Book Review: The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

 

Review by Cris Rhodes & Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid. But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

The Moon Within releases tomorrow, February 26, 2019.

CRIS RHODES’S REVIEW: Aida Salazar’s debut verse novel unfolds through metaphor, captivating poetry, and unabashed discussions of menstruation and maturation. I have never read a book where menstruation has been explored with such openness—and that’s even as Celi does everything in her power to dodge and delay the moon ceremony her Mima wants to throw upon Celi’s first period! Celi’s unease with her body’s changes resonated with me. At the risk of oversharing—I remember that anxiety and the strange sense of loss when starting one’s period well. Salazar adds complexity to this already confusing time by layering Celi’s menstrual journey with her first real crush and the dawning realization that her best friend, Marco, is genderfluid.

Salazar’s choice to utilize Indigenous Mesoamerican terms to explain Marco’s (I’m using this name as Salazar switches to using it nearly exclusively in the latter half of the text, though Marco’s feminine name is still occasionally used) gender identity is intriguing. Salazar writes, “Marco has Ometeotl energy / a person who inhabits two beings / the female and the male at once.” I don’t think I can adequately explain the beauty of this explanation. On the other hand, I want to be clear that, at the same time as it’s a big step to have a genderfluid Latinx character in children’s fiction, this construct could’ve been pushed further. We experience Marco through the filter of Celi. When reading, I found myself having to temper my disappointment that the queered character was not the main character with my admiration for the open and honest way with which Celi’s maturation (both physical and mental) is handled. I cannot be too disappointed though, because, ultimately, The Moon Within does so much to further representation in Latinx children’s literature. Its unapologetic depictions of Afro-Latinx identity, menstruation, gender, sexuality, bullying, colonialism, just to name a few, are invaluable.

One of the most intriguing parts of The Moon Within, for me, was Celi’s mother and Moon Ceremony. When I was reading, I was reminded of one of my favorite slam poems: “The Period Poem” by Dominique Christina. Celi’s mother wants her to be empowered by her period. And there is power in the period. But when you’re a kid, the only power it wields is embarrassment—a power Celi perfectly embodies. I found myself chuckling at Celi’s embarrassment in one line, and in the next, Salazar would sweep me off my feet, and I’d be cringing and hiding alongside Celi. I’d wager many a person who’s had a period can relate to Celi’s impulse to hide from her family and to downplay her maturing body. Nevertheless, Mima’s insistence that Celi have a Moon Ceremony is rooted in not just a desire to ensure her daughter not feel shame at the natural functions of her body, but also in a personal conviction to reclaim her Indigenous Mexican heritage. Celi feels an intimate pull toward the Moon, la Luna, and in her later discussions of the moon as Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec goddess, we see her start to embrace her mother’s mission.

For readers who are torn by their culture, by their bodies, by their friendships, The Moon Within is a must-read. And, honestly, I think it’s a must-read for anyone, anywhere. This verse novel’s melodious language, unapologetic tone, and loving care for its characters and readers is evident and shouldn’t be missed.

MIMI RANKIN’S REVIEW: I discovered this book from the author herself during the USBBY’s Outstanding International Books presentation. Following the committee members’ comments on the themes of the list, Salazar was presented as the keynote speaker. She spoke about the importance of language for Latinx people, particularly children. Latinx children in the United States grow up in between worlds; they are often the very definition of “third culture kids.” Salazar opens up an interesting set of questions regarding this language use for Latinx kids with her novel, The Moon Within, written in verse.

Celi Rivera is a biracial, multicultural preteen girl in Northern California who loves to dance the Puerto Rican Bomba. Celi is on the brink of womanhood, and she certainly does not want to discuss it with her Mima, Papi, or little brother Juju. Mima prepares her Moon Ceremony, an ancient indigenous Mesoamerican celebration of a girl’s first menstruation, while Celi begins developing her first crush on the skateboarding Ivan. After one of Celi’s Bomba performances with her best friend, drummer Magda, Ivan insults Magda’s gender-bending style and appearance.

This coming-of-age story about first heartbreak, identity of both gender and culture, and how to decipher, for the first time, your own beliefs is even more powerful through the use of verse. The style allowed me to more fully connect to Celi’s perspective emotionally and emphasized the universality of what it means to be a young woman regardless of culture. Still, the beauty of this title is not just that Salazar fearlessly and effortlessly discusses the female body and menstruation in a way that has not been done since Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but that she enlightens the world to the Mexica reverence to the woman.

What I love about this book is that it is not only a point of mirroring and relation for Latinx children, but it is a point of education for non-Latinx children. Only occasionally interspersed with Spanish, the story feels both personal and universal; duality is a later theme in the text, so this may have been intentional on the part of Salazar.

Another exciting aspect of Salazar’s book is the perspective on sacred Mesoamerican spiritual beings, particularly the xochihuah. This gender-expansive being was “more often seen through a sacred lens, with respect” as “some evidence shows”. In this claim and the one that follows in the author’s note, this being that was neither exclusively female nor male may very well not have been revered. Still, in this not knowing, Salazar makes a conscious choice to utilize the ancient being from her ancestors and speak to a modern audience on allowing children to wholly be themselves. Continuing with the integration of Mesoamerican cultural practices into this text, Salazar includes an English translation from scholar David Bowles of The Flower Song. According to Salazar, this is the only known piece of literature documenting the Moon Ceremony and it just so happens to be written in verse.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this heartfelt and quick read and expect to see it making a lot of buzz for awards next year.

TEACHING TIPS FROM CRIS RHODESThe Moon Within would prove a lovely addition to any middle school classroom library (or high school, or elementary school—I maintain that anyone could and should read this book, though it does speak more clearly to readers of a similar age to its protagonist). It would be particularly useful in an ELA unit on poetry, but it would also be a great addition to a health class or sex education. It would also be a great way for students to experience traditional cultural practices—like the bomba dancing and drumming Celi and Marco practice.

 

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aida Salazar​ is a writer, arts advocate and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade verse novels, THE MOON WITHIN (Feb. 26, 2019), THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Spring, 2020), the forthcoming bio picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Fall, 2020). All books published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic. Her story, BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.

 

 

 

MimiRankinABOUT THE REVIEWERMimi Rankin has a Master’s Degree with Distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. She is currently a Marketing Manager for a company working with over 25 publishers worldwide. Her graduate research focused on claims of cultural authenticity in Hispanic Children’s Literature and her dissertation received highest marks.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 9: Aida Salazar

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the ninth 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 Aida Salazar.

Aida Salazar​ is a writer, arts advocate and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade verse novels, THE MOON WITHIN (Feb. 26, 2019), THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Spring, 2020), the forthcoming bio picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Fall, 2020). All books published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic. Her story, BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

The Moon Within is her debut novel, which releases on Tuesday!! Here is the publisher’s description:

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

 

 

 

 

Aida Salazar

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

A. I began to write when I was thirteen years old after the suicide of my seventeen-year-old sister. Poetry was my first refuge. It was the place where I began to express and unravel the pain I felt in my grief over losing my beautiful sister in such an incomprehensible way. Poetry, too, was how I made sense of the simultaneous changes happening to my body, to my mind, inside my community and life. That creative connection was special and it quietly flowed through me and accompanied me while I navigated high school and began college and tried to discover what I wanted to be and do with my life. It remained tucked away in my journals until I was 18 when, for the first time, I read the work of other Latinx writers while in a Latinx literature course. That class not only saved me from academic probation (because I got an A to balance out my terrible grades) but it revolutionized my existence as a Xicana and my own writing that had been hidden in those journals. It was as if the work of Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, among others, gave me permission to share my own writing with a very Xicana perspective with the world. I could dare call myself a writer because I had their great example.

 

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

A. Middle grade is a tremendously fertile space from which to write because there is a unique tension between two worlds. Middle grade readers, I think, possess the innocence, rich sense of wonder and play inherent in childhood, while at the same time, they are discovering deeper feelings and learning about things beyond their immediate lives that push against childhood. There are so many questions that beg to be answered, so many stories that beg to explore those questions and a new, almost magical, awareness that enfolds as they bloom into wiser beings.

 

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

A. There are so many! I am especially drawn to stories from people of diverse backgrounds, those that break from the white, heteronormative literary cannon. I loved Bird in a Box and The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney – it was actually after reading the latter that I was inspired to write The Moon Within in verse; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a masterpiece (as is just about anything she writes); As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds; Margarita Engle’s Hurricane Dancers; See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson, Front Desk by Kelly Yang; A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park; and Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai; George by Alex Gino; some older titles that are evergreen for me – Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Locomotion by Jaqueline Woodson, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. However, the middle grade novels emerging from Las Musas (the first kidlit debut group of Latinx writers) have me most excited because they are opening the cannon wider than we have ever seen. Look for great middle grade stories by Anna Meriano, Emma Otheguy, Jennifer Cervantes, Yamile Saied Mendez, Hilda Solis, Mary Louise Sanchez and Claribel Ortega!

 

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

A. Don’t be afraid to believe in your poems though they may seem awful and as if they could help no one. Believe in their pain and in their heart because one day that very vulnerability will touch someone else’s life in ways you least expect. And when that magical moment comes, you will realize the meaning in the risk you took in believing.

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they can be the source of inquiry, of discovery, of refuge, of delight, and inspiration while on the tight rope between childhood and adolescence.

 

 

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.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 7: Hilda Eunice Burgos

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the seventh 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 Hilda Eunice Burgos.

Her debut middle grade novel, Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, released October 2, 2018! Here’s a description of it:

Her 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 lovey-dovey), 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.

And now more about Hilda: Hilda’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before she was born, and she grew up in Washington Heights, New York City, as the third of four sisters. Hilda received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in French and Spanish literatures, and her J.D from Harvard Law School. She now lives and practices law in the Philadelphia area. Hilda and her husband have two grown children and an adorable little dog. Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle is her first book.

Hilda is also a member of Las Musas, the first collective of women and non binary Latinx MG and YA authors to come together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature.

 

Hilda Eunice Burgos

hilda9573Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. Books and my love of language. I wanted to be a writer as soon as I learned how to read, but I never thought it could be my “real job.” I took creative writing classes for fun in college and law school, but it was after law school, when I took a night course on writing for children, that I felt I had found my writing niche.

 

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

A. I choose to write middle grade novels because I enjoy reading them. Middle grade books can include thought-provoking themes that expand our hearts and minds, while also providing a hopeful and encouraging message. It’s great to see that middle grade books are more diverse and inclusive now than they were when I was a child (a LONG time ago), but we still have a long way to go before every reading child feels represented. I hope to do my part by adding my traditionally underrepresented voice to the mix.

 

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

A. That is a very tough question to answer. I love so many middle grade novels! I especially enjoy realistic fiction that tugs at the heart, like Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo; Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes; When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin; Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan; One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia … I could go on and on. I also enjoy humorous books and novels in verse, both of which are so difficult to write, yet authors like Susan Tan (creator of the very funny Cilla Lee-Jenkins books), Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Kwame Alexander, and Margarita Engle make them seem effortless. As you can see, I can’t really pick one or even a few favorites.

 

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

A. Have fun and enjoy being a kid!

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because middle grade children are ready and eager to explore the world outside of themselves, and novels are a great and safe way to do that.One of my favorite authors, Julia Alvarez, has said that “we come out of a great book as a different person from the person we were when we began reading it.” This is certainly true of good middle grade books, which can teach children that tough circumstances are out there, but we can deal with them, and we will emerge different and stronger on the other side.

 

 

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: Love, Sugar, Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

 

Review by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.

Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.

And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?

MY TWO CENTS: While we’ve had a strong list of Latinx YA fantasy and magical realism books building for some time, most middle grade books by Latinx authors tend to fall into the genres of realistic fiction or historical fiction. So I was absolutely delighted to read this series opener by Anna Meriano which gives a traditional literary fantasy arc a Latinx, and specifically Mexican-American, voice. Meriano riffs on so many tropes here, including the family with a secret, the youngest child who is desperate to be included, and the sorcerer’s (here, bruja’s) apprentice whose attempts at magic go awry.

One of my favorite things about this book is how the author creates a protagonist who doesn’t speak Spanish (her abuela, who looked after her older sisters and taught them Spanish, died when she was little) and uses it as an obstacle that drives the plot. Magic spells are written in Spanish, so it makes sense that Leo struggles with following them—but also that she perseveres and sees them as her birthright. Not all Latinx kids in the US speak Spanish, for a variety of reasons, and I loved seeing that incorporated into the narrative.

The family relationships in this book are just outstanding. Each sister is individual, and the conflicts between them feel real and lived. I would read an entire book about Marisol and her journey. Meriano doesn’t take the easy way out by having the parents absent or conveniently clueless for most of the narrative, instead making Leo sneak around, constantly worried that her magical efforts will be found out. Of course she is wrong, and the consequences are my favorite part of the book. Leo has to work to fix her mistakes. There is no waving a wand or finding the right words or having a mentor pick up the pieces. She has help, (some of it from an…interesting…source) but she has to do the heavy lifting and figure out the steps to reverse the effects of her spells. Magic systems are tricky to write, and I appreciate that Meriano has created a world with clear rules and expectations, even if they can be bent or broken occasionally.

I would go so far as to say this book is a textbook example of a story that includes specific cultural details, holidays, and language without having them be the focus of the book. So much pop culture centered around Latinx characters uses the Day of the Dead celebrations as an entry and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it gets old after awhile. I loved how Meriano uses the Day of the Dead festival as a set piece, (it’s nice to see how the Logroño family aren’t outsiders in their town), but the book itself isn’t about Day of the Dead. Being a bruja has nothing to do with Day of the Dead. Being Mexican-American is about more than Day of the Dead, a fact that some in the media have yet to grasp.

My favorite line in this book is what Mamá tells Leo when she asks what it means to be a witch.

“A witch can be anyone. A bruja is us. And what does it mean to be a bruja? That’s like asking what it means to be a Texan, or a girl, or curly haired. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s part of you. Then you decide what it means.”

I’m so thrilled that young kids, just hitting middle school, struggling with their identity, will have Leo and her family to make them laugh and guide them to a better understanding of who they are who they want to be in the world.

TEACHING TIPS: There is so much to unpack here for a literature circle or book group at a school. Leo makes lots of choices, which have consequences for many different people, so students can have a field day debating what she should or shouldn’t have done at many different points in the story. Spanish classes, start translating some of those spells! Students could test some of the recipes in the back of the book and bring in their efforts to share with classmates (there is even a gluten-free option). The fantasy elements of the book provide a means for students to write personal narratives imagining themselves into that world: what magical power would you like to have? What are the pros and cons of Isabel’s power versus Alma and Belén’s?

Image result for anna merianoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Meriano grew up in Houston with an older brother and a younger brother, but (tragically) no sisters. She graduated from Rice University with a degree in English and earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis on writing for children from the New School in New York. She has taught creative writing and high school English and works as a writing tutor. Anna likes reading, knitting, playing full-contact quidditch, and singing along to songs in English, Spanish, and ASL. Anna still lives in Houston with her dog, Cisco. Her favorite baked goods are the kind that don’t fly away before you eat them.

RESOURCES: 

Interview with us about being a middle grade author: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/01/05/spotlight-on-middle-grade-authors-part-3-anna-meriano/

Interview on BNKids blog: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/kids/baking-brujas-interview-anna-meriano-love-sugar-magic-dash-trouble/

Excerpt on EW: http://ew.com/books/2017/06/29/love-sugar-magic-dash-of-trouble-excerpt/

Pitch America interview: https://pitchamerica.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/interview-with-anna-meriano-author-of-love-sugar-magic/

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

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

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and was born and raised in Queens, NY.

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 4: Pablo Cartaya

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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

Today, we highlight Pablo Cartaya.

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

Pablo Cartaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.