Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 9: Aida Salazar

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the ninth 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 Aida Salazar.

Aida Salazar​ is a writer, arts advocate and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade verse novels, THE MOON WITHIN (Feb. 26, 2019), THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Spring, 2020), the forthcoming bio picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Fall, 2020). All books published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic. Her story, BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

The Moon Within is her debut novel, which releases on Tuesday!! Here is the publisher’s description:

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

 

 

 

 

Aida Salazar

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

A. I began to write when I was thirteen years old after the suicide of my seventeen-year-old sister. Poetry was my first refuge. It was the place where I began to express and unravel the pain I felt in my grief over losing my beautiful sister in such an incomprehensible way. Poetry, too, was how I made sense of the simultaneous changes happening to my body, to my mind, inside my community and life. That creative connection was special and it quietly flowed through me and accompanied me while I navigated high school and began college and tried to discover what I wanted to be and do with my life. It remained tucked away in my journals until I was 18 when, for the first time, I read the work of other Latinx writers while in a Latinx literature course. That class not only saved me from academic probation (because I got an A to balance out my terrible grades) but it revolutionized my existence as a Xicana and my own writing that had been hidden in those journals. It was as if the work of Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, among others, gave me permission to share my own writing with a very Xicana perspective with the world. I could dare call myself a writer because I had their great example.

 

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

A. Middle grade is a tremendously fertile space from which to write because there is a unique tension between two worlds. Middle grade readers, I think, possess the innocence, rich sense of wonder and play inherent in childhood, while at the same time, they are discovering deeper feelings and learning about things beyond their immediate lives that push against childhood. There are so many questions that beg to be answered, so many stories that beg to explore those questions and a new, almost magical, awareness that enfolds as they bloom into wiser beings.

 

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

A. There are so many! I am especially drawn to stories from people of diverse backgrounds, those that break from the white, heteronormative literary cannon. I loved Bird in a Box and The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney – it was actually after reading the latter that I was inspired to write The Moon Within in verse; Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a masterpiece (as is just about anything she writes); As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds; Margarita Engle’s Hurricane Dancers; See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson, Front Desk by Kelly Yang; A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park; and Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai; George by Alex Gino; some older titles that are evergreen for me – Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Locomotion by Jaqueline Woodson, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. However, the middle grade novels emerging from Las Musas (the first kidlit debut group of Latinx writers) have me most excited because they are opening the cannon wider than we have ever seen. Look for great middle grade stories by Anna Meriano, Emma Otheguy, Jennifer Cervantes, Yamile Saied Mendez, Hilda Solis, Mary Louise Sanchez and Claribel Ortega!

 

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

A. Don’t be afraid to believe in your poems though they may seem awful and as if they could help no one. Believe in their pain and in their heart because one day that very vulnerability will touch someone else’s life in ways you least expect. And when that magical moment comes, you will realize the meaning in the risk you took in believing.

 

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

A. Middle grade novels are important because they can be the source of inquiry, of discovery, of refuge, of delight, and inspiration while on the tight rope between childhood and adolescence.

 

 

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 (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: JabberWalking by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

Review by Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Can you walk and talk at the same time? How about Jabberwalk? Can you write and draw and walk and journal all at the same time? If not, you’re in luck: exuberant, blue-cheesy cilantro man Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States, is here to teach you everything he knows about being a real-life, bonified, Jabberwalking poet! Jabberwalkers write and speak for themselves and others no matter where their feet may take them — to Jabberwalk is to be a poet on the move. And there’s no stopping once you’re a Jabberwalker, writing fast, fast, fast, scribble-poem-burbles-on-the-run. Scribble what you see! Scribble what you hear! It’s all out there — vámonos!

Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Mexican-American Poet Laureate in the USA, is sharing secrets: how to turn your wonder at the world around you into weird, wild, incandescent poetry.

MY TWO CENTS: JabberWalking is about a poet who walks and talks, and moves and jives, and does all things at once, and sometimes not at all. Juan Felipe Herrera is the son of migrant farmworkers, MFA graduate of the University of Iowa, and was the 2015 Poet Laureate of the United States. His own story of JabbberWalking through life as a poet, is vivid within the pages of this poetry book. The book describes a Jabber Walker as a person who moves to their own beat and speaks and writes for themselves. It is a book of the colorful life of a poet who does not color inside the lines.

It’s important to note that this book must be read aloud. Herrera brings us back to a place where reading poems on paper is too comfortable and does nothing for the flourishing mind. When the reader speaks JabberWalking into existence, it changes the entire meaning of the book. Suddenly, we’re running down streets, picking up guitars, running to grab our diploma, and wondering why our dog is so distracted by a squirrel! Did you SEE it? Squirrel! Only the dog did. Come BACK here, LoTus!

My favorite parts are when the Jabber Walker slows down in the Jabber Notebook. It’s a journal entry of sorts and a reflection that sums up the unconventional chapters throughout the book. The font changes often, creating the movement of both the poem and the poet. In the Jabber Notebook the font is steady. The words come alive in an entirely different way. This section, in each chapter, can be read aloud or to oneself. The reader will find a calming joy in these snippets before it’s time to get up out of our chair and transcend time again.

The doodles take me back to those of John Lennon and Shel Silverstein’s sidewalk series. The playful manner of the words reminds me of Dr. Seuss. JabberWalking is where Latinxs can find themselves in the pages between the universe and Laurette status. Although JabberWalking is an entirely different poetic animal, I feel that those readers who grow up with parents who are keenly aware of the literary canon, will find a desire to be more poetically adventurous when they read Juan Felipe Herrera’s JabberWalking.

JabberWalking presses up against boundaries, takes risks, and lends permission to its reader to become an active participant in creating poetry. Herrera’s cool and jovial approach to poetry allows readers at all ages to imagine a less constricted view of poetry. Herrera allows us, with him, to imagine another world. Herrera pens, “On my eyes the diamond stuff of my soul is pouring out as if my life was made of all that — instead of being a poor brown boy, a lonesome boy, a boy who grew up in the darkness of tiny trailers and raw, raw sawdust flying up from the blue-cheesy roads up, up to a cold slick moon seeking the blue-candy light over the strange jagged mountains.”

Imagine a world where you Jabber Talk, Jabber Think, Jabber Write, and Jabber Walk. Great Jabber, in the pages of JabberWalking,you will find a new way to walk, bounce, speak, throw down a beat, and doodle to the beat of your own drum. Herrera’s narrative is timeless and one the entire family can and will enjoy.

CLICK HERE FOR A TEACHER’S GUIDE

 

 

Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo credit: Randy Vaughn-Dotta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Juan Felipe Herrera is a poet, performance artist, and activist. The son of migrant farm workers, he was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2015–2017. Herrera has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, in addition to short stories, young adult novels, and children’s literature. Juan Felipe Herrera lives in California.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros is a Tejana poet, freelance writer, and speaker. Her work focuses on faith and Latinidad. Both her poetry and essays can be found in On Being, The Rumpus, The Acentos Review, Christianity Today, Rock & Sling, and many others. Hinojosa-Cisneros is a regular contributor at The Mudroom and is a first-year grad student at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX. Additionally, she holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio. When she is not writing, she can be found growing nopalitos at her home in San Antonio, Texas.

Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.

With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

MY TWO CENTS: I had a difficult childhood. I was queer and Latinx and stuck in a home with parents who did not understand either identity and certainly not the intersection of them. (I was adopted.) It meant that I felt that I existed in constant friction with them. That friction manifested in a deep, existential desire in me: I wanted acceptance. I wanted to live.

I found that same desire within the pages of The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo’s masterful and gut-wrenching debut. Told in verse, I devoured this book in one sitting, only taking a break to wipe at the tears that welled in my eyes. Acevedo has crafted a living, breathing world in Xiomara, and you can tell that from the very first page. Her unique voice, coupled with an engaging story about acceptance, rebellion, and identity in this Dominican-American teen, makes The Poet X a powerful read.

There’s nothing here I could nitpick, even if I tried. The pacing is brilliant, and my heart was racing as I approached the climax. Acevedo’s prose, which is informed by her years of work in slam poetry, is vivid, lyrical, captivating. There were countless sentences or lines that knocked me flat on my ass, and you’re certain to find one of your own. But it’s the characterization that gripped me the most. I related so intensely to Xiomara’s desire to live beyond the prescriptions of her mother’s religion that at times, I felt that Acevedo had reached deep down into a well within me, extracting the pain, terror, and—ultimately—vindication I experienced when I clashed with my own parents about my sexuality, my body, and my need to be my own person. The supporting cast is well-rounded and memorable (particularly Xiomara’s twin brother, Xavier, since I am also a twin), and they each affect the story in meaningful ways.

This is an astounding accomplishment, and I’m so thrilled that Dominican-Americans (and those who identify as Afro-Latinx) have a book that so brilliantly represents them. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Sandra Cisneros (particularly The House on Mango Street), and Liara Tamani’s Calling My Name.

TEACHING TIPS: Another reason I admired The Poet X is because Acevedo so seamlessly addresses weighty topics with ease and care, and the book never feels like it’s teaching you a lesson. The novel addresses issues such as sizeism, street harassment, homophobia, misogyny, sexual shame, and abuse, particularly when that abuse is paired with religion. Because the book is composed in verse that work like vignettes, it will be easy to assign essays or discussions based on specific poems. Acevedo’s language is modern and youthful, so I expect teens will connect with it quicker than most other works.

WHERE TO GET IT: The Poet X released on Tuesday. To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

                        Photo: Bethany Thomas

Photo: Bethany Thomas

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with Dominican bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit.

She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over twelve years of performance experience, Acevedo has been a featured performer on BET and Mun2, as well as delivered several TED Talks. She has graced stages nationally and internationally including renowned venues such as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, and South Africa’s State Theatre, The Bozar in Brussels, and the National Library of Kosovo; she is also well known for  poetry videos, which have gone viral and been picked up by PBS, Latina Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Upworthy.

Acevedo is a National Slam Champion, Beltway Grand Slam Champion, and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C, where she lives and works.

Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Puerto Del Sol, Callaloo, Poet Lore, The Notre Dame Review, and others. Acevedo is a Cave Canem Fellow, Cantomundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. She is the author of the chapbook, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016)  and the forthcoming novel, The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018).

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors and is usually busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal to pet every dog in the world. His YA Contemporary debut, Anger is a Gift, is out May 22, 2018 with Tor Teen.

 

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.