Book Review: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

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This review by Lila Quintero Weaver is based on an advance uncorrected galley.

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Bryan has a good idea of what’s tight to him—reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But “no drama” doesn’t come with the territory of where he’s from, so he’s feeling wound up tight. While his mom encourages his calm, thoughtful nature, his quick-tempered dad says he needs to be tough because it’s better for a guy to be feared than liked.

And now Bryan’s new friend Mike is putting the pressure on—all of a sudden, his ideas of fun are crazy risky. When Bryan’s dad ends up back in jail, something in Bryan snaps and he allows Mike to take the lead. At first it’s a rush as Bryan starts cutting school and subway surfing. But Bryan never feels quite right when he’s acting wrong, and Mike ends up pushing him too far.

Fortunately, if there’s anything Bryan has learned from his favorite superheroes, it’s that he has the power to stand up for what he believes.

MY TWO CENTS: Starring an Afro-Puerto Rican character from Brooklyn, NY, this entertaining middle-grade novel is a brilliant read layered with emotional richness and nuance. Along with its primary selling point as a solid and strongly voiced story, Tight delivers an important but subtly threaded message on self-respect and moral courage. Bryan’s internal wrestling match, one brought on by a questionable friendship, lies at the crux of the story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story line could have easily devolved into a morality play. But Maldonado avoids such cardboard cutouts in favor of a skillfully crafted portrait of a relatable middle-grader facing down his vulnerabilities and learning how to choose the higher road.

Sharply drawn from head to toe, Bryan is a sympathetic character with a mounting dilemma that begins as soon as a boy named Mike makes his appearance. Initially, Bryan feels suspicious of the new boy, but lets go of those reservations when Mike reveals a kindred love of superhero comic books. Still, subtle things about Mike continue to nag at Bryan, setting up an undercurrent of mistrust. As Mike works his charisma on Bryan, gradually opening doors to dangerous and alluring pastimes, Bryan begins to rationalize his original misgivings. To complicate matters, things on the home front are going south, too. Bryan’s father, who’s recently gotten out of jail, seems to be courting trouble again, putting the whole family in a state of tension.

Although at times Bryan succumbs to risky behavior, he seems most like himself when the drama is dialed way down. He actually relishes the peace and quiet of his “office,” an unused desk at his mother’s workplace, where he spreads out his homework. In this vein, we also witness him happily chatting on a park bench with his mom, who he endearingly refers to as “my heart.”

You cannot help but love Bryan. He reads as a real boy, with a real life, and a rings-true voice that expresses rich interiority. But as if to test his tender side, Bryan’s world is complicated by the code of machismo. At his school and in his neighborhood, the message telegraphed at boys is don’t be soft. This refrain of warped masculinity features in many a Latinx treatment. Fortunately, Maldonado lifts the story above such tropes by enlivening Bryan with contradictory currents and introducing fresh possibilities that will keep readers on their toes.

Other elements of Latinx life include food (chicharrones, alcapurrias) and observations on ethnic identity. In an early scene, Bryan reveals that he purchased the new Miles Morales Spider-Man comic because “he’s my age and looks like me. He’s half black and half Puerto Rican. I’m full Rican but heads rarely guess right.”

It’s obvious that Bryan has a lot on his plate. Here he is at the corner bodega presenting a note from his mom, in which she appeals for store credit.

When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.

I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.

Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”

Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous-smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.

What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.

Does it need pointing out that Maldonado nails the art of voice?

In addition, he commands a spare approach to description, choosing a handful of small details for the sizzle they bring. One of my favorite examples of colorful scene-setting occurs when Bryan and Mike pass through a crowded train station. “Mike ducks under a turnstile and races up the steps. ‘PAY YOUR FARE!’ the teller’s voice yells through the microphone in the MetroCard booth. It sounds extra scary because it’s all metallic, like Darth Vader’s voice.”

This is a novel that kid readers across the board will go for, and that readers hungry for Afro-Latinx representation will cheer on. In Bryan, Maldonado has created a vivid, relatable character with a lot going on between his ears. He has also built a fascinating and realistic world for this character to occupy, and spun a story that packs punch, enclosing within it hidden, but never preachy, lessons about life and love and healthy self-respect.

IMG_5888ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

Click here to see our recent Q&A with Torrey Maldonado.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and a novel for kids, My Year in the Middle. Connect with her on Twitter, where her handle is @LilaQWeaver.

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 6: Torrey Maldonado

 

We are back from our summer break with lots of great, new interviews, book reviews, and events planned. We start today with a Q&A with middle grade author Torrey Maldonado, who is celebrating the release of his latest novel, Tight.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

Today, we highlight Torrey Maldonado. And it’s an extra-special day because…

Torrey’s latest novel, Tight, releases TODAY!!

HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY, TORREY!!

 

Here’s a description of the novel: Bryan knows what’s tight for him–reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But drama is every day where he’s from, and that gets him tight, wound up.

And now Bryan’s friend Mike pressures him with ideas of fun that are crazy risky. At first, it’s a rush following Mike, hopping turnstiles, subway surfing, and getting into all kinds of trouble. But Bryan never really feels right acting so wrong, and drama really isn’t him. So which way will he go, especially when his dad tells him it’s better to be hard and feared than liked?

But if there’s one thing Bryan’s gotten from his comic heroes, it’s that he has power–to stand up for what he feels.

Torrey Maldonado delivers a fast-paced, insightful, dynamic story capturing urban community life. Readers will connect with Bryan’s journey as he navigates a tough world with a heartfelt desire for a different life.

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And here’s more about Torrey: What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping, relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

 

And now, here’s our Q&A with Torrey Maldonado:

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

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Torrey and his mom. Photo given by Torrey Maldonado.

A:  My mom inspired me to become a writer. When I was a boy, maybe no taller than a fire hydrant with my Jackson 5 Afro probably bigger than my head, she told me, “I read out loud to you when you were in my belly.” But a lot fought against my Mom trying to build me into a reader and writer. In the Brooklyn Red Hook housing projects, where I was born and raised, and in lots of neighborhoods, boys were and are bullied for our bookishness, and it happened to me. Currently, a buzz-phrase is “safe spaces.” My mom made our apartment my safe space to be bookish. The rapper 50 Cent’s debut album was Get Rich or Die Tryin’. My mom’s attitude was “Get My Kid into Lit or Die Tryin’.” My whole life, her apartment was the only in our projects where I saw a library. For being bookish, I got bullied outside and in school, then cuddled with Ma on our couch as she read to me. When she read and wrote, her eyes always smiled. As I got older, she took me far out of our projects to authors’ readings. She is my heart, loved writing, and admires writers. My motto is “Kids will be what they see,” and it’s fitting that I followed her footsteps. I represent her writing-spirit out in the world.

 

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

A. I have taught middle school for nearly twenty years. I see my students as me at their ages. The middle school years are “crossroad years” where tweens need direction. Plus, so much of their awesomeness should be spotlighted. I see them unplug from books because a lot of required readings aren’t culturally responsive mirrors and windows. It inspires to give my students and other middle schoolers essential books that I needed at their ages. Pretty cool related news: a teacher recently tweeted that Tight is the “most essential reading for middle grade teachers recommending books to their readers this fall.” Let’s hope my middle students and others agree.

 

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

A.  My favorite middle grade novels do for readers what my favorite books did for me. Best books are a fleeting magic carpet-ride out of problems yet show kids the magic around them. They help kids feel that their world is bigger than their zip code. Also, my favorite middle school books are culturally responsive mirrors and windows. Some think books fall in different categories: windows here and mirrors over there. My favorite middle grade books are both windows and mirrors.

 

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

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Torrey in middle school. Photo given by Torrey Maldonado.

A. What I’m about to share is what I wish I knew sooner because it would’ve steered me from drama and sped me toward my life goals faster. Here’s my advice: accept and develop all helpful sides of you and know how to code-switch, meaning switch what you show others depending on where you are. My characters of Tight do that. Here’s why accepting and developing all helpful sides of you matters. That perfect person you see over there? They’re not perfect. Everyone is not perfect. That’s a reason Insecure on HBO by Issa Rae is a hit. On it, Issa is herself, a mess, insecure, and quirky with many sides. Millions of people and I love her because we relate. Now, here’s the thing about accepting and “doing you”—you have to know how to code-switch. Issa code-switches when she talks to her boss because she knows what Bryan in Tight knows—you can’t show all of you all of the time. President Obama kicked slang with Jay-Z and Beyoncé then spoke mainstream American English in his White House meetings with advisors. Why code-switch? You see in Tight how you need to shield your candle flame so know one blows it out. Code-switching is a shield. Then the right time comes when you can bring out and shine a different light and others will welcome it. People shielded my light until I learned to shield it, and it helped me be a bullied bookish, insecure, quirky boy who developed his many sides on the DL. In time, I grew into a published book author who is lucky to be invited to shine and share light in cool interviews like this one.

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because middle school youth are awesome, multidimensional, heroic in many ways and all of that should be spotlighted.

 

Torrey’s novels:

   

 

 

 

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

Book Review: JabberWalking by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

Review by Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Can you walk and talk at the same time? How about Jabberwalk? Can you write and draw and walk and journal all at the same time? If not, you’re in luck: exuberant, blue-cheesy cilantro man Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States, is here to teach you everything he knows about being a real-life, bonified, Jabberwalking poet! Jabberwalkers write and speak for themselves and others no matter where their feet may take them — to Jabberwalk is to be a poet on the move. And there’s no stopping once you’re a Jabberwalker, writing fast, fast, fast, scribble-poem-burbles-on-the-run. Scribble what you see! Scribble what you hear! It’s all out there — vámonos!

Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Mexican-American Poet Laureate in the USA, is sharing secrets: how to turn your wonder at the world around you into weird, wild, incandescent poetry.

MY TWO CENTS: JabberWalking is about a poet who walks and talks, and moves and jives, and does all things at once, and sometimes not at all. Juan Felipe Herrera is the son of migrant farmworkers, MFA graduate of the University of Iowa, and was the 2015 Poet Laureate of the United States. His own story of JabbberWalking through life as a poet, is vivid within the pages of this poetry book. The book describes a Jabber Walker as a person who moves to their own beat and speaks and writes for themselves. It is a book of the colorful life of a poet who does not color inside the lines.

It’s important to note that this book must be read aloud. Herrera brings us back to a place where reading poems on paper is too comfortable and does nothing for the flourishing mind. When the reader speaks JabberWalking into existence, it changes the entire meaning of the book. Suddenly, we’re running down streets, picking up guitars, running to grab our diploma, and wondering why our dog is so distracted by a squirrel! Did you SEE it? Squirrel! Only the dog did. Come BACK here, LoTus!

My favorite parts are when the Jabber Walker slows down in the Jabber Notebook. It’s a journal entry of sorts and a reflection that sums up the unconventional chapters throughout the book. The font changes often, creating the movement of both the poem and the poet. In the Jabber Notebook the font is steady. The words come alive in an entirely different way. This section, in each chapter, can be read aloud or to oneself. The reader will find a calming joy in these snippets before it’s time to get up out of our chair and transcend time again.

The doodles take me back to those of John Lennon and Shel Silverstein’s sidewalk series. The playful manner of the words reminds me of Dr. Seuss. JabberWalking is where Latinxs can find themselves in the pages between the universe and Laurette status. Although JabberWalking is an entirely different poetic animal, I feel that those readers who grow up with parents who are keenly aware of the literary canon, will find a desire to be more poetically adventurous when they read Juan Felipe Herrera’s JabberWalking.

JabberWalking presses up against boundaries, takes risks, and lends permission to its reader to become an active participant in creating poetry. Herrera’s cool and jovial approach to poetry allows readers at all ages to imagine a less constricted view of poetry. Herrera allows us, with him, to imagine another world. Herrera pens, “On my eyes the diamond stuff of my soul is pouring out as if my life was made of all that — instead of being a poor brown boy, a lonesome boy, a boy who grew up in the darkness of tiny trailers and raw, raw sawdust flying up from the blue-cheesy roads up, up to a cold slick moon seeking the blue-candy light over the strange jagged mountains.”

Imagine a world where you Jabber Talk, Jabber Think, Jabber Write, and Jabber Walk. Great Jabber, in the pages of JabberWalking,you will find a new way to walk, bounce, speak, throw down a beat, and doodle to the beat of your own drum. Herrera’s narrative is timeless and one the entire family can and will enjoy.

CLICK HERE FOR A TEACHER’S GUIDE

 

 

Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo credit: Randy Vaughn-Dotta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Juan Felipe Herrera is a poet, performance artist, and activist. The son of migrant farm workers, he was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2015–2017. Herrera has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, in addition to short stories, young adult novels, and children’s literature. Juan Felipe Herrera lives in California.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros is a Tejana poet, freelance writer, and speaker. Her work focuses on faith and Latinidad. Both her poetry and essays can be found in On Being, The Rumpus, The Acentos Review, Christianity Today, Rock & Sling, and many others. Hinojosa-Cisneros is a regular contributor at The Mudroom and is a first-year grad student at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX. Additionally, she holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio. When she is not writing, she can be found growing nopalitos at her home in San Antonio, Texas.

Book Review: Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DECRIPTION OF THE BOOK: A room locked for fifty years. A valuable peacock ring. A mysterious brother-sister duo. Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together. While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belonged to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward — and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist! But the brother and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?

MY TWO CENTS: Paloma Marquez does not want to travel to Mexico City. But thanks to a literature fellowship awarded to her mother, Emma, at a Mexican university, she is left with little choice. She will miss out, she laments, on her familiar Kansas City summer: fireworks, reading by the pool, shopping at the mall with friends (all things she can do in Mexico, too, of course). Upon their arrival, she remains pouty and pessimistic, exasperating even her mother, who tells her, “Seriously Paloma…you’re the only one who complains about a free trip to Mexico.”

Her attitude slowly begins to change on their first night in Coyoacán, when Paloma and her mother attend a party at Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s former home turned museum. Paloma cannot help being absorbed by the vivid colors, mariachi music, delicious guanábana drinks, and the intriguing artist whose images permeate the museum. It certainly doesn’t hurt that very cute boys are in attendance, like Tavo, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Farill, the wealthy benefactors of her mother’s fellowship, or Gael Castillo, an aspiring artist, who along with his sister, Lizzie, a talented trumpet player in a mariachi band, recruit Paloma to seek out Frida’s peacock ring. Her encounter with these characters at Casa Azul is no accident. The location is at the heart of the unfolding mystery, not only because it is the scene of the crime, but because all the characters have a connection to it. And, just like Casa Azul houses secrets beneath a vibrant exterior, Paloma soon finds that the outward charm of her new acquaintances belies their true intentions.

Before Paloma decides to join the Castillos in their investigation, she dreams about Frida, who tells her, “It’s true I am missing something…But you’re missing something, too.” Although Paloma is half Mexican (by way of her father, who died in a car accident when she was a toddler), she is disconnected from her heritage, and experiences a bit of culture shock when she first alights in Mexico. She worries about “all these kidnappings going on” and the “drug trafficking kingpin dude.” Her mother, who is white, dismisses Paloma’s concerns as “nonsense,” but admits, “I haven’t done a good job of exposing her to her Mexican heritage.” Cervantes parallels Paloma’s cultural development with the mystery plot, fittingly, since her own identity requires piecing together memories her mother shares of her father, and jotting them down on notecards. It is through Frida, though, that Paloma begins to explore her Mexican side independently. She connects with the icon’s life and art, including her mixed heritage and penchant for self-portraits (likened to selfies in the text). Her exposure to Mexico also serves as exposure for some readers, who may have little to no familiarity with the nation. Although the focus remains on Frida and not Mexico at large, it is a positive step toward creating more positive associations of Mexico for a wider readership.

Although Paloma is initially apprehensive about her possible role in solving a mystery, she cannot help but be intrigued. After all, she is a big fan of mysteries herself, and cannot pass up an opportunity to flex her sleuthing skills. She constantly emulates her favorite literary crime solver, Lulu Pennywhistle, who is both an acknowledgment of the middle grade mystery canon (think Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden), and a subtle commentary on it. Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, is one of very few titles to feature a young protagonist of color, take place in a Latin American city (if any), and focus on the legacy of a female Latinx artist (none; please correct me if I’m wrong). But here now is Paloma Marquez, with keen eyes and note cards in hand, to inspire a new generation of mystery buffs. Art history itself is a favorite subject of the mystery genre for children. Many titles, like the classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and more recent fare like Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett and Under the Egg by Laura Fitzgerald depict novice investigators exploring the history of an artist or artwork to ultimately save the integrity of the art itself, the adults too naive or cynical to do the job themselves, and sometimes even their own fates.

More sophisticated readers of the genre may foresee the revelation of the story’s villain, but the lack of suspense is offset by the fantasy of slipping into the role of crime solver, just as Paloma experienced. And indeed, her discoveries about herself are as integral to the narrative as the whereabouts of the ring. When readers catch a glimpse of Rafael Lopez’s stunning cover art for Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, they may not think they are holding a mystery at all. No dark doorways or creepy staircases. No pointed flashlights or magnifying glasses. Instead, there is Paloma gazing directly at the viewer, evoking Frida’s signature portraits, framed by lush, floral elements, and of course, a peacock (although there is no real peacock ring, Frida was famously an animal lover). She is inviting readers to take a look at all she has uncovered.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela Cervantes is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Gaby, Lost and Found and Allie, First at Last. Angela is the daughter of a retired middle-school teacher who instilled in her a love for reading and storytelling. Angela writes from her home in Kansas City, Kansas. When she is not writing, Angela enjoys reading, running, gazing up at clouds, and taking advantage of Taco Tuesdays everywhere she goes.

Click here for a recent Q&A with Angela Cervantes.

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and born and raised in Queens, NY.

Book Review: Love, Sugar, Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

 

Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.

Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.

And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?

MY TWO CENTS: While we’ve had a strong list of Latinx YA fantasy and magical realism books building for some time, most middle grade books by Latinx authors tend to fall into the genres of realistic fiction or historical fiction. So I was absolutely delighted to read this series opener by Anna Meriano which gives a traditional literary fantasy arc a Latinx, and specifically Mexican-American, voice. Meriano riffs on so many tropes here, including the family with a secret, the youngest child who is desperate to be included, and the sorcerer’s (here, bruja’s) apprentice whose attempts at magic go awry.

One of my favorite things about this book is how the author creates a protagonist who doesn’t speak Spanish (her abuela, who looked after her older sisters and taught them Spanish, died when she was little) and uses it as an obstacle that drives the plot. Magic spells are written in Spanish, so it makes sense that Leo struggles with following them—but also that she perseveres and sees them as her birthright. Not all Latinx kids in the US speak Spanish, for a variety of reasons, and I loved seeing that incorporated into the narrative.

The family relationships in this book are just outstanding. Each sister is individual, and the conflicts between them feel real and lived. I would read an entire book about Marisol and her journey. Meriano doesn’t take the easy way out by having the parents absent or conveniently clueless for most of the narrative, instead making Leo sneak around, constantly worried that her magical efforts will be found out. Of course she is wrong, and the consequences are my favorite part of the book. Leo has to work to fix her mistakes. There is no waving a wand or finding the right words or having a mentor pick up the pieces. She has help, (some of it from an…interesting…source) but she has to do the heavy lifting and figure out the steps to reverse the effects of her spells. Magic systems are tricky to write, and I appreciate that Meriano has created a world with clear rules and expectations, even if they can be bent or broken occasionally.

I would go so far as to say this book is a textbook example of a story that includes specific cultural details, holidays, and language without having them be the focus of the book. So much pop culture centered around Latinx characters uses the Day of the Dead celebrations as an entry and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it gets old after awhile. I loved how Meriano uses the Day of the Dead festival as a set piece, (it’s nice to see how the Logroño family aren’t outsiders in their town), but the book itself isn’t about Day of the Dead. Being a bruja has nothing to do with Day of the Dead. Being Mexican-American is about more than Day of the Dead, a fact that some in the media have yet to grasp.

My favorite line in this book is what Mamá tells Leo when she asks what it means to be a witch.

“A witch can be anyone. A bruja is us. And what does it mean to be a bruja? That’s like asking what it means to be a Texan, or a girl, or curly haired. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s part of you. Then you decide what it means.”

I’m so thrilled that young kids, just hitting middle school, struggling with their identity, will have Leo and her family to make them laugh and guide them to a better understanding of who they are who they want to be in the world.

TEACHING TIPS: There is so much to unpack here for a literature circle or book group at a school. Leo makes lots of choices, which have consequences for many different people, so students can have a field day debating what she should or shouldn’t have done at many different points in the story. Spanish classes, start translating some of those spells! Students could test some of the recipes in the back of the book and bring in their efforts to share with classmates (there is even a gluten-free option). The fantasy elements of the book provide a means for students to write personal narratives imagining themselves into that world: what magical power would you like to have? What are the pros and cons of Isabel’s power versus Alma and Belén’s?

Image result for anna merianoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Meriano grew up in Houston with an older brother and a younger brother, but (tragically) no sisters. She graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis on writing for children from the New School in New York. She has taught creative writing and high school English and works as a writing tutor. Anna likes reading, knitting, playing full-contact quidditch, and singing along to songs in English, Spanish, and ASL. Anna still lives in Houston with her dog, Cisco. Her favorite baked goods are the kind that don’t fly away before you eat them.

RESOURCES: 

Interview with us about being a middle grade author: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/01/05/spotlight-on-middle-grade-authors-part-3-anna-meriano/

Interview on BNKids blog: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/kids/baking-brujas-interview-anna-meriano-love-sugar-magic-dash-trouble/

Excerpt on EW: http://ew.com/books/2017/06/29/love-sugar-magic-dash-of-trouble-excerpt/

Pitch America interview: https://pitchamerica.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/interview-with-anna-meriano-author-of-love-sugar-magic/

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Us, In Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos

 

Review by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Acclaimed author and Pura Belpré Award honoree Lulu Delacre’s beautifully illustrated collection of twelve short stories is a groundbreaking look at the diverse Latinxs who live in the United States.

In this book, you will meet many young Latinxs 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.

MY TWO CENTS: There are twelve stories in this collection, each a beautiful snapshot of life, family, tragedy, and transformation. Each story is inspired by real events and people, some the author knew personally. Included at the end of the book are links to the original articles that inspired each story. The stories begin with a refrán, a familiar Spanish saying that connects with the paired story. A mixed-media portrait also accompanies each story, further personalizing the characters for the reader. Each portrait is intentionally left unfinished to illustrate the idea that each person is a work in progress.

Here is just a peek at a few of the twelve vibrant stories in the collection.

Emilio and José begin this collection in “The Attack.” Twin brothers, whose emotions are closely tied together, watch as their mother works tirelessly to support their older brother’s epilepsy needs. As the story opens, we find out that the twins’ brother, Tony, has been experiencing more and more frequent seizures, and this becomes the source of the main conflict in “The Attack.” During one violent seizure, Tony — holding a knife for cutting fruit — unintentionally harms himself. Frightened, the twins call 911, and soon, officers arrive on the scene to find a bleeding Tony, knife in hand. Then, through a series of miscommunications, an officer is injured, and Tony is charged with assault on an officer. The family is then faced with the uncertainty of what a lawsuit will mean for their family and their lives in the United States. In this short opener, I was brought into the fabric of this family’s heartaches and struggles and I found myself heartbroken fabout they choices they face.

In “Selfie,” 13-year-old Marla is desperate to avoid the same fate as her mother, dependent on insulin shots to treat her diabetes. Showing signs of pre-diabetes, Marla is self-conscious about the dark patches that develop on her skin. She is particularly sensitive to the dark patches showing up when she and her friends take photos and selfies. She knows that a healthy diet and exercise are key, but healthy food is expensive and can’t often be found at the Food 4 Less, the discount market where Marla’s Mamá shops the sales once a month. So, when an opportunity to work her way toward a bike of her own comes up at the local bike club, Marla tries to convince her mother to let her make the 40-minute bus ride by herself. With the help of a supportive teacher and the hope that her Mamá will give her blessing, Marla begins to see how much strength she has.

If you haven’t fallen in love with the collection yet, you will in “Burrito Man,” the fourth story in the collection. On Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Alex wishes she could be anywhere but with her father, “just a food-cart vendor.” Up at 4 a.m., Alex thinks about her friends enjoying air-conditioned offices instead of melting in the heat and being bombarded by the sounds of traffic all day. But Alex’s disappointment doesn’t get her Papi down; he tells her it is going to be a great day because of her. As the day goes on, and the temperatures rise, Alex is floored as one customer after another not only greets her Papi like family, but seems honored to meet “the famous Alex!” Alex is impressed by the way her father treats his customers, remembering minute details about their lives. She is equally embarrassed to find out that her father gushes about her regularly to these strangers. However, teenage humiliation is transformed into pride by the end of the story for what her father has built on his corner.

In “Band-Aid,” we find Elena, whose world is turned upside down when her Papi is picked up by la migra and deported to Honduras. She not only has to face the devastating loss of her father, but also her home, school, and best friend when her mother is forced to move her family and work long hours to make ends meet. Soon, hope arrives in the form of la gran madre, Doña Sánchez. Elena’s mother knows that her children, US citizens, would be safe under the care of la gran madre if she were to be deported. But safety comes in the form of signing over legal guardianship to Doña Sánchez. Elena agonizes at the thought of her family being further torn apart, but she knows the decision lies with her mother. This important story shines in this collection as a beautiful and tragic reminder of what politics is doing to families living here.

“Pickup Soccer,” written in verse, at first, seems to be just a fun ode to fútbol. The narrator, Hugo, wants to be a famous commentator, and we see his neighborhood through his eyes as he and his cousin Hector make their way to the “old neighborhood field.” But, look closer, and you will see that in Hugo’s fast-paced descriptions are signs of of gentrification in the Mission neighborhood. Soon, the neighborhood kids are faced with being kicked off the field by techie start-up guys, including Hugo’s cousin Hector, brandishing a reservation permit through the new City of San Francisco app. Insults start flying, and Hugo knows he must think on his feet, like a true sports commentator, to help both sides coexist on and off the field.

The collection closes with “90,000 Children,” a transformative story about a young boy, Frank, dreaming of the day when he can follow in his father’s footsteps as a border patrol agent. The story’s title references the statistic shared by Frank’s father, that 90,000 unaccompanied minors would be entering the United States by the end of the year. One day, while out with his father, Frank encounters a young girl by herself outside of a saloon. He is drawn to her and further intrigued by an illustration she shows him of a beautiful landscape, an illustration she gives him to keep. After that day, Frank can’t stop thinking about the girl, and what became of her. He struggles with his complex feelings of prejudice toward immigrants and awe at his impression of the young girl after spending only a few moments with her. Woven throughout this story are the complexities of discrimination not only between Frank and the people his father encounters every day, but the discrimination at play in Frank’s own family, between verdadero Francisco Spanish blood and Mayan “indiecitos,” as Frank’s grandfather says. Frank’s transformation is not only evident in his changing actions and words, but in his perception of the work his father does at the border.

This book in the hands of kids is an exciting prospect. Individually, you could delve into each character’s story, reveling in the rich development of character, place, and voice. As a whole, imagine the conversations around Lulu Delacre’s robust writing. Further, readers will be captivated with the true elements of these works, all found in the “Notes on the Individual Stories” section at the back of the book. But let’s end with the front of the book. The beautiful cover artwork, in combination with the title, sends a message to all of our kids that this book is for all of us.

 Lulu Delacre Media Photo 1 ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Three-time Pura Belpré Award honoree Lulu Delacre has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1980. Born and raised in Puerto Rico to Argentinean parents, Delacre says her Latino heritage and her life experiences inform her work. Her 37 titles include Arroz con Leche: Popular Songs and Rhymes from Latin America, a Horn Book Fanfare Book in print for over 25 years; and Salsa Stories, an IRA Outstanding International Book. Her bilingual picture book ¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! Descubriendo el bosque nublado; Olinguito, from A to Z! Unveiling the Cloud Forest has received 20 awards and honors including an NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor and an ALA Notable for All Ages. Her most recent title, is Us, in Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos. Delacre has lectured internationally and served as a juror for the National Book Awards. She has exhibited at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art; The Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators in New York; the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico and the Museum of Ponce in Puerto Rico among other venues.

Us, In Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos has been recognized as a Kirkus Best Book of 2017, a New York Public Libraries Best Book of 2017 and a Los Angeles Public Libraries Best book of 2017. It has also been awarded a Malka Penn Honor for Human Rights in Children’s Literature.