A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

As devoted fans of Francisco X. Stork, we were excited to learn about Disappeared, the latest in his growing collection of novels for young adults. Garnering acclaim from many corners of the book world, Disappeared brings to life the heart-pounding story of Sara and Emiliano Zapata, a pair of siblings from Juárez, Mexico, who are thrown into peril as Sara delves into the unsolved disappearances of young women and Emiliano stumbles into criminal activity.

At Latinxs in Kid Lit, we advocate for strong and authentic representation of Latinx characters. There is much to praise in Francisco’s body of work, which includes The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, The Memory of Light, and Marcelo in the Real World. When Francisco agreed to answer questions about Disappeared, as well as other aspects of his writing life, we could not have been more thrilled!

 

Latinxs in Kid Lit: Welcome, Francisco! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us!

Francisco X. Stork: Thank you! I’m delighted to be here.

LiKL: You have publicly stated that the creative impulse for Disappeared flowed partly from your response to the recent surge of anti-immigrant/ anti-Latinx sentiment taking place in the United States. In this novel, how did you manage the dual challenge of representing these often disheartening realities, yet offering young readers a gripping story?

FXS: It ultimately boils down to creating believable characters that readers identify with and care about. If the story is to work, that is, if the story is to pull the reader into its world, then there must be something in the characters and something in the adversity which speaks to or touches the reader in a personal way. Often this is a recognition that what the characters are experiencing is something that the reader has experienced also. It could be that the experience was hidden in the reader and he or she is putting words to the experience for the first time. Books about disheartening realities can be gripping if there are heroes in the story that we can identify with. And by “heroes” I mean frail human beings like us who struggle to muster up what is best in us.

LiKL: In Disappeared, your depiction of Mexico and, in particular, Ciudad Juárez, is likely to come as a revelation for many U.S. readers. While you do show characters engaged in activities widely associated with Latinx culture, such as a quinceañera, you also complicate the picture by placing them along a full range of economic classes and professions, including newspaper journalism and information technology. You also shine a spotlight on Mexico’s problems with criminal violence and corruption. Talk about incorporating these complex, and sometimes contradictory, elements in a tightly plotted novel.

FXS: The idea here was to be as true as possible to reality. The reality of Mexico happens to be very complex, just like the reality of the United States is complex. If I were to show only the good side of Mexico, or a simplistic view of Mexico, I would be doing a disservice to Mexicans, to the reader, and to myself. The best antidote to stereotype is complexity. Hatred reduces the person or the object hated to a caricature. The beauty of good literature is that it can destroy hatred by taking us to a place where caricature doesn’t work because it doesn’t keep our interest, it doesn’t keep afloat that “suspension of disbelief” that is needed to keep on reading. It’s wonderful how the literary and the moral join forces in a good book.

  

LiKL: You have made a big mark through your explorations of intersections between varied Latinx experiences and the difficult terrain of depression and other mental health challenges and cognitive differences. This is evident in Marcelo in the Real World, whose main character is on the autism spectrum, and in The Memory of Light, which is about a girl fighting the demons of suicidal depression. You are also one of the contributors to Life Inside My Mind: 31 Authors Share Their Struggles, an anthology of personal stories about mental health issues. Why is it important to you to write about mental health issues, and how do you as a creator stay focused on your projects, all the while managing the challenges of depression?

FXS: I decided to write about things like cognitive disorders and depression and suicide attempts only after I felt that I could do this in a hopeful way—in a way that would give me, if I were reading the book, the courage to keep on living. All my books are deeply personal, not necessarily in an autobiographical sense, but in the existential sense that through them I grapple with my own ultimate concerns about what it means to be a human being. I’ve always treasured the experience of finding the soul of the author behind the story that is being told—that sense of here is someone I can trust because she has felt what I am feeling. So that is what I hope the reader finds in the books that deal with mental illness. I am fortunate to have found, with the help of a doctor, the right medication and the right dosage that allows me to work and to try to be useful to others. Also, I have had many years to work on the right perspective on my illness, one that is a balance of acceptance and fight, of being kind to myself and challenging myself with realistic goals and ideals. A difficult balance that takes constant effort even if never fully attained.

LiKL: At Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, your editor was Cheryl Klein. It’s obvious that Cheryl loved working with you, because she often writes and speaks about the satisfying process of editing your novels. Check the index for her recently published The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults and you’ll see that Marcelo in the Real World is referenced 23 times! We would love to hear a bit from your side of the writer-editor equation. And for the writers among us, please throw in some tips regarding the writing life and the process of taking a book to the finish line.

FXS: Finding Cheryl Klein was either a blessing or very fortunate depending on your world view. Writing is both solitary and communal and on the communal side my writing got exactly what it needed when it got Cheryl. Her editorial genius complemented all my writing lacks while allowing me to remain true to my writing voice and my writing vision (and reminding me of that voice and vision when I strayed). Yes, there were many times when the editing process was very hard and even at times discouraging but I never lost faith that Cheryl wanted what was best for the book and for the future reader and that kept me going. What I would like to convey to young writers is that they do all they can to enjoy the actual process of writing, of being alone with the work, and have patience with regards to the results they hope to attain. Those results may or may not come, but the process of creating a work that is beautiful and true is still worth the effort. Most of all, find a way to tell your story that is unique to you. Finding that uniqueness takes a lot of honesty and it takes a lot of practice and all the mistakes and rejections that you get will only make you a better writer and a better person if you see writing not as the publication of a book or the recognition that comes with it but as a way of life you are called to live.

LiKL: What are you reading right now (YA or otherwise)? What YA books would you recommend to a writer who wants to write books for that age group?

FXS: I’m re-reading Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Ultima. Rudolfo Anaya is in many ways the father of Mexican-American literature and there is so much to learn from him about the presentation of the Mexican-American experience in a novel. One of my favorite books I always recommend to YA writers is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak because, well, there’s an author who found a way to tell an interesting story about a serious situation in a unique way. But I would also encourage YA writers to read all kinds of books, not just YA. Read fiction and non-fiction works that have nothing to do with what you are writing and you will be surprised by how they ultimately do. Read especially those books where the author’s soul touches yours.

LiKL: Lastly, we can’t let you go without asking what you’re working on next and when we can expect to see it in print.

FXS: I didn’t intend to do this when I was writing Disappeared, but I am interested in following Sara and Emiliano as they make their way in the current United States. I’m not sure when you will see it in print. I want to get it right and give the book all the time it needs.

Francisco X. Stork is the author of Marcelo in the Real World, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens and the Once Upon a World Award; The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which was named to the YALSA Best Fiction for Teens list and won the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award; Irises; and The Memory of Light, which received four starred reviews. He lives near Boston with his wife. You can find him online at franciscostork.com and @StorkFrancisco.

For more on Francisco’s books and writing life, check out the following interviews:

“One Thing Leads to Another,” YALSA 

An audio chat on Publishers Weekly KidCast

 

 

Poeta Rebelde: A Guest Post by Author Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

By Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Poetry is where I live. It is where I go when I am most wounded. Poetry is the place I hide when I am most vulnerable, but it is also the cloak I wrap around myself when I know I have to speak up because I have something important to say. Poetry gives voice to my fears. It allows me to express my concerns with bold and powerful words. I can say more with one line of poetry than I can with a paragraph because poetry lets me cut to the core.

Shame the Stars CoverPoetry is my corazón, my coraje, my fuerza. So it came as no surprise to me that when the child of my heart, my beloved Joaquín del Toro, the embodiment of the men in my life, my courageous father, my brave husband, and my own three daring sons, first spoke to me, he spoke to me in verse.

The night I read Dr. Benjamin Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas, I heard Joaquín’s voice for the first time. The first poem I wrote that night, among many others, was “Tejano,” which is the poem that opens my third novel, Shame the Stars. It is a poem that speaks to the anger and frustration the people of south Texas must have felt as they watched their families and friends being subjugated, suppressed, and supplanted.

It also came as no surprise to me when the first draft of the original manuscript developed in verse. Poetry was the best way I could express myself as I tried to tell the story of Joaquín and Dulceña. It was the only way I could deal with the atrocities committed against our community the summer of 1915, when Texas lawmen declared war against Mexicans and Tejanos, summarily rounding up, lynching, and fusillading them without the benefit of legal proceedings, a dark time that is now referred to as La Matanza (The Slaughter).

As I did more research, the things I learned helped expand and shape the storyline. My editor at Tu Books, Stacy Whitman, believed Joaquín’s voice was trying to break free of the constraints of the formatting. She was right about that. Poetry had created what my esteemed MFA professor at UTEP, Sasha Pimentel, calls “a very tight corset,” which I think is appropriate for a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, but which I have to admit, had become too restrictive for the novel.

As I revised Shame the Stars and Joaquín got wiser, as he became more outspoken, I had to cut him loose. Over a long period of months, I rewrote the entire novel-in-verse, turning the main narrative into prose. I let Joaquín breathe by allowing him access to the rest of the page. However, I just couldn’t let his poetic heart go unheard. So I left Joaquín’s most passionate poems intact and even created new, more rebellious poems to express his pain, his sorrow, his heartbreak.

I hope Joaquín’s poems live on for many years to come. I hope they enlighten, embolden, and emphasize just how important our voices are and let everyone know we must stand up and speak up if we want to be heard.

Poetry can be beautiful. It can be lyrical and magical and romantic, and that’s wonderful, but I hope my fans understand that poetry must also be strong and firm and sturdy if it is to bring us to light and to sight. A poem must have grit; it must push and shove and grind if it is going to propel us to change, to persist, to strive.

 

author2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist, received the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011, among many other accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction award, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her poems for children have appeared in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in San Antonio.

Weaving Truth and the Imagined: A Guest Post by Author Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

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Top: My grandmother Elena (left) and my mother Miriam (right) Bottom: My mother in law Martha (left) and my grandmother Zoila (right)

 

By Jenny Torres Sanchez

I visited New Mexico for the first time about twelve years ago. My in-laws live right on the border of Columbus, New Mexico and Palomas, Mexico. I was there for a funeral and it was a sad, somber time. Maybe that was part of the reason why it seemed such a lonely place to me, so desolate and bare.

On our way to the graveyard, I remember much walking and dust. There were rocks on tombstones to cover graves because there is no grass. And my husband’s family members took turns, while weeping, to shovel dirt upon their loved one’s grave. I felt then that I had come to a place of great despair. But also of great beauty. And I knew I would someday write a story that took place there.

Because of the Sun CoverYears later, a story did come to me about a boy named Paulo living on that border. I tried writing it, but it never panned out and I abandoned the idea. Years later, another story came to me about an empty and unfeeling girl named Dani. Her story merged with that long ago abandoned one about Paulo. They meet as Dani is walking in the desert. He sees in her something he knows well: tragedy. And he feels drawn to her in that way we sometimes are to those who might share a similar pain. So he helps Dani and introduces her to his grandmother, who also helps her.

Paulo’s grandmother is an interesting character to me because she is someone I have always known. In her I see my mother who came to the United States all alone after her mother died. I see my grandmothers, women whose faces I have imagined in those hot, dusty countries where they were born and lived unimaginably hard lives. And I see my mother in-law, an immigrant from Mexico, with her own share of stories of a hard life. She is the one who introduced me to teas and instilled in me a belief that different ones can cure different ailments and remedy almost anything.

I’ve been raised, nurtured, and surrounded by these strong women, women who are equal parts hard and loving. They’ve had to survive great hardships, broken dreams and tragedies. But they survived, thrived even. And I’ve elevated them to goddess-like statures. To me, they are magical in that there is nothing they can’t do, nothing they can’t endure and overcome. Paulo’s grandmother is a culmination of the women I love. She is someone who has survived and helps others survive, who can bring back the dead even. She is always there, appearing even in dreams. Just like the women in my life.

I think it’s interesting how stories are woven, how truth becomes inspiration that merges with lies and the imagined. I love seeing that thin thread of the real in my stories. I love seeing the people in my life, in some way, in some form or transformation, make their way into my stories. And while their stories are not the focus of mine, their influence is never far.

 

JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

Crossing Borders: A Guest Post by Author Reyna Grande

dsc_0205In my memoir, The Distance Between Us, I write about my experience as a border crosser. Borders have always been a part of my life. It saddens me to see that the world—instead of tearing down border walls—is actually building more of them. There are more border barriers today than ever before. In 1989 there were only 15 border walls in the world. Today there are more than 63, and counting.

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The author’s childhood home

My first experience with borders came at the age of two when my father left Mexico to seek a better life in the U.S. Two years later, my mother also left to the land across the border, leaving me and my siblings behind. By the time I was five, I had no mother and no father with me, and a border stood between us, separating us. I was left behind to yearn for the day when my family would be reunited.

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Reyna (center) and siblings Carlos & Mago

At the age of nine I found myself face to face with that border. I had to run across it, become a ‘criminal’, break U.S. law for a chance to have a father again. I succeeded on my third attempt and began my new life in Los Angeles at my father’s house. I thought I was done with borders; I didn’t know there would be more to be crossed—cultural borders, language borders, legal borders, gender and career borders, and more.

As a Mexican immigrant, as a woman of color, as a Latina writer I’ve fought to break down the barriers American society puts up for the groups I belong to. It’s always been a struggle to be Mexican in this country, and especially so in these dark times. For over a year Mexican immigrants had been under attack, blatantly demeaned and vilified by Donald Trump, who began his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, drug dealers, criminals. He said he would literally build more border walls, and now that he’s been elected president, we will bear witness to his hatred of my people. But he’s wrong about many things—especially when he said that Mexico doesn’t send its best. Like most Mexican immigrants, I have given nothing but my best to this country since the moment I crossed the U.S. border. I’ve worked hard at learning the language, understanding the American way of life, at pursuing my education, honing my writing craft, so that one day I could be a contributing member of this society and use my skills and passion to keep this country great. This is what most immigrants do. Our work ethic, our drive, our perseverance, our passion, our commitment to succeed and to give our best is undeniable.

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Reyna in her college years

Being a woman has never been easy. In the U.S. we might have it better than other countries, but still, women here have always struggled to overcome the borders put before us. We’ve had a long battle to redefine our place in the home and the workplace, our right to earn equal pay to what men receive. To be seen as more than someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. We had a long fight for our right to vote and to have a political voice, and for the past year we were fighting for our right to lead. For the first time we could have had our first female president since the birth of this nation, but despite her qualifications, since the very beginning of her campaign, Hillary Clinton was held to a double-standard because of her gender. Because she was a woman. We let that man get away with saying the most insulting, offensive, and ridiculous things. But Clinton? We let her get away with nothing. We elected a man who has absolutely no experience in running a country, instead of the woman who was more than qualified to do that and more.

We witnessed, at a national level, what happens on a daily basis to women in the workplace—we lose to men who are less qualified than us.

Last week we bore witness to a white woman failing to tear down the wall put before her by a sexist, patriarchal society. The fight is even harder for women of color who struggle not just against gender inequality but racial inequality. Since race impacts our feminism, we’ve always fought two battles at the same time. As a woman of color, I fight for equality but I also fight for justice. For us women of color, it isn’t enough to integrate ourselves into the existing system. We seek to transform the system and end injustices.

As a Latina writer, I’ve been dealing with other kinds of borders throughout my career. Latinos are 17.4 % of U.S. population, around 55 million of us, but we’re only around 4% of working professionals— including artists, writers, actors. We’re often kept on the periphery of the arts—and we fight on a daily basis for the right to contribute our stories, our talent, our creativity to American identity and culture. Through our art, we aim to fight against the barrier of invisibility. If we aren’t in books, in film, in TV, in art galleries, in music, does that mean we don’t exist?

The publishing industry lacks diversity at every level. The majority of books are written by, and are about, white people. Eighty-two percent of editors are white. Eighty-nine percent of book reviewers are white. They’re la migra of the publishing industry, the border patrol. They decide who gets in and who doesn’t, who gets published, whose books get attention. Latino writers have often struggled to get across the border of the mainstream publishing industry, often ending up with tiny presses (who lack the resources to do right by them) or self-publishing.

But having successfully run across the U.S. border at the age of nine taught me one thing—I can cross any border. This is the biggest reason why I wrote The Distance Between Us. I want to inspire others to believe in themselves and to find the strength to overcome. It is this belief that has helped me succeed in ways I never dreamed of. I want to encourage our youth, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, to keep giving their best and continue striving toward their dreams, despite the obstacles they find along the way.

Now more than ever, let us continue fighting for social justice, for a world without borders, for our right to create art, for our voices to be heard. It is through our stories that we will build bridges and tear down walls.

Reyna Grande is the award-winning author of two novels and a memoir, The Distance Between Us, which was recently published as a young readers edition. See our review here, where you may also learn more about Reyna’s story and watch video interviews. Her official website offers additional information about her published works, speaking schedule, and career news.

(Left) The original version of The Distance Between Us; (right) the young readers edition.

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Book Review: The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande

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The original version of this memoir was written for general audiences. This review is based on an advance reader’s copy of the young readers edition.

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Echoes of Cinderella reverberate throughout Reyna Grande’s forceful and captivating memoir of a family torn apart by internal and external stressors, centered in a years-long separation across the U.S.-Mexico border. The Distance Between Us thrums with novelistic tension and detail, offering chiseled portraits of individuals and rendering the settings they come from in vivid form. As the story lends breath and heartbeat to a particular Mexican girl and her struggle to overcome unimaginable obstacles related to poverty, migration, and family turmoil, it also humanizes the faceless, nameless stream of undocumented migrants that we hear so much about in the news.

Due to the physical and cultural distances that develop between members of the family, Reyna spends much of her childhood feeling like an orphan. The memoir begins as her mother, Juana, leaves Reyna and her two siblings under the care of Evila, the children’s paternal grandmother. Motivated by the promise of steady work and higher wages, Reyna’s father has already left Mexico for El Otro Lado, and this happened so long ago that four-year-old Reyna must rely on a framed photo to remember what he looks like. Later, Juana decides she must migrate, too, and although she vows to return within a year, the separation stretches out much longer, stranding her children—Reyna, Mago, and Carlos—in a bleak, loveless existence. Even as the three siblings tend to chores and subsist on meager rations, Abuelita Evila lavishes treats and special privileges on Élida, another grandchild living under her roof. Although some of Élida’s spoils come from the money that Juana and her husband send for their children’s necessities, the couple remains unaware of these abuses. Each time they call to speak with their kids, Evila hovers nearby to make sure they don’t disclose anything negative.

When Juana returns from her two-and-a-half year absence, she is almost unrecognizable to Reyna. Her hair is dyed bright red, her clothes are much fancier than anything she used to wear, and there is a new baby in her arms. Worse yet, she demonstrates a chilling degree of detachment toward her children. Before long, Juana acquires a boyfriend and foists all four kids off on their other abuelita—a far poorer, but kinder woman whose house is a one-room shack constructed of bamboo sticks. A river nearby subjects the house to serious flooding.

When the children’s father finally returns to Mexico for a visit, eight years have passed. He reluctantly agrees to take Reyna and her two older siblings back to El Otro Lado. This will involve a bus trip of two thousand miles from the Mexican state of Guerrero to Tijuana, where they will engage the services of a coyote. But at a critical moment before they leave, Reyna catches a glimpse of Juana as she used to be and, aching to believe that her mother loves her, she is tempted to stay behind. Then it dawns on Reyna that her sister, Mago, is the true maternal figure in her life, the one who has offered sacrificial love and protection at every turn, and if Mago is fleeing Mexico, Reyna will, too.

In many aspects, Reyna’s story is reminiscent of the mother-son alienation described in Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario, reviewed here. Like Enrique’s odyssey, Reyna’s story reveals conditions of unrelenting poverty, and shows the personal drive and courage of individuals who dare to leave behind all that is familiar in order to make a better life. The book also shows the steep costs, both literal and metaphoric, of migration in general and chain migration in particular. (Chain migration refers to the practice of one or more family members setting out to establish a home and/or save up money, usually in preparation for the rest of the family to join them.) We see this especially in how separations intended to be brief often last much longer than planned and lead to deep relational breaches. For those of us privileged with predictable lives of plenty, it is all too easy to pronounce judgment on parents who take such drastic steps, yet stories like The Distance Between Us illuminate the complex dilemmas faced by immigrant families caught in extreme poverty with no apparent recourse in their countries of origin.

Although this memoir offers an eye-opening opportunity to grasp the bigger picture, most young readers will home in on Reyna’s personal journey, as she crosses figurative and literal landscapes pocked with obstacles. Once she and her family take the plunge toward the better life they imagine is waiting for them in El Otro Lado, readers will clutch at their hearts, rooting for Reyna with every page turn. And their hopes will be rewarded.

Reyna Grande is the author of two novels, Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies. The original edition of her memoir, The Distance Between Us, was a finalist in the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Awards. She is a speaker and workshop leader for creative writers, and is the recipient of scores of awards and honors. Visit her official website to learn more.

Reyna Grande has made many televised appearances and other interviews which are available on video. Here are a few:

BookTV interview:

Informal conversation with KBeach Radio:

Reyna’s video of Abuelita Chita:

Here is an excellent interview in Spanish. There are no subtitles, but even non-Spanish speakers will enjoy the images.

 

Celebrating Pura Belpré Award Winners: Spotlight on Julia Alvarez

 

PuraBelpreAwardThe Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Julia Alvarez, the winner of the 2004 Pura Belpré Narrative Award for Before We Were Free and the 2010 Narrative Award for Return to Sender.

Reviews by Cindy L. Rodriguez

BEFORE WE WERE FREE

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her 12th birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have emigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared without a trace, and the government’s secret police terrorize her remaining family because of their suspected opposition of el Trujillo’s dictatorship.

Using the strength and courage of her family, Anita must overcome her fears and fly to freedom, leaving all that she once knew behind.

From renowned author Julia Alvarez comes an unforgettable story about adolescence, perseverance, and one girl’s struggle to be free.

MY TWO CENTS: Anyone who has read Julia Alvarez’s adult novels will enjoy the connections made in Before We Were Free to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. In Before We Were Free, Alvarez explores the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic through the eyes of Anita de la Torre, a 12-year-old girl in 1960 whose family slowly reduces in number during the novel. Some, like her cousins, the Garcias, flee the country, while others go missing or are arrested. In the beginning, Anita has little knowledge of politics and the underground movement to assassinate Trujillo. In fact, at the start of the novel, Anita looks to El Jefe’s picture at times when she needs strength. She slowly becomes more aware that life under Trujillo has become increasingly dangerous for many, including her own family members who are a part of the movement to kill the dictator.

One moment of shocking clarity comes when Trujillo attends a party and becomes attracted to her fifteen-year-old sister. The family goes into emergency mode and manages to get her sister out of the country before Trujillo can take her in every sense of the word. Anita’s increased understanding leaves her confused and literally shocked into silence. The once-talkative girl slips into silence, at times even forgetting words that were once simple and familiar. When Anita and her mother go into hiding after Trujillo’s assassination, she writes in her diary, but then erases the pages in case the secret police raid the home. She literally cannot say or write anything because of fear. At some point, Anita decides to write and not erase–or be erased. She wants someone to know she existed if she were ever taken away by the police.

Throughout the novel, Alvarez often refers to wings, birds, and flying in connection with the Mirabal sisters, the “Butterflies” who were murdered, and the fight for freedom that continued through Anita’s family and others. Anita not only takes flight from her home, but has to learn how to free herself internally, to spread her wings and fly despite her grief of losing family and everything she considered home.

A masterful storyteller, Alvarez makes a complex political situation accessible to younger readers through Anita, who faces political drama alongside normal 12-year-old milestones, like getting her period and having a first crush. Alvarez also sprinkles the narrative with other issues that she does not delve into deeper, but could be discussion starters for book clubs and students. For example, Anita’s family employs a black, superstitious Haitian maid. While she is loved like family, this dynamic should spark conversation about race and class issues within Latin American countries. Another example is when Anita begins school in New York City. She is placed in the second grade, despite her age, and her teacher calls her “Annie Torres.” This scene is like a one-two punch to the gut and should be examined further. Mental health is another issue touched upon that warrants further discussion. Anita talks about feeling empty and numb, and her mother takes tranquilizers to calm her nerves. The reader gets the idea that living under such conditions and surviving when family members did not will require years of emotional and psychological recovery.

TEACHING TIPS: Before We Were Free is a great option to include in a historical fiction unit in Language Arts or as a fictional option in a Social Studies class learning about different types of governments, Latin America, or under a theme such as “the fight for freedom.” Students often learn about the colonists’ fight against the British, but rarely learn about more recent struggles for democracy in other countries. The relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic could be explored, as well as the ideas mentioned above. Anita’s character development should be traced and analyzed, paying close attention to what triggers each of her changes and what finally prompts her to have the courage to embrace her new life.

RESOURCES:

Review from Vamos a Leer

Educator Guide from Vamos a Leer

Reader’s Guide from Penguin Random House

 

RETURN TO SENDER:

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm from foreclosure. Tyler isn’t sure what to make of these workers. Are they undocumented? And what about the three daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected to her American life. Her family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico. Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?

In a novel full of hope, but with no easy answers, Julia Alvarez weaves a beautiful and timely story that will stay with readers long after they finish it.

MY TWO CENTS: Although Before We Were Free and Return to Sender are set in different countries, they have similarities. In Return to Sender, Mari and her family are migrant workers on a Vermont dairy farm. She encounters a mix of acceptance and scorn from her classmates, the townspeople, and even Tyler, at first. The chapters are shared between Mari (first person, often written in letters) and Tyler (third person), who reveals that he is confused about being a proud, patriotic American and knowing that his father is breaking the law by hiring undocumented workers. In addition to dealing with the varied reactions of the locals, Mari’s family worries about the whereabouts of her mother, who returned to Mexico but is supposed to be on her way back via a coyote. She has been unreachable, however, for several months. The family is also under constant threat of deportation. Complicating matters, Mari was born in Mexico, while her two younger sisters were born in the United States, which splits their feelings about where is home and how they would feel if they needed to return to Mexico.

Like Anita in Before We Were Free, Mari ends up in hiding and writing in a diary, after a raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ends with her parents being arrested. Also like Anita, Mari needs to find her voice and, in her case, she has to find the courage to speak on behalf of her family to government officials. Read together, students could explore the different reasons for immigration, as the families in the two novels come to the United States for different reasons–political asylum versus employment–yet the underlying reason is always the same–more opportunities for their children.

Things that struck me as odd were Mari’s heavy accent (I listened to the audio book), her lack of understanding of English “sayings,” and her fond memories of Mexico, considering she moved to the U.S. when she was 4 and has attended American schools. Based on my experience with ELL students, these details would have made more sense if Mari had been in the U.S. for only a few years, not the majority of her life.

Still, Return to Sender does a great job of offering various viewpoints on immigration and migrant workers on struggling American farms, and I like that Alvarez places her migrant workers in Vermont, where the author lives, as we most often read and hear about migrant workers in border states.

TEACHING TIPS: As mentioned above, students could read both novels and compare/contrast the characters and their experiences, as both face personal, familial, and political challenges. Return to Sender also allows students to learn more about immigration and migrant workers, particularly in New England. The title was taken from a real government operation to find and deport migrant workers, so students can research that particular policy while reading this fictional account. Both books also lend themselves to deep questions about freedom, rights, and who has access to these.

RESOURCES:

Educators guide from Random House

TeachingBooks.net has interviews and several links with more information about Alvarez and her work.

 

Jilia Avaraz receiving a medal from Barack ObamaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Alvarez is an award-winning writer of poetry, essays, and novels and short stories for children and adults. Alvarez was born in New York City, but her family returned to the Dominican Republic when she was three months old. Her family became involved with the underground movement against dictator Rafael Trujillo. They left the country and returned to New York City in 1960. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and earned her master’s in creative writing from Syracuse University. She is currently the writer in residence at Middle College and runs a sustainable coffee farm/literacy center in the Dominican Republic.

Her novels for adults include How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, In the Time of Butterflies, iYo!In the Name of Salomé, and Saving the World. Her books for children include How Tía Lola Came to Visit/Stay, Before We Were Free, Finding Miracles, and Return to Sender. Alvarez has won numerous awards for her work, including the Pura Belpré and Américas Awards for her books for young readers, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. In this picture, she is receiving the National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts, presented by President Barack Obama.