating interview. Long based in El Paso, Texas, Sáenz retired from teaching in 2016. Keep up with him via Twitter.

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.

Book Review: Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School by Kim Baker

 

13170031By Kimberly Mach

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK:

Dear Parents and Teachers:

This is a work of fiction. There is no Prank and Trick Association at Fountain Point Middle School. And you absolutely will not find instructions on how to log in to a top-secret prank instruction website anywhere on these pages. All we do is make pickles. OK?

Sincerely,

Ben Diaz

President, The League of Pickle Makers

MY TWO CENTS: Now, if the description above won’t get a child to pick up a book, I’m not sure what will.

Kim Baker had me laughing from the first page. The book opens with this line: Can I trust you? She had me hooked right there, with all that the question implies.

There are so many ways to talk about Pickle because it really is a perfect middle-grade novel. Kids will laugh out loud, and they may even go scrambling to create their own prank clubs. Beyond the laughter, they will identify with the ever-changing landscape of middle school friendships. Ben Diaz, the main character, creates a Prank Club, under the guise of a Pickle Makers Club. Due to an earlier incident, Ben does not invite his best friend Oliver into the club. (Oliver’s grandmother is the school principal and Oliver, well, Ben thinks Oliver just can’t be trusted to keep the secret.) Reading it, I found myself wondering what the halls of my school would look like if there were bubbles in the fountains or impromptu parties in the classrooms. Throughout the mayhem, lessons are woven in. Ben learns about himself, his new friends, and just how ‘off’ we can be when we try to label each other, but most of all he learns what kind of friendship he and Oliver really have. Spoiler alert: It’s made of the strong stuff. There are lessons here in action and reaction, consequences and the impact of our decisions, and they are all told masterfully through the eyes and comedy of young Ben Diaz.

As an adult reader, what resonated with me was the very real problem of what isn’t in our history books. For Pioneer Day, Ben and his friends have to present something pickled for the Pioneer Fair. If they don’t, they will lose their funding from the PTA and that will be the end of the Pickle Club and the secret Prank Club.

What to do? Ben turns to his family. They frequently serve escabeche, or pickled vegetables, at their Mexican restaurant. Ben sees that escabeche can be their entry for the fair. Then Ben hesitates. He asks the kind of question that many of our children who do not see themselves reflected on the pages of history books wonder about: Were there Mexican pioneers?

Ben goes on to say: “I’ve never seen any in the pictures. It’s always just a bunch of white guys.” And then later, the realization that, “It doesn’t mean they weren’t there.” Ben begins searching.

The time period for our children is different from that of my youth. In my youth, we may have asked the question, but because of available resources, we probably could not have answered it, at least not in a timely fashion. The internet has allowed people and organizations to post information and share resources in a much more efficient manner. When Ben wonders about pioneers from Mexico, he does not have to go far to find that reliable source. Instead of spending an afternoon at the town hall archives, he can answer it with the click of a button. As an adult, I could not escape the implications of Ben’s memory when he recalls being criticized in kindergarten for using the brown paper to make his Pilgrims for Thanksgiving. There are so many who were skimmed over in the history books, but the information is there if we ask the questions. Step one is teaching our children to ask. Where are the women in this picture? Who worked in the factories? Why does this city have a Spanish name? What happened when native peoples went to reservations? Ben chooses to share an authentic pickling recipe from Mexico. It may not be the pickle recipe people were expecting at the fair, but it is delicious and the scene, of course, is memorable. Trust me, you’ll be cheering for him when he has a conversation with Principal Lebonsky about traditional recipes.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be an excellent read-aloud in the classroom, appropriate for grades 3-6. It can be enjoyed for the humor and story, or a teacher can choose to take the lessons further.

Language Arts: Life-size character sketches are one extension idea. Brief descriptions of each character are on the front jacket of the book. Many children will see themselves reflected in the personalities and the ethnicities of Ben and his friends. Traits can be filled in as readers follow the story, with life-size versions being presented at the end.

Social Studies: Many upper elementary and early middle school grades study pioneer days as part of their curriculum. Reading Pickle may encourage students to ask the important questions and to look more deeply at the pictures of people in their own state and communities.

The escabeche could be the beginning to a small unit on preserving food both in the past and now. Compare and contrast, how did Native Americans preserve food? When were other methods introduced?  What are traditional foods of the region? How are they preserved today?  The possibilities are endless here.

Enjoy the book. Readers of all ages will love it. When you are done, visit Kim Baker’s website at http://kimbakerbooks.com/ and enjoy her voice and humor there.

Pickle is Kim Baker’s debut novel and has already received five awards including the Louisiana Young Reader’s Choice 2015 nominee, 2014-2015 Texas Blue Bonnet Award Nominee, and the 2013 SCBWI West Crystal Kite award.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Pickle visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out WorldCat.orgIndieBound.orgGoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Kimberly Mach has been teaching for sixteen years and holds two teaching certificates in elementary and secondary education. Her teaching experience ranges from grades five to twelve, but she currently teaches Language Arts to middle school students. It is a job she loves. The opportunity to share good books with students is one that every teacher should have. She feels privileged to be able to share them on a daily basis.

Mixed Up: Author Kim Baker Navigates a Bicultural Narrative

By Kim Baker

I’m bicultural. My grandparents on my mom’s side eloped and migrated from Mexico to New Mexico where they had babies and my grandpa worked in the coal mines until, lungs destroyed, they moved again to East Los Angeles for better weather. My uncle can tell you about how cramped it was with all the kids in the backseat. Sunshine couldn’t save my grandpa, but most of my family is still around the area. My dad is Anglo and from Texas. His side of the family has been in the states so long, nobody knows for sure from where they originally migrated. So, like lots of people, I’ve got a mixed ethnicity. Culture is a weird thing. It’s shared customs and distinct experiences. I’m ridiculously pale, and I have my husband’s surname so people are often surprised to hear about my Mexican heritage. When people do find out (and I’m pretty open about it), sometimes we play stereotype bingo and they ask questions to see if I meet their preconceived qualifications (Do I have a big family? Yes. Do I like spicy foods? …Yes. Do I listen to mariachi? Please stop.).

I consider myself Latina, and proud. This is me, the grouchy one covering her face in front, with a small portion of my family. My cousin Joey is mortified that I share this picture because he is self-conscious about how much leg he’s showing in those cutoffs.

Maciasfamily

Now I feel guilty about sharing it, so I will also tell you that later that day I threw up an Orange Julius at the mall and tried to hide it under a t-shirt rack. That’s worse than knobby knees.

When I was a lonely kid, books were my escape. I never really saw myself in books until I was older. There’d be bits in stories here and there (e.g. A kid in the book loved horses, and I was a horse nut. Harriet was overly curious about people? Me, too!). And maybe, in part, because of how I didn’t see myself as a whole in books as a kid, I often feel different and separate from those around me. Feeling abnormal in itself is a pretty shared understanding (We’re ALL weirdos!), but having a bicultural identity certainly magnifies the experience. Granted, I was getting most of my books from a Wyoming library that underestimated its Latino population by at least a few, so there were probably more stories out there than I wasn’t finding.

I grew up in Wyoming, where I could count the other non-Anglo kids at my school on one hand. My mom missed her family, missed the sunshine, missed seeing people like her, so we’d drive to East L.A. in the summertime to visit. My grandma and aunts would make all of the foods we couldn’t get in Wyoming and bring my favorite orejas from the panadería. Some of my cousins would tease me about my pale skin (I look just like my dad.), so I’d sit on the porch and watch my also shy uncle tend his jasmine and geraniums while the rest of the family visited inside. You could hear them laughing all the way down the block. We’d go back to Wyoming and I’d ride horses, trudge through snow, and eat American foods. The taco shells and beans in my hometown grocery store were labeled as “Spanish Foods.” I always felt a bit disconnected and different, no matter where I was. My parents split up and I lived with my mom in New Mexico and California. I was in primarily Latino communities, but still stood apart because of my Anglo features. Kids called me gringa and worse. I read more. My school didn’t have a library, the town didn’t have a bookstore, and the public library’s shelves were pretty spare, but I found what I could. I identified with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders being from the wrong side of the tracks, but found nothing about Mexican-American kids or mixed culture kids. I would have been overjoyed to find Matt de la Peña’s Mexican Whiteboy or Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces as a teen.

13170031The protagonist in my first book, Pickle, is straight up Mexican American. The main character in my next novel is a mixed Latino like me, and writing has been a little bit more of a personal journey. I’ve taken a little longer with it, because I want to do it right. There’s so much I want to include, and I’m still working on how much serves the story. I know that there are other writers out there who balance between environments and depend on cultural code-switching to find their way. And there are kids that are looking for those stories, that need them. Books are touchstones. Identity, displacement, and belonging are important themes in middle grade and YA fiction that can reach all readers. The crazy thing about the loneliness of feeling different from our peers is that it’s probably one of our most communal traits. So, as a writer, I’ll continue to write about Latino kids and put little pieces of myself and my world in there. I implore you to do the same. And putting your truth into stories isn’t necessarily autobiographical. I think the best stories come from combining what you love with what you wish there was a story about.

Every kid should be able to find mirrors on the bookshelves, and it’s especially crucial for those of us who might struggle to fit into their worlds. Let’s put more stories out there, because you can’t always tell who might need them.

 

BakerBWheadshotKim’s debut middle grade novel, Pickle (Macmillan), was a finalist for the 2013 Children’s Choice Awards, Book of the Year (5th and 6th grade), one of Mamiverse’s Top 50 Latino Children’s Books You Should Know, and the recipient of the 2013 SCBWI Crystal Kite West award. She lives with her family in Seattle and can often be found in the woods, despite a chronic fear of bears. Find out more at www.kimbakerbooks.com.

Author Robin Herrera Sees Her Grandma in Herself & Her Storytelling

By Robin Herrera

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see my grandma. Especially now that I have shorter hair, because as long as I knew her, she wore her hair short. Strangely, it wasn’t until a few years after she died that I noticed the resemblance between us.

She was short, too, like me—I’m the shortest in my family at (barely) 5’3”. We both have round faces and eyes that crinkle into small slits when we smile.

Now, years after her death, years after I’ve forgiven her for not telling me how bad her cancer really was, I wish I’d talked to her more. I know only snippets of my grandma’s life growing up in Colorado during the Great Depression. She was the youngest girl of 16 children, the second youngest altogether. Her parents were Joseph and Josephine Herrera. (On a baptismal document I found in my grandma’s things, their name was misspelled as Herreda.) And though she told me she’d left home at a young age, family was clearly very important to her, if the dozens of photo albums she left behind were any indication.

Robin Herrera  img001

When my siblings and I were younger, Grandma told us a story of our uncle Chris (Christobel). One night, near midnight, he was driving across a long bridge. Halfway across, he glanced over at the passenger’s seat to see a woman, dressed all in white, sitting there. She had her face turned toward the window, and Uncle Chris could see her shoulders shaking as she sobbed softly. He reached out a hand to comfort her, but before he could touch her, he looked down at her hands, in her lap. They were skeleton hands.

Though Chris was terrified, he kept driving. Somehow he knew that if he could make it to the other side of the bridge, the ghostly woman would disappear. He drove faster and faster, but out of the corner of his eye he saw the woman slowly turning her head to face him. Chris knew what her face would look like. It would be a skull, and if he looked, he would die. So he kept his eyes forward and kept driving until he crossed the bridge. Only then did he dare look at the passenger’s seat and see that the woman had vanished.

Grandma called the woman La Llorona. I didn’t know until later that La Llorona was a common Mexican folktale, and that Grandma’s tale was just a version of it. But for a long time, I was terrified of La Llorona, and impressed that my uncle Chris had been smart enough not to fall victim to her.

This is one of the few ties to my Mexican heritage that I have. I remember other things, too, like making tortillas on Grandma’s tortilla press, then heating them up and smothering them in butter. When my aunt Lupe visited, she and Grandma would occasionally lapse into Spanish, spoken so quickly that I’d sometimes stand in the kitchen with them, listening in awe. (I’m terrible at learning other languages.) Aunt Lupe, more than Grandma, always called me mija. I didn’t know what it truly meant until I looked it up in college, but I knew it was a term of endearment, because she used it on all the grandkids (mijo for the boys).

When my Grandma died, I felt like I’d lost that last connection with my Mexican heritage. My dad had already died by that point, but he was biracial and, I think due to circumstances in his childhood I can’t ask him about, wasn’t fluent in Spanish. Aunt Lupe is gone now, too, or I would talk to her about my grandma and their childhood together. (Though I’m not sure she’d tell me the truth. Grandma probably wouldn’t have either, to be fair.)

Now, as a writer, I miss my grandma terribly. I like to think she’d be proud of me, and that she’d see a bit of herself in my book, though to my knowledge, she never lived in a trailer park. What I hope she’d see is a portrait of a poor family, flawed but, for the most part, happy. Because that is what I remember most about my grandma. She showed me how to be poor.

Like the characters in my book, we shopped at thrift stores for most of our clothing (and dishes, and various housewares). Every week Grandma went grocery shopping at the local Grocery Outlet, which we called the Canned Food Store, and picked up what was on sale. When she died, her cupboards were still stocked with about a hundred different cans of food. She made sure we never went hungry.

But more than anything, she taught me that being poor wasn’t a terrible thing. I didn’t even begin to realize that I was poor until late in high school, after a conversation with my sister. This will sound cheesy, but Grandma made me feel rich in other ways.

I wonder, sometimes, where I get my love of writing and making up stories. My mother went to school for art, so for a long time, I thought that might be it. But I think it came from my grandmother, who told me stories (though often embellished) of her childhood (and ghost women) from an early age. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites, which she would often tell as a joke if I asked for a story. Of course, you have to imagine it’s being told by a short, round-faced Mexican woman who is being as over dramatic as possible:

It was a dark and stormy night. The soldiers were gathered around the campfire. Suddenly the captain stood up and said, “Diego! Tell us one of your famous stories!” Slowly, Diego stood up and said, “It was a dark and stormy night. The soldiers were gathered around the campfire…” (Repeat forever.)


18405519Robin Herrera was born in Eureka, California. She has degrees from Mills College and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She now lives in Oregon. Her debut novel, Hope Is A Ferris Wheel, was published in 2014 by Amulet Books.