Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 9: Aida Salazar

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

Today, we highlight Aida Salazar.

Aida Salazar​ is a writer, arts advocate and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade verse novels, THE MOON WITHIN (Feb. 26, 2019), THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Spring, 2020), the forthcoming bio picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Fall, 2020). All books published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic. Her story, BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

The Moon Within is her debut novel, which releases on Tuesday!! Here is the publisher’s description:

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

 

 

 

 

Aida Salazar

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

A. I began to write when I was thirteen years old after the suicide of my seventeen-year-old sister. Poetry was my first refuge. It was the place where I began to express and unravel the pain I felt in my grief over losing my beautiful sister in such an incomprehensible way. Poetry, too, was how I made sense of the simultaneous changes happening to my body, to my mind, inside my community and life. That creative connection was special and it quietly flowed through me and accompanied me while I navigated high school and began college and tried to discover what I wanted to be and do with my life. It remained tucked away in my journals until I was 18 when, for the first time, I read the work of other Latinx writers while in a Latinx literature course. That class not only saved me from academic probation (because I got an A to balance out my terrible grades) but it revolutionized my existence as a Xicana and my own writing that had been hidden in those journals. It was as if the work of Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, among others, gave me permission to share my own writing with a very Xicana perspective with the world. I could dare call myself a writer because I had their great example.

 

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

A. Middle grade is a tremendously fertile space from which to write because there is a unique tension between two worlds. Middle grade readers, I think, possess the innocence, rich sense of wonder and play inherent in childhood, while at the same time, they are discovering deeper feelings and learning about things beyond their immediate lives that push against childhood. There are so many questions that beg to be answered, so many stories that beg to explore those questions and a new, almost magical, awareness that enfolds as they bloom into wiser beings.

 

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

A. There are so many! I am especially drawn to stories from people of diverse backgrounds, those that break from the white, heteronormative literary cannon. I loved Bird in a Box and The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney – it was actually after reading the latter that I was inspired to write The Moon Within in verse; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a masterpiece (as is just about anything she writes); As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds; Margarita Engle’s Hurricane Dancers; See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson, Front Desk by Kelly Yang; A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park; and Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai; George by Alex Gino; some older titles that are evergreen for me – Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Locomotion by Jaqueline Woodson, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. However, the middle grade novels emerging from Las Musas (the first kidlit debut group of Latinx writers) have me most excited because they are opening the cannon wider than we have ever seen. Look for great middle grade stories by Anna Meriano, Emma Otheguy, Jennifer Cervantes, Yamile Saied Mendez, Hilda Solis, Mary Louise Sanchez and Claribel Ortega!

 

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

A. Don’t be afraid to believe in your poems though they may seem awful and as if they could help no one. Believe in their pain and in their heart because one day that very vulnerability will touch someone else’s life in ways you least expect. And when that magical moment comes, you will realize the meaning in the risk you took in believing.

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they can be the source of inquiry, of discovery, of refuge, of delight, and inspiration while on the tight rope between childhood and adolescence.

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

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

Book Review: El Verano de las Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, translated by David Bowles

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOKOdilia and her four sisters rival the mythical Odysseus in cleverness and courage as they embark on their own hero’s journey. After finding a drowned man floating in their secret swimming hole along the Rio Grande, the sisters trek across the border to bring the body to the man’s family in Mexico. But returning home turns into an odyssey of their own.

Outsmarting mythical creatures, and with the supernatural aid of spectral La Llorona via a magical earring, Odilia and her little sisters make their way along a road of trials to make it to their long-lost grandmother’s house. Along the way, they must defeat a witch and her Evil Trinity: a wily warlock, a coven of vicious half-human barn owls, and the bloodthirsty chupacabras that prey on livestock. Can these fantastic trials prepare Odilia and her sisters for what happens when they face their final test, returning home to the real world, where goddesses and ghosts can no longer help them?

Now in Spanish and translated by David Bowles, the award-winning El verano de las mariposas is not just a magical Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey, it is a celebration of sisterhood and maternal love.

MY TWO CENTS: El Verano de las Mariposas, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall and translated by David Bowles, was originally published in English in 2015 under the title Summer of the Mariposas. Bowles’s Spanish translation came out in March 2018. The content of the book itself has already been spoken on in the review written for the original publication (which you can find here!), so I won’t spend much time on that. I will say that, while this was not my favorite book by Garcia McCall, it was a wonderfully written book and I did appreciate the Spanish translation that I read (which I’ll explain a bit more further down).

First, though, there were a couple of issues that I had with this book. I thought that much of the plot was too far-fetched, even for a book filled with magical realism. This may have stemmed from my recurring frustration with the dynamics between Odilia, the oldest sister, and her four younger siblings. While one should recognize that Odilia is only 15, and that she and her sisters are going through a considerable amount of family stress and anxiety, the order and arrangements of this sisterhood were bothersome to me.

It was made very clear at the beginning of the book that Odilia had largely been playing the part of caretaker for her sisters since their father had left. Her mother emphasized this when Odilia makes a poorly-advised visit to her mother’s workplace. Even still, there were a number of situations where one of the four younger sisters commandeered control of a situation and were determined to do what they (whichever younger sister) wanted to do. This was in direct contradiction to what I felt the philosophy of the sisters’ mantra (“¡Cinco hermanitas, juntas para siempre, pase lo que pase!”). At different times throughout the story, this happened with every single sister. At times, they were almost killed simply because they would not follow Odilia’s lead. At those moments, the younger sisters seemed to be concerned only with their desires, forgetting the ultimate goal of the expedition and even the pledge of togetherness that they supposedly held dear. Seeing this recur throughout the book made the central focus of the story, the bond between the sisters and the theme of family, feel very ingenuine.

Apart from that, though, Garcia McCall has a wonderful way of putting words together that make a story, including this one, come alive. The language that she uses creates very vivid imagery, and brings to life the characters, setting, and action in a wonderful way. Even still, there are many interesting things that have been pointed out about the Spanish translation of this novel. Many native Spanish speakers have observed that the language seems strange, as it’s been translated almost word-for-word and the English sentence structure and phrasing often sounds weird. The exact translations of English idioms into Spanish might be surprising, or sound unusual. It has been pointed out that many of the English idioms are said differently in Spanish and have much more commonly used Spanish variations.

I believe that these are all valid points, but it is also my understanding that Mr. Bowles’s intent was to offer a translation of the book that reached beyond the audience of native Spanish speakers. I believe myself to be an example of the population for whom he may have written a translation like this. I grew up and lived most of my life on the border of Texas and Mexico (I could walk from my house and cross the international bridge to Ciudad Juárez in about 30 minutes). Even still, I am not a native Spanish speaker, or reader, for that matter. I solidified my Spanish reading skills while in high school and college. By the time I could speak Spanish fluently, most, if not all, of the English idioms found in Garcia McCall’s original manuscript were already solidified in my mind. As I was reading through the Spanish translation, my mind pretty easily translated the Spanish words into the English idioms and sayings.

But for readers like me, and for readers who have been speaking English for a good amount of time, many of the phrases that Garcia McCall uses to illustrate how the Garza sisters would speak sound perfectly normal, even in Spanish, because it’s recognizable as Border language. It often sounds exactly the way that Spanish is spoken around border cities because there is a rich mix of English and Spanish combined to create an entirely new dialect. Is it perfect? No, not always. Is it understandable by those who do not come from the area? Most likely. Language is fluid and ever-changing. I found it commendable of both Garcia McCall and Bowles that they kept the characters, setting, and language from the Borderland, the part of the world I’m from, as genuine as they could.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Lee & Low Books): Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in Theater Arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school. Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals. McCall is an up-and-coming talent whose debut YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. McCall lives with her husband and their three sons in the San Antonio, Texas, area. You can find her online at guadalupegarciamccall.com.

 

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

 

Book Review: The Go-Between by Veronica Chambers

 

Review by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: She is the envy of every teenage girl in Mexico City. Her mother is a glamorous telenovela actress. Her father is the go-to voiceover talent for blockbuster films. Hers is a world of private planes, chauffeurs, paparazzi and gossip columnists. Meet Camilla del Valle, or Cammi to those who know her best.

When Cammi’s mom gets cast in an American television show and the family moves to LA, things change, and quickly. Her mom’s first role is playing a not-so-glamorous maid in a sitcom. Her dad tries to find work, but dreams about returning to Mexico. And at the posh, private Polestar Academy, Cammi’s new friends assume she is a scholarship kid, the daughter of a domestic.

At first Cammi thinks that playing along with the stereotypes will teach her new friends a lesson. But the more she lies, the more she wonders: Is she only fooling herself?

MY TWO CENTS: Like many immigrants, Cammi came to her new home in Los Angeles by plane. But unlike most immigrants, her mother’s job security as a telenovela star and her family’s wealth made her transition much smoother. Cammi does share in the immigrant story and her experiences begin to overlap with those of many other Mexican immigrants. Unfortunately, it is the stereotyping and xenophobia that she encounters the most. She is judged by her wealthy classmates at her new private school, immediately labeled as a scholarship kid who is low-income with parents in low-paying and stereotypical jobs and in need of handouts.

For Cammi, this is a great departure from what she usually has to deal with. No one is vying to know her to get closer to her famous mother. Instead, her mother is not the center of attention and she leaves her paparazzi world behind. However, in search of an escape, Cammi begins to promote the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about Mexicans. So in looking out for herself, Cammi forgets about her community and her roots.

It takes long for Cammi to learn her lesson. If it wasn’t for other Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans who have to fight regularly to defeat the stereotypes and get others to see beyond them, she may not have known how her actions perpetuated racism. Albeit slowly, Cammi learns to understand her role not only as a Mexican, but as an immigrant and compatriota to her community.

TEACHING TIPS: Cammi brings into perspective that not all immigrants come into this country in the same manner or with the same opportunities. Some immigrants come with established work or educational opportunities, while others may have left those exact opportunities behind to immigrate to the United States. While Cammi is perhaps not the best role model for the majority of the book, she does allow us to question a diversity of immigrants and their experiences. In a time when our political discord says that immigrants from Mexico are the worst of the pack, what is Cammi bringing to light? Cammi’s story is merely one of many.

RECOMMENDED READING:

 

TransientABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Chambers is a prolific author, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Mama’s Girl which has been a course adopted by hundreds of high schools and colleges throughout the country. The New Yorker called Mama’s Girl, “a troubling testament to grit and mother love… one of the finest and most evenhanded in the genre in recent years.” Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, her work often reflects her Afro-Latina heritage.

She coauthored the award-winning memoir Yes Chef with chef Marcus Samuelsson as well as Samuelsson’s young adult memoir Make It Messy, and has collaborated on four New York Times bestsellers, most recently 32 Yolks, which she cowrote with chef Eric Ripert. She has been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Glamour. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latina heritage. She speaks, reads, and writes Spanish, but she is truly fluent in Spanglish. She is currently a JSK Knight fellow at Stanford University.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries.She has an MA in history and MLIS from Simmons College where she focused her studies on the role of libraries and archives in the cultural preservation of the U.S.-Mexican border. Additionally, she holds a BA in Ethnic Studies from Brown University.  Her research is greatly influenced by her hometown of Laredo, TX which has led her to work in serving immigrants and underrepresented communities. Her current work involves exploring cultural identity through oral history in her project, Third Culture. You can find Araceli on Instagram. 

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.

Cynthia Leonor GarzaABOUT 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.