Book Review: The Smoking Mirror by David Bowles

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Author David Bowles on his Garza Twins Series and the Pura Belpré Honor

 

By David Bowles

When my three kids were younger, we had a tradition of reading YA fantasy and sci-fi series together. Harry Potter was a big deal for many years, followed by His Dark Materials, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and so on. I even read the Twilight series with my oldest daughter, if you can believe it.

This shared reading was fantastic. We shed tears, laughed aloud, and had many deep conversations. One thing we kept coming back to—as Mexican-American fans of speculative fiction—was the lack of people of color in most of the books we read (beyond secondary, less important roles). Typically these series boasted a team of what amounted to Anglo young people facing off against European or Western legendary beings, gods, or dilemmas.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” we often mused, “to open one of these books and find a Chicana facing off against Aztec deities or Mexican monsters?”

Venting this frustration to writer friends of mine, I was answered by an idea that should have been obvious from the beginning:

“You’re a writer, David. This matters to you. Why not develop such a series yourself?”

It was a no-brainer, clearly. Tan obvio. The trick now was to hit on the right story. I was hasta el cuello en research into Aztec and Maya literature at the time, and it occurred to me that a journey through the nine levels of Mictlan/Xibalba (the Mesoamerican Underworld) would make for a great hero quest. I cast about for the right characters for a while, until I started paying close attention to the fantastic friendship between my youngest son and middle daughter. With a few tweaks to age and interests, they became templates for the Garza twins.

But who were the Garza twins? What was special about them? Why would they travel through the Underworld? The answers became clear to me one morning when I stepped outside to find a dead jackrabbit in my backyard. An image suddenly overlaid the scene in my head: my daughter, asleep in the grass, the jackrabbit between her hands. I knew in that instant that the twins were naguales, shapeshifters, and the rest fell into place.

Once the book was written, it was rejected by many agents and publishers before finding a nice home with the Australian press IFWG Publishing, who treated the project with a good deal of love, even agreeing to allow one of my very talented daughters to design the cover. Reviewers and young readers alike responded positively to The Smoking Mirror, and I was delighted to have added to the body of diverse YA literature.

When the request came for us to submit copies to the Pura Belpré Award, I was floored, truly overwhelmed at the idea that these incredible advocates for Latino books would be reading my novel. Then, months later, I got the call from the committee—they’d selected The Smoking Mirror as one of two Pura Belpré Author Honor Books.

Very seldom am I at a loss for words—ni en inglés ni en español—but I found it hard to catch my breath and thank them profusely. It’s a humbling yet fulfilling sensation, seeing a project you believe so strongly in get this level of recognition, and I am eternally indebted to all the people who believed in Garza Twins at every stage of its development.

28484604Of course, this is only the beginning for me and the twins. Book two, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, will be out in late April. This time, Johnny and Carol Garza find themselves plunging deeply into the Pacific Ocean to stop a renegade prince of the merfolk and his allies—among them the water elementals the Aztecs called tlaloqueh—from recovering the Shadow Stone, a device that can flood the planet.

Garza Twins will last for five volumes, and Kingdom ratchets up the tension and stakes, introducing cool new characters and laying the foundation for future conflicts. As with The Smoking Mirror, the normal life of the Garza family is explored; the twins grapple with problems facing many modern Latino teens, and the courage and compassion with which they resolve those issues bleed into their supernatural encounters as well. But, as with me in my writing endeavors, they can’t triumph alone. Family and friends are vital to the success of their mission.

You see, I think the biggest myth in our culture, and perhaps the most dangerous, is that of the lone hero. Each of us is part of a greater community, a web of support and lore without which we could not survive. If there is a message at the heart of Garza Twins, I think that’s it.

Unidos podemos. Together, we can.

 

me 6-3-14A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots, David Bowles has lived most of his life in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Texas Associated Press, he has written several books, most notably the Pura Belpré Honoree The Smoking Mirror. His work has also been published in venues such as BorderSenses, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Asymptote, Translation Review, Huizache, Metamorphoses and Rattle.

Book Review: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

Evelyn overBy Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: There are two secrets Evelyn Serrano is keeping from her Mami and Papo: her true feelings about growing up in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and her attitude about Abuela, her sassy grandmother who’s come from Puerto Rico to live with them. Then, like an urgent ticking clock, events erupt that change everything. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, dump garbage in the street and set it on fire, igniting a powerful protest. When Abuela steps in to take charge, Evelyn is thrust into the action. Tempers flare, loyalties are tested. Through it all, Evelyn learns important truths about her Latino heritage and the history makers who shaped a nation. Infused with actual news accounts from the time period, Sonia Manzano has crafted a gripping work of fiction based on her own life growing up during a fiery, unforgettable time in America, when young Latinos took control of their destinies.

MY TWO CENTS: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (a Pura Belpré Author Honor Book) by Sonia Manzano  opens with a frustrated fourteen year old Evelyn getting ready for her summer job at the Five-and-Dime. Her desire to fit in to American society and distance herself from her Puerto Rican heritage is disrupted when her Abuela comes to stay with them. Abuela’s orange hair and bright clothes make her anything but the traditional grandmother Evelyn expected. Abuela taking over Evelyn’s bedroom with makeup, hair rollers, and flashy clothes is only the first of many changes that serves to transform Evelyn’s understanding of her own identity.

While Abuela’s presence creates tension in the Serrano household, a new youth group arrives to challenge discriminations against their neighborhood. The Sanitation Department eventually stops picking up the garbage, and as it continues to accumulate, so does the tension around the Young Lords’ intent to politicize El Barrio. The rise of the Young Lord’s movement gives Abuela and Evelyn an opportunity to discuss the relationship between what is presently happening in their community and the Ponce Massacre (1937) of which Abuela has kept newspaper clippings. The Young Lords organize El Barrio in a way that Evelyn has never experienced, and their demonstrations and marches provide El Barrio with a visibility they later utilize to demand social change. As the political situation intensifies in El Barrio, Evelyn and Abuela become more involved with the Young Lords. Their involvement creates a rift between them and Evelyn’s mother, but it is through all of this process that Evelyn recognizes the importance of her Puerto Rican heritage.

Among many things, Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is a historical young adult novel. (Re)tellings and (re)imaginings of history are currently a popular strategy in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Like Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy (2005) and Bejamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012), Manzano asks that today’s young adult reader travel back to a time when their grandparents and/or parents were children and adolescents.

This literary move to focus on a historical event is brilliant for many reasons. First, it asks Latina/o readers to examine their own background as a way to understand their present identity. In The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, it is extremely significant that there are moments of reflection that help Evelyn understand that her presence in El Barrio is not coincidence. In other words, Evelyn needed to learn her parents’ and grandparents’ journeys to understand her own identity and her relationship to El Barrio.

Secondly, novels like Manzano’s center stories that have remained marginalized in mainstream history books. Evelyn is such a wonderful character precisely because she sounds and behaves like a typical teenager. At the beginning of the novel, Evelyn wants nothing to do with her parents and their stories. She is embarrassed of them and her community—and this right here is a very honest and common feeling (that too often remains silent) among Latino children and teenagers of (im)migrant parents. Throughout the novel, Evelyn learns to center her Puerto Rican culture as a way to find empowerment rather than to feel embarrassed by it.

Lastly, Manzano’s novels, and others like hers, create intergenerational discussions around issues of discrimination and gender (to name a few themes present in Evelyn Serrano). In other words, novels like these emphasize that significant social change requires a community talking to one another. While the Young Lords were central in the mobilization of El Barrio, it was also with the support of their elders and younger members that they were able to stand strong against the discrimination the community faced.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano presents a genuine story of identity formation for a young Latina coming of age at a moment in U.S. history when Latinos are violently forced to assimilate into mainstream society or risk their lives by speaking up and challenging the discrimination they experience.

TEACHING TIPS: When teaching The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, it will be helpful to provide a historical context for the novel from which to guide student discussion. Manzano provides a bit of this discussion in her afterward where she explains that the events in the novel are based on true events. The Young Lords: A Reader (2010) edited by Darrel Enck-Wanzer and Palante: Voices and Photographs of the Young Lords, 1969-1971 (2011) are excellent resources for educators to learn more about the group’s history, motivations, and outcomes. Pairing the novel with some of the essays in these sources for more advanced or older students can also provide a basis for discussing race, class, and gender both within the party and in the context of the US.

A thematic approach to teaching Manzano’s novel can be one way to broadly discuss the Civil Rights Movement and relating topics. Novels like Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2011) about three young African American sisters and their adventures with the Black Panthers and children’s books like Monica Brown’s Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (2010) about the leaders of the farm workers’ movement can provide rich conversations about the array of issues impacting people of color at this time. Discussing children’s and YA books on the Civil Rights movement not only allows students to learn more about specific racial discrimination and community empowerment but also creates opportunities for students to discuss how those issues impact them now.

Another approach to teaching the novel is to discuss characters and character development. Evelyn’s relationship with her abuela is a complicated one because they have different personalities and because Abuela represents a cultural heritage Evelyn wishes to avoid. Their relationship, however, is central in the novel. Other YA novels like Claudia Guadalupe Martinez’s The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (2008) and Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (2003) present similar granddaughter/grandmother relationships wherein both characters engage and learn from one another. Asking students to interview their grandparents or a family elder could be a possible assignment for students of any age to participate in an exercise similar to the character development of the protagonists they read.

AUTHOR (from her website)Sonia Manzano has been a presence on Public Television since the 1970’s. Raised in the South Bronx, she attended the High School of Performing Arts. A scholarship took her to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and in her junior year, she came to New York to star in the original production of the off-Broadway show, Godspell. Within a year Sonia was cast as “Maria” on Sesame Street. After ten years as an actress, Sonia began writing scripts for the series and has fifteen Emmy Awards as part of the Sesame Street writing staff. Sonia also wrote for the Peabody Award winning children’s series, Little Bill, for Nickelodeon and for a short time wrote a parenting column for the Sesame Workshop web site called Talking Outloud. In addition to The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, Manzano has written two picture books: No Dogs Allowed! and A Box Full of Kittens.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.orggoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Book Review: The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle

By Lila Quintero WeaverLightning Dreamer notable

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Tula is a girl who yearns for words, who falls in love with stories, but in Cuba, girls are not allowed an education. No, Tula is expected to marry well—even though she’s filled with guilt at the thought of the slaves Mamá will buy with the money gained by marrying Tula to the highest bidder.

Then one day, hidden in the dusty corner of a convent library, Tula discovers the banned books of a rebel poet. The poems speak to the deepest part of her soul, giving her a language with which to write of the injustice around her. In a country that isn’t free, the most daring abolitionists are poets who can veil their work with metaphors, and Tula becomes just that.

In powerful, haunting verses of her own, Margarita Engle evokes the voice of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known as Tula, a young woman who was brave enough to speak up for those who could not.

MY TWO CENTS: The novel begins in 1827. Tula’s mother, who twice made the mistake of marrying for love, is desperate to prevent her thirteen-year-old daughter from taking a similar path. Mamá’s motivations are clear-cut. A wealthy connection through Tula is the family’s only hope for propping up their shaky economic status. In 19th-century colonial Cuba, arranged marriages are the social norm, but Tula’s mother worries that a girl who buries her nose in books will not attract the right kind of husband–a rich one.

Who is Tula? Margarita Engle is acclaimed for novels in verse that bring to life history’s outliers, young men and women from previous centuries who thought and acted in surprisingly modern ways, and Tula stands tall among them. She’s based on Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a Cuban poet who championed liberty for all humans and wrote Sab, an abolitionist novel, the first of its kind in Spanish. Sab predated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic, by eleven years. Avellaneda’s importance as an abolitionist and feminist writer is not widely known in English-speaking America. The Lightning Dreamer corrects this oversight and imagines Avellaneda’s formative years, just as she began to discover the life-changing force of poetry.

Marriageability is not the only issue that arises from Tula’s penchant for reading. She happens upon the forbidden poetry of José María Heredia, whose sharp observations awaken Tula’s passion for justice. In colonial Cuba, injustice is everywhere. Her eyes take in the plight of African slaves, biracial babies abandoned to the convent, lovers kept apart by miscegenation taboos, and girls like herself, doomed to business arrangements thinly masquerading as marriages. Tula expresses her ardor for justice through poetry, which she burns to keep her mother from discovering.

When Tula refuses the marriage that her grandfather arranges, she must rise to meet a string of new challenges. The inheritance is lost and her family is condemned to relative poverty. For a while, Tula finds refuge in a storyteller’s community, where she becomes entangled in an unrequited love. She moves away from the countryside to Havana, where she supports herself through tutoring. In 1836, her brother, Manuel, warns her that their mother is cooking up another arranged match. Tula flees for Spain, expecting to find greater social and creative freedom there.

The Lightning Dreamer is written in free verse and is voiced through multiple characters. Tula is the most frequent speaker. Short segments provide other characters’ point of view. A partial list includes Tula’s mother; Manuel; Caridad, the freed slave who works for the family; the nuns who offer Tula space to read and write in peace; and Sab. Each character speaks in first person. I imagine them as a series of stage players delivering brief and sometimes prejudicial monologues reflecting on Tula’s choices. This approach perfectly suits the fictionalized treatment of a young poet. The language is spare and often stunning, capturing vivid images and profound interiority, as in this excerpt:

When we visit my grandfather

on his sugar plantation,

I see how luxurious

my mother’s childhood

must have been,

surrounded by beautiful

emerald green sugar fields

harvested

by row after row

of sweating slaves.

How can one place

be so lovely

and so sorrowful

all at the same time?

READING LEVEL: 12 and up

TEACHING TIPSThe Lightning Dreamer is an ideal jumping off point for exploring a wide array of subjects suggested in the novel. These range from colonialism, to New World slavery and racism, to patriarchal societies and the history of women’s political movements. At the back of the book, extensive notes provide comparisons between the historical Avellaneda and Tula, her fictionalized counterpart. This section also includes Spanish and translated excerpts of Avellaneda’s poetry and a bibliography of related sources.

Margarita contributed a guest post to Latin@s in Kid Lit that illuminates her love of biographical writing.

Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series, Black in Latin America, may be of interest for classroom use, in conjunction with the reading of The Lightning Dreamer. The episode “Cuba: The Next Revolution” focuses on the ongoing struggle by Afro Cubans to overcome centuries of racism. There’s no mention of Avellaneda in this one-hour documentary film; nevertheless, interviews and scenery enriched my reading. The film is particularly effective in its treatment of Cuba’s history of slavery and the role of freed slaves in the protracted battle for independence from Spain. The ruins of sugar plantations dating back to the book’s era starkly reminded me of Tula’s world.

RECOGNITION FOR THE LIGHTNING DREAMER: Awards and honors continue to flood in. They include:

2014 Pura Belpré Honor Book

School Library Journal’s Top Ten Latino-themed Books for 2013

YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults

For a full list of awards and more information, please visit Margarita’s author website. I also recommend following her on Facebook, where she frequently posts updates on appearances, interviews and release dates for new books.

MargaritaTHE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is a native of California and the author of many children’s and young adult books. She is the daughter of an American father and a Cuban mother. Childhood visits to her extended family in Cuba influenced her interest in tropical nature, leading to her formal study of agronomy and botany. She is the winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino/a. Her award winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Lightning Dreamer, visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.org, indiebound.org, goodreads.com, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt.