Book Review: Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

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Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Roller Girl is a recipient of a 2016 Newbery Honor!

FROM THE NEWBERY MEDAL HOME PAGE: Astrid falls in love with roller derby and learns how to be tougher, stronger and fearless. Jamieson perfectly captures the highs and lows of growing up in this dynamic graphic novel.

MY TWO CENTS:  Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl captivated me right off and only grew sweeter on a second reading. In addition to the immersive power of graphic novels, the story of Roller Girl delivers a solid punch: 12-year-old Astrid Vasquez gets hooked on roller derby and devotes herself to the sport while navigating the ups and downs of middle-school friendships.

Astrid’s passion for roller derby ignites when Ms. Vasquez takes Astrid and her best friend, Nicole, to their first derby bout. Afterward, Astrid can talk of nothing but the derby and fails to notice that Nicole doesn’t share her excitement. Come on, how could she not? Check out the theater of it all: the players’ costumes and wild hair colors, the electricity of the crowd, and the take-no-prisoners energy that drives the sport. Astrid even discovers an idol in Rainbow Bite, a star jammer for the Rose City Rollers, who exemplifies roller derby’s ferocity and skill. Astrid loves the fact that there’s nothing girlie or restrained about roller-derby culture, and when she hears about summer camp for junior players, she’s chomping at the bit to sign up. Best friends do everything together, right? This assumption crumbles when Nicole reveals that she’s planning to attend dance camp instead, along with Rachel, Astrid’s one true nemesis from their early elementary days.

With Nicole’s “desertion,” Astrid has to face the first day at derby camp alone. From there, complications abound. Ms. Vasquez is under the impression that Nicole’s mom will give Astrid a ride home at the end of each day’s session. Astrid is afraid to tell her mom that Nicole isn’t participating, as this would lead to all sorts of questions Astrid wants to avoid. As a result, the lies she must tell and the long walks home she must endure only add to the drama of those first grueling weeks at the rink. Did I mention that Astrid discovers she’s a lousy skater?

Despite aching muscles and botched skill drills, Astrid persists and finds new motivations as she enters more deeply into the world of her chosen sport. The camp coaches balance demanding practices with timely pep talks, and Astrid strikes up a friendship with Zoey, a camper her age. Another boost comes in the form of a correspondence with Rainbow Bite that starts when Astrid discovers the star jammer’s locker and begins leaving notes for her. (Rainbow proves a generous celebrity and writes back with inspiring tips.)

None of these triumphs mean that Astrid transforms into a roller derby standout; what matters are the personal victories that she achieves over the course of the summer, including earning the respect of her teammates and figuring out some important things about who she is and what sort of friend she wants to be.

Roller Girl succeeds on multiple levels. Through a lively narrative and a rich visual landscape, it draws readers into the fascinating world of roller derby, often explaining the rules and strategies of a sport unfamiliar to many through clever diagrams and dramatized scenes. Through these invitations to explore the sport, it portrays women and girls as highly capable both physically and intellectually. Readers get a clear sense that women can—and should—take on tough challenges.

In addition, Roller Girl gives us a Latina character comfortable with her ethnic identity and shows us Anglo characters who are equally accepting. Astrid’s Latina background doesn’t even emerge until page 54, and only much later do we learn that the family is Puerto Rican. This information comes across casually, as just another cool detail about the main character. At least this is how Astrid’s new friend Zoey takes the information when Astrid reveals it during a scene in which West Side Story plays in the background.

Astrid says to Zoey, “I’ve seen this movie! My mom made me watch this for an evening of Puerto Rican cultural heritage. Or something.” (At first blush, the idea that an adult puertorriqueña would push this movie as representative of her culture struck me as improbable. I associate West Side Story with racial stereotypes, discriminatory casting—white actors playing the Puerto Rican leads—and the problematic practice of filming lighter-skinned Latino actors in brown-face. But after asking around, I learned that not all Latinos recoil at the legacy of West Side Story, and many view Rita Moreno’s dynamic, Oscar-winning performance as a cause for celebration.)

In general, my sense is that ethnicity may not be central to the story, yet it gives readers additional exposure to a positively framed diverse character who faces the same challenges most 12-year-olds face. In fact, one of the biggest ways that Roller Girl succeeds is in its depiction of Astrid’s emotional journey. It delivers an honest and satisfying ride through many of the complex social and internal upheavals of middle-school life. I particularly like the author’s portrayal of mixed emotions. On one page, a central panel depicts a kindergarten poster of cartoon faces bearing unambiguous expressions. The caption reads: “The feelings were all simple ones, like ‘happy’ and ‘sad.’ They didn’t tell you about feelings that got mixed together like a smoothie.” In the next panel, Astrid contemplates exactly such “mixed together” feelings, the result of running into Nicole after weeks of separation. Astrid is happy to see her former best friend yet sad about the emotional distance that stands between them now. Out of this, she coins a new word, “shad,” a distillation of those contradictory feelings—happy and sad. This moment of acceptance that emotions are complex seems to me a marker that a character is coming of age.

As happens with the best of sports stories, Roller Girl follows a character’s trajectory through brutal training challenges, inevitable setbacks, as well as moments of triumph–and elevates these into something beyond athletic achievement. At twelve, Astrid is finding her way in the world. Some of her falls are literal and happen on the skating rink. Some are relational and emotional, and arrive without the benefit of coaches to teach her how to land injury-free. The important thing is that after each fall, Astrid is learning how to dust herself off and get back into the game.

TEACHING TIPS AND RESOURCES: A major theme of Roller Girl is the troubled landscape of middle-school friendships. Try this exercise with young readers. Assign a “treasure hunt” for episodes in the story that demonstrate the ebb and flow of friendships. Ask students to identify relational missteps that Astrid and other characters make, i.e., jumping to conclusions, not listening, passing judgments, not speaking up; ask them to do a similar search for positive practices that build friendships.

For visual help on grasping the rules of roller derby, check out the video on this page.

One of Astrid’s challenges is figuring out a good derby name. There are rules and traditions that must be observed, as outlined in this guide.

AuthorPhoto_VictoriaJamieson_LoRes_400x400ABOUT THE AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Pennsylvania native Victoria Jamieson attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Her work history includes a stint as book designer for HarperCollins Children’s Books. She now writes, illustrates, and teaches illustration at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, where she also skates in the Rose City Rollers roller-derby league.

 

 

Newbie skaters like Astrid could probably use the tips from this video.

 

IMG_1291Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

¡Felicidades! to the ALA Youth Media Award Winners and Honor Books

WOW! What a great year for Latin@-themed books and books written/illustrated by Latin@s! I’m sure many of us reacted this way as the results of the ALA Youth Media Awards came in Monday. Matt de la Peña and Christopher Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street took home the Newbery Medal and was named an Honor book for the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards.

AND OUR OWN ASHLEY HOPE PÉREZ’S OUT OF DARKNESS WAS NAMED A PRINTZ HONOR BOOK!!!!! YES, THIS IS IN ALL CAPS AND HAS LOTS OF EXCLAMATION POINTS BECAUSE WE ARE SOOOOOO EXCITED FOR HER!!!!!!!! YAY, ASHLEY!!!!

A HUGE CONGRATULATIONS to all of the winners and honor books.

Here are the winners and honor books by/for/about Latin@s. Click on the covers for more information:

John Newbery Medal for most outstanding contribution to children’s literature:

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Newbery Honor Books:

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Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults. The Honor Books included:

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Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children. The Caldecott Honor Books included:

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Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Honor Books included:

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Pura Belpré Award (Illustrator) honoring a Latino writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience.

Winner:

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Honor Books:

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Pura Belpré Award (Author) honoring Latino authors whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience:

Winner:

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Honor books:

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Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children.

Winner:

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Finalist for the William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens:

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Finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults:

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Odyssey Award for best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States. The Odyssey Honor Recording was:

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Alex Awards for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences. The list included:

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Guest Post: Margarita Engle’s Passion for Writing About Hope and Forgotten Heroes

By Margarita Engle

Recently, I was asked what “legacy” I hope to leave by writing. Legacy is an intimidating word, but at least one portion of the answer is fairly simple. I love writing about independent thinkers who have been forgotten by history. These lost heroes might have been celebrated in their own times, or they may have worked in such obscurity that their names are unknown. Many are famous in their countries of origin, but have never been introduced to readers in the U.S.

Just a few years ago, any library search for children’s books about Latinos would have revealed little more than a series of shamefully inaccurate works glorifying brutal conquistadores. During the interim, excellent biographies of César Chávez and Sonia Sotomayor have been added, along with a handful of beautiful picture books about artists, writers, and musicians.

Surrende TreeThe work of reclaiming lost heroes has barely begun. My own approach is not strictly biographical because I love writing verse novels, and I also love writing first person interpretations of historical events. I often mix historical figures with fictional characters. In other words, I feel free to explore, experiment, and imagine. It’s a process that feels like time travel. Diaries, letters, and journals are my most important research materials, because they contain the emotional essence of history, along with the meticulous details of daily life. When I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba, I was fortunate to have access to Juan Francisco Manzano’s autobiographical notes, which had been smuggled off the island by British abolitionists. For The Surrender Tree, I could not find anything written by Rosa la Bayamesa or any of Cuba’s other courageous wartime nurses, so I read the diaries of rebel soldiers, as well as interviews with reconcentration camp survivors. The Lightning Dreamer is based on the poetry and prose of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who wrote a groundbreaking interracial romance novel that was published more than a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only was Sab far more daring, it was also more influential in Europe and Latin America. So why don’t North Americans know Avellaneda’s name? Does it make sense to learn only about our own little corners of the world?

Hope is at the heart of every topic I choose. I love to write about people I admire. In general, I admire them because they were independent thinkers, far ahead of their times, or because their courage took the form of kindness. I don’t see history as a series of wars, with dates of battles to memorize and names of generals who are automatically assumed to be heroic. My heroes are the ordinary people who made hopeful choices in times that must have seemed hopeless. Tropical Secrets and Silver People are examples of topics so huge—the Holocaust, and construction of the Panama Canal—that I chose to write primarily in the voices of fictional composite characters, rather than individual historical figures. For Hurricane Dancers, the absence of first person indigenous Cuban accounts of the Conquest forced me to rely on a combination of legends, imagination, and the diaries of priests. I read the journals of conquistadores with skepticism, because they were written with a specific agenda—trying to make themselves look heroic, so that they could apply for additional funds from the Spanish Crown.

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Not all of my books are verse novels, and not all are for young adults. One of my favorite challenges is writing picture books about people who are not considered “famous enough” for biographical works. This limitation has actually helped me present my historical picture book manuscripts simply as inspiring stories, instead of struggling to make the subjects seem more famous than they are. Some are not famous at all, simply because Latinos, other minorities, and women, have generally been omitted from earlier historical writings. Sadly, recent history books tend to copy the earlier ones. The result is an entire segment of classroom curricula and pleasure reading with no representation of forgotten groups.

At present, I have several biographical picture books already in the publishing pipeline, and several that are still searching for publishers. None of them are about easily recognized names, if you live in the U.S. Thankfully, with the help of wonderful editors and fantastic illustrators, I hope that these picture books will inspire young readers. Drum Dream Girl (Harcourt, 2015) is being illustrated by the amazing Rafael López, whose gorgeous art will help illuminate the life of a ten-year-old Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke the island’s taboo against female drummers. The Sky Painter (Two Lions, 2015) will have beautiful, scientifically accurate illustrations by Aliona Bereghici, to show how a boy of Puerto Rican origin became the world’s greatest bird artist, by allowing birds to live, instead of following Audubon’s tradition of killing and posing them.

If children have heard Latin jazz or visited New York’s Natural History Museum, they’ve heard and seen the results of Millo Castro’s courage and Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ kindness, even though they are unlikely to have seen those names in a library or classroom. I firmly believe that it is time to make room for books about the lives of people who should be famous, rather than limiting young readers to books about people who are already famous.

No discussion of biographical writing is complete without the subject of autobiography. Writing a childhood memoir has been the greatest challenge of my life. It is strictly nonfiction—no imagining, only remembering. Certain memories are excruciatingly painful. I love recalling childhood trips to visit my extended family in Cuba, but I dread remembering the October 1962 Missile Crisis that ended those journeys. Enchanted Air, a Cold War Memoir (Atheneum, 2015) combines the two. Positive and negative. Joy and sorrow. Despair and hope. With a powerful cover illustration by one of the world’s greatest artists, Edel Rodríguez, this memoir already feels like my life’s work. It is a book that helps me reclaim the separated half of my family, and along with them, the half of my identity that was almost destroyed by politicians.

Writing about lives is a process of exploration, so even though the memoir feels like my life’s work, I’ve already found other people I hope to depict in verse novels and picture books. I’ve returned to the research stage, reading history, and deciding which parts of history have not yet been honestly portrayed.

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Margarita-HavanaMargarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino/a. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Awards and Honors, as well as three Américas Awards and the Jane Addams Peace Award. Margarita’s newest verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, and her newest picture book is Tiny Rabbit’s Big WishShe lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the forest to help train her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs. For more information, visit her author site and enjoy interviews by Caroline Starr Rose  and Robyn Hood Black.