Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 1: Margarita Engle

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the first in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Margarita Engle, a Cuban-American author who is one of the most prolific and decorated writers in Kid Lit.

Margarita Engle

Margarita Headshot

Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist. She lives in central California with her husband.

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. I have been writing poetry since I was a small child, so I think my passion for composing verses grew naturally from loving to read. It was not something I consciously decided to try, just something I did the way I ate, slept, and breathed. As a teenager, I did make a conscious decision to try writing fiction, and I began to dream of someday writing a book about the history of Cuba. That finally happened, but not until I was in my 50s. The Poet Slave of Cuba was published in 2006, and The Surrender Tree in 2008, launching a long series of verse novels about Cuban history. By then, I had already published a great deal of poetry, technical botanical and agricultural articles, and a couple of adult novels about modern Cuba, but I have never been happier than when I write for children.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. Most of my middle grade novels tend toward the tween end of the age range, perhaps because I was eleven in 1962, at the time of the Missile Crisis. Losing the right to travel to Cuba was a traumatic, surrealistic experience. I believe that a part of myself was frozen at that age, and did not thaw until 1991, when I was finally able to start visiting again. Now, I love to write for children who crave adventure, and still believe in the wonder of nature, children who are not yet embarrassed to love their families, even though they dream of independence.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. There are so many! How can I choose? I’ll try, with apologies to all the fantastic authors I’m leaving out. Some of my favorite middle grade books are actually memoirs, rather than fiction. I love Alma Flor Ada’s Island Treasures, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry. For fiction, most of my favorite middle grade novels are written in verse: Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, Under the Mesquite, by Guadalupe García McCall, and Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes. I love books that travel to other countries, so I’ll sneak in Solo by Kwame Alexander and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, even though they lean toward YA. If I had to choose one middle grade prose novel, it would be the very poetic Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Don’t be so self-critical. It’s okay to be a bookworm. Stop trying to please everyone else. Just be yourself.

Q. Please finish this sentence: “Middle grade novels are important because…”

A. Middle grade novels are important because that is the age when children are imaginative, wonder-filled, curious, and open to learning about the whole world.

 

Margarita’s newest verse novel about Cuba is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots.

                                                                                                        

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

photo by
Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Poeta Rebelde: A Guest Post by Author Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

By Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Poetry is where I live. It is where I go when I am most wounded. Poetry is the place I hide when I am most vulnerable, but it is also the cloak I wrap around myself when I know I have to speak up because I have something important to say. Poetry gives voice to my fears. It allows me to express my concerns with bold and powerful words. I can say more with one line of poetry than I can with a paragraph because poetry lets me cut to the core.

Shame the Stars CoverPoetry is my corazón, my coraje, my fuerza. So it came as no surprise to me that when the child of my heart, my beloved Joaquín del Toro, the embodiment of the men in my life, my courageous father, my brave husband, and my own three daring sons, first spoke to me, he spoke to me in verse.

The night I read Dr. Benjamin Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas, I heard Joaquín’s voice for the first time. The first poem I wrote that night, among many others, was “Tejano,” which is the poem that opens my third novel, Shame the Stars. It is a poem that speaks to the anger and frustration the people of south Texas must have felt as they watched their families and friends being subjugated, suppressed, and supplanted.

It also came as no surprise to me when the first draft of the original manuscript developed in verse. Poetry was the best way I could express myself as I tried to tell the story of Joaquín and Dulceña. It was the only way I could deal with the atrocities committed against our community the summer of 1915, when Texas lawmen declared war against Mexicans and Tejanos, summarily rounding up, lynching, and fusillading them without the benefit of legal proceedings, a dark time that is now referred to as La Matanza (The Slaughter).

As I did more research, the things I learned helped expand and shape the storyline. My editor at Tu Books, Stacy Whitman, believed Joaquín’s voice was trying to break free of the constraints of the formatting. She was right about that. Poetry had created what my esteemed MFA professor at UTEP, Sasha Pimentel, calls “a very tight corset,” which I think is appropriate for a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, but which I have to admit, had become too restrictive for the novel.

As I revised Shame the Stars and Joaquín got wiser, as he became more outspoken, I had to cut him loose. Over a long period of months, I rewrote the entire novel-in-verse, turning the main narrative into prose. I let Joaquín breathe by allowing him access to the rest of the page. However, I just couldn’t let his poetic heart go unheard. So I left Joaquín’s most passionate poems intact and even created new, more rebellious poems to express his pain, his sorrow, his heartbreak.

I hope Joaquín’s poems live on for many years to come. I hope they enlighten, embolden, and emphasize just how important our voices are and let everyone know we must stand up and speak up if we want to be heard.

Poetry can be beautiful. It can be lyrical and magical and romantic, and that’s wonderful, but I hope my fans understand that poetry must also be strong and firm and sturdy if it is to bring us to light and to sight. A poem must have grit; it must push and shove and grind if it is going to propel us to change, to persist, to strive.

 

author2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist, received the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011, among many other accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction award, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her poems for children have appeared in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in San Antonio.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Award Winners: The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

PuraBelpreAward

The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Narrative Award. We have already highlighted Esperanza Rising, which won the 2002 Narrative Award.

 

Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION (from Goodreads): Neftali finds beauty and wonder everywhere: in the oily colors of mud puddles; a lost glove, sailing on the wind; the music of birds and language. He loves to collect treasures, daydream, and write–pastimes his authoritarian father thinks are for fools. Against all odds, Neftali prevails against his father’s cruelty and his own crippling shyness to become one of the most widely read poets in the world, Pablo Neruda. This moving story about the birth of an artist is also a celebration of childhood, imagination, and the strength of the creative spirit.

MY TWO CENTS: As an object, The Dreamer has to be one of the most beautiful books ever created. Every detail—the silver on the cover, the words printed in green, the generous white space on each page and the precise, delicate illustrations by Peter Sís—combine to create a stunning work of art, even before you begin reading. I knew the name Pablo Neruda before I read this book, but other than a few poems from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, I was not all that familiar with the Chilean poet’s life and work. This book is a fantastic introduction. Ryan is clear in her author’s note that The Dreamer is a work of fiction, and yet it seems perfectly plausible that Neftalí, the fictional main character (Neruda was born Neftalí Reyes and created his pen name as a young man), grew up to be the famous poet whose poems are included at the end of the text.

The Dreamer engages all the senses, as Ryan uses onomatopoeia and changing text size to indicate sound and her lush descriptions bring Neftalí and his family to life. Sís alternates between tiny spot drawings that require close scrutiny and sweeping spreads that go right to the edge of the page. The importance that nature holds for Neftalí is reflected in the chapter titles: Rain, Mud, Tree. Some of the most poignant moments come when Neftalí is engaging with the natural world, such as when he hears the chucao bird in the forest and when he tries his best to save a hurt swan in the lagoon. These moments of calm and curiosity are contrasted with his more difficult interactions with people, such as when he stutters to his father and endures abuse from the bully Guillermo. Yet as Neftalí gets older, he finds allies like his Uncle Orlando and his little sister Laurita and eventually has the strength to find ways around his father’s demand that he stop writing poetry. Each chapter ends with an open-ended question, in the same spirit as Neruda’s own question poems that encourages the reader to consider the characters and their choices and actions. Is fire born of words? Or are words born of fire? Where is the heaven of lost stories?

Neruda is said to be the most widely translated and well-known poet, not just in Latin-America but throughout the entire world. With this richly imagined childhood, Ryan celebrates the Latino cultural experience of Neruda and his work. Although fictional, The Dreamer captures Neruda’s spirit of wonder, curiosity and love for the world and inspires young readers to look at their surroundings with a poet’s eyes.

TEACHING TIPS: The Dreamer was published when I was still teaching third grade. I read it aloud to my students, so I can say with confidence that it is a wonderful book to share as a class! This book makes a great read-aloud, as the descriptions and slow pace of the story mean it works better for some readers broken up into smaller pieces. April is Poetry Month, a perfect time to share The Dreamer with students. I used it as the basis for two different poetry lessons, one about Neruda’s odes to objects and one using his Book of Questions poems. The episode from the book with the toy sheep (128-132) is a nice introduction to the importance Neruda placed on everyday objects and several of his odes are reproduced at the end of the book. Students can read these and other odes (or excerpts, as some of them are long) and then either individually or in small groups, write their own odes to objects that they feel are important.

With the question poems, I had students discuss them in small groups and then create a dramatic presentation of their poem in any way they chose. If you want to share more of Neruda’s objects with a class, the Fundación Pablo Neruda in Chile has photos of his houses online to look at. For younger students, Monica Brown’s picture book biography Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is another good resource for separating fact from fiction. It might be a good idea to begin with Brown’s book as a way of introducing students to Neruda and giving them an overview of his life before starting The Dreamer.

Vocabulary is another good activity for this book and students can find new words or make lists of words they think are especially rich and vivid. The setting of Chile, possibly an unfamiliar country to students, is also an opportunity to make geography connections and students could find Temuco, Puerto Saavedra and Santiago de Chile on a map or GoogleEarth.

From her website

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pam Muñoz Ryan, a New York Times Bestselling author, has written over forty books, including the novels Esperanza Rising, Becoming Naomi León, Riding Freedom, Paint the Wind, The Dreamer, and Echo. She is the author recipient of the National Education Association’s Civil and Human Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Multicultural Literature, the Newbery Honor for Children’s Literature, and is twice the recipient of the Pura Belpré Medal and the Willa Cather Award.

Other selected honors include the PEN USA Award, the Américas Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and the Orbis Pictus Award. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, (formerly Pam Bell) holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from San Diego State University and lives near San Diego with her family.

RESOURCES:

Educator Guide from Vamos a Leer blog: https://teachinglatinamericathroughliterature.wordpress.com/october-2012-the-dreamer/

BookPage interview: https://bookpage.com/interviews/8572-pam-munoz-ryan#.VvNk4KsbRoM

Language Arts Journal of Michigan article: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1079&context=lajm

TeachingBooks.net Guest Blog: http://forum.teachingbooks.net/2010/05/guest-blogger-pam-munoz-ryan/

 

Cackley_headshotCecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Poetry in the Lives of Children and Young Adults

 

By Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

“Before you go further,/ let me tell you what a poem brings,/ first, you must know the secret,/ there is no poem/ to speak of, it is a way to attain/ a life without boundaries”

— from “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings by Juan Felipe Herrera

I have been teaching creative writing to middle school and high school students in and outside of traditional classroom spaces for about five years now. For the most part, I have found that despite the need for these creative spaces, they are too hard to come by. My purpose in each teaching space is to create a safe space where youth can use their lived experiences, their communities, and their imagination as inspiration to find their voices—alongside teaching them a skill or two about creative writing. My favorite part of teaching creative writing is the opportunity to listen to youth tell their stories. When I start my classes, I always let youth know that I was undocumented when I was their age, and with high school students, I might reveal that I grew up around domestic violence. I don’t share these personal facts for any shock factor but because there’s still a dangerous misconception that people like me—and like my students—are not writers. The lack of representation and diversity in books available in K-12 classrooms impacts whether children and young adults understand their experiences as valuable and whether they can see themselves as agents of their own stories. In other words, not seeing ourselves represented in what we read while in school influences the value we give to our personal experiences and whether we consider ourselves worthy enough to write our own stories. Most of the work that I do in each teaching space is about undoing the fallacies of who can be a writer and what stories can be told.

I enjoy teaching poetry most of all because, at first, youth are very hesitant about reading and writing poetry because it’s “too hard” to understand or there are “too many rules” to follow, but they are then surprised and even excited when we read poems by the likes of Francisco X. Alarcon, Pat Mora,  or Juan Felipe Herrera. I’m sure what surprises them is that these poems are about tortillas, abuelas, or about barrios like the ones in which they live. The idea here is not to essentialize their Latinx experiences, or their experiences as children of color for that matter, but stories about cultural foods, grandmas, immigration, class, and the like still resonate with children and young adults of color for a reason. Even if they are exposed to writers of color in their classrooms, students and teachers alike are constantly battling the negative messages youth receive about their cultural, ethnic, and class background. Because of this, it’s refreshing and empowering for youth to hear stories they can relate to in hopes that they do will want to share their own stories.

Poetry usually becomes the favorite outlet for many of my students, especially after I tell them that they can write poetry without needing to follow any rules. Poetry has become a safe way for my students to unleash their dreams, their pain, and their imaginations without necessarily revealing the truth about any of the above. Imagery, metaphors, similes, and symbols are very powerful tools for youth to process their experiences without needing to name their afflictions if they don’t want to. On the other hand, poetry is the perfect vessel for them to say what they want with little stress from conventional English grammar rules. Believe it or not, complete sentences, subject-verb agreement, and punctuation can be real bummers. I have had the most hesitant of 6th grade boys write poems about video games, boogers, balls, or about how stupid 6th grade is. And I encourage those types of poems because those, too, are important stories. There are certainly other students that can relate to poetry about video games and the dreadfulness that is 6th grade. In the same vein, I have had students reveal that they struggle with depression, that they don’t like the color of their skin, that they are embarrassed by their parent’s broken English, that they or a family member are undocumented or have been deported. I don’t ever ask students to write about their deepest, darkest secrets. I often give them the option to make something up if they don’t want to write about themselves. But more often than not, students share these personal stories without prompting because they need to. In my poetry sessions[i], I try to give students the opportunity to say what they can’t say aloud in hopes that they may “attain a life without boundaries.”

How to Use Poetry in Latinx Children’s Literature to Encourage Children and Youth to Read/Write Poetry

For elementary and middle school students, I often start off with Francisco X. Alarcón’s poetry for children because they are fun, culturally relevant, and bilingual (English/Spanish). Alarcón has many wonderful books of poetry for children but I use the “The Magical Cycle of the Seasons Series,” which includes Iguanas in the Snow: And Other Winter Poems, Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems, From the Bellybutton of the Moon: And other Summer Poems, Angels Ride Bikes: And Other Fall Poems, because it allows me to use the five senses to describe how each season manifest itself in a student’s community.

   

For example, Alarcón’s poem “Dream,” in Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Summer Poems, is about gardens everywhere and everyone helping to plant gardens. When teaching this poem, I first ask the youth to read the poem aloud. I like to ask different students to read the same poem several times so that we can hear different intonations and discuss if emphasizing different words in the poem changes its meaning. I do the same with the Spanish version of the poem. I then talk about which of the five senses the poem uses to tell the story. I ask students to point to specific lines in the poem to support their arguments. We then move into a group discussion about gardens, their purposes, where we might see them, and if they have one of their own. Depending on the group, I might ask them to write in free verse about the gardens in their homes/communities or to imagine their own garden. If the youth or group needs more structure, I might ask them to write an acrostic or cinquain poem about gardens or a garden related subjects. To close out the session, I often ask students to share their poems, or we might try to mime or sing the poem. When there’s not enough time to go into that much detail with the poem, I read the poem with the youth, ask them what they think the poem is about, and ask them to write their own poem about their garden, a garden they’ve seen, or why there should or shouldn’t be more gardens in their communities. Maya Christina Gonzalez’s beautiful illustrations also present an opportunity for students to create additional garden paintings, drawings, or an entirely new poem based on the illustrations.

For older students I often refer to Juan Felipe Herrera’s novel in verse Downtown Boy. More often than not, we focus on the young main character Juanito to discuss issues such as discrimination in school, immigration, gender roles, masculinity and femininity, diabetes, family, and more. If I have an opportunity to teach the entire novel, then I often create poetry portfolios with my students where we pick a broader theme like identity, culture, and/or community that will thread throughout all their poems.  If I don’t have enough time to cover the entire novel, then I usually pick the poems that will best represent the student population or the poem with which they can connect to the most.

For example, Downtown Boy opens with Juanito’s cousin trying to coerce him into boxing Sweet Pea Price. Juanito is new to San Francisco and wants to make friends but his father has advised him against fighting. Juanito will need to decide if he will fight or not. When teaching this poem, I ask students to read this poem aloud; we then discuss Juanito’s character traits and the overall voice of the poem. I brainstorm with my students about times they might have been in a similar predicament. Because this poem uses dialogue, I encourage my students to include two different voices. If the youth have finished their poems, I might ask them to share their work. With older students, I like to encourage revisions and workshopping each other’s poems in order to improve our writing and to learn from one another.

Poetry in Action

The following poems were written by young poets in my creative writing classes. Kimberly Alvarez is currently a sophomore in high school in Riverside, California. Naomi Lara is currently a 6th grader in an elementary in Chicago, Illinois. Jennifer Alvarez is currently a senior in high school in Riverside, California. I’m grateful for their words and for their permission to share them here.

Dream[ii].

by Kimberly Alvarez

At Night,

I look up at the ceiling.

Bare.

NO DREAMS

Anywhere.

At midnight,

I’m sound asleep

In Paradise

Floating.

Free. Away.

I don’t want to wake up.

Until my eyes just…

Open,

Like a curtain beside me

When the wind comes through

At 5:00 a.m…

I hear my dad getting ready for

Work.

I can tell he didn’t choose that

Job or this life for himself

Or my family.

I see through him

Through his eyes,

To his soul.

It may seem…

COLD

but in reality

I can feel,

Feel the warmth

When I look into his eyes,

To his soul.

They change color. His eyes.

With him. His mood.

¿Porque? Why?

Can’t he be as warm as his soul is..

Dream.

I always do

Of him,

Of my family,

Finally happy together.

Put back together

Like a puzzle.

I always wonder

What my family would

Be like without

Dreams.

At morning,

When I get up

It all flows down

Goes down like a giant wave

Drowning my dreams

And pulling them down

At night,

I look up at the ceiling

All of my dreams,

Are floating

Up, wandering

On the ceiling

Waiting for the rest

Of my dreams to

Join them

And

Soon…

They will

Become

One BIG dream.

Un Gran Sueño.

 

It All Changed

By Noemi Lara

Happy girl, good friends

Big house

She should have cherished those moments

For they would be gone too soon

She looked up at the moon

Little did she know everything was about to change

Her mom and dad were acting strange

They told her they needed to arrange a meeting to see new houses.

Their new house has mouses

The neighborhood was foul

She couldn’t help but growl

She grew older

And things got colder

Her friends were bolder

Her parents would fight

It gave her a fright

She fought with all her might

But all she would see was the night

Oh how it all changed

 

My California[iii]

By Jennifer Alvarez

My California is fun times at Lake Perris.

Running into the water but jumping back when you feel the ice

cold water.

In those rare but amazing visits to see my “best cousin forever”

in Fontana.

Laughing, fighting, hugging, and talking until the next three

months when we reunites.

It is those two times going to Big Bear.

Snowman on the roof of my dad’s car, attempting to bring it back

home to show it to my friends.

It is the  multiple times driving to Moreno Valeey to Walmart with my sister.

Music blaring, singing along with smiles on our faces.

It is the sisterly bonding we had going to the Moreno Valley

Mall.

But mostly, my California are memories with the people I love.

 

[i] Currently I teach poetry as a Teaching Artist with ElevArte Community Studio, an arts organization in Chicago. “Word Up,” is a pilot program funded by ElevArte and the Poetry Foundation to create a safe space for underrepresented youth to learn about and write poetry. I visit a local elementary school once a week to teach, read, and write poetry with two 6th grade classes. I have worked closely with their awesome teacher, Ms. Delta Cervantes, to create a poetry curriculum that also meets common core standards. The 6th graders are presently working on spoken word projects.

[ii] Dream was first published in 2012 in a youth anthology, R’side of the Story, out of the Youth Opportunity Center in Riverside, California

[iii] My California was published in 2013 in R’side of the Story

 

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She also teaches poetry to 6th graders and drama to 2nd graders as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her middle grade book. Follow Sonia on Instagram @latinxkidlit

Our Latin@s in Kid Lit Favorite Titles of 2015

 

As the year draws to a close, we want to celebrate by highlighting current Latin@ children’s and YA books that captured our hearts.

2015 has been a good year, one that’s brought greater visibility to works by Latin@ authors and illustrators, as well as books by non-Latin@ creators that feature themes and characters with Latin@ connections. Make no mistake, the number of published titles originating in our community still remains at proportionately dismal levels, but this blog aims to promote, discuss, and amplify the voices that do exist. We also want to share our recommendations so that librarians, teachers, booksellers and parents will know about the best books out there.

Please note that this is a favorites list, and as such isn’t as comprehensive as a “best of” list. We’ve reviewed many of the 73 Latin@ titles published this year, but not all of them, including many we hear are worthy of acclaim. We hope you’ll share your own favorites in the comments! And rest assured, we’ll keep striving to give well-crafted, Latin@-leaning books their due in our Libros Latin@s book talks and other features.

Here’s what we focused on in compiling the list:

  • Children’s and young-adult books about Latin@s or by Latin@s, published in 2015
  • Respectful representations of Latin@s and their experiences
  • Rich stories with intersectionality of race, ethnicity, class, gender, generations, and/or languages
  • Titles for a range of age levels and genres
  • High literary quality and (when relevant) strong visuals
  • Books with heart!

So now that you know the backstory of our list, here are our Latin@s in Kid Lit Favorite Titles of 2015, presented in sections by reading level and alphabetized by title. Click on the links to read full reviews. 

Picture Books

22749711Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle and Rafael López. This is the inspiring true story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese Afro Cuban girl enamored with drums. Because tradition in 1930s Cuba prohibits girls from taking up drumming, what Millo achieves by breaking this taboo is even greater than the music she makes. Through their combined art, Engle and López enchantingly encapsulate Millo’s dreams. For our full review, click here.

 

20786680Finding the Music/En Pos de la Música by Jennifer Torres & Renato Alarcão. Before Reyna was born, her abuelito played in a mariachi band. His specialty was the vihuela, a small guitar-like instrument that has since fallen into disrepair. Reyna takes up the quest to get the repairs made. The vihuela becomes a powerful artifact that jump-starts the memory of the past, the important history of the community that tends to be invisible but is so essential to understanding the present. Here’s our review.

 

24795948Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh. Nineteenth-century Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada created now-famous engravings of calaveras, skeletons engaged in everyday activities that have become synonymous with the Day of the Dead. In this picture book, author-illustrator Tonatiuh presents Posada’s life story, complete with background information on contextual events, such as the Mexican Revolution. Read our full review.

 

22747814Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It From the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues by Matt Tavares. Dominican baseball star Pedro Martinez, who helped lead the Boston Red Sox to a World Series win, got his start with plenty of help from his big brother Ramón. This is a story of brotherhood and of dreaming big and achieving bigger, powerfully illustrated by the author. Here’s our review.

 

22521973Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. Young CJ would rather just go home after church than join his grandmother for their weekly bus ride to volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Will he change his mind? With simple yet poetic text and sumptuous “sunset colors,” Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson explore the concept of community in this inviting story. Check out this review.

 

24727082Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina & Angela Dominguez. Can a grandmother and granddaughter develop a close relationship when one speaks Spanish and the other speaks English? Of course! In Meg Medina’s warm tale of love, patience, and language, Mia and her abuela – along with a parrot named Mango – teach each other more than just words. Angela Dominguez’s rich, clean illustrations amplify this beautiful book. Check out this review.

 

22750413Salsa: Un Poema Para Cocinar/A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta, Duncan Tonatiuh & Elisa Amado. Argueta has created several bilingual poetry books that celebrate traditional Latin American dishes–including Guacamole, Sopa de frijoles / Bean Soup, and Arroz con leche / Rice Pudding – and Salsa is just as mouth-watering. This story poem creates playful connections between salsa’s vegetable ingredients and the musical instruments that they resemble. Tonatiuh’s signature illustrations bring extra flavor to the mix. Don’t miss our review.

 

cover-remembering-dayThe Remembering Day/ El Día de los Muertos by Pat Mora and Robert Casilla. This is a beautiful story about remembering our ancestors and their customs. Mora creates a loving relationship between a granddaughter and her grandmother that grows stronger as they practice their indigenous traditions together. For the grandmother, remembering is a significant aspect of everyday life but as the “leaves turn golden and fall from the trees” remembering becomes a celebration of those that have passed. After grandmother’s death it becomes the granddaughter’s responsibility to remember and honor her grandmother. Mora and Casilla’s story emphasizes that El Día de los Muertos is more about remembering than it is about calaveras and flowers. Here’s a review by La Bloga.

 

24694189Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago & Rafael Yockteng. A timely and moving picture book, originally published in Spanish, about a father and daughter traveling north towards the U.S. border. From counting what’s around her to meeting people and a “coyote”, this story, told from the child’s point of view, portrays migrant refugees journeys with deep empathy. Check out this review.

 

Vamonos Let's GoVámonos/Let’s Go by René Colato Laínez & Joe Cepeda does more than simply render the English and Spanish versions of “The Wheels on the Bus” side by side. Instead, it extends the songs to explore the sounds of all kinds of vehicles—and to track the lively journey of two children on the bus as they make their way to the park. Classroom activities available from Holiday House.

Early Readers/ Chapter Books

Lola Levine is Not MeanLola Levine is Not Mean! by Monica Brown & Angela Dominguez. In this delightful short chapter book, second grader Lola tackles soccer balls, annoying little brothers and runaway guinea pigs. Perfect for fans of school stories, family stories and all-around awesome characters! Check out the starred review Kirkus gave it.

 

 

SofiaMartinezFamilyAdventureSofía Martinez: My Family Adventure by Jacqueline Jules. This series is a lovely addition to the world of early chapter books. Lively main character Sofia keeps herself in the middle of the action in her loving, playful extended family, and her adventures are light and joyful with a touch of mischief. The charming illustrations by Kim Smith will bring giggles to young readers. We reviewed it here.

 

Middle Grade

22749539Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Breaking from traditional narrative, this novel traces the connected stories behind a magical harmonica. Using diverse characters that live in far-flung geographical locations, the story introduces less familiar aspects of well-known historical events: laws regarding children with birth ‘defects’ in 1930’s Germany, conditions for orphans during the Depression in the US, and the segregation of schools in California for children of Mexican descent during World War II. Here’s our review.

 

24612558Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez is a middle-grade fantasy thriller starring Cassie Arroyo, a Cuban-American expatriate living in Italy. After Cassie’s father is struck by a hail of bullets, whisked off to surgery, and then vanishes, she discovers that she, not her father, is the main target of the assassins. She then teams up with Asher and Simone to recapture the Spear of Destiny, a medieval artifact mysteriously linked to Cassie’s family line and the reason that her formerly blasé life at a private school is shattered overnight. Here’s our review.

 

22504701Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. In this highly engaging graphic novel, 12-year-old Astrid Vasquez finds her calling on a roller-derby track. Never mind that she brings no skating abilities to her first day of practice, or that her best friend would rather be at ballet camp. With the help of a savvy coach and teammates, and inspiration from a star jammer on the Rose City Rollers pro team, Astrid locates her derby groove. Check out this review.

 

22639675Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. Moving from Los Angeles to a farm, Sophie gets quite a surprise when she encounters a cranky chicken with supernatural abilities. It’s easy to love Sophie, the half-Latina main character in this middle grade novel that upgrades the “new girl in town” idea by adding cool, magical chickens and letters from the beyond. Yes, we reviewed it.

 

Young Adult

22609281Barefoot Dogs: Stories* by Antonio Ruiz Camacho, a debut collection of interconnected stories, captures the flawed but fascinating humanity of the extended Arteaga family as they flee Mexico City after the kidnapping of the family patriarch. Even in exile, theirs is a relatively charmed existence. Unlike Latino immigrants driven north by more quotidian hardships, these scattering family members have no difficulty obtaining legal access to Palo Alto, Madrid, Austin, and New York City. They are not, however, wholly unsympathetic, and the particulars of the stories offer a counterweight to assumptions about Mexican immigrant experiences. Several stories, including “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” and “Okie,” take the perspective of grandchildren in the family. For a full review, click here.

 

24612544Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano. Sonia Manzano is an actor widely recognized for her role as Maria on Sesame Street. This memoir provides generations of readers with an opportunity to experience Sonia’s evolution from a young Latina, a puertorriqueña, in the Bronx into a promising performer. She powerfully reveals struggles to reconcile the love and abuse she witnessed in her family life. Don’t miss our review.

 

23309551Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, by Margarita Engle. In this personal and deep mirror of her childhood, Engle showcases historical and emotional stories of life between two countries and two cultures. A memoir-in-verse that softly intertwines a love letter to Cuba and life, family, and memories attached to the island. Young readers will get a solid coming-of-age tale of growing up bicultural and the joys and pains found through that journey. Check out this review.

 

19542841More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. Growing up in the Bronx with rough memories of his father’s suicide, Aaron Soto gets by with the help of a supportive girlfriend and a hardworking mom. But the promise of relief from the memories lures him into considering a radical procedure, and there are other self-discoveries to come. This debut novel offers a unique confrontation of race, class and sexuality. The main character is easy to root for in this ever-so-slightly sci-fi story. Read our full review here.

 

25256386Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez. The 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—serves as the backdrop for this riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and destructive forces beyond the control of its teen characters. The novel opens with the explosion, and then flashes back to show how the characters’ lives intersect before the event. Check out our full review.

 

25364635Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism* by Uriel Quesada, Letitia Gomez & Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, interweaves the traditions of testimonio and institutional history in a collection of 14 personal essays and oral histories that demonstrate how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Latina/o activists helped shape the LGBT movements of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. This collection corrects the tendency to overlook the many Latinas/os who were fighting for LGBT causes well before more widely known white leaders, like Harvey Milk, became active. For a full review, click here.

 

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older. Sierra Santiago’s expectations of a normal fun summer in Brooklyn flip upside down when supernatural events intrude: zombies, weeping graffiti murals, Caribbean magic. But Sierra is the kind of heroine who makes plans and follows through, is clear-eyed about the shortcomings of people she loves, and takes charge with attitude. Read more of our review.

 

23395349Show and Prove by Sofia Quintero. The year is 1983. Blend together teenagers, hip-hop, urban plight, and racial tension; mix in summer camp trips and hanging out with friends, and you arrive at Show and Prove. This is a book about negotiating feelings and mistakes and tragedy. It’s a political book, examining identity and racism and bias in a way that never feels forced. For our full review, go here.

 

22609306Signal to Noise* by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This literary fantasy about coming–of-age romance, mixtapes and sorcery is set against the background of Mexico City in two time frames. It relates the intimate story of teenage Meche in 1988 and how she has grown up – and not – in the intervening 20 years. The universal themes of alienation and parental discord are emotions that anyone of any age can relate to. Modern teens may find themselves fascinated by the description of life in Mexico City nearly 30 years ago and discover it’s not so different from their lives today. Yes, we reviewed it.

 

23013839Surviving Santiago by Lyn Miller-Lachman is the continuing story of the Aguilar family from Miller-Lachman’s novel Gringolandia. In this novel, Tina returns to Chile, which continues to be ruled by the Pinochet dictatorship in 1989. Tina falls in love with a local boy named Frankie, who has dangerous political connections and is a threat to her and her father, Marcelo, an important, targeted voice in the democracy movement. Here’s our review.

 

20734002The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore is a 2016 William C. Morris Award finalist for good reason. McLemore’s lyrical prose centers on two traveling performance families, the Corbeaus and Palomas, hated rivals for generations who violently clash whenever they perform in the same town. A dangerous, forbidden romance develops between Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau that leads to family secrets revealed and a stunning climax filled with gorgeous magical realism. We will be reviewing the book in February and Anna-Marie will be writing a guest post for us. Check back then! In the meantime, check out this review.

 

22032788When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez. On the surface, Emily and Elizabeth share little in common besides 10th-grade lit class and the study of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. But they’re both hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice and one of them will attempt suicide. Set in New England, this captivating novel delivers a strong portrayal of Latin@s and a cast of satisfyingly complex characters from diverse backgrounds. Check out our full review here.

*Not technically classified as YA, these are adult books which may be of interest to teens.

Life-Changing Teachers: On Juan Felipe Herrera’s Reading in Chicago

 

By Sonia Alejandra RodriguezJFH_1

The notes from his harmonica carried us from poem to poem as he recounted stories of his childhood and brought us to the present and the tragic realities of Ayotzinapa and Sandy Hook. On October 7th, 2015 Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino US Poet Laureate, read from his most recent book of poems, Notes on the Assemblage, at the historical Herald Washington Library in Chicago.  The event hosted by the Poetry Foundation, and cosponsored with the Library of Congress and the Chicago Public Library, created an intimate setting from which to enjoy Herrera’s humble and quirky personality. I sat front row center with his newest book in one hand and a notebook in another ready to soak up his brilliance. I was invited to the event as a guest of Irasema Gonzalez, Development & Communications Director at ElevArte Community Studio[1] in Pilsen Chicago. ElevArte partnered with the Poetry Foundation to bring, create, and share poetry with at-promise youth[2] in Chicago, and I am currently their poetry Teaching Artist. I had met Herrera once before when he taught at the University of California Riverside and am familiar with his work because I wrote about his children’s illustrated books in my dissertation. Nevertheless, I was excited to meet him as the US Poet Laureate. Herrera walked onto the stage in a yellow button up shirt and was greeted with a standing ovation. He brought his harmonica to his mouth and greeted us back.

After briefly speaking about his upbringing as a migrant farm worker, Herrera read “Border Bus,” a poem in Spanish and English about two (im)migrant women being transported to/from a detention center. The poem switches from Spanish to English and back as the women converse about their situation. I found it powerful to hear Herrera recite poetry in Spanish and speak to the perils (im)migrants face when they journey north and those they may experience in detention centers. I was overwhelmed by a great sense of pride at hearing Herrera read this poem in particular. I’ve never been an avid follower of any US Poet Laureate until Herrera. I had a similar feeling when Sonia Sotomayor was appointment to the Supreme Court. When I was younger, I wanted to be judge, and I still want to be a writer. It’s empowering and amazing to see Latinos hold these prestigious positions.

JFH_2After his reading, Herrera answered a few questions about his inspirations for becoming a writer and about his desire to make poetry available to everyone. During the brief Q & A, he mentioned the teachers that pushed him to speak up. He spoke about Mrs. Sampson, whom he also wrote about in his children’s illustrated text The Upside Down Boy, and how she helped him find his voice. Mrs. Sampson was present at Herrera’s US Poet Laureate inauguration ceremony. He also spoke about Mr. Schuster (spelling might be incorrect), his 7th grade music teacher, whom Herrera had lied to about his ethnic identity saying that he was Hawaiian. Herrera explained that he didn’t know what to say when Mr. Schuster asked him what he was anyway; he panicked and responded with a lie. Herrera closed the event by reading and dedicating the poem “Half-Mexican” to Mr. Schuster. “Half-Mexican” captures the complex and rich histories that congregate when using Mexican as a marker of identity: “You are Mexican./ One half Mexican the other half/ Mexican, then the half against itself” (87).

It was truly a great evening with the Poet Laureate. The moments that stuck with me the most, though, are those when he talked about the impact his teachers had on him. Herrera said that teachers like Mrs. Sampson and Mr. Schuster “shook him” and “pushed him” forward.  I think back and teachers like Mrs. Roethke, my Spanish high school teacher, and Dr. Richard T. Rodriguez, my Latina/o studies professor in college, propelled me to pursue higher education and find my voice. Teachers like these are significant not only because of the impact they have on young minds, but also because they challenge dominant narratives that tell young students of color that they do not belong. Herrera mentioned that speaking Spanish was still punishable in classrooms when he was going to school. When I was younger, “undocumented and unafraid” did not have the same momentum it has now. Today, there are several reasons that make it difficult for students of color to feel safe, encouraged, and whole in US classrooms. The discrimination that students of color face in classrooms is another testament to how amazing it is to have someone like Juan Felipe Herrera as the US Poet Laureate.

JFH_3In general, the “life-changing teacher” is a common character in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. Herrera’s own The Upside Down presents Mrs. Sampson as a character that helps little Juanito settle into his new school and encourages him to sing in front of the class. Ms. Diaz, in Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks, has an active role in helping the lead protagonists come to terms with their inner struggles. In René Colato Laínez’s Waiting for Papá, Miss Parrales encourages Beto to share his story of being separated from his father because of existing immigration policies. In Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name, Mr. Aponte teaches América to use poetry as tool for healing. Ms. Abernard, in Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces insists that Gabi keep writing and sharing her poetry. And then you have the characters that serve as a “teacher figure.” The abuelita in Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl and the abuelita in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman teach their granddaughters about the power and strength of plants, herbs, and nature. The abuelita in Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano teaches young Evelyn to have pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. And then there are the adults that serve as mentors like Sonia, the lawyer that the young characters in Gloria Velasquez’s “The Roosevelt High” series often turn to for help.

There are definitely more examples of teachers, in the broad sense of the word, throughout Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. These teacher characters often stand in opposition to dominant narratives that seek to oppress the young characters. Furthermore, these teachers serve as role models and mentors that filter, translate, and transform the world for and with the main characters. In other words, these teacher figures show and remind the main characters that their possibilities are not limited by what society dictates. It is important to note that these teacher characters are not always adults but can be the main characters’ friends, siblings, or it can even be a book or an art form.

I felt a bit like I was a part of some history in the making simply by sitting in that auditorium and listening to Juan Felipe Herrera perform. And by the end of the event after listening to him talk about the teachers that pushed him to find and use his voice, I couldn’t help but think that Herrera is now the nation’s poetry teacher and that he will shake us and push us to write, speak, share, change, and love.

 

[1] ElevArte is a community-based organization which uses the arts as a portal for creative youth development. The organization offers a range of programs including youth led projects like the “We Are Hip-Hop” Festival designed to give young adults an opportunity to be active community leaders and organizers. They also offer in-class programs like “Art of Change” which focuses on teaching science through the arts to elementary and middle grade students. They offer after-school activities like sewing and stitching. They also organize and offer many community events like their annual Pozolada fundraiser. For more information on ElevArte visit their website at www.elevartestudio.org and follow them on twitter @ElevarteStudio.

[2] At-promise youth is a term used by ElevArte as a way to challenge negative language like “at-risk” that sees what youth lack rather than their potential. ElevArte seeks to create a space where youth are encouraged and empowered throughout every aspect of their engagement with one another.

 

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez received her PhD in English from the University of California Riverside. Her research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She is also teaches poetry as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her first children’s picture book.