Book Review: The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel

 

On Thursday, we posted a Q&A with debut author Rebecca Balcárcel. Today, Mimi Rankin reviews her novel, The Other Half of Happy.

Review by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

MY TWO CENTS: I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of The Other Half of Happy at TLA from Michaela at Chronicle Books (Thank you!). Although a normal Middle Grade length, I breezed through Quijana’s story without noticing time pass. Quijana is delightfully normal in the best way possible, and yet she still feels wholly developed, along with the other characters throughout the book. By the time I reached the end, I knew these characters as fully realized, multidimensional people in my own life.

My bias as an adult reader of children’s lit is that although I can remember being twelve, I am not reading this as a twelve year old, so I am truly not reading in the perspective of a child. Likewise, I am not a mother, so while I can empathize with Quijana’s mom, I also cannot read accurately through a shared lens of a parent. Still, even with this disclaimer, Balcárcel’s writing allowed me to have both pairs of eyes; to step back into that horribly awkward preteen skin and empathize with the adult woman whose world is crashing around her as she’s spinning ten plates at once.

Quijana’s story is a beautiful yet fairly simple story of a twelve-year-old girl. She has crushes, she is figuring out her passions, and she struggles with certain school subjects. But there are so many layers to Quijana’s story that many middle schoolers may resonate with; layers that they may think no one else could possibly understand. From having a sibling with sensory sensitivities and developmental delays, to losing a loved one for the first time, to one of the most poignant parts of the story for this reviewer, understanding what it means to be a third culture kid, Balcárcel combines the personal with the universal into a story that is likely to be felt deeply by preteens far beyond the Latinx community. Quijana loves her father but feels a barrier of culture in her own home; the culture she is growing up in is not that of her father’s upbringing. Finding her own balance of defining her identity on her own terms is something she will have to decipher on her own, and I find that to be a compelling and inspiring piece of this book.

Another favorite moment was Quijana’s solidarity with other Latinx kids at the bus stop; Quijana’s perspective guesses that they are Mexican. She tries to strike up a conversation with the little Spanish she knows only to be ridiculed by another student at the bus stop who is assumed to be non-Latinx. This moment bonds together the Latinx students at the bus stop, Quijana included, although it’s made clear that they are not all Guatemalan as Quijana is. This brings up a fascinating idea of unity among Latinx communities in the US; there is some bond beyond differing cultures based solely in language and the experience of the immigrant, of coming from somewhere else.

“That’s what it’s really like being twelve. Everything rolling toward you.” -Page 1

Balcárcel effortlessly brings huge conversations about cultural identity and disabled children to a very real and very simple discussion: life as a twelve-year-old girl. When you’re twelve, everything seems monumental, even if it may not seem that way in nostalgic hindsight. Thanks to Rebecca Balcárcel and Chronicle Books for a wonderful read that brought me back to middle school!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

 

 

 

file-2ABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

 

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 11: Rebecca Balcárcel

 

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 Rebecca Balcárcel, who is celebrating the recent release of her debut novel The Other Half of Happy.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 11th 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 Rebecca Balcárcel.

Rebecca Balcárcel authored THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, a middle-grade novel from Chronicle Books . Rebecca took her MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and received their Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as Third Coast and North American Review. Pecan Grove Press of St. Mary’s University published her book of poems, Palabras in Each Fist. Find her on YouTube as the Sixminutescholar. She loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English.

The Other Half of Happy is her debut middle grade novel.

It was released August 20, 2019!

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana’s Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn’t know more about her family’s heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she’s found true friends. But she can’t help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what’s going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole. This lyrical debut from Rebecca Balcárcel is a heartfelt poetic portrayal of a girl growing up, fitting in, and learning what it means to belong.

 

 

Rebecca Balcárcel

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

A. Storytellers, books, and teachers! My father is an entertaining storyteller, and I absorbed much from his natural sense of drama and comedic timing. He’ll also suddenly quote a poem with misty eyes and point out the beauty of Spanish sounds. All of this gave me a heightened awareness of language’s power. Books served as my dearest friends throughout childhood. From the magic of picture books before bedtime to full novels, I loved being transported to fictional worlds. I always dreamed of creating that experience for others. I still read to apprentice myself to great authors and learn their craft. And a shout out to my third grade teacher, Miss Valentine, who read Where the Red Fern Grows aloud to us chapter by chapter after lunch. I cried in school, but it was worth it! Later teachers encouraged me to write, and their confidence in me helped me take my writing seriously.

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

A: Can you believe that when I started writing, I didn’t know that this book was middle grade, nor that it was a novel?! Trained as a poet, I started writing prose poems in the voice of a bi-cultural twelve-year-old. She had a lot to say, and in one summer, I created about 40 little scenes. I wasn’t sure, though, if this was an adult looking back or a true MG project. It was my agent who said, “I think this would sing as a middle-grade novel.” I decided to go for it! It took two years of revision and rewriting to turn my stack of poems into a novel. It turns out, I love writing middle grade. That age is a time of deepening self-knowledge and broadening world-knowledge, the pivot point between child and adult. So much of who we are emerges in those years. It’s a psychologically rich moment to write about.

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

A. So many! The classics, like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia, still make me cry. But I’m thrilled to be reading many new novels of worth. This year, I’ve especially enjoyed Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn, which has a child with autism like my book does, and the just-released For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama Lockington, whose main character straddles two cultures, as mine does. I’ve sought out Latina writers, and have found an amazing community. Las Musas Books (https://www.lasmusasbooks.com/) is an entire collective of new YA and MG novelists! I’ve also loved Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes and Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres. And let’s not leave out this year’s Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Great books!

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

A. Don’t be embarrassed by what moves you! If a song or an idea touches your heart or blows your mind (in a good way), keep exploring in that direction. That’s the direction in which you will find kindred spirits, true friends, and your own growth. Ignore the people that pooh-pooh your music, your style, or whatever you geek out on. Fly that freak flag and own your joy!

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

A.  . . . they inspire us to be our best selves!

 

 

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: Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo

 

Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERCharlie Hernández has always been proud of his Latin American heritage. He loves the culture, the art, and especially the myths. Thanks to his abuela’s stories, Charlie possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the monsters and ghouls who have spent the last five hundred years haunting the imaginations of children all across the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Central and South America. And even though his grandmother sometimes hinted that the tales might be more than mere myth, Charlie’s always been a pragmatist. Even barely out of diapers, he knew the stories were just make-believe—nothing more than intricately woven fables meant to keep little kids from misbehaving.

But when Charlie begins to experience freaky bodily manifestations—ones all too similar to those described by his grandma in his favorite legend—he is suddenly swept up in a world where the mythical beings he’s spent his entire life hearing about seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Hispanic folklore and into his life. And even stranger, they seem to know more about him than he knows about himself.

Soon, Charlie finds himself in the middle of an ancient battle between La Liga, a secret society of legendary mythological beings sworn to protect the Land of the Living, and La Mano Negra (a.k.a. the Black Hand), a cabal of evil spirits determined to rule mankind. With only the help of his lifelong crush, Violet Rey, and his grandmother’s stories to guide him, Charlie must navigate a world where monsters and brujas rule and things he couldn’t possibly imagine go bump in the night. That is, if he has any hope of discovering what’s happening to him and saving his missing parents (oh, and maybe even the world).

No pressure, muchacho.

MY TWO CENTS“Myths, my abuela used to say, are truths long forgotten by the world.”

Mythological figures are as real as anything in Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows. This debut middle grade from Ryan Calejo takes readers both familiar and unfamiliar with Latin American mythology (and everywhere in between) on a crash course of myths from all over the Spanish-speaking world.

Charlie is in middle school, where standing out for any reason can make you a target. When Charlie suddenly sprouts horns (which go away) and feathers (which keep growing back) soon after his parents disappear, Charlie knows he has to try to stay under the radar. One school bully targets Charlie for being born in Puebla, Mexico. That same bully jokes about Charlie’s parents being deported because news has spread that they have been missing for two months. Surprising everyone, including Charlie, popular girl Violet Rey stands up to the bully in defense of Charlie when the bully tries to steal a locket left behind by his mother. “No sweat. I can’t stand racists or bullies — and especially not racist bullies.” With Violet’s help, Charlie discovers a map inside the locket that matches the layout of an old cemetery in town.

While investigating the cemetery with hopes of finding clues to his parents’ whereabouts, Charlie and Violet encounter the first of many mythical figures — a mysterious groundskeeper who is actually a calaca, a walking, talking skeleton who tries to kill them! But Charlie uses knowledge his abuela gave him about Juancho Ramirez, who had cheated Death, a calaca in the fable. Juancho knew calacas were traders by nature and loved trinkets, in particular, which could be bartered to save your life. The calaca/groundskeeper wants to trade Charlie for his map, and on closer inspection, tells Charlie it is an ancient map handsketched by la Calavera Catrina. The map shows the way to the world between worlds. The calaca/groundskeeper confirms that all Hispanic myths are real. The calaca’s explanation is that “the landmasses currently known as Central America, South America, and the Iberian Peninsula are closer in metaphysical proximity to the spirit realm than anywhere else on the planet.”

And so begins a journey to find out where Charlie’s parents are. Charlie must use all of the knowledge his abuela shared with him to stay alive even when enemies of La Liga de Sombras try to kill him. One after another, famous mythological figures show up to either help or harm, believing Charlie to be the Morphling, a hero who defeats the world’s most powerful witch. All in all, over twenty mythological figures from all over the Spanish-speaking world make appearances, along with brief explanations, usually from Charlie himself.

The conclusion is satisfying, yet clearly leads the reader to believe that more is to come for Charlie. The sequel, Charlie Hernández and the Castle of Bones releases October 22, 2019.

Spanish is used throughout the story, often with English translations, though readers will notice that italics are only used to show emphasis, whether Spanish or English. A glossary provides more information about each mythological figure that appears in the book.

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows is fast-paced and funny — just right for readers who are looking for adventure!

Image result for ryan calejoABOUT THE AUTHORRyan Calejo was born and raised in south Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami with a BA. He’s been invited to join both the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and the Golden Key International Honour Society. He teaches swimming to elementary school students, chess to middle school students, and writing to high school students. Having been born into a family of immigrants and growing up in the so-called “Capital of Latin America,” Ryan knows the importance of diversity in our communities and is passionate about writing books that children of all ethnicities can relate to. Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows is his first novel.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Walsh is a K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist from suburban Chicago. She has been a middle school teacher for twelve years. She holds degrees in Secondary English Education and Reading Instruction. She is a mom, an avid reader, and a strong advocate for equity in education. You can find her on Twitter at @storiestoldinsf.

Book Review: Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle by Hilda Eunice Burgos

 

Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHERHer last name may mean “kings,” but Ana María Reyes REALLY does not live in a castle. Rather, she’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two parents (way too loveydovey), three sisters (way too dramatic), everyone’s friends (way too often), and a piano (which she never gets to practice). And when her parents announce a new baby is coming, that means they’ll have even less time for Ana María.

Then she hears about the Eleanor School, New York City’s best private academy. If Ana María can win a scholarship, she’ll be able to get out of her Washington Heights neighborhood school and achieve the education she’s longed for. To stand out, she’ll need to nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase, which means she has to practice through her sisters’ hijinks, the neighbors’ visits, a family trip to the Dominican Republic . . . right up until the baby’s birth! But some new friends and honest conversations help her figure out what truly matters, and know that she can succeed no matter what.

Ana María Reyes may not be royal, but she’s certain to come out on top.

MY TWO CENTSAna María (Anamay to her family) is a 6th-grader, living in a two-bedroom apartment with Mami and Papi, her older sister Gracie (8th grade), and younger sisters Rosie (6) and Connie (3). With barely enough time and space to practice her beloved piano to prepare for her Lincoln Center performance, Anamay is less than excited when Mami and Papi announce that a new baby is expected to arrive in December.

It’s no surprise that Ana María doesn’t feel seen or appreciated at home until Tía Nona comes from the  Dominican Republic to visit. Tía Nona knows just how to make Anamay feel special with regular phone calls and praise for her piano-playing successes. When Tía Nona announces that she is getting married in the Dominican Republic, Papi quickly declares that they can’t afford to pay for everyone to attend. But with a little convincing from Ana María, and a financial intervention from Tía Nona, the Reyes family soon finds themselves preparing for the big trip and the big day.

Tía Nona likes to have every comfort, and Ana María is no different. She feels like she connects best with Tía Nona out of everyone in her family…until they arrive in the Dominican Republic and everyone is witness to Tía Nona’s cruel treatment of a young servant girl named Clarisa, whom Tía Nona calls “Cosita” (little thing). When Ana María sees Clarisa struggle to help her family eat, she gains a new perspective on her own privileges and life back home in New York…and a new perspective on Tía Nona.

As Ana María works to perfect her Lincoln Center recital piece, the lessons she learned in the Dominican Republic — about family, friendships, and what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re not — all lead Ana María to make some tough choices to make her dreams come true.

Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle has a lot of moving parts, each playing off the other to create a story with depth and heart, and Hilda Eunice Burgos weaves it all together like a master composer.

Lee & Low Books offers this Teacher’s Guide for Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle.

hilda9573ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hilda Eunice Burgos has been writing for many years, but Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle is her first published novel. Her parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born, and she grew up in Washington Heights as one of four sisters. She now lives with her family near Philadelphia, where she works as an environmental lawyer. Please visit her website at hildaeuniceburgos.com.

Check out the Middle Grade Author Q&A she did with us: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/10/22/spotlight-on-middle-grade-authors-part-7-hilda-eunice-burgos/

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJessica Walsh is a K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist from suburban Chicago. She has been a middle school teacher for twelve years. She holds degrees in Secondary English Education and Reading Instruction. She is a mom, an avid reader, and a strong advocate for equity in education. You can find her on Twitter at @storiestoldinsf.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 10: Emma Otheguy

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the tenth 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 Emma Otheguy.

Emma Otheguy is the author of the bilingual picture book Martí’s Song for Freedom (Lee & Low, 2017) about Cuban poet and national hero José Martí as well as the forthcoming novel Silver Meadows Summer (Knopf, 2019). Martí’s Song for Freedom received five starred reviews, from School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. Martí was also named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and the New York Public Library, and was the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2018 Children’s and Young Adult Book Award in Intermediate Nonfiction.

Emma attended Swarthmore College, where she studied children’s literature with Donna Jo Napoli and graduated with Honors. Later, she worked in farm-based education, at a children’s bookstore, and as a Spanish teacher. She holds a Ph.D. in History from New York University, where she focused on Spain and colonial Latin America. Emma has held fellowships and grants from the Mellon Foundation, the American Historical Association, the Council of Library and Information Resources, and Humanities New York. Emma lives in New York City.

Silver Meadows Summer is her debut middle grade novel.

IT RELEASES TOMORROW!

 

Here is the publisher’s description: Eleven-year-old Carolina’s summer–and life as she knows it–is upended when Papi loses his job, and she and her family must move from Puerto Rico to her Tía Cuca and Uncle Porter’s house in upstate New York. Now Carolina must attend Silver Meadows camp, where her bossy older cousin Gabriela rules the social scene.

Just as Carolina worries she’ll have to spend the entire summer in Gabriela’s shadow, she makes a friend of her own in Jennifer, a fellow artist. Carolina gets another welcome surprise when she stumbles upon a long-abandoned cottage in the woods near the campsite and immediately sees its potential as a creative haven for making art. There, with Jennifer, Carolina begins to reclaim the parts of the life she loved in Puerto Rico and forget about how her relationship with Mami has changed and how distant Papi has become.

But when the future of Silver Meadows and the cottage is thrown into jeopardy, Carolina and–to everyone’s surprise–Gabriela come up with a plan to save them. Will it work?

 

Emma Otheguy

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

A. I was inspired by my parents, who read me Latin American poetry and picture books, and by my elementary school teachers, who made time for free writing and independent reading every single day. The journals I kept in elementary school were never graded or marked up, they were a private space that we were given as students to write whatever we wanted. The same was true of independent reading time (or DEAR as we called it, and some schools still do it today). Time and space for reading and writing during the school day made all the difference for me and helped me develop my own literary tastes, stamina in both reading and writing, and a true love for these activities that allowed my inner life to blossom in school. If I could give elementary and middle schoolers one gift, it would be access to print books and time to read them in school.

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

A. Even before I wrote Martí’s Song for Freedom, I was interested in connections between the Caribbean and New York State. Writing about José Martí gave me space to explore one of those connections, but I needed fiction to fully delve into what it is to belong to both the Caribbean and the northeast of the United States. Carolina, the protagonist of Silver Meadows Summer, comes from a Cuban-American family that lives in Puerto Rico until their move to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Through Carolina, I was able to return to my memories of my grandmother’s house in Puerto Rico, my love of the Hudson Valley, the relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the dynamics of many cousins living under one roof.

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

A. Lots! A few of the middle-grade novels that you might find echoes of in Silver Meadows Summer include The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright, Mandy by Julie Edwards, and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. All books that feature a child’s relationship with nature and the landscape around them, and their desires to make sweet homes for themselves in new or challenging environments.

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

A. Figure out what being a Latina means to you and embrace that. Society is always telling children who they should be, and I think that Latinas often experience that pressure times two—the pressure to fit in with peers, and the pressure to be a certain ideal type of Latina. But the reality is that Latinidad is something we each carry inside of us, an identity that encompasses as many types as there are individuals.

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they guide children through growing up, which is the most important transition of our lives. Ursula K. Le Guin said that narrative is change, and if that is true, then middle-grade novels are the definition of great narrative, the reflection of the moment in life when we become ourselves. I think that it’s not only narrative that is change—hope is also change, the hope embodied in the changes that children effect in our society when they become adults, and therefore, in their evolution as they grow. So in a nutshell, I think middle-grade novels are important because they represent change, and hope, and because the best narratives I have ever read are middle-grade novels.

 

 

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 (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: Stella Diaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez

 

Reviewed by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Stella Diaz loves marine animals, especially her betta fish, Pancho. But Stella Diaz is not a betta fish. Betta fish like to be alone, while Stella loves spending time with her mom and brother and her best friend Jenny. Trouble is, Jenny is in another class this year, and Stella feels very lonely. When a new boy arrives in Stella’s class, she really wants to be his friend, but sometimes Stella accidentally speaks Spanish instead of English and pronounces words wrong, which makes her turn roja. Plus, she has to speak in front of her whole class for a big presentation at school! But she better get over her fears soon, because Stella Díaz has something to say!

MY TWO CENTS: The narrative of the “shy kid” is not rare in children’s literature. There are countless tales about boys and girls alike who struggle to express themselves and would rather be overlooked than have to speak in front of their class, a school assembly, or otherwise step outside their comfort zones. Growing up as a shy kid myself, I think about this experience a lot and have realized that “shy” is often misleading or represented one dimensionally in literature and pop culture. In Angela Dominguez’s quietly poignant middle grade debut, Stella Diaz Has Something to Say, the “shy kid” narrative is enriched by a unique but deeply relatable character, with an active internal life, and explored through the lens of language itself.

For someone who is shy, language is a fickle friend–not necessarily because you may not know words in a given language, but because simply pulling them together in a coherent order while in front of someone unfamiliar or in an overwhelming situation can be quite the burden. Stella Diaz is no stranger to this scenario. At home playing cards with her older brother, Nick, dancing salsa with her Mom, or in the lunchroom sitting with her best friend, Jenny, she is easily able to express herself, but many other social settings quickly flip her discomfort switch, leaving her “stomach in knots.” Through a charming and direct first-person narrative, Dominguez brings Stella to life, treating readers to her thoughts, concerns, passions, and moments of joy, making Stella’s story much more than just a-shy-kid-trying-to-get-over-their-shyness plot. Stella faces many common childhood challenges, like learning to ride a bike, bullying, and a project presentation, alongside other weightier concerns, like realizing her status as a green card holder (“Did you know we’re aliens?,” she asks her brother). But Stella, an astute observer of the world (a super power, if you ask me), is able to, in spite of some creeping, self-conscious worries, confidently cope with minor failures and push herself to take on challenges. An inspiration to many, and a validation for readers who may recognize that same quiet fortitude in themselves.

Despite her shyness, Stella longs to connect with others, including the new kid joining her third grade class, who she hopes “speaks Spanish.” Stella’s simple wish for a Spanish speaking friend reveals the significance of the language in her life, it’s representation of her culture, and how intrinsic it is to her identity. At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because “here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.” Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as “code switching” or speaking “Spanglish,” Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.

But still, Stella loves Spanish. How it “feels nice to my ears,” how so many of the words “sound better…than in English,” and singing the lyrics to “El Corrido de Chihuahua,” as Abuelo plays it on his guitar. Stella’s hope for a Spanish-speaking friend can be read as a desire to have someone tacitly understand the nuances of navigating these identities and the part language plays in feeling connected and forming a sense of self. Ultimately, language is just that, a way to be understood by the world. Stella herself notes how she appreciates that despite speaking in a low voice she never “had to repeat anything” to Jenny, and the laughs she shares with her family don’t need to be translated.

As Dominguez relates in the “Author’s Note,” many of Stella’s experiences and struggles mirror the author’s own, including migrating from Mexico, having a Vietnamese best friend, and taking speech classes. Not surprisingly, Dominguez’s spot art is featured throughout the chapters, a device that makes this title accessible and appealing for younger readers, while simultaneously making the book a realistic and personal document. Readers can imagine that Stella herself doodled the images on the pages chronicling her experiences and observations. Stella Diaz is Dominguez’s first middle grade novel, and it is simply unforgettable.

 

Angela DominguezABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela Dominguez was born in Mexico City, grew up in the great state of Texas, and now resides on the east coast. She is the author and illustrator of several books for children including Maria Had a Little Llama, which received the American Library Association Pura Belpré Illustration Honor. In 2016, she received her second Pura Belpré Honor for her illustrations in Mango, Abuela, and Me (written by Meg Medina). Her debut middle grade novel, Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, was published January 2018. When Angela is not in her studio, she teaches at the Academy of Art University, which honored her with their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.

Angela is a proud member of SCBWI, PEN America, and represented by Wernick and Pratt Literary Agency. As a child, she loved reading books and making a mess creating pictures. She’s delighted to still be doing both.

 

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 100 Best Books for Kids list, most recently as a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews for School Library Journal of English and Spanish language books for children and teens, and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children, Young Adult Library Services Association, 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.