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.

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.

¡Felicidades! to the 2018 Pura Belpré Award Winners and Honor Books

Image result for congratulations

Congratulations to the authors and illustrators who were honored at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference!

The newest Pura Belpré Awards went to Ruth Behar for Lucky Broken Girl and Juana Martinez-Neal for her illustrations in La Princesa and the Pea.

Click on the links below to get more information on the creators and their work!

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators (including Juana Martinez-Neal)

The Road to Publishing: Juana Martinez-Neal on Landing an Agent

In the Studio with John Parra

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Pablo Cartaya

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Celia C. Pérez

Pura Belpré Award (Author) honoring Latino authors whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience. Click on the cover images to see our review of the title or to get more information.

Winner:

Lucky Broken Girl Cover

Honor books:

     

 

Pura Belpré Award (Illustrator) honoring a Latino writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience. Click on the cover images to see our review of the title or to get more information.

Winner:

Honor Books:

     

Book Review: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? 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 poetry enthusiast 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.

MY TWO CENTS: Much to my delight, there were a number of titles released in 2017 that filled me with pride and transported me back to my days as a middle school book worm. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora was among them. Arturo’s story possesses familiar hallmarks of coming of age tales, a first crush, a crummy summer job as a dishwasher (albeit at his family’s beloved restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla), and self-discovery. With equal measures of humor and heart, Pablo Cartaya’s middle grade debut is sure to leave readers anxious for an invite to the Zamora family Sunday dinners. What truly makes The Epic Fail special, though, is how Cartaya burnishes deeper themes like family, community, gentrification, and cultural identity with nuance and irresistible charm.

When Wilfrido Pipo, a villainous real estate developer, saunters into Canal Grove looking to build a luxurious high rise, Arturo and his family fear the move will drastically alter their Miami neighborhood. Pipo intends to buy the city-owned lot next to La Cocina, which the Zamoras also planned to bid on, hoping to expand their restaurant. In order to convince community members to back his development plan, Pipo throws fancy events and raffles off all-expenses-paid trips. Arturo senses Pipo’s duplicitous nature and is spurred into action by Vanessa, his activist cousin, and Carmen, his new crush. Together, they hatch plans, one involving a Hulk disguise, to further investigate Pipo’s shady background and resist his ambitions. Gentrification and activism are timely topics, but their weightiness can feel overwhelming and disheartening, especially in light of news about Dreamers, to name one example. Cartaya does his best to impart readers with some hope. Arturo and his family picket and attend public forums at city hall, actions which, whatever the ultimate result, display a sense of agency, a power Arturo realizes he possesses.

At one protest, Vanessa holds a picket sign reading “Family is Community-Community is Family,” a succinct summation of two overarching themes. For Cartaya, family is not just those related by blood, but those with whom you choose to spend time, and sometimes, inadvertently share space. We readily throw longtime friends under the family umbrella, but Cartaya implores readers to consider neighbors, even the most eccentric among them, as members of our extended families. La Cocina itself is an extension of the family’s dining room, where an array of regulars eat, local businesses build partnerships (the restaurant buys its meat and greens from area vendors), and everyone is welcome.

Cartaya’s portrayal of an ample list of secondary characters is one of his greatest successes. He depicts a variety of personalities using distinct and vivid details, bringing the community of Canal Grove to life. Whether it is Arturo’s best friend Bren, a hopeless dork perpetually trying to look and sound like Pitbull, or Aunt Tuti, who has a penchant for dramatics, but is a fierce defender of her family, readers will surely recognize at least one, if not many, of Cartaya’s characters. Arturo may be the hero of the story, but it is the people around him who inspire his actions and give his mission purpose. His fight to save the family restaurant is also a fight for the preservation of his hometown, a love he shares with the people of his community, who, in turn, make that community a place worth loving. In one passage, Arturo wonders where Pipo’s own family might be, “All that success and I never heard him talk about anyone who he cared about.” Arturo’s realization reminded me of Harry Potter’s own assessment of Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix, whom he pities for being equally rootless. A poignant message about community that traverses Hogwarts and Canal Grove.

As Arturo’s Abuela’s health declines, she gives Arturo a box of photos and letters from his Abuelo, which reference the poet José Martí. The poet is a link to his grandfather and his Cuban heritage. Arturo is pulled in by Martí, a figure emblematic of embracing multiple cultures and causes. Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he “sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.” Although awkward in many aspects of his life, Arturo moves through his multitudes with spectacular ease. The narrative of struggling to balance cultural identities has shifted. Of course, stories about cultural struggle are necessary, but it was wonderful to see Arturo just be himself. It allowed me to let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I was holding in.

I could go on and on about The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. How touched I was by the depictions of Abuela’s tenderness, his mom’s quiet struggle becoming matriarch of the family, Arturo’s admiration for Carmen’s colorful braces, and of course, the food (recipes included as backmatter). This novel was a true joy to read from beginning to end. A rare feat, even in children’s literature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by Viking. He is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. http://www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

 

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 was born and raised in Queens, NY.

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 4: Pablo Cartaya

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the fourth 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 Pablo Cartaya.

Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by VikingHe is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

Pablo Cartaya

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

A. I’ve been a storyteller since I was a little kid performing originally written shows in my living room every time my parents had someone over for dinner. During cena I would quietly (sometimes not so quietly) go over story ideas that would lead to epic performances en la sala while the guests and my parents ate dessert and sipped cafécito on the sofa. My parents always encouraged that creative spirit. In many ways, Mami and Papi were my first inspirations. Since those early days I’ve always had stories swirling around my imagination. These stories have taken many forms over the years: writing plays, teleplays, telenovelas, picture books, nonfiction, poetry (sometimes really bad poetry), and then one fateful day in graduate school, the voice of a fourteen year old Cuban American kid named Arturo made his way into my consciousness. It was the first time I let the character in the story do the talking. What I found was a kid who was like me and who had dared to dream himself into the narrative. The process of discovering Arturo’s world has been one of the great joys of my creative life. In a way, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora is a lifetime in the making of becoming the writer I am today.

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

A. I don’t actually choose to write middle grade novels. It’s more like a bunch of thirteen and fourteen year olds make the loudest noise in my sub consciousness. I believe writing is an act of submission to the fictive state. Allowing a story or a character to take hold and dictate the terms of what, when, where, and how the narrative will go. As the writer I give in and let the character tell me what he or she wants to talk about. It’s frightening at times but there is something about that act of discovery that is exciting and enlightening. A character usually pops into my head and a scene plays out. For example, in my next novel, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, I imagined this really tall, brooding fourteen year old trying to convince his little brother who has Down syndrome to take a bath. From there, I started asking these characters questions and they revealed parts of their lives they wanted to tell. After that it’s all about revising, revising, and more revising to get to the heart of the character’s story.

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

A. Ah! This question is always the hardest! How do you pick a favorite child? You can’t do it! Okay I’ll name some but they are by no means a final list! We’ll just call it a fluid favorite, okay? As a kid I devoured everything Jules Verne – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of my all time favorites although I don’t know if it qualifies as distinctly middle grade. I also think it’s important to recognize the great work contemporary middle grade authors are writing. Jason Reynolds is doing some pretty incredible work. I just finished Patina and it’s awesome. Celía Perez has a kick butt middle grade out called The First Rule of Punk, Rita Williams Garcia’s Clayton Bird Goes Underground is fantastic. I happen to adore R.J. Palacio because Wonder was the first novel my daughter read from beginning to end and it made her a lover of books. There are so many! Make me stop! Make me stop! I see a great mix of characters and stories out there and I’m excited for what’s to come from these and many other brilliant authors in the field.

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

A. Don’t be afraid to fail. You are not perfect nor should you try to be. Find your voice and hold onto it for dear life. Is that too much advice? Would my thirteen-year-old self just ignore me? Probably.

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

A. They are sneaky deep. It’s the time where wonder, adventure, occasional failure, and the possibilities of happiness coexist to create a sense of hope for the future. It’s also a place where kids get to be kids and goof off from time to time. I like that mix.

 

epicfail.jpeg

 

 

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, 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.