Book Review: Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar


Review by Maria Ramos-Chertok

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The situation is getting dire for Jews in Poland on the eve of World War II. Esther’s father has fled to Cuba, and she is the first one to join him. It’s heartbreaking to be separated from her beloved sister, so Esther promises to write down everything that happens until they’re reunited. And she does, recording both the good–the kindness of the Cuban people and her discovery of a valuable hidden talent–and the bad: the fact that Nazism has found a foothold even in Cuba. Esther’s evocative letters are full of her appreciation for life and reveal a resourceful, determined girl with a rare ability to bring people together, all the while striving to get the rest of their family out of Poland before it’s too late.

Based on Ruth Behar’s family history, this compelling story celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in the most challenging times.

MY TWO CENTS: I am a big fan of Ruth Behar’s and have enjoyed her adult books as much as her debut middle grade book that won the 2018 Pura Belpré Award, Lucky Broken Girl (2017). Her latest book Letters from Cuba doesn’t disappoint. 

I received an advance copy during the Covid-19 pandemic and had not read a book in several weeks because I’d been having trouble concentrating. Knowing I’d be writing this review, I finally gave myself a forced goal of sitting down and reading the first ten pages. I sat in bed with the book, read the first ten pages, and could not stop. I finished the book three hours later! I loved the characters, the epistolary format, and the way the main character Esther learns about Cuba.

The story begins in 1937 with an eleven-year-old (almost twelve) Polish girl writing to her father to ask that she be the sibling chosen to join him on the island of Cuba. Despite being the eldest, she suspects her younger brother, the oldest boy in the family, will be chosen. From the get-go, her feminist character takes form as she continues to show determination, fortitude, and creativity by making the journey to Cuba alone to meet up with her father and help him earn enough money to send for the rest of their family. 

The theme of anti-Semitism is present at both the macro and micro levels, with the book set during the years leading up to the Holocaust and in the racist experiences Esther has in Cuba. Despite the disheartening reality of anti-Semitism, Esther shows us the beauty of embracing multiculturalism and how people from distinct religions, cultures, and ages can come together to form lasting bonds. 

TEACHING TIPS: Given what is happening in the United States as this book is being published (August 2020), it is very timely. I can see using the book to discuss immigration in a Social Studies class or to discuss World War II in a History class. If using the book at a Jewish Day School, it can be used to teach about Jewish multiculturalism and the diaspora.

I can see the book being used to talk about discrimination and why some people hate others simply on the basis of their religion (as Esther experienced in Cuba). Religious persecution intersects with the theme of xenophobia in Letters From Cuba, which could also be connected to a larger discussion of racism. Since anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-Semitism, and racism are currently several of the biggest themes used to create a platform for white supremacy in the United States, this book has the potential to help readers develop empathy for both the immigrant struggle and dangerous implications of hate. 

For more information about the book, read my upcoming August 19, 2020 Blog Post interview with Ruth Behar at



ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): As a storyteller, traveler, memoirist, poet, teacher, and public speaker, Ruth Behar is acclaimed for the compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. Born in Havana, Cuba, she grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. Her recent memoirs for adults, An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy, explore her return journeys to Cuba and her search for home as an immigrant and a traveler. Her books for young readers are Lucky Broken Girl and Letters from Cuba. She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and her honors also include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University, and an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.




ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey.  In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost.  Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.   Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018)  She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.organd a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas.  For more information, visit her website at

Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library: Interview with Crystal Brunelle

By Sujei Lugo

The Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library series focuses on interviews with children’s librarians, youth services librarians, and school librarians, where they share their experiences, knowledge, and challenges using Latino children’s literature in their libraries. In this second entry of this series, I interview Crystal Brunelle.

Crystal is a library media specialist from Wisconsin. In times when schools and their libraries are impacted by budget cuts, closings, and lack of institutional and government support, there are still school librarians and media specialists striving to support their students, teachers and community.

Crystal Brunelle
Library Media Specialist, Northern Hills Elementary School, Onalaska, Wisconsin
Blogger for (co-founder) and (personal blog)

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your identity, and your library.
I am a white mid-westerner with German ancestors. My family moved many times, so my childhood years were spent in various cities in both Texas and California. I was an elementary school teacher and a certified ESL teacher for eleven years before coming to live in the Midwest.

I started working in libraries when we moved to Wisconsin and have loved making that transition. When we came here, it was clear that some of my students had a rather limited view of the world and though our library had some diverse titles, there weren’t nearly enough. I want our students to have plenty of books available so they can see other ways of living, and I want to make sure that all of our students have books that are mirrors reflecting their lives. 12-15% of our student population is Hmong, so the first author visit was with a woman who had written a book featuring a Hmong family and was written in English but also had Hmong text alongside. As I prepared the classes for her visit, what surprised me was that the word bilingual was virtually unknown for most of my students. That’s when I also started acquiring more bilingual materials in a variety of languages. I shared about that experience in more detail at the Nerdybookclub blog.

What process does your library take to select and acquire Latino children’s books for the collection? Do you have any input in this process?
As the Library Media Specialist, I have the responsibility of choosing all of the materials in the collection. Before Latin@s in Kid Lit came on the scene, I relied on the Pura Belpré Award, The Tomás Rivera Award, and The Américas Award for titles. More recently, I’ve been participating in the Latin@s in Kid Lit Reading Challenge which has provided me with a lot of more book titles. I’ve also had the opportunity to review several books published by Piñata Books for Children, a division of Arte Público Press.

What type of children and youth programming does your library offer using Latino children’s literature? How frequently?
I focus on Latino children’s literature during Hispanic American Heritage Month and in the past two years, I have also added El Día de los Niños to our activities. Beyond these two major events, I have many lessons that center around Latino works. A few examples are our first grade author study of Yuyi Morales, our second grade biography lesson using the book Tito Puente, Mambo King/Rey Del Mambo by Monica Brown and Rafael López, and a poetry lesson in fifth grade that includes poetry from Francisco X. Alarcón. I generally try to infuse Latino lit throughout many lessons and activities, though, so we see it all year long. An example of this is when we have a lesson about giving thanks and I share Pat Mora’s Gracias/Thanks along with Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message and Thanking the Moon: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

In terms of promoting events and community outreach, what does your library do?
This is an area that I am working on and have begun to make some progress. I oversee the fifth grade students as they create video announcements for the school. They’re posted on our school YouTube channel for parents and the community to view. This past summer was exciting because I asked for and received funding to have the library open during the summer. I only had two hours every other week, but it meant that students in walking distance (we are a neighborhood school) could come get library materials all summer. It wasn’t as well attended as I had hoped, but it was a start and something that I will publicize more in the future.

What is the reaction of kids, teens, and families regarding Latino children’s books and programming? And the reaction of your co-workers and library staff?
I have had very positive reactions to the inclusion of more Latino children’s materials. One of the families that came in during the summer library times (they speak Spanish at home) checked out a pile of books and were happy to even find a wonderful bilingual board book, Global Babies. The mother said she was happy to have that one (Global Babies) because that way the father could read to the baby in Spanish.

I know our English Language teacher has also been very happy to have the materials available. We don’t have many students with Spanish as their first language, but it helps so much with the few that are here and especially when we have a newcomer in the district. I love seeing the eyes of my Latino students light up when they hear or see Latino materials being featured in class. In addition, students who only know English enjoy experiencing other languages. They also seem to like seeing me working a little harder when I read aloud a book that includes Spanish text.

Any challenges regarding the acquisition of Latino children’s books or your programming? What would you like to do in terms of programming that you haven’t been able to?
There is nothing preventing me from buying more except budget limitations. I would like to expand our El Día de los Niños celebration beyond the school day with a family event. We’re going through a major building renovation so that isn’t a reasonable task for this coming spring due to space constraints, but it is something I will strive for in the future.

Do you address issues of prejudice and oppression in your library through and in children’s books?
Yes, this is something I address specifically in the fourth and fifth grade classes, but at a more subtle level in the younger grades. In line with the common core standards, I’m working to help students learn to read critically and to ask questions such as: who is telling the story, what is their perspective, is there a voice or perspective that is missing, and do we see evidence of bias or stereotypes? I could just tell them which books have issues, but I won’t always be with them and I want them to be able to spot problems on their own.

Any advice for other librarians/educators who would like to use and incorporate Latino children’s literature into their programming?
There is a lot of fantastic Latino children’s literature out there (see this SLJ post about that) and it isn’t just for Latino children. Even if your demographic doesn’t include many Latino patrons/students, these books can be a wonderful addition to your library. We have to move away from the idea that Latino literature is only created for Latinos. Latino literature can and should be present in book displays throughout the year and featured in story times or lessons across all kinds of topics. We have a small number of Latino students at our school, but I don’t just purchase Latino children’s materials for them – they’re beneficial to all staff and students.

Which are the most popular Latino children’s books at your library?
The most popular Latino books in my library are Niño Wrestles the World, Just a Minute, Gracias, Mi Familia Calaca, Dalia’s Wondrous Hair, Dora the Explorer books, Maximillian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel, and in non-fiction, the series Superstars of Soccer: Mexico.

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And finally, which Latino children’s books do you recommend?
To increase the amount of books I can recommend, I’m listing authors. If I only listed my recommendations from Yuyi Morales, the list would already be lengthy.

Picture Books by: Francisco X. Alarcón (poetry), George Ancona (non-fiction), Monica Brown, Laura Lacámara, Yuyi Morales, Pat Mora, Gary Soto, and Duncan Tonatiuh

Middle Grade by: Alma Flor Ada, Julia Álvarez, Margarita Engle, Jack Gantos, Xavier Garza, Meg Medina

Young Adult by: Patrick Flores-Scott, Sonia Manzano, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Meg Medina, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Alex Sánchez, and Francisco X. Stork.

Let’s All Make the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign an Ongoing Movement

By Patrick Flores-Scott

#WeNeedDiverseBooks. The trending hashtag is a channel for conversation around the huge problem of a lack of diversity in children’s literature. The problem has been noted in many recent articles and so have the reasons we need more books by diverse authors and books with complex, real diverse characters.

For many years I was lucky to be a public school teacher in very diverse schools. At different points I was both a general education classroom teacher and a reading specialist. As a classroom teacher, I was able to seek and find the books I wanted my class to hear and read. More often than not, these books had main characters of color. I had the time, energy, resources, and relationships that helped me find great books that my students loved.

My students, however, especially my reluctant readers, were not going to work so hard to find a book that would reflect the cultural, racial, socio-economic realities of their community. They were going to pick the available book, the one closest to their hand when it was time to leave the library, or the trendy book that made them look like they were in the reading “know.”

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Author Angela Cervantes posted this picture on Twitter during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign.

Students need to be able to accidentally stumble their way into a great book that reflects their own background or one that opens their eyes to new characters and communities. They shouldn’t have to work for it. They shouldn’t have to fight for it. Kids have enough on their plate. Yes, some students are going to research authors, seek out new books and reading experiences, challenge their school librarian and make demands. Most fifth graders, however, are just struggling to make it through the day. They end up with the default book… and given the math of the situation, they’re going to walk out with another book by a white author with a white main character. Is this a tragedy? In the moment, no. That default book might be a great one. But this scene takes place over and over each day in most schools in the country and that great book–if the student is lucky–may just be another in a long line of books that reinforces the notion that great books are written by white authors and that white kids are the ones worthy of books written about them.  This notion is a toxic one, regardless of a student’s background.

Children’s books are a piece of a larger pie. A lack of diversity in film and television reinforces the notion that white stories are more relevant than non-white stories. The make-up the Senate (97 out 0f 100 are white) reinforces the notion that non-whites do not have a role in the highest levels of politics. Yes, there is the President, but his cabinet is made up of 70% white males. Kids see this. They see thousands of African American college athletes and they know that, in the vast majority of cases, these athletes are led to battle by white coaches. They know that the percentages of Black and Latino men in prison are crazily out of proportion with the population of Black and Latino men. Kids see all this. They take it in. The perceptions become realities for them.

My wife and I are the proud, exhausted parents of two rambunctious little boys. Their grandparents are Mexican-American on their mom’s side. My parents are white. My dad is from the U.S., my mom a Spanish-speaking Latina from South America. We will raise our boys to be proud of all that they are and proud of all the Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Asian and mixes of the aforementioned that make up their diverse extended family. While we will do our best to teach that the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin (one’s gender, sexual orientation, physical ability) is what is important, television, our political and judicial systems, sports…. And even the make-up of CHILDREN’S BOOKS, will send messages that complicate, skew, and even deem our parental message well-meaning, but just wrong.

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The Oakland Public Library in California posted lots of great pictures like this one on Twitter during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign.

What do we do about it? The #WeNeedDiverseBooks Movement (Can it please be a movement? We need more movements around here.) is a potentially very important call for change in the children’s book world. Now, we need to push for intentionality. Gatekeepers need to have their feet held to the fire. The Movement (!) needs to push publishers to set goals that trend their books in a more realistically diverse direction. It needs to push the industry to hire editors from diverse backgrounds and to hire and support diverse interns and entry-level assistants who can have the power to move books off the pile and into editors’ hands. The Movement needs to hold publishers accountable.

Institutions which support writers and illustrators, like my beloved SCBWI, need to recruit underrepresented writers to their conferences. (And to check out the percentage of white male panelists and speakers compared to the percentage of white male attendees.) Groups like SCBWI need to be pushed to intentionally foster and mentor a more diverse writing community.

The movement needs to push us published authors of all colors and stripes, to mentor diverse up-and-comers, to include pro-bono school visits to underfunded schools, and to write real, complex, fallible diverse characters who live the entirety of the American experience.

Members of The Movement need to request diverse books at their bookstores and libraries. We need to post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and library websites. Members of the Movement need to advise book bloggers and to follow and support blogs like this one. We need to give diverse books as birthday presents and to talk about our favorites on the bus, at work, in line at the bookstore…

Members of The Movement need to push our political leaders to support the health, education and welfare of our future readers and writers.

Publishers, agents, bookstore workers, librarians, teachers, authors… there are bunches these folks out there doing the positive stuff that will make change possible. The Movement needs to support them and it needs to push for intentionality in those who mean well, but have not yet made the move to change.

PatrickFS1Patrick Flores-Scott was, until recently, a long-time public school teacher in Seattle, Washington. He’s now a stay-at-home dad and early morning writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Patrick’s first novel, Jumped In, has been named to a YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults book, an NCSS/CBC Notable Book for the Social Studies and a Bank Street College Best Book of 2014. He is currently working on his second book, American Road Trip.

Jumped In was featured in Libros Latin@s on Thursday. Click here to see the overview.


Guest Post: CAKE Literary on Writing Diversity, Finding Your Flavor

By Sona Charaipotra

Have you ever cried in class? I have. And no, I’m not talking about kindergarten. I’m in my 30s, and yes, I shed actual tears during a workshop during my writing for children creative writing MFA program at the New School two years ago.

No, it wasn’t a particularly harsh critique. I have to say, I have an incredibly thick skin. Most of the time.

But this particular workshop was a safe space. Taught by the stunningly smart and super-nurturing Andrea Davis Pinkney, this one focused on a topic too frequently neglected by both the academy and publishing: diversity. Specifically, we were talking about diversity in kidlit and YA, and addressing why it is important.

And though it’s been a long time since I was a kid or even a teenager, the wound was still fresh. Because we still haven’t gotten there.

Growing up as a little brown girl – one of the few, back then – in small-town, suburban central New Jersey, books were my escape. I caused a ruckus alongside little Anne in Avonlea; I mourned Beth along with her sisters in the harsh winter of Maine; I honed my grand ambitions like Kristy and her babysitters’ club; I even swooned alongside Elena over the brothers Salvatore when the Vampire Diaries was originally released. (Yes, I am that old.)

CAKE logo+2.7.12But if you’ll note: in all those books and the hundreds of others I devoured, I never really saw myself, or anyone remotely like me. The majority of characters in books for kids and teens in the ’80s and ’90s were white. And according to Christopher Myers in his recent New York Times piece, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” the majority still are today, by quite a landslide.

Why is this worth discussing? Because it hurts. A lot. It’s a hit to a kid’s self-esteem to be told – silently, but oh so clearly – that their story is not worth telling, that their voice is not important.

As Myers notes in his piece, it leaves you with “a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.”

Honestly, it’s a punch to the gut. It kills me that, 30 years later, kids are still feeling this way. That my daughter, all of four now and already shaping up to be a voracious reader, will still feel that pinch.

That’s why I cried that day in class. And that’s why, with my writing partner Dhonielle Clayton, whom I met on the first day of my MFA program, I co-founded CAKE Literary, a literary development company that focuses on high concept fiction with a strong commitment to diversity.

I know what you’re thinking: silly thing to bank a personal fortune (however small) on, right? We all know diversity doesn’t sell.

Well, Dhonielle and I would like to call bullshit on that. Done the right way, diversity can bring a richness and flavor to any manuscript. After all, so much about a great read is in the details – the scent and sizzle of freshly-fried samosas wafting up from her mama’s kitchen, the ferocious whip of the wind on an icy February morning, the ashy knees she keeps hidden under too-long skirts, the blush that climbs up her throat and to her cheeks when she flirts with her crush for the first time. The details give texture and color, a sense of time and place and, most importantly, character. The details define worldview and fill out voice.

But the main thing is the big picture – and what our company will do is focus on BIG pictures. Smart, sophisticated storytelling that’s full of flavor – books where the diversity is a major part of the character, but not the central focus of the character.

Case in point: our debut novel, Tiny Pretty Things, which is due next summer. Set in a cutthroat New York City ballet academy, the book centers on three characters, one white, one black, and one half-Korean. And while their backgrounds definitely inform the characters’ worldviews and experiences, the book is not about skin color. It has a plot – a juicy, riveting and ultimately relatable story that we’re hoping will leave readers wanting more.

That’s what we’ll do with each of our projects: tell a fun, delicious story that readers want to read, but incorporate real-life flavor – meaningful diversity – in a natural, relevant way. We’re all about keeping it real, so part of our mission will be to connect vibrant, authentic voices with the stories we’re crafting.

What exactly does CAKE do? We’re not an agency or publisher, but rather a book packager – a YA and middle grade think tank of sorts. We come up with sharp multimedia concepts that we then develop into a detailed outline. Once the idea is fleshed out, we hire a writer to work with us on several chapters or a complete manuscript, which we then package to take to publishers. Once the project sells, the writer stays on board to complete the project. Some book packagers get a bad rap for being notoriously stingy. But CAKE’s aim is to be very writer friendly, because, after all, we’re writers, too. So when we work with a writer on a project, they get paid a flat fee on signing, on delivery, and then, when the project sells, they get a cut of those proceeds as well. The other thing that sets CAKE apart is our commitment to diversity, which is an integral part of every CAKE project.

Dhonielle Clayton

Dhonielle Clayton

Sona Charaipotra

Sona Charaipotra

Interested in learning more? We’ll be looking to hire writers beginning this spring, so connect with us on or via You can also follow us on Twitter @CAKELiterary.





Book Review: Caminar by Skila Brown


By Cindy L. Rodriguez

On Monday, we interviewed first-time author Skila Brown about her novel in verse, Caminar. Check out the Q&A for information about her research and writing and her decision to tackle a subject outside her own racial/ethnic experience. Today, we celebrate her debut.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet–he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist.

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her…Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

MY TWO CENTS: Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse tells the heartbreaking story of Carlos, who is forced from his devastated village and treks up a mountainside to save his grandmother and her neighbors from a similar fate.

One thing that struck me most was Brown’s ability to create a touching coming-of-age narrative set in such tragic events. The novel is not graphic, although the topic is brutal. And while it is a civil war, fueled by politics, Brown does not support or condemn any side. Instead, more than anything, it’s about the ability of the human spirit to survive and persevere even after an unexpected, horrific loss.

A moment that grabbed me by the heart was when Mama tells Carlos to go into the woods and then find her later. He does so, obediently, but we just know there won’t be a later, that this is her last protective act as his mother. Another was when the children wave at the passing helicopter, as children will do when they see something interesting, but they don’t grasp the imminent danger signaled by this flying machine’s presence. From the novel:

They flew

over our village many times, searching the mountains for

something. We didn’t care,

just reached our arms as high as we could, stretched

toward the sky, wanting

to be seen.

We did not know to be

afraid, did not know they were a storm

of death, searching

for a place to rain.

Brown brilliantly combines history, fiction, and poetry in this novel, which she dedicates to the “memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996.” These numbers are staggering, and I often questioned while reading Caminar why I didn’t know more about this 36-year civil war. This is definitely a book I will have on my classroom shelf and recommend to my middle school social studies and language arts teacher-friends.

TEACHING TIPS: Caminar would fit perfectly into a middle school social studies or language arts curriculum. Students could read this in addition to nonfiction articles or essays about the war and its effects on Guatemalan villages. Students could then compare the nonfiction pieces to Caminar to determine what’s history in the novel and what’s fiction.

In a social studies class, this book could be used in a unit about the causes of war and its effects on a country. Students could read other, similar novels or essays and compare the experiences.

Any of the individual poems could be read closely multiple times to discuss word choice and the use of figurative language in poetry.

Students could write a short story in poems to learn first hand the difficulty involved with writing individual poems that also tell a story when read together.


skilaAUTHOR: Skila Brown has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Caminar is her debut novel. She lives in Indiana with her husband and their three children.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Caminar, visit your local library or book store. Also, check out Candlewick,, and Barnes and


We are giving away two copies of Caminar!! Go to a Rafflecopter giveaway to enter for free. You can enter once per day through this week. Two winners will be selected Saturday morning.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity in YA

Or, what does that even mean?


By Zoraida Córdova

Brace yourselves. Here’s another blog post on the lack of diversity in YA. When we bring up these topics the common words I see are FEAR, UNCOMFORTABLE, GUILT.  If a white person brings up the subject then, “who are they to talk about it?” If a POC does it, we’ll be seen as a bunch of angry people. So, Catch 22. I get it. Writing these posts is HARD, but they should be written. Recently one of my favorite authors ever, Jenny Han, tweeted about diversity in YA. The thing is, we need to feel uncomfortable, and like Jenny said, “that’s the risk.”

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ecsaHere’s what you need to know about me. I was born in Ecuador. I moved to Queens, NY when I was 6. Being in America for 20 years makes me American. My public school experience is American. Yet, when people look at me and hear me speak, they are perplexed. Why? You got me.  The “Your English is so good!” “What are you?” “My friend is from Ecuador, do you know LUIS PABLO ESTEBAN SANTIAGO?” Spoiler alert: I don’t.

This difference wasn’t apparent to me from the beginning. Between grades 1-4, I was in bilingual classes. (My Little Mermaid Spanish didn’t get me to the top of the class right away.) All of my classmates had either emigrated from a Latin American country or had Latin American parents. Salvadorian, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, you name it. Guess what, we spoke English. We listened to the Spice Girls. We cut up our bangs like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. We watched TRL and taped the music videos. We learned the awesome moves to Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle (She’s half Ecuadorian, BTW). At home, sometimes I’d eat Chef Boyardi ravioli, sometimes I’d have rice and steak and beans.

So when I got to 5th grade, I was placed into the “regular” kids class. English only. Suddenly my friends also included Guyanese, Jamaican, African-American. Guess what, we still listened to shitty New photo 4 (1)Millennium pop and idolized Harriet the Spy.

Junior high school and high school were also the same thing. Look at all the shades of brownness! Here are some pictures from my high school yearbook. Spoiler alert: I am still a nerd.

My experience growing up in neighborhoods that are already diverse gives me a different perspective. Could I have used more diverse characters in my current books? Yes. My trilogy centers around a white merman from Brooklyn. His love interest is mixed. His friends are mixed. Merpeople in my world come in all shades. But the answer is still yes. You can always add diverse characters into your books.

photo 3 (1)When people say they’re “afraid” they’re not going to give their “Other” character justice by writing from an experience other than an Anglo-American experience, I call bull. It is scary writing about an experience other than yours. However, unless your character has just moved to Kentucky from a remote town in Panama, then why are you afraid to write the experience of an otherwise straightforward character? Your character can still be named Danilo Cordova and the only research you have to do is “What does a teenage boy like?”

If your character is Nuyorican, then you’d have to do more research. Stereotypes need not apply. Because, here’s a little known secret, not all Latin experiences are the same. No matter where we were born, when we immigrated, where we were raised, we can’t be lumped into the same experience. This is not to say that every YA author should write a novel about how hard it is to grow up being brown, because I did it and my adolescence was pretty “average.”

If you’re writing a fantasy/sci-fi novel and there is not a single non-white person to be found, then my only question is “how come?” Here you have a chance to create a whole new world, where our carefully constructed American ideal of white-only beauty need not apply. When I read YA fantasy novels and the only time race is mentioned is when a new character comes in and has “chocolate” or “earth colored” skin, I just cringe. This mean everyone else I’ve been reading about is white. Not only is that lazy writing, it’s a limited way of thinking about a world that is supposed to be fantastical.

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So how do we fix this? Well, lets talk about it. Let’s be friends. Reach out to someone who has a different experience as you. READ. I  to this date have yet to read a YA about a teenage Ecuadorian girl. Not even a slice of life story about a girl who falls in love and there’s a nice cover of them at the beach, or lying down on a lawn. I am, however, excited about Diana Renn’s upcoming YA thriller Latitude ZeroThe book takes place in Boston and in Ecuador. Diana is not Ecuadorian, but she wrote an exciting novel with diverse characters. She reached out and did her research. latitudecover

Here we go back to this FEAR concept. If you throw in a character named Chiquita Bonita in the middle of the scene, and she has hoop earrings and says “Ay, mami,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you describe your Latina girl as “exotic,” “curvaceous,” “spicy,” or “saucy” then you are propagating a stereotype, or making gumbo IDK. If you’re like Britney Spears and equate a Latin male with “the bad boy type,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you as an author can go on Google and research “how to kill someone and get away with it” because “your protagonist needs to know” then you can also try Googling about other American communities that are not your own.

There is a difference between being afraid to write about a culture that is not your own, and consciously creating a two dimensional stereotypical character.

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One of my favorite retellings of Romeo & Juliet is the most recent one on Broadway, partially because Orlando Bloom is shirtless but also because Juliet is black. They aren’t divided because of their skin color. This isn’t West Side Story. It’s not that one is brown and from the wrong side of the tracks, and the other one is nice and white, so they can’t be together. This is a story of feuding families that have been feuding so long they can’t even remember why or how it started. It’s that simple.

If you’re worried you’re still propagating a stereotype, then reach out. You’ll make a friend. You’ll learn something new. I am extremely lucky to have had diverse friends. I know that’s not the case for everyone and I know that if you’re not in a big city, chances are the POC in you neighborhood are marginalized. I’m not in Arizona where they’re trying to wipe out Mexican studies. I’m not in a tiny town in Ohio where there is one black kid in the class. I’m in NYC, which isn’t perfect and has a history of putting away their low income minorities to make room for gentrification. But my eyes are extremely open (and I got new glasses today) as to the future we need to create for Young Adult literature. It’s a team effort.

Maybe if we keep making it a point, when we talk about diverse characters in the coming years, it will be more than just a trend; it’ll be the new norm.


Edited: 3/31/14

*** Representation of Latin@s in media has been a personal focus for me.  This is not to say that “diversity” to me means only adding Latin@s to literature. The conversation extends to all marginalized people. Like I said, lets talk about it.