Of Myths and Monsters: A Conversation with Author Ryan Calejo

   

In 2018, Aladdin Books published Ryan Calejo’s Charlie Hernández and The League of Shadows. Fantastical and adventure-packed, this middle-grade novel introduces us to Charlie, a regular kid with some highly irregular experiences, plus a large cast of mythical figures from across Latin American and Spanish folklore.

(Learn more from our review by Jessica Walsh.)

Just released, Charlie Hernández and The Castle of Bones promises yet another heart-pounding ride with Charlie and his sidekick, Violet Rey, as they navigate an underworld teeming with witches, monsters, humanoids, and other wild and woolly creatures!

We are brimming with questions, and Ryan Calejo warmly accepted our invitation to field a few.

LiKL: Ryan, welcome to Latinxs in Kid Lit. We’re always excited to come across superbly crafted, high-adventure fiction starring Latinx characters. As you know, this combination is still too rare, leaving young Latinx readers hungry for compelling stories that mirror their experiences. As a kid, did you feel a similar disconnection?  In the Charlie Hernández series, were you consciously thinking of filling that void?

Ryan: I’ll admit, growing up, I did feel a similar disconnect. I fell in love with reading at a very early age, but back then there just wasn’t a whole lot of MG fiction featuring Latinx protagonists. I remember wondering why none of the characters in any of the books I read ever spoke Spanish, or even a little Spanglish, which, by the way, is the official language down here in South Florida—just kidding . . . sort of.

But, yes, it was definitely a goal of mine to fill that void. I believe that it’s incredibly important for kids to be able to read about characters that look and sound like them and have similar backgrounds. Every child should be able to see themselves in the books they read. Every child should be afforded the opportunity to see their inner hero. Also, with the changing demographics in our country, by not producing enough fiction featuring Latinx characters we run the risk of alienating a huge portion of our young readers and depriving them not only of the joys of reading but also of all its many benefits—which would be quite a shame, not to mention extremely unfair to those children. With so much technology out there to distract today’s youth, we need to be focusing on ways to get them excited about books and one of the easiest ways to accomplish that is by writing characters they can identify with. But thanks to wonderful organizations like Latinxs in Kid Lit I believe we are going to see a lot more diverse fiction in the years to come. And that’s a wonderful thing indeed!

LiKL: Your Charlie Hernández novels feature mythical figures drawn from the ancient folk tales of South and Central America, as well as Spain. Please share more about finding inspiration in myth and how you decided to build your stories around these tales.

Ryan: Myths have always fascinated me. Growing up I wasn’t exactly the best-behaved kid on the planet, so to keep me from running amok my abuelitas would entertain me by telling me stories—all the wonderful myths and legends they’d heard as children. Some were heartwarming, others funny, and quite a few were actually pretty terrifying! For some reason I remember the scary ones the most. Probably because my grandmothers used those to try to frighten me into behaving! I can’t tell you how many times I heard: “¡Comete toda la comida, si no La Cuca se enoja!” Or, “¡No te levante del sofa que La Mano Peluda te va a cojer!” (A line which my grandmothers loved to tell me right before lunchtime, when one of my favorite moves was to wait for them to become distracted, then jailbreak my little cousins from their high chairs!)

But the truth is, every single one of those stories, from the terrifying to the hilarious, became ingrained in me. They became a huge part of my everyday life, and as a result it was easy to imagine them existing in the real world because, in my young imagination, that was where they’d always existed. As a little kid listening to those stories and growing up in such an ecologically diverse place like South Florida, I always felt as if the supernatural was lurking just around the corner, hiding under my bed or somewhere deep in the Everglades, so building a novel around these myths felt quite natural, almost like an extension of my childhood. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of fun writing the books. But it’s also been a deeply personal experience because my goal was to pass these myths and legends down to the next generation just like my grandmothers passed them down to me. As funny and entertaining as most of them are, these tales are actually cultural time capsules wrapped up in story; they give us incredible insight into what our ancestors believed, what concerns they had, what knowledge they felt was vital to pass on to their children. And it’s this richness of culture that has always inspired me to dig deeper into these myths—and even write stories about them!

LiKL: We’d love to hear about your path to publication, as well as your writing practices.

Ryan: Writing became a thing for me in elementary school. And that’s thanks to my wonderful fifth grade teacher—Hi, Mrs. Homans! She assigned us a writing project with the only requirement being the length: One page, front and back. I remember coming home and brainstorming ideas with my mom. It was a blast! And I’ve been scribbling down stories ever since! As far as writing practices, I do try to hit a daily word count—about twelve hundred words—but I don’t make it a huge deal. For me, writing has always been fun and that’s exactly how I want to keep it. My advice for aspiring writers would be just that: have fun! Don’t make writing a stressful process. Write because you love to write. And remember: even the unruliest of chapters can be tamed with the mighty backspace button!

LiKL: So what is Ryan Calejo working on next?

RyanI’m currently working on the third book in the series, which I’m super excited about. A slew of new myths will be joining the cast and, of course, there will be plenty of laughs and adventure! I think readers are really going to enjoy it—fingers crossed! For sneak peeks and cover reveals, follow me on Twitter @thebookglutton and on Instagram @ryancalejo!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ryan Calejo was born and raised in south Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami with a BA. He teaches swimming to elementary school students, chess to middle school students, and writing to high school students. Having been born into a family of immigrants and growing up in the so-called “Capital of Latin America,” Ryan knows the importance of diversity in our communities and is passionate about writing books that children of all ethnicities can relate to.

 

Book Review: Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

 

Review by Mimi Rankin

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?

MY TWO CENTS: As soon as I read about Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal (Tor Teen), I was determined to get my hands on a copy. YA horror-crime set in Puerto Rico? Everything about this called my name.

Lupe Dávila is a “Gringa Rican” spending her summer in Puerto Rico, leaving her alcoholic dad in Vermont to explore his homeland on her own for the first time. The niece of the police chief, Lupe finds herself attempting to solve a mysterious murder case when it seems like her missing cousin, Izzy, might be the next victim. One of Izzy’s oldest friends, Javier, is trying to make peace with himself and his sobriety, but when his old pals, Los Congregitos, keep being murdered in gruesome and inexpiable ways, all on their 18th birthdays, he fears as his own draws near. Can Javier and Lupe track down a vicious murderer before it’s too late?

First things first: I could not put this book down. I seriously considered taking a personal day from work to finish it (I tweeted this and both Cardinal and Tor Teen told me I was allowed to). The book combines mythology, crime, and a stark look at addiction, all set in the greater San Juan, Puerto Rico area. Each page sparked a new question in the best way possible. Is El Cuco real? What’s the deal with the ominous abuelita? I was pulled into the stories and backgrounds of the various characters and could not inhale the book quickly enough. The last few chapters felt slightly rushed, but there is so much action and detail packed into the climax, the racing could have just been from my own heartbeat.

One of Cardinal’s greatest strengths came through her characters. In particular, Marisol was one of the most fascinating and complex characters I’ve encountered in YA literature. She is bold and electric and passionate about her country and community. There is a sincere depth to her, and I would love nothing more than to see her succeed. Another character who I truly felt like I was getting to know as a human being was Javier. His struggle and battle with his addiction, his relationship with Padre Sebastian, and even his relationship with his family, all felt whole. The text even went as far to explain the socioeconomic misunderstanding of addiction; a favorite line is “My dad is a g—d—n lawyer.”

The world that Cardinal has created in San Juan was so tangible, painting both the stunning aspects of the city like the Spanish blue bricks of Old San Juan and the harsh realities of an island struggling to come back from a devastating hurricane and a corrupt government. Five Midnights invites readers to the captivating supernatural realm of an island just as mystifying with the resilience and heart of its people. I fully plan to champion Tor Teen to pick up a sequel—there is more havoc for El Cuco to cause and more stories to be told from Puerto Rico.

Photo by Carlos Cardinal - 2018ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ann Dávila Cardinal is a novelist and Director of Recruitment for Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). She has a B.A. in Latino Studies from Norwich University, an M.A. in sociology from UI&U and an MFA in Writing from VCFA. She also helped create VCFA’s winter Writing residency in Puerto Rico.

Ann’s first novel, Sister Chicas was released from New American Library in 2006. Her next novel, a horror YA work titled Five Midnights, was released by Tor Teen on June 4, 2019.

Her stories have appeared in several anthologies, including A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Sons (2005) and Women Writing the Weird (2012) and she contributed to the Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, And Society in the United States edited by Ilan Stavans. Her essays have appeared in American ScholarVermont WomanAARP, and Latina Magazines. Ann lives in Vermont, needle-felts tiny reading creatures, and cycles four seasons a year.

 

 

 

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

Book Review: Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo

 

Reviewed by Jessica Walsh

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

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

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

No pressure, muchacho.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book Review: El Verano de las Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, translated by David Bowles

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOKOdilia and her four sisters rival the mythical Odysseus in cleverness and courage as they embark on their own hero’s journey. After finding a drowned man floating in their secret swimming hole along the Rio Grande, the sisters trek across the border to bring the body to the man’s family in Mexico. But returning home turns into an odyssey of their own.

Outsmarting mythical creatures, and with the supernatural aid of spectral La Llorona via a magical earring, Odilia and her little sisters make their way along a road of trials to make it to their long-lost grandmother’s house. Along the way, they must defeat a witch and her Evil Trinity: a wily warlock, a coven of vicious half-human barn owls, and the bloodthirsty chupacabras that prey on livestock. Can these fantastic trials prepare Odilia and her sisters for what happens when they face their final test, returning home to the real world, where goddesses and ghosts can no longer help them?

Now in Spanish and translated by David Bowles, the award-winning El verano de las mariposas is not just a magical Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey, it is a celebration of sisterhood and maternal love.

MY TWO CENTS: El Verano de las Mariposas, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall and translated by David Bowles, was originally published in English in 2015 under the title Summer of the Mariposas. Bowles’s Spanish translation came out in March 2018. The content of the book itself has already been spoken on in the review written for the original publication (which you can find here!), so I won’t spend much time on that. I will say that, while this was not my favorite book by Garcia McCall, it was a wonderfully written book and I did appreciate the Spanish translation that I read (which I’ll explain a bit more further down).

First, though, there were a couple of issues that I had with this book. I thought that much of the plot was too far-fetched, even for a book filled with magical realism. This may have stemmed from my recurring frustration with the dynamics between Odilia, the oldest sister, and her four younger siblings. While one should recognize that Odilia is only 15, and that she and her sisters are going through a considerable amount of family stress and anxiety, the order and arrangements of this sisterhood were bothersome to me.

It was made very clear at the beginning of the book that Odilia had largely been playing the part of caretaker for her sisters since their father had left. Her mother emphasized this when Odilia makes a poorly-advised visit to her mother’s workplace. Even still, there were a number of situations where one of the four younger sisters commandeered control of a situation and were determined to do what they (whichever younger sister) wanted to do. This was in direct contradiction to what I felt the philosophy of the sisters’ mantra (“¡Cinco hermanitas, juntas para siempre, pase lo que pase!”). At different times throughout the story, this happened with every single sister. At times, they were almost killed simply because they would not follow Odilia’s lead. At those moments, the younger sisters seemed to be concerned only with their desires, forgetting the ultimate goal of the expedition and even the pledge of togetherness that they supposedly held dear. Seeing this recur throughout the book made the central focus of the story, the bond between the sisters and the theme of family, feel very ingenuine.

Apart from that, though, Garcia McCall has a wonderful way of putting words together that make a story, including this one, come alive. The language that she uses creates very vivid imagery, and brings to life the characters, setting, and action in a wonderful way. Even still, there are many interesting things that have been pointed out about the Spanish translation of this novel. Many native Spanish speakers have observed that the language seems strange, as it’s been translated almost word-for-word and the English sentence structure and phrasing often sounds weird. The exact translations of English idioms into Spanish might be surprising, or sound unusual. It has been pointed out that many of the English idioms are said differently in Spanish and have much more commonly used Spanish variations.

I believe that these are all valid points, but it is also my understanding that Mr. Bowles’s intent was to offer a translation of the book that reached beyond the audience of native Spanish speakers. I believe myself to be an example of the population for whom he may have written a translation like this. I grew up and lived most of my life on the border of Texas and Mexico (I could walk from my house and cross the international bridge to Ciudad Juárez in about 30 minutes). Even still, I am not a native Spanish speaker, or reader, for that matter. I solidified my Spanish reading skills while in high school and college. By the time I could speak Spanish fluently, most, if not all, of the English idioms found in Garcia McCall’s original manuscript were already solidified in my mind. As I was reading through the Spanish translation, my mind pretty easily translated the Spanish words into the English idioms and sayings.

But for readers like me, and for readers who have been speaking English for a good amount of time, many of the phrases that Garcia McCall uses to illustrate how the Garza sisters would speak sound perfectly normal, even in Spanish, because it’s recognizable as Border language. It often sounds exactly the way that Spanish is spoken around border cities because there is a rich mix of English and Spanish combined to create an entirely new dialect. Is it perfect? No, not always. Is it understandable by those who do not come from the area? Most likely. Language is fluid and ever-changing. I found it commendable of both Garcia McCall and Bowles that they kept the characters, setting, and language from the Borderland, the part of the world I’m from, as genuine as they could.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Lee & Low Books): Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in Theater Arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school. Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals. McCall is an up-and-coming talent whose debut YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. McCall lives with her husband and their three sons in the San Antonio, Texas, area. You can find her online at guadalupegarciamccall.com.

 

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

 

Book Review: The Smoking Mirror by David Bowles

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

the-smoking-mirror DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.

MY TWO CENTS: David Bowles’s Pura Belpré honor book, The Smoking Mirror, is a fast-paced, masterful journey through Aztec mythology and pre-Columbian Mexican history. Bowles, who was inspired to create a fantasy novel in the tradition of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson that featured a Latinx protagonist, weaves a captivating story of epic proportions, all framed by familial love. (For more from Bowles, see his guest post.) Moreover, though this is a diverse book with two Latinx protagonists, their Mexican heritage is important insofar as it provides the ethos for the setting of the text, but this is not a story about race or ethnicity and it is all the better for that. Bowles instead focuses on the supernatural elements of his source material and the hero journeys of his twin protagonists. The book is a quick read, full of page-turning action, which will intrigue even the most reluctant reader. Additionally, because it has both a male and female protagonist in twins Johnny and Carol, it should appeal to boys and girls. The Smoking Mirror, like many middle-grade books, has shorter chapters that maintain the pace of the narrative and keep readers constantly engaged without seeming overwhelming.

While Johnny and Carol’s journey through Mictlan is riveting, I was most captivated by Bowles’s exploration of their relationship, particularly of their twin connection. As a twin myself, I am always uncertain if an author will be able to capture the unique bond we feel, and Bowles does so in spades. This is not the tired good-twin/bad-twin nonsense that pervades literature and media. Bowles is sure to individualize both Johnny and Carol, and they are depicted as complex characters with strengths and flaws that set them apart from each other; in fact, their differences improve their relationship as the text unfolds. Johnny and Carol begin the story having grown apart following their mother’s mysterious disappearance. But when their father sends them to stay with their family in Monterrey, México, they must rely on each other in a new environment. When they both discover that they are naguales, or shapeshifters with special magic, their bond is cemented and they begin their journey to Mictlan to rescue their mother from Texcatlipoca, the god of destruction. Likewise, as naguales, Johnny and Carol share an intimate psychic connection, which they use to communicate telepathically. Their internal connection comes in handy as they journey through Mictlan, where they must constantly save each other. In these moments, they realize that their differences do not separate them, rather that they are complementary, and by the end of the text, Johnny even tells Carol, “‘you are my balance’” (198).

The backdrop for Johnny and Carol’s quest to save their mother is a richly populated mythological world full of terrifying creatures and powerful deities. By his own admission, Bowles mixes Aztec and Mayan mythologies to create his Mictlan. The result is an expansive, multilayered underworld that rivals Dante’s Inferno. Bowles, a scholar and professor at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, has also done translation work from multiple languages, including Nahuatl, the language spoken by many Mesoamerican indigenous peoples. It is obvious, then, that Bowles knows his source material. However, my only complaint with this text is the difficulty involved in keeping track of all of the Aztec- and Mayan-inspired beings that Johnny and Carol encounter, due to the similarity and/or complexity of their names. Because I’ve studied pre-Columbian, Central American literature (though certainly not as extensively as Bowles), I consider myself to be familiar with Aztec mythology/history; yet, I was confused in multiple places throughout the text. Bowles does include a thorough glossary and pronunciation guide, which I frequently needed to consult, but for a book that is so fast-paced, this disrupted the reading process. For the uninitiated reader, this could be a barrier to feeling fully immersed in the text.

Ultimately, I was riveted by Johnny and Carol’s impassioned search for their mother. Even when I was confused by the terminology, this book continued to be un-put-down-able. Bowles makes his characters feel real, and I became deeply invested in their story. From the snappy dialogue, infused with Spanish words and phrases, to the intricate world-building, Bowles keeps his reader’s attention from beginning to end. Now I’m itching to get my hands on A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, which was published in 2016, as well as the other three books in the series, forthcoming in 2017, 2019, and 2021.

TEACHING TIPS: Bowles’s website  has a fairly extensive teaching guide for The Smoking Mirror, including information on his Aztec and Mayan source material. This information would be particularly relevant to a social studies or literature unit on mythology, as it broadens the scope of ancient mythologies beyond Greco-Roman perspectives. This book would also suit language arts lessons that explore the hero’s journey or other themes and images in canonical texts like The Odyssey. Students could compare the trajectory of the journey in both texts or examine the character types—hero, mentor, guardian, etc. This question becomes further complicated by Bowles’s twin protagonists: could both Johnny and Carol be the “hero” of the text? Why or why not? Or, for a more creative lesson, students familiar with mythology might be encouraged to create their own mythological world, drawing on preexisting myths and legends, just as Bowles does. Regardless, The Smoking Mirror is a valuable addition to any classroom or school library.

David BowlesABOUT THE AUTHOR: A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas. A recipient of awards from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas Associated Press, he has written several books, most notably the Pura Belpré Honoree The Smoking Mirror. His work has also been published in venues such as BorderSenses, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Asymptote, Translation Review, Huizache, Metamorphoses and Rattle.

 

CrisRhodesABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University – Commerce. She received a M.A. in English with an emphasis in borderlands literature and culture from Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and a B.A. in English with a minor in children’s literature from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia. Cris recently completed a Master’s thesis project on the construction of identity in Chicana young adult literature.

Author Sarah Fine Talks About Hell, Trauma, and Creating Diverse Characters

13482750By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This month, we are taking a look at Latin@s in science fiction and fantasy. Today, we have a Q&A with Sarah Fine, author of Sanctum and Fracture. (Book three is in the works.) Here is a partial description of Sanctum, which features Lela Santos, a Latina main character, a foster child from Rhode Island who has experienced abandonment, neglect, and sexual abuse:

A week ago, seventeen-year-old Lela Santos’s best friend, Nadia, killed herself. Today, thanks to a farewell ritual gone awry, Lela is standing in paradise, looking upon a vast gated city in the distance—hell. No one willingly walks through the Suicide Gates, into a place smothered in darkness and infested with depraved creatures. But Lela isn’t just anyone—she’s determined to save her best friend’s soul, even if it means sacrificing her eternal afterlife.

Cindy: First, let me say that I loved Sanctum. The only part that frustrated me was how long it took for Lela and Malachi to kiss :.)

Sarah: I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I hope the kiss was worth the wait!

Cindy: The premise of Lela going into hell to retrieve Nadia is similar to the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice, but obviously this is not a retelling. How influenced were you by that myth or mythology in general?

Sarah: I actually didn’t think about that particular myth at all as I was generating the idea for this book. When I read that comparison in a review, I was like … you know, that’s actually quite apt! I was a little more influenced by Jewish and Mesopotamian mythology. The Mazikin are mentioned in the Talmud as evil spirits or demons, and the inhuman Guards are very loosely based off protective deities called the lamassu in Mesopotamian myths, where they’re described as half-man, half-bull.

Cindy: Your setting is an interesting kind of hell, with the buildings being alive and able to feed off its inhabitants. How did you create and develop this idea? What kind of research do you do for fantasy world creation?

Sarah: This idea was inspired by the way C.S. Lewis wrote about his version of hell/purgatory in The Great Divorce. The “grey town” is this massive, depressing city where it’s always raining, always twilight—and here’s the part that really got me: people could have whatever they wanted, but it was of low quality. That Grey Town at the very beginning of that book completely inspired the dark city in Sanctum. Obviously, I changed it a lot, including the idea that the city is really one living, breathing entity that grows off the depression of the people residing within, but I give Lewis the credit for the basic idea (and he was clearly influenced by Dante in that work, so he deserves credit as well.)

17667916Cindy: Do you continue to work as a child psychologist? Did your work experiences help you to portray the emotional recovery Lela and the others have to go through in order to heal from trauma?

Sarah: I do, but in a different capacity than I have in the past, when I did a lot of home-based evaluations and therapy. Now I direct programs and supervise clinicians who provide those services to children and adolescents who are at risk for out-of-home placement in psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment facilities. Our goal is to work with families to keep these kids at home and in their communities, where research clearly shows they do best.

My work definitely influences how I see the complexity of trauma and what it takes to heal. A huge percentage of our clients have experienced some type of trauma, and usually not what we think of as single event, “simple” trauma. Though that can be devastating, it’s actually easier to treat than the complex developmental trauma we often see, where the trauma is more chronic and ongoing. This is actually the type of trauma Lela’s experienced—multiple disruptions in attachments, several instances of abuse or neglect. As I show her fragile but growing relationship with Diane, her foster mom, that’s always on my mind. I definitely explore more of that in book three.

Cindy: In addition to the great action scenes, this story focused on the characters’ battles with their personal demons. Thinking about author choices here…because of the issues the characters face, this story could have been developed as a YA contemporary. What led you to decide to develop the story as fantasy instead?

Sarah: I guess it’s a preference thing. There are some brilliant, brilliant authors who have explored these issues with contemporary YA (Nina LaCour, for example), but I wanted to place these characters in an environment where the depression was a tangible, living thing. This fantasy world gave me the chance to explore a lot of philosophical issues, like what is heaven, really, and how could it possibly be the same for everyone? What if you’re not emotionally ready to be there and accept what it offers? To me, that’s not a religious question, but a more concrete way of exploring something very emotional–Can you have some version of that goodness in your life, no matter where you are? What would you have to understand and embrace to receive that?

Cindy: Again with author choices….Obviously you could have created characters of any race, ethnicity, etc. What made you decide to create a Latina MC?

Sarah Fine

Sarah Fine

Sarah: Lela Santos really just materialized to me in that form. However, I will tell you that the majority of the school children in the urban core of Rhode Island, where Lela’s from, are Latino/a. Also, in general, children of color are overrepresented in terms of involvement in the juvenile justice system in this country (with harsher sentences as well—we’ve had court workers outright say that they’re harder on these kids because of the racism they face within society, which is a totally twisted logic that over-penalizes those children and in my opinion perpetuates that racism). Once I considered those facts, it seemed wrong to consider making her anything other than what she was from the beginning.

Cindy: Your secondary characters have interesting back stories as well, which suggests to me that including diversity in your writing is important to you. Some authors shy away from including diverse characters for fear of “getting it wrong.” Did you have any concerns about creating diverse characters? What advice, if any, would you give to fantasy writers about diversity in the genre?

Sarah: This story takes place in the afterlife, and the idea that the only people residing there would be Anglo-American, or any kind of American, is pretty laughable. The world is a BIG place—and the afterlife would be the same, minus the country divisions. Everyone would be there together, right? The dark city where most of Sanctum takes place is where everyone in the world who committed suicide has gone (with some exceptions, I think, but that’s a different interview!). I felt very strongly that having Lela coincidentally meet up with people who were American would just be false and icky.

I did have concerns, of course, because I really wanted these characters to have an impact, and to feel like real people. I did quite a bit of research. I also focused on writing from the inside out, trying to focus on each of those characters as human beings who loved and hoped and despaired in their own ways. I don’t think I’m some kind of expert on this. I’m certain I’ve made mistakes. But I’m curious and always wanting to learn about people who are different from me. And I started from the premise that all those diverse characters—Lela, Malachi, Ana, Takeshi—were on their own profoundly personal journeys, armed only with their intelligence, resilience, perseverance, and the capacity to risk their lives and hearts for a chance at peace. The rest flowed from that.

Check out these other works by Sarah Fine:

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