Book Review: Because of the Sun by Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

Reviewed by Nazahet Hernandez

Because of the Sun CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Dani Falls learned to tolerate her existence in suburban Florida with her brash and seemingly unloving mother by embracing the philosophy Why care? It will only hurt. So when her mother is killed in a sudden and violent manner, Dani goes into an even deeper protection mode, total numbness. It’s the only way she can go on.

But when Dani chooses The Stranger by Albert Camus as summer reading for school, it feels like fate. The main character’s alienation after his mother’s death mirrors her own.

Dani’s life is thrown into further turmoil when she is sent to New Mexico to live with an aunt she never knew she had. The awkwardness between them is palpable. To escape, Dani takes long walks in the merciless heat. One day, she meets Paulo, who understands how much Dani is hurting. Although she is hesitant at first, a mutual trust and affection develop between Dani and Paulo, and Dani begins to heal. And as she and her aunt begin to connect, Dani learns about her mother’s past. Forgiving isn’t easy, but maybe it’s the only way to move forward.

MY TWO CENTS: Dani Falls has a complicated and fractured relationship with her mother, Ruby Falls, who in Dani’s eyes is a not good mother in any regard. In fact, for dozens of pages, Dani often explicitly states that she hates her mother because she has always felt unappreciated, unloved, and ignored by her. By Dani’s account, we are led to believe that Ruby is objectively a selfish and neglectful mother. It is all Dani has known, and because she is the narrator, we are inclined to empathize with her side of the story. Dani believes she knows who her mother really is deep inside, that her ugliest aspects are the real her. But what Dani doesn’t know is that she really doesn’t know her mother at all.

In the Author’s Note for Because Of The SunJenny Torres Sanchez states that Albert Camus’s The Stranger inspired her novel. In The Stranger, Meursault’s mother dies early on in the story, and his emotionless and detached reaction made Torres Sanchez curious about his mother. Was she a terrible person or simply an imperfect individual?

Like Mersault’s mother, Dani’s mother also dies early in the novel, tragically. She is inexplicably attacked by a black bear in her own backyard. The grisly story shocks the neighborhood, but readers see the aftermath play out through Dani’s perspective, which is bleak, detached, and emotionless. The way Dani deals with the trauma of her mother’s death is fascinating, though often hard to read, and readers may wonder if Dani’s cold reaction is warranted. But people cope with tragedy differently, and we don’t know all the details of her and her mother’s relationship. So it’s best to read on without passing any judgment on Dani.

As she has no family left in Florida, Dani must move to New Mexico to live with an aunt, Shelly, she never knew existed. This is only one of many secrets Dani’s mother kept from her. For weeks, Dani lives with her aunt, but seldom leaves the house and rarely speaks more than two words at a time. This part of the novel is slow and contemplative, when Dani is at her lowest. Hours, days, and weeks blur into each other and become indistinguishable. The language and mood of the book during these pages are bleak and stifling. One wonders if Dani will ever find light in her life again.

But one day, Dani wanders out into the scorching New Mexico sun and walks for miles, until she comes across a gas station. There, she meets Paulo, a young Mexican-American boy who aspires to be a filmmaker. It is after she meets Paulo and his grandmother, Doña Marcela, that the potential for hope and light enters Dani’s life.

It is important to note that Dani is not Latina, a fact that is not explicitly stated until she meets Latinx people at her new school, who make references to her whiteness almost immediately. This happens about a third of the way through the novel, after which Latinxs play a regular and important role in the story. It is Paulo, and especially Doña Marcela, who provide moral and emotional support for Dani when she needs it most. Paulo is ambitious and kind; Doña Marcela is brave and loving. Together, they provide Dani with examples of what healthy familial relationships can look like, and show her that people are allowed to care for and love each other. That Latinx characters are the most positive influence on the novel’s protagonist is worth noting. I certainly appreciated it.

Eventually, Dani connects with her aunt Shelly, who reveals the tragic secrets of her family’s past. Dani then realizes that she never really knew her mother and must face the fact that she hated a woman she only knew on a surface level. This understandably makes Dani resent Ruby even more, for shutting her daughter out all her life. But her budding romance with Paulo, the strong role model she found in Doña Marcela, and her growing bond with Shelly — these relationships teach Dani that there are things to appreciate in the world. Perhaps the trauma of her mother’s death and their lack of closure will always follow her, but Dani has met people who can help her move forward with her life, even if progress is slow.

Though it’s not without flaws, there’s much to like and commend in Because Of The Sun. Jenny Torres Sanchez writes Dani’s story in haunting, beautiful prose that creates an atmosphere that aptly approximates Dani’s bleakest moods and lowest moments. There are several dreamlike sequences in the novel reminiscent of magical realism that stand out as the strongest parts of the story. Reading Because Of The Sun is a singular and somber experience that will resonate with teens who understand the complexities of love and loss.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

To find Because of the Sun, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

Read Diverse BooksNazahet Hernandez is a book blogger who cares passionately about diversity in literature and promoting books written by and about people of color and other marginalized voices. He loves creating reading lists, recommending diverse books to people, and tweeting while at work. He lives in the wonderfully vibrant city of Austin, TX. You may contact him on Twitter (@_diversebooks) or through his blog ReadDiverseBooks.com.

Weaving Truth and the Imagined: A Guest Post by Author Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

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Top: My grandmother Elena (left) and my mother Miriam (right) Bottom: My mother in law Martha (left) and my grandmother Zoila (right)

 

By Jenny Torres Sanchez

I visited New Mexico for the first time about twelve years ago. My in-laws live right on the border of Columbus, New Mexico and Palomas, Mexico. I was there for a funeral and it was a sad, somber time. Maybe that was part of the reason why it seemed such a lonely place to me, so desolate and bare.

On our way to the graveyard, I remember much walking and dust. There were rocks on tombstones to cover graves because there is no grass. And my husband’s family members took turns, while weeping, to shovel dirt upon their loved one’s grave. I felt then that I had come to a place of great despair. But also of great beauty. And I knew I would someday write a story that took place there.

Because of the Sun CoverYears later, a story did come to me about a boy named Paulo living on that border. I tried writing it, but it never panned out and I abandoned the idea. Years later, another story came to me about an empty and unfeeling girl named Dani. Her story merged with that long ago abandoned one about Paulo. They meet as Dani is walking in the desert. He sees in her something he knows well: tragedy. And he feels drawn to her in that way we sometimes are to those who might share a similar pain. So he helps Dani and introduces her to his grandmother, who also helps her.

Paulo’s grandmother is an interesting character to me because she is someone I have always known. In her I see my mother who came to the United States all alone after her mother died. I see my grandmothers, women whose faces I have imagined in those hot, dusty countries where they were born and lived unimaginably hard lives. And I see my mother in-law, an immigrant from Mexico, with her own share of stories of a hard life. She is the one who introduced me to teas and instilled in me a belief that different ones can cure different ailments and remedy almost anything.

I’ve been raised, nurtured, and surrounded by these strong women, women who are equal parts hard and loving. They’ve had to survive great hardships, broken dreams and tragedies. But they survived, thrived even. And I’ve elevated them to goddess-like statures. To me, they are magical in that there is nothing they can’t do, nothing they can’t endure and overcome. Paulo’s grandmother is a culmination of the women I love. She is someone who has survived and helps others survive, who can bring back the dead even. She is always there, appearing even in dreams. Just like the women in my life.

I think it’s interesting how stories are woven, how truth becomes inspiration that merges with lies and the imagined. I love seeing that thin thread of the real in my stories. I love seeing the people in my life, in some way, in some form or transformation, make their way into my stories. And while their stories are not the focus of mine, their influence is never far.

 

JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

Latin@s in Kid Lit at the Library: Interview with Angie Manfredi

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 third installment of this series, I interview a great supporter of diverse books and an awesome booktalker, Angie Manfredi.

Angie ManfrediAngie Manfredi blogs at www.fatgirlreading.com and tweets constantly as @misskubelik. She is currently serving on the Stonewall Awards Committee. She has presented nationally on library issues from diversity to building teen services. She still can’t believe they pay her to be a librarian.

Talk a little bit about yourself and your library.
I am a born and raised New Mexican and proud of it. I am ethnically Italian, but my maternal great-mother was Latina and my maternal grandmother never let me forget it, “You’re not ALL Italian, after all.”

I’m Head of Youth Services at the Los Alamos County Library System in New Mexico. My library serves a large international population but, like most of New Mexico, also serves a Hispanic community. I work with ages 0-18 and can’t ever pick a favorite demographic.

What are your library’s selection and acquisition processes regarding Latino children’s books? Do you have any input in these processes?
Yes, as the Head of Youth Services, I am the final selector. I make sure to read widely from a variety of sources, both online and in print (For example, I love and use this blog). I ask my professional learning network on Twitter, publishers and small and regional publishers as well. University of New Mexico Press has some great regional titles like The Eyes of the Weaver/Los Ojos del Tejedor by Cristina Ortega, about the weaving tradition in the local Chimayó Valley and Amadito and the Hero Children/Amadito y los Niños Héroes by Enrique R. Lamadrid, about a flu epidemic and a pioneering New Mexican physician. These are local and bilingual titles a major publisher might never carry but are relevant to our region and our community. (I really recommend UNM Press. Check them out!)

What types of children and youth programming does your library offer using Latino children’s literature?
Nothing regularly, but we make an effort to include Latino children’s books in our storytimes, displays, and recommended book lists, so that they are a fully integrated part of our library services. We also create displays and booklists for National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Can you talk about community outreach and promoting library events?
I’ve been in this position almost eight years, so I’m lucky I’ve met lots of people! That’s a big part of what we do, I try to get my face out there. We have booths at community events, I contact school librarians with info about programs, and I’ve connected with our community educators group. If people know you’re willing to collaborate or help, even on a low level (making a booklist for an event even if you can’t attend), they are more likely to think of you or ask you.

What is the reaction of kids, teens, and families regarding Latino children’s books?
I’m lucky, everyone is receptive. That’s one of the best parts of living in New Mexico, though the Latino/a experience and the New Mexican experience are often so closely intertwined.

I love when parents and grandparents ask for books in Spanish or I get to show them our Spanish-language collection and they marvel at how many we have. Besides the books in English with Latino/a characters, we have everything from pictures to The Hunger Games in Spanish. They all circulate, which the entire staff takes pride in. We are always looking for more materials!

Any challenges regarding the acquisition of Latino children’s books or programming? What programs would you like to offer?
We’ve worked hard to refresh the Spanish-language collection with new materials. I found some motivated parent volunteers (that’s why we get out and mingle with patrons!) and they helped with the selection.

I’d love to have a Spanish-language storytime at least once a month. We had one when I first started, but our volunteer that was doing it got a full-time job. I’m definitely still interested in that. After our success participating in the African American Read-In, I also plan to expand our National Hispanic Heritage Month programming this year to have a read-in and a week full of themed storytimes. I’m excited about that.

Do you address issues of prejudice, oppression and inaccuracy in your library and in children’s books?
I hope I have weeded most of the books with inaccurate and outdated information. But I try, instead, to guide patrons to the books with positive and accurate portrayals. I say: “I really love this one!” or “This one really gets it right!” or “This one won an award, let me tell you about it!” That’s the kind of situation when patrons can really benefit from our guidance and enthusiasm, so it’s on us to be informed and proactive about the promotion.

Any advice for other librarians and educators who would like to use and incorporate Latino children’s literature into their programming?
Do it! If you feel unsure about where to start, dig into the Pura Belpré Award, the Tomás Rivera Award, and the Américas Award winners to give you a good start. Find one or two books you feel confident booktalking or reading in storytime and build from there, integrating those titles into your repertoire. There are families and kids in your community who will see themselves in these stories, and their cousins, and grandmothers, and friends.

Which are the most popular Latino children’s books in your library?
Our patrons love text where the Spanish is integrated through the text, so some favorite picture books are anything by Pat Mora and Yuyi Morales. Pam Muñoz Ryan is one of our most popular middle grade authors, Esperanza Rising is often assigned in schools and kids genuinely love it. The Tía Lola stories by Julia Alvarez are popular here too. Our teens love ANYTHING by Matt de la Peña. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina was a very popular book here too. And, of course, I can’t keep Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero on the shelf.

And finally, which Latino children’s books do you recommend?

      
I love everything by Duncan Tonatiuh. I can’t wait to see what Guadalupe García McCall writes next. The Living by Matt de la Peña is perfection (I reviewed it on Guy’s LitWire). I think every middle schooler should be required to read The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano. It’s an amazing book about finding who YOU are and what YOU will stand for. Similarly, Grandma’s Gift by Eric Velásquez made me cry the first time I read it and I think elementary school kids should all be taught it. It does a great job discussing how having someone support your dreams can change you and so can seeing someone who looks like you in art and media.

Oh, and Bless Me Última by Rudolfo Anaya. A required high school read for me and for thousands of other New Mexican students over the years. It helped me see that everyone has a story and it’s OUR job to listen.

 

Book Review: Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes

By Kimberly Mach

7175992DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: When twelve-year-old Izzy discovers a beat-up baseball marked with the partially obscured phrase “Because… magic,” she is determined to figure out the missing words. Could her father have written them? What secrets does this old ball have to tell? Her mom certainly isn’t sharing any – especially when it comes to Izzy’s father, who died before she was born.

But when Izzy spends the summer in her Nana’s remote New Mexico village, she discovers long-buried secrets that come alive in an enchanted landscape of majestic mountains , whispering winds, and tortilla suns. Izzy finds herself on an adventure to connect the hidden pieces of her past. And just maybe she will discover the missing words that could change her life forever…but only is she can learn to create a few words of her own.

MY TWO CENTS: Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes is a perfect middle grade novel. It is well-constructed, has all the required pieces, and that little extra something that keeps you thinking about the story long after you’ve read it.  It is a book I am looking forward to sharing with my grade six students in a book talk.

What I loved most were the surprising elements, the pieces I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to meet a master storyteller as a character. Socorro, almost mythic in description, appears and guides both Izzy and the members of the village with her wisdom and tales of the people. In fact, she helps Izzy, an aspiring writer, find her way to write and finish the stories she’s been struggling with. With Socorro’s guidance and the help of Nana and her new friends, Izzy is able to find her own cuento, or story. The characters are as rich and varied as village life, like the members of a large family. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is when six of the characters, ranging in age from Nana to young Maggie, play baseball together. Mrs. Castillo with her shiny nails surprises them all and hits a homerun.

I didn’t expect to find the essence of baseball in here either–the magic and lore, the homerun, and those bits that capture our imagination. The story starts with Izzy finding an old baseball.  She is certain it belonged to her father. Every stitch in that baseball is a thread of her story, of her cuento. In that story, there is healing and forgiveness, and it is one of the pieces that stayed with me long after the first read.

Finally, I didn’t expect to come away craving empanadas. When Izzy took her first bite my mouth started watering. Cervantes is expert at describing the smells of cooking and giving us the taste for many Mexican-American dishes through Izzy’s first experience with them. She even includes at the end a recipe for her own Nana’s tortillas, a recipe pulled from her own family history.

Jennifer Cervantes creates characters in Tortilla Sun that move into your heart and stay there. I want to go to Nana’s. I want to run my fingers over the Saltillo mosaic tiled floors and smell the snap and sizzle of the tortillas cooking. I want to run down the same path that Izzy and Mateo took, and then I want to come back and sleep in that hammock. It is hard to believe this is a debut novel. Nana, Izzy’s grandmother, tells her at one point, “Sometimes you can’t see the magic; you just know it’s there because you can feel it.” That is the way I feel about this MG novel. Each time I see it on my shelf, I remember the characters, the sounds, and the smells. You can feel the magic in this story, that certain something that brings it all to life. I look forward to reading Jennifer Cervantes’ next novel, and I hope there will be many more.

TEACHING TIPS: Jennifer Cervantes provides discussion questions for Tortilla Sun on her website. Also, I see mostly social studies connections here and opportunities for interdisciplinary learning.

Geography: Any teacher who is not from the southwest may use portions of the text to teach about that area. Why are hot air balloons popular in New Mexico? Where is the Rio Grande River? What is the terrain like? What does it mean to live in a desert? Simply learning that a desert does not only consist of drifting sand dunes would be a good use here.

Study of culture and the family unit: There are two grandmothers in the story who play vital roles in the lives of young people. A study of the nuclear family and extended family would be a good fit. The role of grandmothers and grandparents in societies today would also be a good fit. In Tortilla Sun there are both multigenerational households and nuclear families: Izzy, her grandmother and mother, Mateo and his parents, and then Maggie and her grandmother, Gip. Unlike some novels, the family unit, although broken at the beginning (Izzy and her mother live alone), becomes the mainstay of the whole story.

Study of Mexican-American culture: Izzy rediscovers her roots and forms her identity in this story. She does not come to New Mexico with a strong sense of who she is. It’s her grandmother, Nana, who teaches her about the religion, the Saltillo tiles, the food, and even a bit of the history. A historian at heart, I was fascinated about why the doorways in her house were so low and narrow in Nana’s house. Izzy even discovers there is more to her name than she first thought.

In Language Arts there are a variety of lessons that could be drawn from the novel from close reading particular passages. Foreshadowing , figurative language, and story structure can be a focus of these reads. In addition, advice on how to start and finish writing a story using practical strategies can be found. Izzy begins her own stories by using index cards. Soon the index cards can be laid out together and she has a full story with a beginning, middle, and end.

AUTHOR: Jennifer Cervantes currently resides in New Mexico with her family, which she calls The Land of Enchantment. Tortilla Sun  is her first novel. For more information about Jennifer and her upcoming works please visit her website: http://www.jennifercervantes.com/index.html

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Tortilla Sun, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.orggoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

 

Kimberly Mach (2)Kimberly Mach has been teaching for sixteen years and holds two teaching certificates in elementary and secondary education. Her teaching experience ranges from grades five to twelve, but she currently teaches Language Arts to middle school students. It is a job she loves. The opportunity to share good books with students is one that every teacher should have. She feels privileged to be able to share them on a daily basis.

 

Book Review: Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

SammyBy Cindy L. Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: A young adult novel Latino-style–the year is 1969. America is at war, Hollywood is a dirt-poor Chicano barrio in small town America, and Sammy and Juliana, about to head into their senior year, are in love.

MY TWO CENTS: Sáenz creates strong main and supporting characters long remembered after finishing the novel. Sammy’s voice was spot-on as a teen boy who grapples with the personal issues all teens do–friends, love, fears and hopes for the future–while also dealing with poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War era. Sáenz brilliantly mixes Spanish and English, local “neighborhood” issues with larger social issues like drug addiction and homophobia. While Sammy and Juliana are in love, as the book blurb states, this is not a traditional love story. Something tragic happens shortly into the novel that ends the love affair. I won’t spoil it, but the relationship was short-lived, and Sammy spends the rest of the novel dealing with this loss and many others. If you’re looking for something light-hearted with a happy ending, this one’s not for you. Sáenz left me feeling what it’s like to get pounded by life, as Sammy was and as many people are.

TEACHING TIPS: This book has many issues worth pursuing in the classroom: immigration, poverty, grief, drug-use, discrimination based on race and sexual preference. Parts of this novel could easily be used by teachers in different ways. I say parts because I don’t believe every novel used in class needs to be read cover-to-cover. A history teacher, for example, may want to zero in on certain aspects of a novel, but may not want to handle elements typically taught by an English teacher, like character development or symbolism.

The thread about the Vietnam War could be pulled from the novel and used to complement nonfiction pieces in high school history classes. The character Pifas is drafted and students protest the war by wearing black arm bands and staging a sit-in in the school cafeteria. These were among the most memorable moments in the novel. The conversation between Sammy and Pifas about being drafted is emotionally gut-wrenching, and my heart sank when Gigi gets out of the car and falls to her knees in reaction to news about Pifas.

English teachers could use nonfiction pieces about any of the novel’s issues to attack author’s craft, investigating the differences between an objective, factual version of events versus a fictionalized one. Students could then choose an issue from the novel that is still relevant today (hint: all of them) and write two short versions of an event, one as a nonfiction writer would and the other as a fiction writer would.

LEXILE: 390

AUTHOR: (information comes directly from Cinco Puntos Press and University of Texas at El Paso)

Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. After graduating from high school in 1972, he entered the seminary. He was later ordained a Catholic priest, but left the priesthood three and a half years later. At the age of 30, he entered the University of Texas at El Paso. He later received a fellowship at the University of Iowa. In 1988, he received a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship in poetry from Stanford University. In 1993, he returned to the border to teach in the bilingual MFA program at UTEP.

Sáenz is an award-winning poet and author of books for children and young adults. His first YA novel, Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the Americas Book Award, The Paterson Prize, and the JHunt Award. It was named one of the top ten Young Adult novels by the American Library Association and one of the top books of the year by the Center for Children’s Books, The New York Public Library, and the Miami Herald.

His other YA novels are:

He Forgot to Say Goodbye   Last Night I Sang to the Monster   Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Sammy & Juliana in Hollywoodvisit your local library or book store. Also, check out Cinco Puntos Press, IndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.