Book Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

By Jennifer Torres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 Titles By/For/About Latinx!!

 

Get your To-Be-Read lists out! Here are the 30+ titles we know about that are releasing in 2017 that are by Latinx creators with or without Latinx characters and by non-Latinx creators with Latinx characters. We plan to review as many of these as we can, so please check the site often or follow the blog for updates.  The coming year brings new books from Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Anna-Marie McLemore, Lulu Delacre, Jenny Torres Sanchez, Adam Silvera, Veronica Chambers, Carmen Agra Deedy, Monica Brown, Maragarita Engle, and Diana Rodriguez Wallach. We will also see a few authors crossing genres. Morris Award winner Sofia Quintero will have a new chapter book out, and picture book writer Jennifer Torres will release a debut middle grade novel. The books are listed by the publishing date. Please let us know in the comments if we are missing any!

HAPPY READING!!

 

Because of the Sun CoverBECAUSE OF THE SUN by Jenny Torres Sanchez (Delacorte Press, January 3, 2017). Young Adult. Dani Falls learned to tolerate her existence in suburban Florida with her brash and seemingly unloving mother by embracing the philosophy Why care? It will only hurt. So when her mother is killed in a sudden and violent manner, Dani goes into an even deeper protection mode, total numbness. It’s the only way she can go on. But when Dani chooses The Stranger by Albert Camus as summer reading for school, it feels like fate. The main character’s alienation after his mother’s death mirrors her own. Dani’s life is thrown into further turmoil when she is sent to New Mexico to live with an aunt she never knew she had. The awkwardness between them is palpable. To escape, Dani takes long walks in the merciless heat. One day, she meets Paulo, who understands how much Dani is hurting. Although she is hesitant at first, a mutual trust and affection develop between Dani and Paulo, and Dani begins to heal. And as she and her aunt begin to connect, Dani learns about her mother’s past. Forgiving isn’t easy, but maybe it’s the only way to move forward.

Image result for stef soto taco queenSTEF SOTO, TACO QUEEN by Jennifer Torres (Little, Brown Books, January 3, 2017). Middle Grade. Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for her dad to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be put out to pasture. It’s no fun being known as the “Taco Queen” at school. But just when it looks like Stef is going to get exactly what she wants, and her family’s livelihood is threatened, she will have to become the truck’s unlikely champion.

 

 

History Is All You Left Me CoverHISTORY IS ALL YOU LEFT ME by Adam Silvera (Soho Teen, January 17, 2017). Young Adult. Starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal. When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course. To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart. If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life. Young Adult.

25883033THE RADIUS OF US by Marie Marquardt (St. Martin’s Griffin, January 17, 2017). Young Adult. Starred review from School Library Journal. Ninety seconds can change a life — not just daily routine, but who you are as a person. Gretchen Asher knows this, because that’s how long a stranger held her body to the ground. When a car sped toward them and Gretchen’s attacker told her to run, she recognized a surprising terror in his eyes. And now she doesn’t even recognize herself. Ninety seconds can change a life — not just the place you live, but the person others think you are. Phoenix Flores-Flores knows this, because months after setting off toward the U.S. / Mexico border in search of safety for his brother, he finally walked out of detention. But Phoenix didn’t just trade a perilous barrio in El Salvador for a leafy suburb in Atlanta. He became that person — the one his new neighbors crossed the street to avoid. Ninety seconds can change a life — so how will the ninety seconds of Gretchen and Phoenix’s first encounter change theirs? Told in alternating first person points of view, The Radius of Us is a story of love, sacrifice, and the journey from victim to survivor. It offers an intimate glimpse into the causes and devastating impact of Latino gang violence, both in the U.S. and in Central America, and explores the risks that victims take when they try to start over. Most importantly, Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us shows how people struggling to overcome trauma can find healing in love.

33276882MORNING STAR HORSE by Margarita Engle. (Horizon Bound Books, January 30, 2017). Middle Grade. Award winning author Margarita Engle brings a tale of history mixed with a touch of fantasy. A young girl stricken with rickets and her mother face the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the challenges of a new century and innovative teachers. Dreams realized and dreams crushed exploring the freedoms only a magical horse can offer.

 

 

 

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!THE ROOSTER WOULD NOT BE QUIET written by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. (Scholastic, January 31, 2017). Picture Book. Starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. La Paz is a happy, but noisy village. A little peace and quiet would make it just right. So the villagers elect the bossy Don Pepe as their mayor. Before long, singing of any kind is outlawed. Even the teakettle is afraid to whistle! But there is one noisy rooster who doesn’t give two mangos about this mayor’s silly rules. Instead, he does what roosters were born to do. He sings: “Kee-kee-ree-KEE!”

 

30201884ABC PASTA by Juana Medina Rosas (Penguin Young Readers Group, February 7, 2017). Picture Book. Starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal.

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! Feb 7

 

30363752LOLA LEVINE MEETS JELLY AND BEAN written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Angela Dominguez. (Little, Brown Books, February 7, 2017.) Chapter BookThe Levines are finally getting a pet–a furry one that is. They are excited about adopting a kitty they name Jelly, but they don’t get very far in the process when Ben starts sneezing. Oh no, he’s allergic! Lola is devastated and sets out to find Jelly a good home. Luckily, Lola is rewarded with a very happy (and still furry) ending! With Lola’s trademark humor, we can expect a few mishaps, many funny moments, and a cute new pet all wrapped in one adorable book. LOLA LEVINE AND THE VACATION DREAM will be released April 25, 2017, and LOLA LEVINE AND THE HALLOWEEN SCREAM will be released July 3, 2017.

Image result for education of margot sanchezTHE EDUCATION OF MARGOT SANCHEZ by Lilliam Rivera (Simon & Schuster, February 21, 2017). Young Adult. After “borrowing” her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts. With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal…Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

29506205FUTURE THREAT by Elizabeth Briggs (Albert Whitman, March 1, 2017). Young Adult. Six months ago Aether Corporation sent Elena, Adam, and three other recruits on a trip to the future where they brought back secret information–but not everyone made it back to the present alive. Now Elena’s dealing with her survivor’s guilt and trying to make her relationship with Adam work. All she knows for sure is that she’s done with time travel and Aether Corporation. But Aether’s not done with her–or Adam, or fellow survivor Chris. The travelers on Aether’s latest mission to the future have gone missing, and Elena and her friends are drafted into the rescue effort. They arrive in a future that’s amazingly advanced, thanks to Aether Corporation’s reverse-engineered technology. The mission has deadly consequences, though, and they return to the future to try to alter the course of events. But the future is different yet again. Now every trip through time reveals new complications, and more lives lost–or never born. Elena and Adam must risk everything–including their relationship–to save their friends.

 Image result for the inexplicable logic of my heartTHE INEXPLICABLE LOGIC OF MY LIFE by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Clarion Books, March 7, 2017). Young Adult. Starred review from Kirkus. Sal used to know his place with his adoptive gay father, their loving Mexican-American family, and his best friend, Samantha. But it’s senior year, and suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and realizing he no longer knows himself. If Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

 

 

 

The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra CoverTHE CHUPACABRA ATE THE CANDELABRA by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by debut artist Ana Aranda (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, March 7, 2017). Picture Book. With its hilarious dialogue, trio of bumbling goats, and fantastically zany villain, this unique, laugh-out-loud story based on a legendary monster is sure to crack up kids and grown-ups alike.

 

 

 

28143051PROOF OF LIES: Anastasia Phoenix series by Diana Rodriguez Wallach (Entangled Teen, March 7, 2017). Young Adult. Anastasia Phoenix has always been the odd girl out, whether moving from city to international city with her scientist parents or being the black belt who speaks four languages. And most definitely as the orphan whose sister is missing, presumed dead. She’s the only one who believes Keira is still alive, and when new evidence surfaces, Anastasia sets out to follow the trail―and lands in the middle of a massive conspiracy. Now she isn’t sure who she can trust. At her side is Marcus, the bad boy with a sexy accent who’s as secretive as she is. He may have followed her to Rome to help, but something about him seems too good to be true. Nothing is as it appears, and when everything she’s ever known is revealed to be a lie, Anastasia has to believe in one impossibility. She will find her sister.

 

29102833BRAVO! Poems About Amazing Latinos by Newbery Honor-winner Margarita Engle, illustrated by Pura Belpré Award winner Rafael López (Holt/Macmillan, March 14, 2017). Middle Grade. Spanish language edition also available. Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Latinos featured in this collection come from many different countries and from many different backgrounds. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to a collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today! Biographical poems include: Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Ynes Mexia, Tomás Rivera.

31258127LUCIA THE LUCHADORA written by Cynthia Leonor Garza and illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez (POW! March 17, 2017). Picture Book. Lucia 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: Lucia comes from a family of luchadoras, the bold and valiant women of the Mexican lucha libre tradition. Cloaked in a flashy new disguise, Lucia returns as a recess sensation! But when she’s confronted with a case of injustice, Lucia 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.

colato-lainez_romeroTELEGRAMS AL CIELO: La infancy de Monsenor Oscar Romero/TELEGRAMS FROM HEAVEN: The Childhood of Archbishop Oscar Romero written by René Colato Laínez; illustrated by Pixote Hunt (Luna’s Press, March 24, 2017). Picture Book. A bilingual picture book biography about Óscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated during the Civil War, to published on his Feast Day and anniversary of his assassination.

 

 

31179207VIVA, ROSE! by Susan Krawitz (Holiday House, March 30, 2017). Middle Grade. When fourteen-year-old Rose Solomon’s brother, Abe, left El Paso, he told the family he was heading to Brooklyn. But Rose discovers the truth the day she picks up the newspaper at Pickens General Store and spies a group photograph captioned The Southwestern Scourge of 1915! There stands Abe alongside none other than Pancho Villa and his army! Rose is furious about Abe’s lie; fearful for his safety; and worried about her traditional parents who, despite their strict and observant ways, do not deserve to have an outlaw for a son. Rose knows the only way to set things right is to get Abe home, but her clandestine plan to contact him goes awry when she is kidnapped by Villa’s revolutionaries and taken to his hideaway. Deep in the desert, amidst a richly rendered assortment of freedom-seekers that includes an impassioned young reporter, two sharp-shooting sisters with a secret past, and Dorotea, Villa’s tyrannical young charge, Rose sees no sign of Abe and has no hope of release. But as she learns to lie, hide, and ride like a bandit, Rose discovers the real meaning of freedom and what she’s willing to risk to get hers back.

Lucky Broken Girl CoverLUCKY BROKEN GIRL by Ruth Behar (Nancy Paulsen Books, April 11, 2017). Middle Grade. Based on the author’s childhood in the 1960s, a young Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl is adjusting to her new life in New York City when her American dream is suddenly derailed. Ruthie Mizrahi and her family recently emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to New York City. Just when she’s finally beginning to gain confidence in her mastery of English and enjoying her reign as her neighborhood’s hopscotch queen, a horrific car accident leaves her in a body cast and confined her to her bed for a long recovery. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grow larger. She comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.

Saint Death CoverSAINT DEATH by Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook Press, April 25, 2017). Young Adult. Anapra is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Mexican city of Juarez – twenty meters outside town lies a fence – and beyond it – America – the dangerous goal of many a migrant. Faustino is one such trying to escape from the gang he’s been working for. He’s dipped into a pile of dollars he was supposed to be hiding and now he’s on the run. He and his friend, Arturo, have only 36 hours to replace the missing money, or they’re as good as dead. Watching over them is Saint Death. Saint Death (or Santissima Muerte) – she of pure bone and charcoal-black eye, she of absolute loyalty and neutral morality, holy patron to rich and poor, to prostitute and narco-lord, criminal and police-chief. A folk saint, a rebel angel, a sinister guardian.

32332948UGLY CAT & PABLO by Isabel Quintero (Scholastic, April 25, 2017). Chapter Book. Ugly Cat is dying for a paleta (ice pop) and his friend Pablo is determined to help him get one by scaring a little girl who is enjoying a coconut paleta in the park. Things go horribly wrong when, instead of being scared, the little girl picks Pablo up and declares that he would make great snack for her pet snake. Oh and there’s also the small problem that Ugly Cat may have inadvertently swallowed Pablo in all of the commotion!

 

 

 

32672758ROOTING FOR RAFAEL ROSALES by Kurits Scaletta. (Albert Whitman & Company, April 25, 2017). Middle Grade. Rafael has dreams. Every chance he gets he plays in the street games trying to build his skills, get noticed by scouts, and someday play Major League Baseball. Maya has worries. The bees are dying all over the world, and the company her father works for is responsible, making products that harm the environment. Follow Rafael and Maya in a story that shifts back and forth in time and place, from Rafael s neighborhood in the Dominican Republic to present-day Minnesota, where Maya and her sister are following Rafael s first year in the minor leagues. In their own ways, Maya and Rafael search for hope, face difficult choices, and learn a secret the same secret that forever changes how they see the world.

STEP UP TO THE PLATE, MARIA SINGH by Uma Krishnaswami (Tu Books, May 1, 2017). Middle GradeNine-year-old Maria Singh longs to play softball in the first-ever girls team forming in Yuba City, California. It’s the spring of 1945, and World War II is dragging on. Miss Newman, Maria’s teacher, is inspired by Babe Ruth and the All-American Girls League to start a girls softball team at their school. Meanwhile, Maria’s parents Papi from India and Mama from Mexico can no longer protect their children from prejudice and from the discriminatory laws of the land. When the family is on the brink of losing their farm, Maria must decide if she has what it takes to step up and find her voice in an unfair world. In this fascinating middle grade novel, award-winning author Uma Krishnaswami sheds light on a little-known chapter of American history set in a community whose families made multicultural choices before the word had been invented.

Image result for it's not like it's a secretIT’S NOT LIKE IT’S A SECRET by Misa Sugiura (HarperTeen, May 9, 2017). Young Adult. Sixteen-year-old Sana Kiyohara has too many secrets. Some are small, like how it bothers her when her friends don’t invite her to parties. Some are big, like that fact that her father may be having an affair. And then there’s the one that she can barely even admit to herself—the one about how she might have a crush on her best friend. When Sana and her family move to California she begins to wonder if it’s finally time for some honesty, especially after she meets Jamie Ramirez. Jamie is beautiful and smart and unlike anyone Sana’s ever known. There are just a few problems: Sana’s new friends don’t trust Jamie’s crowd; Jamie’s friends clearly don’t want her around anyway; and a sweet guy named Caleb seems to have more-than-friendly feelings for her. Meanwhile, her dad’s affair is becoming too obvious to ignore anymore. Sana always figured that the hardest thing would be to tell people that she wants to date a girl, but as she quickly learns, telling the truth is easy… what comes after it, though, is a whole lot more complicated.

30174679GABBY GARCIA’S ULTIMATE PLAYBOOK by Iva-Marie Palmer. (Katherine Tegen Books, May 9, 2017). Middle Grade. If life were a baseball game, all-star pitcher Gabby Garcia would be having her Best. Season. EVER! Until she’s suddenly sent to another school and her winning streak is about to disappear—both on and off the field. But Gabby never gives up! She has a PLAN to keep her champion status intact, and every step of is written out—PLAY by PLAY. How could it not work? This new series written by Iva-Marie Palmer is filled with funny illustrations, sports facts, and blooper-reel moments that will have readers laughing and rooting for more.

 

32673416THE GO-BETWEEN by Veronica Chambers. (Delacorte, May 9, 2017). Young Adult. She is the envy of every teenage girl in Mexico City. Her mother is a glamorous telenovela actress. Her father is the go-to voice-over talent for blockbuster films. Hers is a world of private planes, chauffeurs, paparazzi and gossip columnists. Meet Camilla del Valle 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 s a scholarship kid, the daughter of a domestic. At first Cammi thinks playing along with the stereotypes will be her way of teaching her new friends a lesson. But the more she lies, the more she wonders: Is she only fooling herself?

25226215THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMORA by Pablo Cartaya (Viking, May 16, 2017). Middle Grade. For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a cute girl who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

 

33099907MARTÍ ‘S SONG FOR FREEDOM/Martí y sus versos por la libertad by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal (Lee & Low, May 1, 2017). Debut author Emma Otheguy’s picture book biography of poet and Cuban national hero Jose Martí.  Written in verse, with excerpts from Martí’s seminal work, Versos sencillos, this is a beautiful tribute to a brilliant political writer and courageous fighter of freedom for all men and women.

 

 

32309404 NO GOOD DEED by Goldy Moldavsky. (Scholastic, May 30, 2017). Young Adult. He’s not asking for much. All Gregor Maravilla wants to do is feed all of the starving children on the planet. So when he’s selected to join Camp Save the World, a special summer program for teenage activists from all over the country to champion their cause, Gregor’s sure he’s on the path to becoming Someone Great. But then a prize is announced. It will be awarded at the end of summer to the activist who shows the most promise in their campaign. Gregor’s sure he has the prize in the bag, especially compared to some of the other campers’ campaigns. Like Eat Dirt, a preposterous campaign started by Ashley Woodstone, a famous young actor who most likely doesn’t even deserve to be at the camp. Everywhere Gregor goes, Ashley seems to show up ready to ruin things. Plus, the prize has an unforeseen side effect, turning a quiet summer into cutthroat warfare where campers stop focusing on their own campaigns and start sabotaging everyone else’s.

 

32278040ESTEBAN de LUNA, BABY RESCUER / ESTEBAN de LUNA, RESCATADOR de BEBES! written by Larissa M. Mercado-Lopez, illustrated by Alex Pardo DeLange, and translated by Gabriela Baeza Ventura (Piñata Books, May 31, 2017). Bilingual Picture Book. Esteban loves his long green cape, but there is just one problem–it does not do ANYTHING! But when a doll is left behind at a park, Esteban discovers that while his cape does not have magical powers, he can still use it to be a hero!”

 

32126347AN UNINTERRUPTED VIEW OF THE SKY by Melanie Crowder (Philomel, June 13, 2017). Young Adult. It’s 1999 in Bolivia and Francisco’s life consists of school, soccer, and trying to find space for himself in his family’s cramped yet boisterous home. But when his father is arrested on false charges and sent to prison by a corrupt system that targets the uneducated, the poor, and the indigenous majority, Francisco’s mother abandons hope and her family. Francisco and his sister are left with no choice: They must move into the prison with their father. There, they find a world unlike anything they’ve ever known, where everything—a door, a mattress, protection from other inmates—has its price.Prison life is dirty, dire, and dehumanizing. With their lives upended, Francisco faces an impossible decision: Break up the family and take his sister to their grandparents in the Andean highlands, fleeing the city and the future that was just within his grasp, or remain together in the increasingly dangerous prison. Pulled between two equally undesirable options, Francisco must confront everything he once believed about the world around him and his place within it.

THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK illustrated middle grade debut by Celia C. Pérez (Viking, Penguin, August 22, 2017). There are no shortcuts to surviving your first day at a new school—you can’t fix it with duct tape like you would your Chuck Taylors. On Day One, twelve-year-old Malú (María Luisa, if you want to annoy her) inadvertently upsets Posada Middle’s queen bee, violates the school’s dress code with her punk rock look, and disappoints her college-professor mom in the process. Her dad, who now lives a thousand miles away, says things will get better as long as she remembers the first rule of punk: be yourself.  The real Malú loves rock music, skateboarding, zines, and Soyrizo (hold the cilantro, please). And when she assembles a group of like-minded misfits at school and starts a band, Malú finally begins to feel at home. She’ll do anything to preserve this, which includes standing up to an anti-punk school administration to fight for her right to express herself! From debut author and longtime zine-maker Celia C. Pérez, The First Rule of Punk is a wry and heartfelt exploration of friendship, finding your place, and learning to rock out like no one’s watching. Black and white illustrations and collage art throughout make this a perfect pick for fans of books like Roller Girl and online magazines like Rookie.

31145004SING, DON’T CRY by Angela Dominguez (Henry Holt, Aug. 22, 2017). Picture Book. Once a year, Abuelo comes from Mexico to visit his family. He brings his guitar, his music and his memories. In this story inspired by the life of Apolinar Navarrete Diaz, author Angela Dominguez’s grandfather and a successful mariachi musician, Abuelo and his grandchildren sing through the bad times and the good. Lifting their voices and their spirits, they realize that true happiness comes from singing together.

 

 

US, IN PROGRESS: SHORT STORIES ABOUT YOUNG LATINOS by Lulu Delacre. (HarperCollins, August 29, 2017). Middle GradeIn this book, you will meet many young Latinos living in the United States, from a young girl whose day at her father’s burrito truck surprises her to two sisters working together to change the older sister’s immigration status, and more. Turn the pages to experience life through the eyes of these boys and girls whose families originally hail from many different countries; see their hardships, celebrate their victories, and come away with a better understanding of what it means to be Latino in the U.S. today.

ALL THE WAY TO HAVANA by Maragarita Engle. (Henry Holt and Co., August 29, 2017). Picture Book. A family drives into the city of Havana to celebrate a cousin’s first birthday. Before their journey, the boy helps his papa tune up their old car, Cara Cara, which has been in their family for many years. They drive along the sea wall, along the coast, past other colorful old cars. The sounds of the city are rich the putt putts and honks and bumpety bumps of other cars chorus through the streets. A rich celebration of the culture of the Cuban people, their resourcefulness and innovative spirit, and their joy.

34228241YO SOY MUSLIM: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (Salaam Reads, August 29, 2017). Picture Book.  From Muslim and Latino poet Mark Gonzales comes a touching and lyrical picture book about a parent who encourages their child to find joy and pride in all aspects of their multicultural identity.

Dear little one,
…know you are wondrous.
A child of crescent moons,
a builder of mosques,
a descendant of brilliance,
an ancestor in training.

Written as a letter from a father to his daughter, Yo Soy Muslim is a celebration of social harmony and multicultural identities. The vivid and elegant verse, accompanied by magical and vibrant illustrations, highlights the diversity of the Muslim community as well as Indigenous identity. A literary journey of discovery and wonder, Yo Soy Muslim is sure to inspire adults and children alike.

LA PRINCESA AND THE PEA written by Susan M. Elya, illustrated by LA MADRE GOOSE illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal (Putnam/Penguin, September 5, 2017). Picture BookEl príncipe knows this girl is the one for him, but, as usual, his mother doesn’t agree. The queen has a secret test in mind to see if this girl is really a princesa. But the prince might just have a sneaky plan, too . . . Readers will be enchanted by this Latino twist on the classic story, and captivated by the vibrant art inspired by the culture of Peru.

29220714THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END by Adam Silvera (HarperCollins, September 5, 2017). Young adult. Set in a near-future New York City where a service alerts people on the day they will die, the novel follows teens Mateo and Rufus, who meet using the Last Friend app and are faced with the challenge of living a lifetime on their End Day.

 

 

 

 

28807785FRIDA KAHLO AND HER ANIMALITOS by Monica Brown, illustrated by Pura Belpré Honor winner John Parra (North South Books, September 5, 2017). Monica Brown’s latest picture book biography takes a look at the popular and iconic female artist with a child-friendly view of the many animals that surrounded her art and her life.

 

 

 

33158561WILD BEAUTY by Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, September 26, 2017). In Wild Beauty, McLemore introduces a spellbinding setting and two characters who are drawn together by fate—and pulled apart by reality. For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens. The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

29010395 I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER by Erika L. Sánchez (Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 17, 2017). Young AdultPerfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family. But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role. Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed. But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

imageTHE CLOSEST I’VE COME by Fred Aceves (Harper Collins, November 2017). Marcos Rivas wants to find love. He’s sure as hell not getting it at home where his mom’s racist boyfriend beats him up. Or from his boys, who aren’t exactly the “hug it out” type. Marcos yearns for love, a working cell phone, and maybe a pair of sneakers that aren’t falling apart. But more than anything, Marcos wants to get out of Maesta, his hood—impossible. When Marcos is placed in a new after-school program for troubled teens with potential, he meets Zach, a theater geek whose life seems great on the surface, and Amy, a punk girl who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. These new friendships inspire Marcos to open up to his Maesta crew, too, and along the way, Marcos starts to think more about his future and what he has to fight for. Marcos ultimately learns that bravery isn’t about acting tough and being macho; it’s about being true to yourself.

TITO THE BONECRUSHER by Melissa Thompson (FSG, Winter 2017). A middle-grade debut about a boy who seeks the help of a pro-wrestler turned action star to rescue his dad from a deportation detention center, in a story about heroes, friendship, and forgiveness.

STARRING CARMEN written by Anika Denise and illustrated by Lorena Alvarez (Abrams 2017) Picture Book. About a big sister who learns to share the spotlight with an adoring (if annoying) little brother.

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

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

 

Review by Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

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

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

“Why, mi’ja?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Celebrating Pura Belpré Winners: Spotlight on Under the Royal Palms by Alma Flor Ada

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The 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 Alma Flor Ada, the winner of the 2000 Pura Belpré Narrative Award for Under the Royal Palms.

Under the Royal Palms coverReview by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: In this companion volume to Alma Flor Ada’s Where the Flame Trees Bloom, the author offers young readers another inspiring collection of stories and reminiscences drawn from her childhood on the island of Cuba. Through those stories we see how the many events and relationships she enjoyed helped shape who she is today.

Heartwarming, poignant, and often humorous, this collection encourages children to discover the stories in their our own lives — stories that can help inform their own values and celebrate the joys and struggles we all share no matter where or when we grew up.

MY TWO CENTSUnder the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba, by Alma Flor Ada, is the second of two memoirs covering the author’s childhood. Where the Flame Trees Bloom was published in 1994. Both books are now available in a single volume entitled Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba, which also contains a new, shorter section called “Days at La Quinta Simoni.” This review is Island Treasures FINAL ARTbased on the Island Treasures edition.

Under the Royal Palms was also published in Spanish, as Bajo las palmas reales.

Written in clear prose charged with poetic flavor, Under the Royal Palms is a lovely collection of autobiographical stories that paint a rich picture of life for a 20th-century child in the riverside city of Camagüey, Cuba. Located in the interior of the island nation, Camagüey is an ancient city of narrow, winding streets, paved in stone. Most of the stories are set in the large, multi-generational family home of Alma Flor Ada’s childhood, known as La Quinta Simoni.

Often humorous or joyful, occasionally sobering, each story in this collection captivates the eye and ear through sharp characterizations of place, time, and emotion. By bringing to life feelings ranging from deep loss to transcendent joy, the author succeeds in reaching across cultural and generational gaps to connect to the heart of young readers today.

In “Explorers,” we meet cousins Jorge and Virginita. As the oldest of these three children, Jorge wears a mantle of authority that his two younger cousins, Virginita and Alma Flor, honor to a fault. Part of Jorge’s reputation comes from the fact that he “read the adventure stories that we all later reenacted. We trusted his words completely and followed him without hesitation.” One day, the girls blithely follow Jorge into a marabú field. Marabú are prolifically spreading trees, which form a dense and thorny thicket. Jorge somehow manages to nimbly scramble his way through the nearly impenetrable network of branches that cover the vast marabú field, but his cousins lose sight of him and are forced to crawl along at inchworm pace, snagging their hair and dresses on the thorns. When Jorge arrives back at La Quinta Simoni without the girls, and hours later they have still failed to appear, the adults imagine the worst and begin to search high and low for them. The girls finally emerge from the marabú field, with “clothes in tatters and our faces covered with muddy tears.”

Other stories reveal the web of family relationships and the interplay of competing interests. “Broken Wings” is a stunning account of an uncle’s passion for aeronautic flight and the dear price that he and his loved ones pay for it. Uncle Medardito is the only brother of Alma Flor’s mother and maternal aunts. His dynamic personality charms everyone that knows him. So do his exploits. When the Río Tínima floods, Uncle Medardito braves the rushing waters to save a drowning person. His flair for daring is not limited to emergencies; at times, he walks like a tightrope artist along the railing of a high bridge, purely for the adventure. Then he is bitten by the flying bug and purchases a lightweight wood-and-canvas plane, powered by a single motor. Family members worry for his safety and dread the days when he goes flying, “rising above the red tile roofs and the winding streets that had so restricted his world, gliding like the mighty auras, the Cuban buzzards, over the plains where the royal palms stood majestically.” Of all the family, Alma Flor alone, a young girl at the time, does not try to dissuade her uncle from taking his plane up. She identifies with his longing to soar and secretly hopes he will not bend to the fearful misgivings of the others.

On a particular Sunday, Alma Flor is in the bathtub, with her hair in a “white cloud of shampoo,” when a ruckus draws her attention. Looking out the window, she sees hundreds of people rushing toward the river, shouting. Without rinsing off, she jumps into her clothes and dashes outside, joining the throng. A plane is approaching. Instead of the usual healthy sound of a working engine, there’s an ominous sputter. Running at full speed in the same direction as the descending plane, Alma Flor is the first to reach it after its “deafening impact” with the ground. Up to this point, the story has unfolded in such a way that Uncle Medardito’s fate is never in question. But what happens next, in young Alma Flor’s response to the crash, took me by surprise and provides an unforgettable, emotional climax.

Under the Royal Palms is a treasure chest of similar accounts, one that should be dusted off and introduced to a new generation of readers, many of whom have yet to discover the horizon-expanding possibilities of memoir.

Alma Flor AdaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alma Flor Ada is renown for her work as an educator, speaker, poet, and author of many children’s books as well as professional books for educators. In addition to the Pura Belpré Medal, her major awards include the 2012 Virginia Hamilton Award, the Christopher Medal, and the Marta Salotti Gold Medal. One of her great passions is social justice advocacy. Learn more about Alma’s dazzling career in children’s literature at her website, and read more about her journey in this lovely guest post, “Always Cuban.”

 

 

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Under the Royal Palms is ideal for reading aloud in the classroom. Most of the stories can be enjoyed as stand-alone narratives sure to capture the attention of late elementary and middle school kids.
  • Use selected stories as starting points for an exploration of Cuban culture and history. Complement the text with craft projects, such as making miniature clay tinajones, the earthen pots that Camagüey is known for and which are mentioned in the stories. Prepare a variety of Cuban foods for students to sample. Enrich the stories with virtual travel. A tours agency originating in Spain offers a beautiful array of photographs, maps, and videos of Camagüey and nearby beaches on its website, which is in Spanish.
  • Visit a botanical garden where palms grow and learn more about this amazing family of plants that includes over 2,500 species and differs from broadleaf and coniferous trees in many interesting ways, also supplying food products for people around the world.
  • The stories from Under the Royal Palms serve as excellent models for writing about personal experience. Lessons can include when to summarize events, when to inject dialogue and description, and how to weave in a narrator’s emotional responses.
  • Spanish-language learners can benefit from comparing the text of the English and Spanish versions.

 

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

Found in Translation: A Guest Chat by Author Laura Shovan & Translator Patricia Bejarano Fisher

Today we bring you insights from a pair of guest bloggers, Laura Shovan, the author of a new middle-grade novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, and Patricia Bejarano Fisher, the translator who helped bring authenticity to one of the novel’s Spanish-speaking characters. In the future, we hope to present more of the angles involved in publishing translated or bilingual books. 

 

Last Fifth Grade cover (2)By Laura Shovan and Patricia Bejarano Fisher

Laura introduces the story: My new middle grade novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, is set in where Pat and I both live — Howard County, Maryland, right between Washington, DC and Baltimore. People, including immigrants to the U.S., are drawn here by community resources and the strong reputation of public schools. Often, when I’m guest teaching at a local school, there will be several ESL students, speaking a variety of home languages, in each class.

Two of the eighteen students in Ms. Hill’s fictional fifth grade are Spanish speakers. One of those characters, Gaby Vargas, writes her poems in Spanish and then works with her friend to translate them into English. In order to get Gaby’s voice right, I asked Pat to translate the character’s poems from my English into Spanish, but that wasn’t the end of the collaboration.

Laura to Pat: One of my favorite parts of this process was when we collaborated on back-translating Gaby’s poems from Spanish to English. Could you describe what that was like?

Pat: I also enjoyed this part of the translation process. I had your original English poems. I was to be the voice of Gaby, a young native speaker of Spanish who is beginning to develop her English language skills. She has learned quite a bit but is not yet able to express herself fully in English. She still has to look up words in the dictionary, which she finds frustrating.

My first task was to translate the poems into Spanish, taking care to not make it my own Spanish. It had to be the Spanish of an elementary school girl who is learning English. Gaby’s Spanish is clear and direct. It is also colloquial in places, as it usually is in children that age. The second task was for us to work together from a literal reading of the Spanish poems and translate them back into English. The goal was to introduce a couple of lexical or structural inaccuracies, and unidiomatic phrases here and there that would reflect an intermediate stage of fluency where there is some transfer between the two languages. We took special care to respect the children and to avoid stereotyping them.

Laura: I visited an Emerson Elementary in Albuquerque recently. There was a 4/5th grade bilingual class. When I spoke, children in the audience were translating my English to Spanish for their classmates. And we had a chance to read Gaby’s poems in both languages. That was wonderful. You’re an accomplished poet and translator. How was the experience of working on a children’s novel in verse different from other translation work you’ve done?

Pat: My experience translating Gaby’s poems was new and refreshing, and really a lot of fun. I had finished revising some translations into Spanish I had been working on for some time, so I found the idea of translating a few poems for a book about children very appealing, especially since my youngest grandson had been born a few weeks before.  Children were once again my joy and my focus at that time, so I felt this translation effort would be a special treat for me.

It would also be very different: one of the poetry collections I co-translated tells a personal story of familial love, resentment, and forgiveness; another speaks of the dehumanizing effects of absolute power; yet another recalls vivid memories of war, loss, and hope. All are reflections of adult feelings and experiences turned into beautiful, moving poems.

Gaby’s poems expressed just as much feeling with the clarity and spontaneity with which children communicate. I could just see her struggling to express her thoughts and her feelings in her new language, trying to find the right words and then deciding to use the universal language of music instead. And then, to witness the miracle that only children can perform: becoming a proficient speaker of the new language in a short time and later attaining native proficiency at record speed. Gaby brought memories of my own challenges with English when I first came to the U.S.

Laura: I’d shared Gaby’s poems — in English — with a few Spanish-speakers, but wanted an experienced translator to prepare them for publication. What does a translator bring to a poem that a native speaker might not?

Pat: To me, reading and translation go hand in hand, and the better one understands a text through a close reading, the better the chances are of producing a translation that reflects the intent and the meaning of the original. By “understanding” a text, whether prose or poem, I mean “getting it” at the textual level in its own social and cultural context, as well as at the interpreting level in the context of both the source and the target cultures. In my experience, fluency in a language is necessary but not sufficient to achieve a full understanding of all the linguistic, social, cultural, figurative and other elements present in a text [and then] transfer them effectively into the receiving language. In poetry, the sounds, the rhythms, the syllable counts, the rhymes, the images have to be felt and understood in the original and reflected in the translation.

Pat to Laura: The 18 children who appear in your book come from different backgrounds and have different life stories. How did you choose your characters and how did you develop their relationships? I’m interested in how kids choose their friends and role models.

Laura: My first draft had 30 students and 30 poems, one in each voice. As the book grew from a collection of poems into a novel, some characters were cut and others grew in depth. I made a seating chart for them, so I could see what their classroom relationships might be like. It’s a mystery, sometimes, how children choose their friends. In the development of the book, some friendships didn’t appear until very late in the process. Gaby’s relationship with Mark Fernandez is an example of that. The two of them connect through language.

Fifth-Grade spread

The Last Fifth Grade is set in Columbia, Maryland, where you live and where I often teach. How do you think the book reflects our community in particular and today’s schools in general?

Pat: The children in the book are like the kids I see walking to school in the morning or waiting at the bus stop here in Columbia. We take pride in being an inclusive community where diversity is respected and welcome. Access to education for all has always been a guiding principle. My daughters went to school here some years ago. The events in the life of the school and of the children in The Last Fifth Grade could have taken place in any elementary school in Columbia or Howard County. I really felt I knew Gaby, Edgar Lee Jones, George Furst, Norah Hassan, and their classmates. I felt sad about their school… Any such loss is hard; it feels like someone is taking way the heart of the community.

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PatPatricia Bejarano Fisher was born in Bogotá, Colombia. A language and linguistics graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo, she has lived in Columbia, MD for 33 years. She has worked as a Spanish teacher, translator and language-learning materials developer for many years but she now focuses exclusively on poetry translation. Her work includes South Pole/Polo Sur (Settlement House, 2012) and From the Diary of Mme Mao (publisher TBD), both poem collections by Venezuelan poet Maria Teresa Ogliastri, which she co-translated with Yvette Neisser Moreno. She’s an avid reader of Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese literatures and of all languages in translation. More poems translated by Pat can be found here.

DSC_5914Laura Shovan is former editor of Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura works with children as a poet-in-the-schools and was Howard County Poetry and Literary Society’s 2015-2016 Writer in Residence. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary is her debut novel-in-verse for children (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House). Learn more at Laura’s website.