Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 14: Ernesto Cisneros

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 14th 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 Ernesto Cisneros.

Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. Efrén Divided is his first book. He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that. You can visit him online at www.ernestocisneros.com.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger siblings Max and Mía feel safe and loved.

But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. His worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.

Now more than ever, Efrén must channel his inner Soperboy to help take care of and try to reunite his family.

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Ernesto Cisneros

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

A long, long time ago, during my senior year in high school, my teacher Sharon Saxton invited Helena Maria Miramontes to speak with our classroom about her anthology, The Moths and Other Short Stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone else saw the world through a similar lens as me—same Latinx lens. Her story made me feel connected, grounded. This was the first time that the idea of being a writer ever entered my mind. It also served as my motivation for writing my first short story—which I am now turning into my very own YA novel, entitled: The Writing on the Wall.

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

After giving up on a career writing screenplays, I decided to drop writing altogether and began teaching instead. The itch to write proved to be to powerful. I began writing short stories that served as prompts and writing samples for my students which they began to really enjoy. Before long, my students began pushing me to write. Eventually, I joined SCBWI and met a handful of individuals who helped me find my way.

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

There so many fantastic middle grade novels out there, but the ones I turn to every time I need further encouragement are: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli because of they way it deals with serious issues of race, running away, and mental health in a way that’s accessible to young children. There’s also Operation Frog Effect by Sarah Scheerger. I love the way she captures the voices of such diverse characters in an entertaining fashion—makes it all seem so effortless, although I know better.

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

My advice is to believe in myself and to value my heart. It is easily my most important asset I have because it definitely seeps its way into everything I write.

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

…they reach children while they are still at work shaping their views of the world. I feel that books can serve as moral compasses that can help instill morals, characters, and empathy—all things the world really needs.

 

 

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 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

Book Review: Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Maximiliano Córdoba loves stories, especially the legend Buelo tells him about a mythical gatekeeper who can guide brave travelers on a journey into tomorrow.

If Max could see tomorrow, he would know if he’d make Santa Maria’s celebrated fútbol team and whether he’d ever meet his mother, who disappeared when he was a baby. He longs to know more about her, but Papá won’t talk. So when Max uncovers a buried family secret–involving an underground network of guardians who lead people fleeing a neighboring country to safety–he decides to seek answers on his own.

With a treasured compass, a mysterious stone rubbing, and Buelo’s legend as his only guides, he sets out on a perilous quest to discover if he is true of heart and what the future holds.

MY TWO CENTS: Pam Muñoz Ryan is known for her immersive, fictional worlds and her sympathetic storylines. Mañanaland is no different, throwing its reader into Santa Maria and its mysterious history without preamble. Initially, I thought that this might be a fairytale land, populated with knights and princesses in castles, but Muñoz Ryan quickly smooths over that assumption by having Max, our earnest protagonist, be a soccer (fútbol) loving young man. Other indicators, such as the presence of cars, lend to the understanding that this is at least a quasi-modern world. Nevertheless, the bubble of fantasy remains throughout the reading, owing to Max’s belief in the everyday magic of his world.

Max grew up on the tales of La Reina Gigante, the looming and off-limits tower in his hometown. Local folklore tells of its haunting by the “hidden ones,” refugees escaping the neighboring country of Abismo. Fueled by his grandfather’s, Buelo’s, tales of his journeys and encounters with other mystical beings, Max entertains the idea that hidden worlds exist–perhaps even hidden worlds that contain his missing mother. 

The truth, however, blends the fantastic with the mundane. I’m hesitant to give anything away here, as I urge everyone to read Mañanaland for themselves. The reveal of Max’s true past, his mother’s fate, and his family’s secret is worth the wait. And, if I could register one complaint with the book, it would be that: waiting. The pacing of the text is quite slow in the beginning, leaving the reader wondering alongside Max if he’ll ever be trusted to learn or do anything. However, once Max understands his place in the world, the text whirls by–a journey of heart and valor.

Paralleling Mañanaland’s plot, which Muñoz Ryan admits takes place “[s]omewhere in the Américas,” is the real-world plight of our own hidden ones, the refugees entering the United States in search of something better. Santa Maria’s legend holds the hidden ones as either victims or criminals. With anti-immigrant sentiment in our own country perpetuating the myth of immigrants fleeing their own Abismos as a threat, reading a book like Mañanaland unsettles that ideology, cracks it open to show its flaws. I find myself saying this in almost all of my reviews, but this book folds its sociopolitically exigency seamlessly into its pages. With so many young readers experiencing these dark messages either about themselves, their families, or people they know–a book like Mañanaland can help them understand and feel seen, but also look for ways they can help, just like Max.

All-in-all, I found Mañanaland to be a quick, immersive, and necessary read. For young readers graduating from shorter chaptered books, this would be a great introductory text to longer novels. Like Muñoz Ryan’s other middle-grade works, however, Mañanaland appeals not just to a tweenage readership, but to many. It would be a great read aloud for younger readers and it would be something I’d put in the hands of my college seniors. With its emphasis on hope, growth, and change, Mañanaland will easily join the esteemed ranks of Muñoz Ryan’s other works.

Mañanaland releases March 3, 2020.

 

Pam Munoz RyanABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pam Muñoz Ryan is an American author and the 2018 U.S. nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award. She is the author of ECHO, a Newbery Honor book and the recipient of the Kirkus Prize. She has written over forty books, including the novels ESPERANZA RISING, BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN, RIDING FREEDOM, PAINT THE WIND,  THE DREAMER, and ECHO. She is the author recipient of the National Education Association’s Civil and Human Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Multicultural Literature, and is twice the recipient of the Pura Belpré Medal and the Willa Cather Award.

Her novel, ESPERANZA RISING, was commissioned as a play by the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre and has been performed in many venues around the U.S. including The Goodman in Chicago, and the Majestic Cutler Theater, in Boston.

Other selected honors include the PEN USA Award, the Américas Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and the Orbis Pictus Award. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, (formerly Pam Bell) holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from San Diego State University and lives near San Diego with her family.  Many of her stories reflect her half-Mexican heritage.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities

Book Review: The Fresh New Face of Griselda by Jennifer Torres

 

Review by Clarissa Hadge

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Griselda “Geez” Zaragoza has a love for beautiful things, like her collection of vintage teacups and the flower garden she and her dad planted in the front yard. But when his business fails, Griselda loses not just her home, but also her confidence and her trust in her unflappable parents.

Tagging along with big sister Maribel, who postponed college for a job selling Alma Cosmetics, Geez dreams up a way to reclaim the life she thinks she lost. If she can sell enough tubes of glistening, glittery Alma lip gloss, she’ll win a cash prize that could help jump start her dad’s business.

With ups and downs along the way, Geez will discover that beauty isn’t just lost or found, but made and re-made.

MY TWO CENTS: Griselda “Geez” Zaragoza and her family have fallen on hard times. Her dad has lost his landscaping business, forcing the family to move from their home to Griselda’s Nana’s house. Her mom, a former TV reporter from before Griselda was born, picks up hours as an assistant at Griselda’s Tia Carla’s salon. Griselda’s big sister Maribel has postponed going off to college to stay home and help the family by selling cosmetics door-to-door as a saleswoman for Alma Cosmetics. Griselda spends the summer before starting sixth grade following Maribel through her rounds.

After one of these sales calls, Griselda sees an ad in her sister’s cosmetic brochure that reads, “Are you between the ages of 12 and 19? Join Alma Cosmetics as a Junior Associate.” The ad promises Junior Associates who sell 500 tubes of Alma’s new Fairytale Collection lip gloss a chance to win $5,000, and the opportunity to be the “Fresh New Face” of the cosmetics line.

In the moment, Griselda tosses the brochure away, her mind heavy with thoughts about her family’s finances. The only thing that seems to bring her happiness anymore are her collection of First Lady teacups, found at various yard sales through the years, searching long and hard with her Nana. Maribel gives Griselda a lip gloss, for helping with their last sale.

A fashion forward classmate notices Griselda holding the lip gloss at lunch on the first day of school, and realizes that it’s a color that is from a new line. Griselda initially offers to give it away, but then she realizes that she could instead sell it to the classmate. The classmate eagerly buys the new gloss, and other girls notice, asking Griselda if she has other colors. An idea starts formulating in Griselda’s mind – that she could maybe become a Junior Associate with Alma Cosmetics, and potentially win the $5,000 prize. Griselda knows that $5,000 isn’t going to get her house back, or her dad’s job, but she knows that it can help her family in some way. After a starting boost from Maribel, she gains traction in her cosmetic sales. With more and more classmates excited about the new colors and styles, and their eager willingness to pay, Griselda’s popularity grows.

But though she is on her way to winning the cash prize, and maybe becoming the “Fresh New Face” of Alma, Griselda’s rise is not without its obstacles. She might be able to sell lip gloss and nail polish, but at what expense? Her friends? Her relationship with her family? Though her intentions are honorable, Griselda will learn a valuable lesson in what it takes to be at the top.

Jennifer Torres’s middle grade novel is a sweet tale of one girl trying to help her family. I appreciated the way that the novel dealt with class differences, Griselda’s introspection about her family’s situation, and what she could do to make things easier for all of them. Though the Zaragozas are not without a physical roof over their heads, and have the privilege of never going without food, Torres captures the turmoil a tween might undergo, of wanting to help, but not being quite old enough to make a significant difference. Griselda’s relationship with her Nana was one of my favorite parts of the novel, and with seamless Latinx references throughout the text – Griselda eating pan dulce with her Nana before school in the morning, the breezy inflections of her Nana calling her mija – I was reminded of my own childhood moments with my Granny.

The secondary character of Griselda’s best friend Sophia was fleshed out without being stereotypical. My heart broke as Griselda has less and less time with Sophia and have an inevitable falling out at the mall. The scene is supposed to be celebratory, as they are there to spend their birthdays together, but it ends in disaster. Griselda’s worry over money comes to a head when she internalizes all of her anger and sadness as she sees Sophia spending money, without having to care about how much everything costs, as Griselda does. The scene is poignant, both girls angry at each other for all the wrong reasons, but not realizing no one is really to blame in the moment.

I especially loved the details about Griselda’s First Lady tea cups, with each chapter starting with a quote from a First Lady. This characteristic of Griselda felt unique. I have to admit I searched online to see if these existed, and while it doesn’t appear as though a matching set exists in our world, I’d like to think that Griselda eventually finds all of the cups to make a full set.

 

jtorresABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Torres is the author of Flor and Miranda Steal the Show, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, and Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música. A graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Westminster, London, her background is in journalism. She has worked for The Record newspaper in Stockton and now lives with her husband and two little girls in Southern California.

 

 

 

CH headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Clarissa Hadge is a Chicanx transplant from sunny Southern California who now lives in the less-than-sunny Northeast. A graduate of Simmons University, her background is in writing for children. An advocate for more inclusive literature for children and young adults, she is the bookstore manager and children’s book buyer at an independent bookstore in Boston and the current co-chair of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council (NECBA).

Finding a Home in Stories: A Guest Post by Middle-Grade Author Adrianna Cuevas

By Adrianna Cuevas

In my debut middle grade novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Publication date: 5/12/20, FSG/Macmillan), military kid Nestor Lopez moves houses so much, he loses his sense of place. He finds a home trading books with his deployed dad, father and son writing notes and questions in the page margins while artistic Nestor adds illustrations. Stories connect him to his dad stationed thousands of miles away.

When Nestor reads a book with his father, he’s able to explore his dad’s military experiences in a new way and the book enables conversations service members are often reluctant to engage in. As Nestor explains:

“I flip through the pages of this book, Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, and stop the first time I see Dad’s handwriting. I press my fingers over his words, closing my eyes and imagining him sitting in his rack, reading. I flip through each page, looking for his handwriting, scanning for evidence of the life he lives when he’s away from us.”

Stories connect Nestor to those around him and deepen his relationships—particularly important for a boy who feels that home is something impermanent and unreliable.

Not all young readers will relate to Nestor’s constant moves. Not all will connect with the concept of a parent who is far away. But regardless of their current situation, readers can see books as a home. A place to retreat. A place to feel seen and accepted.

Growing up, that’s what books were to me.

My teenage social life summed up in one photo

As a child, I devoured any story I could get my hands on. With parents and a sister who were all avid readers, trips to the library to fill up bags of books and evenings spent browsing bookstore shelves were as expected as pastelitos for Nochebuena and Celia Cruz on the radio. I knew the bookstore and library at the University of Miami, where my dad was a professor, as well as my own house.

The books of my childhood transported me to places I’d never been. As a Florida girl, I was obsessed with the snowy wilderness in Jack London short stories. A solitary introvert, I marveled at the friendships in the Babysitters Club series. My early thirst for the gruesome and grim was satisfied by an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. I didn’t think I needed books with Cuban-American main characters because my culture was all around me in Miami—in the food, the language, the music.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I realized what a haven books can be for readers. I’d never lived anywhere so homogenous, both culturally and ideologically. In Miami, I was allowed to be a book-obsessed hockey fan who was bad at sports and loved to travel. In my new surroundings, I was Latina, nothing more and always less. I was complimented on my mastery of the English language, even though I didn’t speak Spanish fluently until I was in my twenties. Despite receiving an academic college scholarship, I was required to attend seminars about how not to get pregnant and drop out, the expectation for minority students. I was met with confused stares when I confessed that I didn’t like spicy foods because don’t all Mexicans like that? No longer able to see my culture or myself in my environment, I turned once again to my reliable home—books.

I shielded myself from ignorance and microaggressions I had never before experienced by diving into books by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, and Isabel Allende. Their words were familiar, a hand on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t alone. In their stories, I saw loud, boisterous families that mirrored my own. I read mouthwatering descriptions of the food I missed, whose ingredients weren’t even available to me anymore. My language was presented as something beautiful and poetic, not something to be overcome and unlearned. I had never understood the importance of seeing yourself represented in stories until I wasn’t represented in the society around me.

In Total Eclipse, Nestor moves from a place where he is seen and accepted to a place where he is misunderstood and othered. For the first time in his life, he lives off-post and experiences what it’s like to live away from a military base.

“Fort Hood had a Whataburger, a video arcade, and a comic book shop… Most kids at school had parents in the military, so everyone understood if you didn’t want to talk in the middle of science because your dad had flown across an ocean the night before. Now Mom’s moved me to a town where I’m a circus freak. An alien from a distant planet. My only comfort is knowing I might not be here long.”

Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t have the option like I did to dive into stories and see himself in books, as military family representation, especially Latinx families, is incredibly small in children’s literature. How much would it have meant to him to have books like Pablo Cartaya’s Each Tiny Spark to help him while his father is deployed?

Similarly, my choices when I moved to the Midwest were limited and it was difficult to find books that reflected my Cuban-American experience. Twenty years ago, the catalog of stories featuring characters like me was microscopic. How much more at home would I have felt with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos or Laura Taylor Namey’s The Library of Lost Things at my disposal when I was an awkward freshman? I would have taken Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe to college with me, turning to them when I felt othered and isolated.

Children deserve to see themselves in stories, not just as caricatures of their culture, but as representatives of the diversity that exists within a culture and as humans with all their quirks and flaws. Nestor Lopez isn’t just a Cuban-American kid who scarfs down his abuela’s croquetas de jamón and plays dominos with his abuelo. He loves dart gun battles, Pokémon cards, and random animal trivia. He’s quick with a snarky remark and his fingers are constantly smudged with pencil lead from sketching. It is my hope that in Nestor, young readers will find a friend they can relate to who shares their eccentricities and hopes.

In a world increasingly antagonistic toward Latinx people, our words as authors have the opportunity to whisper to children, “You are not alone.” Our books can serve as a blanket that warms them when they’re surrounded by the coldness of indifference and ignorance. Our characters can show them they can be heroes.

Our stories can welcome them home.

 

 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adriana currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food. Learn more about Adrianna on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 12: Tami Charles

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the twelfth 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 Tami Charles.

Former teacher. Wannabe chef. Tami Charles writes books for children and young adults. Her middle grade novel, Like Vanessa, earned Top 10 spots on the Indies Introduce and Spring Kids’ Next lists, three starred reviews, and a Junior Library Guild selection. Her recent titles include a humorous middle grade, Definitely Daphne, picture book, Freedom Soup, and YA novel, Becoming BeatrizWhen Tami isn’t writing, she can be found presenting at schools both stateside and abroad. (Or sneaking in a nap…because sleep is LIFE!)

Becoming Beatriz released September 17, 2019.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Beatriz dreams of a life spent dancing–until tragedy on the day of her quinceañera changes everything.

Up until her fifteenth birthday, the most important thing in the world to Beatriz Mendez was her dream of becoming a professional dancer and getting herself and her family far from the gang life that defined their days–that and meeting her dance idol Debbie Allen on the set of her favorite TV show, Fame. But after the latest battle in a constant turf war leaves her brother, Junito, dead and her mother grieving, Beatriz has a new set of priorities. How is she supposed to feel the rhythm when her brother’s gang needs running, when her mami can’t brush her own teeth, and when the last thing she can remember of her old self is dancing with her brother, followed by running and gunshots? When the class brainiac reminds Beatriz of her love of the dance floor, her banished dreams sneak back in. Now the only question is: will the gang let her go?

Set in New Jersey in 1984, Beatriz’s story is a timeless one of a teenager’s navigation of romance, her brother’s choices, and her own family’s difficult past. A companion novel to the much-lauded Like Vanessa.

Tami Charles

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

First and foremost, my mother played a huge role in my love of reading. She was a teacher (and eventual principal) at my elementary school, so I didn’t really have a choice, ha! She introduced me to many of my favorite authors: Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Lois Lowry, Beverly Cleary, etc…When I became a teacher, I experienced the joy of reading more diverse books that I wasn’t exposed to as much while growing up. This really reignited my passion to become an author.

Q. Why did you decide to write a middle grade novel?

I clearly remember this period of my life when I was trying to figure out who I am and who I wanted to be. It only seemed right to get those feelings on the page. My debut, Like Vanessa, was born out of similar personal experiences I went through as a 13-year-old.

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

For sure, the One Crazy Summer series by Rita Williams-Garcia. I also love Crossover by Kwame Alexander and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

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

Put your blinders on! Don’t worry about what other people are doing, how smart they are, how athletic they are, etc…Just follow your own path.

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

they provide real connections for readers that will stay with them for years to come.

Books by Tami Charles:

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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: Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez

 

Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When three very different girls find a mysterious invitation to a lavish mansion, the promise of adventure and mischief is too intriguing to pass up.

Ofelia Castillo (a budding journalist), Aster Douglas (a bookish foodie), and Cat Garcia (a rule-abiding birdwatcher) meet the kid behind the invite, Lane DiSanti, and it isn’t love at first sight. But they soon bond over a shared mission to get the Floras, their local Scouts, to ditch an outdated tradition. In their quest for justice, independence, and an unforgettable summer, the girls form their own troop and find something they didn’t know they needed: sisterhood.

MY TWO CENTS: The stakes of activism are not the same for all who engage. Skin color, gender presentation, age—all of these are contributing factors to who is most at-risk when being a visible activist. But, as Celia C. Pérez’s sophomore novel, Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers, rightly notes, “’[s]ometimes the desire for change is bigger than anything else’” (270). For Ofelia, Aster, Cat, and Lane—the desire to change the outdated traditions of the scout troop, the Floras, is bigger than the risks they encounter. Spurred by Cat’s passion for birds, the girls decide to campaign to change the Floras’s most cherished symbol: the feathered hat worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest. The hat, however, is a relic of a past that nearly caused the extinction of multiple bird species across the United States.

AudubonWhile the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 outlawed the practices that lead to the creation of hats like those worn by the winner of the Miss Floras contest, it didn’t outlaw the hats that already existed. The hat’s persistence in the lore of the Floras is problematic, but the hat represents different things for each girl. For Cat, the hat is the Floras’s suspension in the past; for Lane, the hat is an opportunity to rebel and make friends; for Ofelia, the hat is a chance to broaden her journalistic horizons; and for Aster, the hat parallels her desires to learn more about her own family history. Each girl’s storyline weaves together into a mission for change, even if the desired outcome (getting rid of the hat) stands in for something divergent for each.

When I first started reading, I struggled a bit with remembering the distinction between each character, but I settled into the text quickly and was soon immersed in the community of Sabal Palms, Florida. On an aesthetic level, the text is upbeat, funny, and conversational. It makes the reader feel like they’re right beside Lane, Cat, Ofelia, and Aster as they plan their various (and often ill-fated) maneuvers against the Floras. The book also contains paratextual material corresponding to each character—like recipes from Aster or journalism tips from Ofelia. Like many recent books for young readers, Strange Birds is a good introduction to activism for young people who want to become more engaged in their worlds.

Further, in these unique, young characters, Pérez has created an ensemble cast that will resonate with a wide array of readers. Each girl is quite different—in fact, when Pérez revealed the cover of the novel on Nerdy Book Club, she included a personality quiz that lets readers see which girl they are most like (I’m an Ofelia, for the record, por supuesto).

Nevertheless, with a cast of characters like this, of young women from such different backgrounds, there is always tension. That Pérez doesn’t shy away from these moments is significant. Rather than sugarcoat their friendships and smooth over any dissonance, Pérez reveals the ways each girl wrestles with what could easily become asymmetrical relationships. Lane, the granddaughter of Sabal Palm’s most affluent family, has a distinct privilege among the other characters, not just because of her wealth but also because of her race. Often posed against Aster—the granddaughter of the first Black professor at Sabal Palms University and whose ancestors worked for Lane’s—Lane’s privileges are thrown into sharp contrast. When she must confront these privileges, all of the characters, including the Latinas Cat and Ofelia, take a look at their positionality within their community. In confronting how their social statuses are stratified by race and class, the girls grow closer because they acknowledge their differences. Resultantly, I view this as a strong text to introduce readers to the concept of intersectional feminism, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain that “because of [women of color’s] intersectional identity as both women and of color within discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, women of color are marginalized within both” (from “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” published in Stanford Law Review).

Ultimately, this is not a novel of single experiences. This is a novel that celebrates diversity. As with her debut middle-grade novel The First Rule of Punk, Pérez has invited readers to experience childhood as a time of transformation and self-actualization, a time of difference and discovery. Importantly, Strange Birds allows space for and encourages those discoveries to unfold, spread their wings, and take flight.

 

image.pngABOUT THE AUTHOR: Celia C. Pérez is the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Cuban father.  Her debut book for young readers, The First Rule of Punk, was a 2018 Pura Belpré Award Honor Book, a 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards honor book, a winner of the 2018 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, a Junior Library Guild selection, and was included in several best of the year lists including the Amelia Bloomer List, NPR’s Best Books of 2017, the Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books, the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids, School Library Journal’s Best of 2017, The Horn Book Magazine’s Fanfare, and ALSC’s Notable Children’s Books. Her second book for young readers, Strange Birds, will be published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers in September 2019.

She lives in Chicago with her family where, in addition to writing books about lovable weirdos and outsiders, she works as a librarian. She is originally from Miami, Florida, where roosters and peacocks really do wander the streets.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.