Book Review: All the Stars Denied by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Lee & Low Books): In the heart of the Great Depression, Rancho Las Moras, like everywhere else in Texas, is gripped by the drought of the Dust Bowl, and resentment is building among white farmers against Mexican Americans. All around town, signs go up proclaiming “No Dogs or Mexicans” and “No Mexicans Allowed.”

When Estrella organizes a protest against the treatment of tejanos in their town of Monteseco, Texas, her whole family becomes a target of “repatriation” efforts to send Mexicans “back to Mexico” –whether they were ever Mexican citizens or not. Dumped across the border and separated from half her family, Estrella must figure out a way to survive and care for her mother and baby brother. How can she reunite with her father and grandparents and convince her country of birth that she deserves to return home?

There are no easy answers in the first YA book to tackle this hidden history. In a companion novel to her critically acclaimed Shame the Stars, Guadalupe Garcia McCall tackles the hidden history of the United States and its first mass deportation event that swept up hundreds of thousands of Mexican American citizens during the Great Depression.

 

Image result for no dogs or mexicans

 

MY TWO CENTS: The one thing not lacking in All the Stars Denied is very intense, often life-or-death, drama. Guadalupe Garcia McCall presents readers with historically accurate situations and characters and environments that many readers may connect with deeply. The story is also full of incredibly high stakes, and ultimately can be read as a coming-of-age story.

All the Stars Denied is fast-paced, and readers hit the ground running with Garcia McCall’s high-stakes, dramatic writing. Estrella Del Toro’s family’s story, particularly that of her parents, is spelled out more clearly in Shame the Stars. The story takes place in the Rio Grande valley, an area of Texas where Mexican-American or Tejano (Mexican-Americans born in Texas) identity is often built into every capacity of life. As Estrella illustrates early in the story, language in an area like Monteseco is fluid, with people switching from English to Spanish easily, as their Mexican and American identities interact. Estrella organizes her protest to show the injustices shown to people born on American soil but of (sometimes very distant) Mexican descent. This not only recognizes that, though the people of her town are U.S. citizens, their ethnicity and culture bring their citizenship into question. This also demonstrates the inseparability of ethnicity and culture of many people in Latinx communities in the U.S.

Garcia McCall’s attention to these details is especially critical in today’s political and social climate. She demonstrates how intertwined the lives of many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are, and how similar the cultures continue to be throughout the United States. Through this, Garcia McCall exemplifies the extensive presence, scrutiny, and discrimination that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have had in the United States for many decades.

Garcia McCall also addresses class issues in her book; readers take a close look at the disparities between economic and social classes through Estrella’s experience as a repatriate. The reader gets the impression that the family is quite comfortable in Monteseco and holds both economic and social prestige in their community. During the repatriation process, though, Estrella is thrust into the very real experience of those who do not have the economic means to save themselves from unfair judicial processes. She, along with her mother and younger brother, experience a disarmament of sorts, where anything they might have been able to use to help their cause is denied to them. Throughout their journey, Estrella’s mother tries to soften the blows of their newfound economic hardship, reminding Estrella that much of what they experience is the norm for populations more socially or economically disadvantaged than they are. Estrella learns to appreciate their newfound situation, humbles herself, and works with her mother in any way she can to make sure their family survives another day.

The points made above all contribute to the way in which All the Stars Denied is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story about a young girl who grows exponentially as a person because of the difficult, unjust, and discriminatory situations she experiences. Estrella repeatedly looks to her family for direction through her father’s journals, her mother’s sage advice, and her grandmother’s memory, and she uses her own journal to express her thoughts and emotions. Even still, and regardless of her young age, Estrella takes a leadership role throughout the narrative. The reader can see Estrella’s development by the way that she creates plans and ideas. Though her proposals might be half-baked, Estrella’s consistently trying to help her mother, putting herself in positions to listen and learn from others to the great benefit of her family. While Estrella’s outspokenness might arguably lead to more scrutiny upon her family, her growing courage – and her notorious tenacity – assist her family in so many different ways and helps her to become a person that not only her family can be proud of, but one that she can be proud of herself.

 

Mexican and Mexican-American families wait to board Mexico-bound trains in Los Angeles on March 8, 1932. County officials arranged these mass departures as part of “repatriation campaigns,” fueled by fears that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were taking scarce jobs and government assistance during the Great Depression.
Los Angeles Public Library/Herald Examiner Collection. Posted on NPR’s website 2015.

 

TEACHING TIPS: In All the Stars Denied, as in Shame the Stars, Garcia McCall shows readers why Mexican American studies is an incredibly important part of any school curriculum, but especially in areas of the country where a majority of the population either comes from or is descended from Latinx countries. Both books stand on their own. By reading both novels, the reader learns about a slice of history not often taught, and is able to do so in both a macro- and microscopic way. In All the Stars Denied, readers see the damage that Mexican Repatriation did to entire communities in cities across the country, as well as to individuals and their families. The life-and-death stakes were real, and this book is an excellent way to introduce not only the chaos caused by terrible discrimination in general, but specifically the destruction caused by unjust immigration laws and xenophobia.

The novel can also teach about the economic hardships experienced around the country as a result of the Great Depression. Much of what Estrella’s family faces during their time in limbo is a result of their lack of monetary resources, but also the lack felt by both the U.S. and Mexico.

Though not the only two teaching tips in the book, these points can easily be used to jump into more contemporary conversations, looking at ways in which present day immigration laws and current economic policies create waves of hardship experienced by many already disenfranchised communities. The resources that Garcia McCall includes in the appendices give excellent background information that is accessible and of significant interest to both youth and adult historians interested in learning about this piece of concealed history.

Posted on Lee & Low Books’ websiteJacqueline Stallworth, curriculum consultant and professional developer, created a guide featuring All the Stars Denied for the “Putting Books to Work” panel at the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference. Check out this guide to find out about tips and strategies for how to use All the Stars Denied alongside other great texts in your classroom.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Lee & Low Books): Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in Theater Arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school. Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals. McCall is an up-and-coming talent whose debut YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. McCall lives with her husband and their three sons in the San Antonio, Texas, area. You can find her online at guadalupegarciamccall.com.

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Educating Children and Young People for Joy and Justice: A Guest Post by Author and Teacher Ann Berlak

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All art in this article is by Daniel Comacho for Joelito’s Big Decision/La gran decisión de Joelito by Ann Berlak.

By Ann Berlak

To prepare children and young people to participate in the construction of a more just and joyful future, we must tell them stories that make the invisible visible and unsettle what is taken for granted.

 “Everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous…unless it is far away, long ago.”

Solnit (2016)

Poverty is increasing worldwide in the face of unimaginable wealth for the very few. Talk of the public good has been almost silenced, public services are rapidly being privatized and the environment degraded, and we have come to take as normal wars without end. Yet, though largely obscured by mainstream media and by schooling at all levels, movements for climate, racial, and economic justice are sweeping the globe.

Given these realities, what stories should we tell young people to prepare them to participate in social transformation?

 Stories that reveal:

  • how the decisions and actions of each of us affect the lives and actions of others, often in hidden ways
  • how differences of power in the hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability—differences that may be initially invisible– affect how we and others experience our lives differently (empathy)
  • how to connect the dots between everyday injustices and the social forces that create and sustain them—for example, societal dynamics that create the vast extremes of wealth and poverty
  • how ordinary people acting together can create a more just and joyful world
  • that joining with others to create a more just future is a joyful life option for each of us

img_0268-2Aren’t children too young to think about social and political issues? Should we interfere with children’s innocence by prematurely exposing them to the darker sides of life?

Which children are we talking about here? Certainly not those children who already experience despair, who go to bed hungry, whose parents can’t find jobs. Acknowledging these realities means acknowledging the experiences of children and young people who are often marginalized in school and in children’s fiction.

When adults are silent about the social, political, and economic dynamics of society, children internalize the perspectives that dominate public discourse and begin to believe, for example, that people get rich because they are smarter or work harder. They learn to blame “the victim,” and to normalize war, violence, and astounding inequalities.

This is disastrous for privileged children as well as for members of groups that are on the downside of the prevailing power imbalances. Both groups drift toward the belief that this is how things have always been and how they must continue to be, and these convictions become quite resistant to change. As the tree is bent, the tree grows.

joelito-cover-two-boysJoelito’s Big Decision/ La gran decisión de Joelito

For thirty years, I taught prospective elementary school teachers. My primary intention was to challenge them to think about what kind of future they wanted to construct through what they taught. What should schooling in their classrooms be for, beyond preparing children to be “college and career ready”?

After I retired, I went back into classrooms as a guest social-justice teacher. This experience reconfirmed my belief that if given any encouragement at all, children and young people will eagerly engage in dialogue about the social, political, and economic issues that surround and shape them.

I also realized that when adults don’t address these issues, children construct their own explanations for what they see around them, and that they weave these from the dominant ideologies of the society. For example, the children I taught had a variety of explanations for how and why some people get rich: They “won the lottery,” “worked hard at school,” “were really smart.” Of course, many also believed the inverse—that people who are poor do not work hard, or are not smart—even when these beliefs conflicted with their own first-hand experiences.

Eventually, I decided to write a storybook for children that would help teachers and parents spark lively conversations like the ones I had as a social-justice teacher, and elicit looks of surprise that conveyed “ah-ha” experiences that are our rewards as teachers. The result is the bilingual, beautifully illustrated and timely Joelito’s Big Decision/ La gran decisión de Joelito. It’s about a boy, a burger, a friendship, and the fight to raise the minimum wage. The book’s illustrator is Daniel Camacho. José Antonio Galloso provided the translation.

img_0267Our book tells the tale of Joelito, who eats dinner at MacMann’s Burger Restaurant with his family every Friday. The story begins one Friday when he finds his best friend Brandon and Brandon’s parents at the restaurant entrance, holding up signs saying, “Low Pay is Not OK,” and “Fight for 15,” and urging the hungry Joelito not to eat at MacMann’s tonight.

Our book explains the sources of income inequality in a way that young children can understand—Brandon’s dad tells Joelito, “I would have to work for 500 years to earn what Mr. MacMann earns in one year” —and shows that people working together are making history today.

Why don’t parents and teachers talk more about economic inequality with children and young people?

The school curriculum is increasingly controlled by the 1%. This control militates against schools teaching children and young people to question the huge discrepancies of wealth and power. Because the structure of our economy offers most people an uncertain economic future, many parents are preoccupied with their children becoming “college and career ready.” Readiness is often reduced to achieving high scores on standardized tests, while preparing children for active citizenship and critical thinking increasingly falls by the wayside.

img_0264_2Hope

We hope that literary gatekeepers—parents, teachers, caregivers, and librarians will include among the stories that they share with children depictions of ordinary people working together toward a better future. The bookshelves in our classrooms, libraries, and homes are crowded with the tales of solitary heroes and heroines fighting battles in worlds of fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. Stories of contemporary people in the trenches for social change belong on those bookshelves, too.

 

 

 

IMG_0297Author Ann Berlak has been a teacher and teacher educator for over fifty years. She envisions schools as places where children learn to become active, caring participants in the creation of a world that works for everyone. Joelito’s Big Decision/La gran decisión de Joelito was selected for the 2016-2017  California Reads list of teacher recommended books. Keep up with current news about Joelito on Facebook.

Illustrator Daniel Camacho lives and works in Oakland, California. His at-home studio is filled with ongoing projects, and is usually open to visitors upon request. He teaches art to elementary and middle school students and works to promote an awareness of Mexican/Latino culture through his participation with the Oakland Museum of California, the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, local public libraries and other community based organizations. Learn more about Daniel from his official website.

Translator José Antonio Galloso was born in Lima, Peru. He is a writer, photographer, and a bilingual teacher with studies in audiovisual communication, Spanish, and writing. He has published poetry and fiction and his works have been included in several anthologies. His photographic work, which he considers an extension of his writing, has been exhibited and published in different galleries, printed media and online. He has been living in the Bay Area since 2002.

Happiness as a Social Justice Issue in Latin@ Kid Lit

By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

In the years that I’ve been researching and writing about Latina/o kid’s literature, I’ve gone back and forth about the impact that “happy endings” have on the stories and young readers. Because I focus specifically on realistic fiction, narratives that capture lived experiences, I found the happy endings to be a bit misleading. Real stories on deportation and family separation, for example, do not always get a happy ending and especially not as immediately as books make it seem. In general, happy endings are an essential component of children’s illustrated texts. That is, picture books for children tend to have happy endings because a book that tells children, for example, that “life sucks” and encourages them to give up would probably not fare well in the industry. Within this genre, happy endings also function as a way to preserve a child’s innocence. There is something both beautiful and problematic about the genre’s desire to protect children from “growing up too fast,” from the “dangers of the real world,” and whatnot. In this way, the happy ending allows children to explore the world through books with the guarantee that they will be safe, that everything will work out, and that they will be protected. However, not all children are seen as inherently innocent and therefore their access to protection and safety is limited and certainly not guaranteed.

Because Latina/o kid’s lit as a genre has done an exceptional job at pointing out the marginality, discrimination, and uncertainty that Latina/o children face in this country I had often found the happy endings in some of these texts disconcerting. The reconciliation between the oppressions experienced by a Latino child protagonist and the happy ending was too simple. I was afraid that those endings would mislead or further discourage real children who were undergoing similar situations as those portrayed in the books but who were not experiencing the happy endings. My concern was also that the happy endings minimized the urgency of the topics being discussed.

I have found that the most beneficial way to understand happiness in Latina/o kid’s books is to read it as part of the story rather than the ending. In other words, happiness is a piece of a much larger story and not just the end. This understanding is particularly important when teaching Latina/o kid’s books dealing with social justice issues. It is significant to note that the happy endings do not suggest that the oppressions the characters experience have also ended. Furthermore, characters’ happiness does not suggest that they are not being oppressed. These caveats on happy endings may seem unnecessary and a bit of a downer; however, happy endings in kid’s picture books assume that children access happiness equally when, in fact, this is not the case. Because of this, happy endings in children’s picture books with social justice themes further present an opportunity to discuss happiness as a social justice issue.

1016493As important as it is to contest happy endings, it is also important to protect Latino children’s right to happiness. I became more aware of this significance upon giving a presentation on Juan Felipe Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl where I was asked if the story’s ending undermined Esmeralda’s agency. Super Cilantro Girl tells the story of Esmeralda Sinfronteras and her transformation into a giant green superhero set to rescue her mother from an ICE detention center. Upon learning that her mother has been detained at the border, Esmeralda taps into the power of cilantro and gradually changes into Super Cilantro Girl. Bigger than a bus, taller than a house, and with the power of cilantro and flight, Esmeralda breaks her mother out of the detention center and brings her home. Super Cilantro Girl disrupts the anti-immigration policies that seek to separate her family by becoming bigger, stronger, and more heroic than the system. At the end of the story, however, it turns out that Esmeralda was dreaming and did not change into Super Cilantro Girl nor did she rescue her mother. Despite that, though, Esmeralda’s mother returns. In my presentation, I claimed that Esmeralda’s transformation exemplified how the body can be a site of healing. What does the ending then suggest about Esmeralda’s healing process and agency if her transformation into a superhero was just a dream? It was then suggested that I’d have a more productive reading of Super Cilantro Girl if I talked about it as magical realism and/or science fiction.

While an argument can be made to read Super Cilantro Girl as magical realism and/or science fiction, I choose not to because there is something difficult about reading Esmeralda’s dream of rescuing her mother from ICE as fantastical. Despite having been a dream, there is agency and power in Esmeralda’s ability to see herself as a superhero with the strength to fight ICE and reunite her family. Regardless of ICE’s threat, Esmeralda can imagine herself as powerful and, ultimately, happy. Esmeralda’s happiness upon rescuing her mother is an important part of her healing process. Again, happiness needs to be understood as part of the narrative and not the end point. Super Cilantro Girl demonstrates how happiness and imagination function to promote hope and resilience despite the systemic oppressions that hinder Esmeralda’s life. Challenging happy endings and reading happiness as a social justice issue present opportunities to further understand how childhood in the United States is racialized and how Latina/o kid’s lit creates alternative narratives.

 

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.