Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Anika Fajardo

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is 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 Anika Fajardo.

Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which was awarded Best Book (Nonfiction) of 2020 from City Pages and was a finalist for the 2020 Minnesota Book Award. Her debut middle-grade novel What If a Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2020) was awarded the 2021 Minnesota Book Award. Her next book for young readers, Meet Me Halfway (Simon & Schuster) will be published in spring 2022.

Her writing for adults and children has appeared in numerous publications including Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton), We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World (U of Minnesota Press), and Sky Blue Waters: Great Stories for Young Readers (U of Minnesota Press). She has earned awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center.

A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis. 

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Here is the publisher’s description for WHAT IF A FISH:

Cover of the novel What If a Fish by Anika Fajardo

A whimsical and unflinchingly honest generational story of family and identity where hats turn into leeches, ghosts blow kisses from lemon trees, and the things you find at the end of your fishing line might not be a fish at all.

Half-Colombian Eddie Aguado has never really felt Colombian. Especially after Papa died. And since Mama keeps her memories of Papa locked up where Eddie can’t get to them, he only has Papa’s third-place fishing tournament medal to remember him by. He’ll have to figure out how to be more Colombian on his own.

As if by magic, the perfect opportunity arises. Eddie—who’s never left Minnesota—is invited to spend the summer in Colombia with his older half-brother. But as his adventure unfolds, he feels more and more like a fish out of water.

Figuring out how to be a true colombiano might be more difficult than he thought.

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Anika Fajardo

Anika Fajardo

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

My mom and my grandparents regularly read aloud to me when I was growing up, so books were always a big part of my life. In sixth grade I won a poetry contest after working with a guest poet in the schools. I got to read my poem on stage in front of an audience, and I decided I really wanted to be a writer. But it took me many careers (teacher, librarian, social media manager, web designer) before I actually let myself believe I could do it. 

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

I remember being that age fondly; I loved to read, write, play pretend, go on adventures. It’s such a great audience–they’re old enough to appreciate well-formed characters, intriguing plots, and sophisticated themes but without any of the sexy stuff of YA.

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

Of course, I love the middle-grade novels from Las Musas (THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, THE DREAM WEAVER, THE MUSE SQUAD). I’m from Minnesota, so my first picks are Minnesota authors like Kate DiCamillo (I adore RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE) and Pete Hautman (FLINKWATER FACTOR). I also love older books like MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS BASIL E FRANKWEILER and THE WESTING GAME.

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

Keep dreaming and don’t let any grown-ups tell you what you can or cannot do with your one precious life.

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

kids need something that’s just for them–not babyish and not too grown up–to which they can escape.

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photo of Cindy L. Rodriguez by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned teacher and children’s author. She is a middle school reading specialist in Connecticut, where she lives with her family. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for three Jake Maddox books: Volleyball Ace (2020), Drill Team Determination (2021), and Gymnastics Payback (2021). Her debut picture book will be published by Cardinal Rule Press in summer 2022. She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Donna Barba Higuera

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is 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 Donna Barba Higuera.

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration.

Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture Books are about kids who find themselves in odd or scary situations.​ From language to cultural differences in being biracial life can become…complicated. So like Donna,  characters tackle more than just the bizarre things that happen to them in their lives.

Donna likes to write about all things funny, but also sad, and creepy, and magical. If you like those things, she hopes you will read her books!

Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs.

Her middle grade novel, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance released September 8, 2020.

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Here is the publisher’s description:

My gym shorts burrow into my butt crack like a frightened groundhog.

Don’t you want to read a book that starts like that??

Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues.

She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who”s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she”s not gonna let that slide.

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Donna Barba Higuera

DonnaBarbaHiguera-Headshot-color .jpg

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

Teachers. That’s the short answer.

Mrs. Griffin, Mrs. Presho, Mrs. Arnoldus, My Uncle Ted. Mr. Presho. Each one of them at specific times told me I should write down the stories in my head.

I think of myself as a storyteller more so than a writer. My imagination has been on full speed, creating alternate plotlines for as long as I can remember. From the books I’m reading, to those “I wish I would’ve done this instead” moments, to my Aunt’s Readers Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained book that I read to tatter, my mind tries to make those things more magical, or brave or mysterious.

But still, bottom line, teachers encouraged me to channel those bizarre stories churning in my mind and put them on paper. Imagining stories for me is easy. Writing them down is hard work. Thank goodness for the teachers who encouraged me to work.

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

I’ve written adult and YA novels as well, but I always get pulled back into Middle Grade. I’ve tried to put my finger on why this happens. I think it’s because that was the age in which I felt most awkward and vulnerable and experienced the most internal struggle in my own life. (But also, the most external conflict.) It’s the age where I still need to work through my thoughts and issues. If this comes across onto the page, there’s more emotional conflict, and that is where I believe better stories come from.

I think many writers don’t even realize until they are done writing a book that they’ve written something that is helping them digest something from their past.

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

For me, the best MG has a mix of humor and emotional growth.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Just released. Unlike any format in MG I’ve ever read, but so beautifully written and funny and sad. This book is going to be a classic!

I Am Fartacus- Electric Boogerloo (2nd in series) by Mark Maciejewski

Hilarious! Probably the only book with Fart and Booger in the title that received a Kirkus star. Perfect balance of humor and friendship and MG struggles.

Rogue by Lynn Miller Lachmann

Again, a perfect mix of humor and strife. Also, one of the best books showing “voice” of a character. And we need more books with neuro-diverse characters.

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

This book does have some funny moments of awkwardness that are so true to life regarding menstruation. Those funny moments help will help young readers digest these topics that have historically been taboo. This novel has had to navigate some speed bumps with the more conservative crowd, but it will overcome that and stand the test of time to be a classic.

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

LOL. Remember how I mentioned most writers realizing after they wrote a book, that it helped them digest something about themselves. It’s the message I discovered after writing Lupe Wong Won’t Dance that my kid-self needed to hear.

It is:  Always be your true self. If you are, the right people will enter and remain in your life.

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

If writers put our own vulnerabilities and hurdles on the page, it allows kids who are going through the same timeless struggles, feel like they are not so alone.

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photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Chantel Acevedo

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is 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 Chantel Acevedo.

Chantel Acevedo was born in Miami to Cuban parents. She is the acclaimed author of adult novels, including The Distant Marvels, which was a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and she is also a professor of English at the University of Miami, where she directs the MFA program. Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse is her debut middle grade novel. Chantel lives with her personal Muse Squad, aka her family, in Florida. You can visit her online at http://www.chantelacevedo.com.

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Muse Squad: The Cassandra Curse just released last week, on July 7, 2020!

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Here is the publisher’s description:

Callie Martinez-Silva didn’t mean to turn her best friend into a pop star. But when a simple pep talk leads to miraculous results, Callie learns she’s the newest muse of epic poetry, one of the nine Muses of Greek mythology tasked with protecting humanity’s fate in secret.

Whisked away to Muse Headquarters, she joins three recruits her age, who call themselves the Muse Squad. Together, the junior muses are tasked with using their magic to inspire and empower—not an easy feat when you’re eleven and still figuring out the goddess within.

When their first assignment turns out to be Callie’s exceptionally nerdy classmate, Maya Rivero, the squad comes to Miami to stay with Callie and her Cuban family. There, they discover that Maya doesn’t just need inspiration, she needs saving from vicious Sirens out to unleash a curse that will corrupt her destiny.

As chaos erupts, will the Muse Squad be able to master their newfound powers in time to thwart the Cassandra Curse . . . or will it undo them all?

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Chantel Acevedo

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

My earliest writing memories are from elementary school. I wasn’t popular, or an athlete, or outgoing. But I could write, and I enjoyed crafting these little stories about my friends, slotting them into superhero roles, or imagining their happy futures. My friends loved seeing themselves on the page, and I loved that they enjoyed it so much. But I didn’t think of writing as a career for a long time. I earned an MFA, published my first book, and even then, didn’t think of myself as a “real” writer, whatever that meant. It took me years to shake that off!

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

I’ve written four novels for adults before turning to middle grade. Partly, I’d been waiting patiently for the muses to send me a good kid-book idea, but also, I have two daughters who straddle the middle grade age bracket, and so their voices, and that of their friends, were swirling around in my head when I finally dreamed up MUSE SQUAD. I love this age, and these voices so much!

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

There are too many! Anything by Kate DiCamillo. Anna Meriano’s Love, Sugar, Magic series is such a delight, and I recommend it all the time to parents. I just finished and loved Adam Gidwitz’s medieval story, The Inquisitor’s Tale. And one I’m really looking forward to is Adrianna Cuevas’ The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez!

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

First, I’d give myself the biggest hug. Then, I’d say, “Be yourself. I know it takes courage, but you’ve got that in spades. Dale, que tu puedes.” I think I hid a lot of myself from others in middle school, thinking the things I liked were too uncool, or “little kid stuff.” I wish I’d embraced what made me different a bit more.

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

Because middle grade is when that tiny, buzzing, critical voice starts to worm its way into our brains. Middle grade novels can help young readers see that they aren’t alone in their worries, their fears, or their joy. Also, when main characters make mistakes and then problem-solve, readers do so along with them, and hopefully, the memory of these stories will be available to them when facing their own challenges.

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photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 5: Angela Cervantes

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the fifth 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 Angela Cervantes.

Her latest middle grade novel, Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring releases tomorrow!! Go get this book with the beautiful cover and awesome premise. Here’s a little more about it:

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?

And now more about Angela: She is the beloved and award-winning author of several middle grade fiction novels. Her first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found, was named Best Youth Chapter book by the International Latino Book Awards and a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of 2014. Angela’s second middle grade novel, Allie, First At Last, received a starred-review from Kirkus and was a finalist for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers Award. Angela’s next middle-grade novel is the junior novelization of Disney Pixar’s animated film, Coco, was released in October 2017. Angela’s fourth novel, Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, will be released by Scholastic on March 27, 2018.

Angela Cervantes

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

A. My love for books inspired me to be a writer. Books were my first friends, and I relied on them to get me through some tough times, like my parents’ divorce, the loss of my abuelos, and issues around poverty. At an early age, I decided that I wanted to tell stories about girls like me. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to be in my life.

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

A. It was my agent, Adriana Domínguez at Full Circle Literary who diagnosed me with a promising voice for middle grade fiction. Once I let that soak in, I knew she was right. I dived head-first, and I’m so happy I did, because I love middle grade novels and writing for middle grade students.

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

A. How much time do you have? There are so many! Growing up, I was obsessed with the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. They are still my all-time favorite books. More recently, I’m a big fan of Rita Williams-Garcia. Her books, One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven are amazing. Other faves that I’ve read recently include Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan; The Smoking Mirror (Book One) by David Bowles; Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper; Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai; Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson and The First Rule of Punk by Celia Pérez. I also love, love, love Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe García McCall.

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

A. Don’t throw away your stories. They’re not stupid. Someday, you’ll wish you could read them again. 🙂

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because young people need a safe place to let their dreams, curiosities and imagination play.

 

   

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.