Book Review: Who’s Ju? (Seventh Grade Sleuths #1) by Dania Ramos

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Image result for who's ju? book coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.

But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.

Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.

MY TWO CENTS: This book drew me in right away with the title of the first chapter (“DNA Malfunction”) and the first mini-paragraph – “It’s not hard evidence. Just a family photo stuck on our silver fridge with a teapot magnet. Case closed.” It may not be clear to some, but I knew I was in for a good read – and I was right.

As the book begins, Dania Ramos uses a great choice of words to describe the middle school setting and to profile the main character, Justina (pronounced Hoosteenah) Feliciano. She’s just a normal 7th grade girl who’s trying to survive the tumultuous times in middle school while trying to figure out why she doesn’t look like the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With her frizzy blond hair and light eyes, she stands out.

Justina – or Ju (pronounced Hu) for short – has her core group of friends, the Seventh-Grade Sleuths, and she’s not the most popular girl in school, so she’s surprised when former friend Sara asks her for help to solve a very important case. I loved how Ramos wrote the case of the vandalized scenery in a way similar to a decades-old cold case – because to Justina, Ig, and Gunther, it is that big of a deal.

The other conflict in the book involves a genetics assignment in Justina’s health class. Her mother is immediately against the assignment, and she wants to know why – so she finds out. Ramos’ writing compared Justina to Sherlock Holmes and other detectives, which I got a kick out of. I also loved how Justina was so determined to find answers, even when her parents weren’t okay with it.

Another aspect of the book that hit home for me was when Ju decided to change her identity – new clothes, new (blond) hairdo, and a new name. I tried a similar method in middle school myself, which I’m ashamed of now. But on the other hand, when you feel out of place in a way Justina does in the book, it’s an understandable move.

After a runaway scare (and reconciling with best friend Ig), Justina eventually finds out the truth – she doesn’t look like the rest of her family because she’s adopted. She’s heartbroken but is understanding, and even agrees to meet her birth father. Ramos wrote this part of the story in a way that was endearing and welcoming, which I enjoyed.

Overall, Who’s Ju? is a lovely read. I would say the question in the title is certainly answered, but I hope to see more from Ramos about Ju and her friends and family in the future.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be a great way for middle-grade students, especially girls, to learn about something that isn’t taught in many classes before high school – social sciences. It’s important for kids to learn that you are not defined by your skin color and that, like Justina, you can identify a certain way no matter how you look. The book would also help kids learn about adoption and solving crimes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Dania is an author, playwright, and teaching artist. Her middle grade novel Who’s Ju? won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Best YA eBook and was a finalist for the ILBA Mariposa Award for Best First Book.

Dania’s stage writing credits include Mi Casa Tu Casa (Luna Stage, Dreamcatcher Rep, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival) and Hielo (developed through the Women Playwrights Project at Writers Theatre of New Jersey). Her plays have also been featured in the New Jersey Women Playwrights Series (co-presented by Writers Theatre of New Jersey and Speranza Theatre Company), Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Reading Series, Writers Theatre of New Jersey’s FORUM and Soundings Reading Series, Luna Stage’s Short Play Festival, and the Maslow Salon Reading Series at Wilkes University. She’s been a finalist in the MetLife Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition and the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.

Dania is a creative writing instructor and a theatre teaching artist. She has led arts residencies and workshops for organizations including New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Writers Theatre of New Jersey, Writopia Lab, and the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts.

Dania is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, and Actors Equity Association. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from Montclair State University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

A Writer Belongs Everywhere: Stories from a Writing Workshop for Middle School Girls

 

By Tracey Flores

“A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” ~Gloria Anzaldúa

On an overcast and windy day in May, ten young girls and women–daughters, sisters, mothers and teachers–gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s 7th grade classroom for an afternoon of sharing, writing and storytelling. Nibbling on pepperoni pizza and pink frosted cookies, desks arranged in a small circle in the front of the room, we sat with folders, notebook paper, and pencils, writing a letter to our sisters or mothers. This letter was the culminating writing of an afternoon of drawing self portraits and writing how we see ourselves and how we see our sisters and mothers.

As the the pencils stopped and everyone came to their closing thoughts, I invited everyone to turn to their sister or mother and read the letter they had just written to them. As I walked around the room to lean in and listen, with permission, I noticed that these handwritten letters were filled with words of advice, encouragement, and promises. They were filled with the words that many times we are too shy or afraid to share for fear of ridicule or embarrassment.

Alexandria read, “Dear Mom, An advice I want to share with you is ‘Live life to the fullest.’”

Dede read to her older sister, “…I believe in you whatever you do.”

Estefania read to her daughter, “…my sweet little miss…just know everything you do big or small I am proud of you everyday.”

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This vignette of an after-school writing workshop for middle school girls and their families illustrates the transformative power of creating space with and for our students and their families that honors their lived experiences and ways of knowing. For two weeks, we gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s room to engage in discussion, reflection, and storytelling on topics such as creating positive self-definitions, family, and education. Although our time together was brief, we created a supportive community of writers.

As a classroom teacher, and now as a PhD candidate, I have the privilege of working with families in after-school bilingual writing workshops, like the one in the vignette. In these writing workshops, students, their siblings and grandparents work side-by-side to tell, draw, write and share stories from their lived experiences. It is an opportunity for families to enter the classroom as experts and draw upon their cultural and linguistic resources to reflect on their lived experience through storytelling, drawing, and writing.

These bilingual family writing workshops are designed within a writing workshop framework, with a mini-lesson, writing time, sharing time, and a closing reflection. Each workshop begins with the reading and discussion of a bilingual picture book, poem, or short memoir. This text is carefully selected and serves multiple purposes. First, it is selected to introduce families to the theme of the workshop. Second, the topic of the text is considered in how families may relate to it or connect it to their own experiences, if the book is culturally relevant or rather recreates negative stereotypes. Lastly, the topics, writing, text structure, and organization are considered in how they might provide families with a powerful mentor text (Fletcher, 2011) for their own writing.

After the opening text is shared and discussed, I model my own writing by talking through what I am doing and thinking as I put drawing and writing on chart paper. Sometimes I model my brainstorm and other times I just draw and write. Then, I invite families to draw and write their own stories or poems. This is my favorite part, watching students and their families write and share their stories, many times for the first time with one another.

Over the years, in these workshops, families shared stories of celebrating Las Posadas with their family and community, stories of ranchos that stretched over acres in rural parts of México where they learned to tend the animals and to cherish all the resources of the tierra, and stories of special abuelitas who embraced them and loved them in that special way only an abuelita loves you.

As I wrote earlier in this post, in preparation for working with families in workshops, I always gather several texts in a variety of genres to use as mentor texts. Below is a short list that I have used as mentor texts in bilingual writing workshops with Latinx families in schools and community centers across Phoenix and Glendale in Arizona.

IMG_3446Alarcón, F. (2005). Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para sonar juntos. Illustrations by Paula Barragán. Lee & Low Books.

Carlson, L.M. (2013). Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. Square Fish.

Cisneros, S. (1994). Hairs/Pelitos: A Story in English and Spanish from The House on Mango Street. Dragonfly Books.

Cisneros, S. (1994). La Casa en Mango Street. Translated by Elena Poniatowska. Vintage Books.

Cisneros, S. (1991). The House on Mango Street. Vintage Books

Costales, A. (2007). Abuelita full of life/Abuelita llena de vida. Illustrations by Martha Aviles. Cooper Square Publishing.

Fanelli, Sara. (1995). My Map Book. HarperCollins.

Garza, C.L. (2005). Family Pictures/Cuadros de familia. Children’s Book Press.

Garza, C.L. (1996). In My Family/En mi familia. Children’s Book Press.

González, L. (2008). The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos. Illustrations by Lulu Delacre. Children’s Book Press.

Herrera, J.F. (1998). Laughing Out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish. HarperCollins.

Lyon, G.E. (1999). Where I’m From: Where Poems Come From. Absey & Co.

Medina, J. (2004). The Dream on Blanca’s Wall: Poems in English and Spanish/ El sueño pegado en la pared de Blanca: Poemas en ingles y español. Illustrations by Robert Casilla. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

Ortiz Cofer, J. (2004). Call Me María. Scholastic Inc

Ortiz, A. (2015). Rant. Chant. Chisme. Wings Press.

Rodríguez, L. (1998). América is her name. Illustrations by Carlos Vasquez. Curbstone Books.

Soto, G. (2005). Neighborhood Odes. Harcourt.

Note: This summer, I will be collaborating with three teachers to facilitate a second series of bilingual writing workshops for Latina middle school students and their mothers. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post with stories and learnings from these writing workshops

 

321988_10101177230382771_455531340_o-1Tracey Flores is a former English Language Development (ELD) and Language Arts teacher who worked in elementary classrooms for eight years. She currently serves as the director of El Día de los Niños, El Día de los Libros and is a teacher consultant with the Central Arizona Writing Project (CAWP) at Arizona State University (ASU). Currently, Tracey is a PhD Candidate in English Education in the Department of English at ASU. Her research focuses on adolescent Latina girls and mothers’ language and literacy practices and on using family literacy as a springboard for advocacy, empowerment, and transformation for students, families, and teachers. In her free time she enjoys writing, reading Young Adult (YA) literature, drinking coffee, running, practicing yoga and spending time with her 8 month old daughter.