Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Reina Luz Alegre

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By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

Today, we highlight Reina Luz Alegre.

Reina Luz Alegre lives in the Miami area with her family. She’s dreamed of becoming an author since the second grade, and grew up to work on various other professional dreams—including as a freelance journalist and lawyer—before debuting her first novel, The Dream Weaver. When she’s not writing, Reina loves to read, sing, and salivate over baking shows.

The Dream Weaver just released last week, on June 23, 2020!

 

Dream Weaver Final CoverHere is the publisher’s description:

Zoey comes from a family of dreamers. From start-up companies to selling motorcycles, her dad is constantly chasing jobs that never seem to work out. As for Zoey, she’s willing to go along with whatever grand plans her dad dreams up—even if it means never staying in one place long enough to make real friends. Her family being together is all that matters to her.

So Zoey’s world is turned upside down when Dad announces that he’s heading to a new job in New York City without her. Instead, Zoey and her older brother, José, will stay with their Poppy at the Jersey Shore. At first, Zoey feels as lost and alone as she did after her mami died. But soon she’s distracted by an even bigger problem: the bowling alley that Poppy has owned for decades is in danger of closing!

After befriending a group of kids practicing for a summer bowling tournament, Zoey hatches a grand plan of her own to save the bowling alley. It seems like she’s found the perfect way to weave everyone’s dreams together…until unexpected events turn Zoey’s plan into one giant nightmare. Now, with her new friends counting on her and her family’s happiness hanging in the balance, Zoey will have to decide what her dream is—and how hard she’s willing to fight for it.

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Reina Luz Alegre

Current Author Photo Reina Luz AlegreQ. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve wanted to become a writer since second grade. I remember we’d be assigned to make up a story, and it felt like the classroom around me just disappeared. I’d become totally absorbed by the page in front of me, on which I wrote whatever scenes started streaming through my head like a TV show. And I’ve just never stopped wanting to escape into writing a story.

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

I really love the sweet hopefulness in middle grade. I’m a huge fan of happy (or at least not unhappy) endings.

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

I have so many favorites! IVY ABERDEEN’S LETTER TO THE WORLD by Ashley Herring Blake, FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks, LOVE SUGAR MAGIC: A MIXTURE OF MISCHIEF by Anna Meriano, just to name a few, plus I’m so excited to read my fellow Musas’ books on LasMusasBooks.com.

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

I think I’d do almost everything differently if I could go back to middle school! First, I’d tell myself to relax because I took everything—and especially myself—way, waaay too seriously. I’d tell myself to have a bit more fun and not worry so much about what other people thought. I sometimes counted myself out before anyone else could. I more or less assumed popular kids could never become close friends because they were too cool.  I was just so extremely self-conscious and insecure about all the social stuff.

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

Middle grade novels are important because they help middle grade readers feel less alone as they navigate all those big changes and feelings that are part of adolescence. I also think middle grade novels are awesome for teens and adults because (at least all the ones I’ve read so far) always leave you feeling fairly uplifted and hopeful.

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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 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: Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

         

(Left: The paperback cover of Sal & Gabi Break the Universe with the 2020 Pura Belpré Award sticker. Right: The sequel, Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe, released May 5, 2020.)

Review by Toni Margarita Plummer

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents a brilliant sci-fi romp with Cuban influence that poses this question: What would you do if you had the power to reach through time and space and retrieve anything you want, including your mother, who is no longer living (in this universe, anyway)?

How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?

When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.

Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken—including his dead mother—and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.

A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in his mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.

MY TWO CENTS: This is Carlos Hernandez’s first middle grade novel, published by the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney. The imprint publishes books which draw from the mythology or folklore of underrepresented cultures. Unlike other books they’ve published, and Rick Riordan’s own books, Sal & Gabi Break the Universe doesn’t involve a half-god protagonist and aloof or sinister gods. Hernandez isn’t drawing from any mythology for his fantasy world, but rather from science and the idea of parallel universes, which is really refreshing. The Cuban aspect is there, absolutely. The book is set in Miami and we see Cuban culture everywhere, from the language to the food to the mannerisms. Sal is the best and most charming narrator we can hope for, taking us on a vibrant journey as he starts at a new school in a new city.

Culeco Academy of the Arts is not Hogwarts. There’s no magic or super powers. But artistic and creative kids will be itching to enroll! Students take classes in Textile Arts (costumes!), Health Science and the Practice of Wellness (rock-climbing!), and Theater Workshop (dancing, puppets, kata!). Detention is one big educational party.

An important but not defining part of Sal’s character is that he has diabetes, and we see how that affects his life and choices in very concrete ways. Some of the characters, including a teacher, need to be educated on what having diabetes means. Once they get it, they see that although he has some limitations, Sal is a kid just like any other. Scratch that. He’s a talented magician who always has a trick up his sleeve, especially his GOTCHA! stamp. Oh, and he can also open portals into other universes.

What stands out most in the novel are the relationships. Sal’s classmate, Gabi, a future lawyer, is a fantastic character who wears her feminism proudly and literally (all her T-shirts bear inspiring lines from women). The friendship she and Sal build is tentative at first, but cements over the course of the novel. It’s a beautiful thing to witness these two resilient and utterly delightful young people join forces to help each other. The relationships they have with their families are also wonderfully rendered. Sal lives in a big house he calls the Coral Castle with scientist Papi and principal American Stepmom who likes to say, “Phew!” Gabi spends a lot of time with her mother and her many Dads (an entertaining lot!) at the hospital, where her baby brother is in the NICU. I loved the interactions between these families as well. It’s all so intriguing, in fact, that whatever cosmic danger is brewing due to not-closing portals seems to take a back seat. And despite the book’s title, nothing catastrophic actually happens.

One word of caution: Sal’s mother passed away some years ago and he misses her so much that sometimes he inadvertently brings back an alternate Mami, who he calls Mami Muerta. If you are considering giving this to a child who has lost a parent or someone else close, you may want to consider how that particular child will respond to this aspect of the story. On the one hand, it’s maybe comforting, and mind-expanding, to think your loved one exists in other universes, just slightly different. On the other, it could be a little unnerving. Sal’s grief over his late mother is very real and sympathetic, as are his conflicted feelings about wanting her back while also knowing that his father has moved on and is very much in love with his new wife, who happens to be a lovely woman.

There is a lot of compassion to go around in this novel. Even the bully gets a chance to show there’s more to him than what meets the eye. Carlos Hernandez has created a universe infused with possibility, with love, and with acceptance. It’s a place that holds both true sadness and genuine laughs. This debut is an engaging and fun-filled read for middle schoolers.

Carlos Hernandez's pictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carlos Hernandez has published more than thirty works of fiction, poetry, and drama, most notably a book of short stories for adults entitled The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. He is an English professor at City University of New York, and he loves to both play games and design them. He lives with his wife, Claire, in Queens, New York.

 

 

 

PlummerABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondista and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and works as an acquiring editor at an independent publisher in New York City. Toni lives with her family in the Hudson Valley.

 

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

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 13: Loriel Ryon

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 13th 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 Loriel Ryon.

Loriel Ryon is an author of middle grade fiction. She spent her childhood with her nose in a book, reading in restaurants, on the school bus, and during every family vacation. Her upbringing in a mixed-heritage military family inspires much of her writing about that wonderfully complicated time between childhood and adulthood. Also a nurse, she lives in the magical New Mexico desert with her husband and two daughters. Her debut middle grade novel is Into the Tall, Tall Grass with Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass releases April 7, 2020.

 

Cover_IntotheTallTallGrassHere is the publisher’s description:

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her abuela, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her abuela, who will she have left?

When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that Wela needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.

Loriel Ryon

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

I have always written on and off throughout my childhood and adolescence, though not seriously and completely terrified someone might actually read what I wrote. I’d never imagined that I could actually finish a project. I’m a science-geek, and though I have always loved to read, I never thought I was a very good writer. I did okay in my English classes, but always struggled with reading and writing about the classics, not finding that I could really connect with them emotionally.

After I became a mother, and a mostly stay-at-home one, at that, I found that I needed something for myself. The day-to-day monotony of motherhood was really starting to get to me. So, being the crazy person I am, I gave myself homework that I would do every single day during nap time. It started with: write one chapter. Then: write the first 25% of it. Then: Finish it. Even if it’s bad. Even if you mess up. Just finish it. And so I did. I wrote a YA novel. And it was broken and unfixable, but it taught me two things. 1. I could finish something if I made it a goal, and 2. That I needed to do it again. And so I did, and that is where I got the spark to try my hand at a middle grade novel and what sparked the idea for my debut middle grade Into the Tall, Tall Grass.

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

I find the time between childhood and adolescence, specifically that upper middle grade/tween age to be the age I like to write for. That time is full of massive changes in physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Kids are becoming more and more aware of the expanding world around them and how they fit (or don’t fit) in. It was the age where I switched from reading children’s books to adult books, that I may not have been quite ready for content-wise. I wish there would have been more books that dealt with the issues I was dealing with at that age: friends, first crushes, family, finding yourself, puberty, all of it.

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

TUCK EVERLASTING is one from my childhood that I will never forget. It is one of the few classics that I really connected with and loved and has definitely inspired me in my debut. More recent ones that I’ve read that I have loved are FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, STAND UP, YUMI CHUNG by Jessica Kim, and THE MOON WITHIN by Aida Salazar. They all sucked me in and left me changed by the end of it.

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

Be yourself and be okay with it. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t try to be someone else. Own who you are and try (as hard as it is) to just be you. You are going to spend a good portion of your life trying to figure it out anyhow, might as well start now.

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

…they show us that it’s okay to make mistakes and come out the other side changed.

 

 

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). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

 

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!

 

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.