On Fearlessness, and Writing to Change the World: A Guest Post by Author Marie Marquardt

 

By Marie Marquardt

“I am fearless, except when I’m not.”

This is how I describe myself, each time that I gather in a classroom of ESOL students to run writing workshops. It’s part of an exercise developed by Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy, in their fabulous resource Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Each person makes a statement about who they understand themselves to be, or maybe just about how they feel at that particular moment. The statements build together to create poetry – simple, beautiful, honest poetry.

This exercise was first introduced to me by Meg Medina, who has inspired me immensely with her practice of “literary citizenship.” One way that I strive to live into the identity of a literary citizen is by gathering with nascent speakers of English – teenagers full of ideas and energy, with incredible and often heart-wrenching stories to tell, yet struggling to put them into words that are not their first language – and, in some cases, not their second or third, either. I try to be fearless as I read to them from my own stories, but sometimes I’m not.

I worry about how they will evaluate me – the middle-aged white lady whose recent book features characters like many of them – kids who have run away from some of the most dangerous communities in the world, looking for a safe place to live and maybe – just maybe – to one day call “home”.

Group shots and selfies from a recent workshop with ESOL students in a Gwinnett County, Georgia High School.

My very best days as an author are these days, when eager students come rushing up to me after our workshop, asking for selfies; when they tell me about their favorite character; when they marvel at how I learned to cuss like a Salvadoran, or how much I know about making pupusas. I want so much for my books to resonate with them — Their stories inspire me to write young adult novels in the first place.

Because of how profoundly these young adults’ experiences have shaped me, every one of my books has at least one point-of-view character who is an immigrant from Mexico or Central America. For twenty years, as an academic researcher, advocate, and service provider in Latinx immigrant communities in the South, I’ve listened to teen immigrants’ stories, and I’ve seen them unfold. I consider it an honor to create characters inspired by the teens I have had the great privilege to know. They have trusted me with their stories and I feel a great responsibility to convey their truth onto each page.

This is not a process that I take lightly, so I don’t do it alone. I rely on consultants who identify with the cultural traditions and national-origin groups I am representing. They teach me about the nuances of the culture and language, and they help me get a deeper understanding so I can build more robust and honest characters on the page (in other words, they teach me such important skills as cussing like a Salvadoran!).  I also rely on sensitivity readers, and I take their feedback very seriously.

Equally important, I consider it my responsibility to support the work of #ownvoices authors by  mentoring young authors from marginalized communities. I have worked for two years as a volunteer with We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Dean Myers Grant committee, and this year, I’ve pledged to work with ESOL students, facilitating workshops that help them build their own authorial voices and tell their own powerful stories.

I recently read a short interview with Jacqueline Woodson, when she was honored with the Lambda Literary Visionary Award. She said something that I think is damn near perfect: “Write specifically and furiously. Write to change the world.”

I aim to write specifically.

The Radius of Us CoverI can only tell the stories that I know. In the case of The Radius of Us, I felt compelled to write the story of a young asylum seeker from El Salvador because of the relationships I have built with real young adults in similar situations. It has been one of my greatest honors to help run a non-profit called El Refugio, which works with detained immigrants and their families. As part of that work, I have experienced the heartbreak of building friendships with dozens of young asylum seekers from the northern triangle of Central America. I have spent countless hours visiting with these young men in detention, sitting across the glass from them, telephones pressed to our ears. Unlike my story’s protagonist, most of these young men never have the chance to leave detention, until they are deported.

I aim to write furiously.

I am desperate for more people to know and understand the stories of these young men, and I also am, indeed, furious. I have followed some of them back to El Salvador, to see how they are faring after deportation. I have seen the dire circumstances into which our courts return them. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that, in the immigration court that determines the fate of these young men, only 5% are granted asylum. I can’t bear the thought that, like our friend Moises, some of these young people are being sent back to die.

I write to change the world.

On good days (fearless days), I remind myself that writing these stories is an act of compassion. When I allow myself to dive into the experience of Phoenix – an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, or Gretchen – a white suburban girl who was the victim of assault – I practice compassion. I hope that by telling these stories, I can model compassionate action, and I also fervently hope that, once they are out in the world, my stories will open safe, compassionate spaces. I hope that they create opportunities for teen readers to speak honestly with one another, to recognize those insidious systems (like racism and xenophobia) that aim to keep us apart, and also to affirm the beautiful, fragile humanity that we share in common.

I believe that, with more compassion, our world would be a radically different place. Compassion compels us to walk alongside people in crisis, and not to turn away. Compassion drives us to seek mutual understanding, to find those human qualities and dispositions that we share in common, while also not dismissing the profound differences that shape our experiences. Compassion changes the world.

This is what drives me to be fearless (except when I’m not).

Marie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

How Do I Keep My History? How Do I Honor It? A Guest Post by Author Mia García

 

By Mia García

Okay, here’s the thing, I’m a rambler. I tend to talk in circles until I figure out what I need to say, which usually boils down to a sentence.

So bear with me if you can – if not I totally understand; I’m sure there are many things you could be watching on Netflix right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about stress and fear, particularly in relation to family and history, which sounds horrible and insulting, but it will make sense. At least I hope so.

For years, I’ve been that person who wanted to do that Ancestry DNA thing, but never had the time or the money or the motivation (most likely these last two). Plus as a Puerto Rican born and raised in PR, I’ve always been taught that my ancestry boiled down to Spanish, African, and Taíno. (Which is a crazy simplification of the diversity of people who lived on the island, which include the above and Chinese, Irish, Scottish, French, German…Okay, I should stop here before I go into a full history of the island and this parenthesis gets crazy long.)

But in terms of actual knowledge, I only know a little bit about my Spanish side, like which city my great-grandparents came from and a whole lot of nothing about the rest of it, which after the test (I finally did it!) turns out to be about eight different things, half of which made my parents go: “Where did that come from?”

For those interested, it included Spanish, African, Italian, Native American, Middle Eastern, Great Britain, and a few small traces in Caucasus and Ireland. My parents’ “WTF?” reactions came from the Great Britain, Caucasus, Middle East, and Ireland revelations.

The test itself didn’t cause the anxious thoughts, but rather sparked interest in my past. The fear and stress came from the links to my past that are slowly disappearing. It’s sad to think about the family history and stories I know nothing about and will, most likely, never know anything about because as time passes there are fewer connections to it.

Not long ago, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which after a few years of paralyzing sadness made me realize that I needed to safeguard as many of his memories as I could. And recently, I almost lost my mom due to a serious medical issue, but we were blessed enough to get the news we needed in time. Because of these events, I re-ignited my plan to sit my parents and family members down to talk about, well, anything they can remember while I record them on my computer (this is something that truly annoys my mother because I never give her enough time to fix her hair and make-up, but I digress), which doesn’t always happen, which then leads to the stress, the worry, and fear.

Even If the Sky Falls CoverHow much do we lose with each generation? What will I remember for my children? (I don’t have any at the moment, but that doesn’t stop my mind from going there.) But that’s only where it starts, because it’s not only about how do I keep this history, but how do I honor it? Then I start spiraling into thoughts about my book. A sweet romance about a Puerto Rican in New Orleans hanging out with a musician for a night…but maybe it should’ve been a book about my parent’s history? What have I done to represent and document my family, my people, or my culture?

I should’ve done it all in one book. Clearly, I am a failure.

And there it is.

That tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories, trying to capture every moment that has made up our lives (but not too much, because then it’s a memoir, right?), holding on tightly to the past because if we don’t who will do it? Wondering if it’s okay to just tell a story about a young Puerto Rican girl falling in love without a history lesson or maybe just a small one. Feeling like your culture flows in your veins, but you haven’t quite honored it yet…

I realize now this is not just a blog post but a conversation. That I don’t want to talk into the void, but I want to hear from my fellow Latinx community. So if you are reading this, I want to hear from you!

Have you had similar thoughts? Do you feel like you need to represent every part of your culture when you write? Tell me about yourself, your family, the stories you write!

What do you think?

If you are a Latinx creator and want to discuss the “tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories,” please email us at latinosinkidlit@gmail.com with your blog post idea. We’d love to keep this conversation going.

 

5pv_6utvxrzzwbjesfqoku0ic1kqe1dzq1c5cnsydmyM. García was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to New York where she studied creative writing at The New School, worked in publishing, and now lives under a pile of to-be-read books. Her debut novel, Even If the Sky Falls, from Katherine Tegen books (an imprint of Harper Collins) is out now. Visit her at MGarciaBooks.com

Weaving Truth and the Imagined: A Guest Post by Author Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

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Top: My grandmother Elena (left) and my mother Miriam (right) Bottom: My mother in law Martha (left) and my grandmother Zoila (right)

 

By Jenny Torres Sanchez

I visited New Mexico for the first time about twelve years ago. My in-laws live right on the border of Columbus, New Mexico and Palomas, Mexico. I was there for a funeral and it was a sad, somber time. Maybe that was part of the reason why it seemed such a lonely place to me, so desolate and bare.

On our way to the graveyard, I remember much walking and dust. There were rocks on tombstones to cover graves because there is no grass. And my husband’s family members took turns, while weeping, to shovel dirt upon their loved one’s grave. I felt then that I had come to a place of great despair. But also of great beauty. And I knew I would someday write a story that took place there.

Because of the Sun CoverYears later, a story did come to me about a boy named Paulo living on that border. I tried writing it, but it never panned out and I abandoned the idea. Years later, another story came to me about an empty and unfeeling girl named Dani. Her story merged with that long ago abandoned one about Paulo. They meet as Dani is walking in the desert. He sees in her something he knows well: tragedy. And he feels drawn to her in that way we sometimes are to those who might share a similar pain. So he helps Dani and introduces her to his grandmother, who also helps her.

Paulo’s grandmother is an interesting character to me because she is someone I have always known. In her I see my mother who came to the United States all alone after her mother died. I see my grandmothers, women whose faces I have imagined in those hot, dusty countries where they were born and lived unimaginably hard lives. And I see my mother in-law, an immigrant from Mexico, with her own share of stories of a hard life. She is the one who introduced me to teas and instilled in me a belief that different ones can cure different ailments and remedy almost anything.

I’ve been raised, nurtured, and surrounded by these strong women, women who are equal parts hard and loving. They’ve had to survive great hardships, broken dreams and tragedies. But they survived, thrived even. And I’ve elevated them to goddess-like statures. To me, they are magical in that there is nothing they can’t do, nothing they can’t endure and overcome. Paulo’s grandmother is a culmination of the women I love. She is someone who has survived and helps others survive, who can bring back the dead even. She is always there, appearing even in dreams. Just like the women in my life.

I think it’s interesting how stories are woven, how truth becomes inspiration that merges with lies and the imagined. I love seeing that thin thread of the real in my stories. I love seeing the people in my life, in some way, in some form or transformation, make their way into my stories. And while their stories are not the focus of mine, their influence is never far.

 

JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

A Writer Belongs Everywhere: Stories from a Writing Workshop for Middle School Girls

 

By Tracey Flores

“A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” ~Gloria Anzaldúa

On an overcast and windy day in May, ten young girls and women–daughters, sisters, mothers and teachers–gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s 7th grade classroom for an afternoon of sharing, writing and storytelling. Nibbling on pepperoni pizza and pink frosted cookies, desks arranged in a small circle in the front of the room, we sat with folders, notebook paper, and pencils, writing a letter to our sisters or mothers. This letter was the culminating writing of an afternoon of drawing self portraits and writing how we see ourselves and how we see our sisters and mothers.

As the the pencils stopped and everyone came to their closing thoughts, I invited everyone to turn to their sister or mother and read the letter they had just written to them. As I walked around the room to lean in and listen, with permission, I noticed that these handwritten letters were filled with words of advice, encouragement, and promises. They were filled with the words that many times we are too shy or afraid to share for fear of ridicule or embarrassment.

Alexandria read, “Dear Mom, An advice I want to share with you is ‘Live life to the fullest.’”

Dede read to her older sister, “…I believe in you whatever you do.”

Estefania read to her daughter, “…my sweet little miss…just know everything you do big or small I am proud of you everyday.”

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This vignette of an after-school writing workshop for middle school girls and their families illustrates the transformative power of creating space with and for our students and their families that honors their lived experiences and ways of knowing. For two weeks, we gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s room to engage in discussion, reflection, and storytelling on topics such as creating positive self-definitions, family, and education. Although our time together was brief, we created a supportive community of writers.

As a classroom teacher, and now as a PhD candidate, I have the privilege of working with families in after-school bilingual writing workshops, like the one in the vignette. In these writing workshops, students, their siblings and grandparents work side-by-side to tell, draw, write and share stories from their lived experiences. It is an opportunity for families to enter the classroom as experts and draw upon their cultural and linguistic resources to reflect on their lived experience through storytelling, drawing, and writing.

These bilingual family writing workshops are designed within a writing workshop framework, with a mini-lesson, writing time, sharing time, and a closing reflection. Each workshop begins with the reading and discussion of a bilingual picture book, poem, or short memoir. This text is carefully selected and serves multiple purposes. First, it is selected to introduce families to the theme of the workshop. Second, the topic of the text is considered in how families may relate to it or connect it to their own experiences, if the book is culturally relevant or rather recreates negative stereotypes. Lastly, the topics, writing, text structure, and organization are considered in how they might provide families with a powerful mentor text (Fletcher, 2011) for their own writing.

After the opening text is shared and discussed, I model my own writing by talking through what I am doing and thinking as I put drawing and writing on chart paper. Sometimes I model my brainstorm and other times I just draw and write. Then, I invite families to draw and write their own stories or poems. This is my favorite part, watching students and their families write and share their stories, many times for the first time with one another.

Over the years, in these workshops, families shared stories of celebrating Las Posadas with their family and community, stories of ranchos that stretched over acres in rural parts of México where they learned to tend the animals and to cherish all the resources of the tierra, and stories of special abuelitas who embraced them and loved them in that special way only an abuelita loves you.

As I wrote earlier in this post, in preparation for working with families in workshops, I always gather several texts in a variety of genres to use as mentor texts. Below is a short list that I have used as mentor texts in bilingual writing workshops with Latinx families in schools and community centers across Phoenix and Glendale in Arizona.

IMG_3446Alarcón, F. (2005). Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para sonar juntos. Illustrations by Paula Barragán. Lee & Low Books.

Carlson, L.M. (2013). Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. Square Fish.

Cisneros, S. (1994). Hairs/Pelitos: A Story in English and Spanish from The House on Mango Street. Dragonfly Books.

Cisneros, S. (1994). La Casa en Mango Street. Translated by Elena Poniatowska. Vintage Books.

Cisneros, S. (1991). The House on Mango Street. Vintage Books

Costales, A. (2007). Abuelita full of life/Abuelita llena de vida. Illustrations by Martha Aviles. Cooper Square Publishing.

Fanelli, Sara. (1995). My Map Book. HarperCollins.

Garza, C.L. (2005). Family Pictures/Cuadros de familia. Children’s Book Press.

Garza, C.L. (1996). In My Family/En mi familia. Children’s Book Press.

González, L. (2008). The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos. Illustrations by Lulu Delacre. Children’s Book Press.

Herrera, J.F. (1998). Laughing Out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish. HarperCollins.

Lyon, G.E. (1999). Where I’m From: Where Poems Come From. Absey & Co.

Medina, J. (2004). The Dream on Blanca’s Wall: Poems in English and Spanish/ El sueño pegado en la pared de Blanca: Poemas en ingles y español. Illustrations by Robert Casilla. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

Ortiz Cofer, J. (2004). Call Me María. Scholastic Inc

Ortiz, A. (2015). Rant. Chant. Chisme. Wings Press.

Rodríguez, L. (1998). América is her name. Illustrations by Carlos Vasquez. Curbstone Books.

Soto, G. (2005). Neighborhood Odes. Harcourt.

Note: This summer, I will be collaborating with three teachers to facilitate a second series of bilingual writing workshops for Latina middle school students and their mothers. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post with stories and learnings from these writing workshops

 

321988_10101177230382771_455531340_o-1Tracey Flores is a former English Language Development (ELD) and Language Arts teacher who worked in elementary classrooms for eight years. She currently serves as the director of El Día de los Niños, El Día de los Libros and is a teacher consultant with the Central Arizona Writing Project (CAWP) at Arizona State University (ASU). Currently, Tracey is a PhD Candidate in English Education in the Department of English at ASU. Her research focuses on adolescent Latina girls and mothers’ language and literacy practices and on using family literacy as a springboard for advocacy, empowerment, and transformation for students, families, and teachers. In her free time she enjoys writing, reading Young Adult (YA) literature, drinking coffee, running, practicing yoga and spending time with her 8 month old daughter.

 

Q&A with Author Diana López about NOTHING UP MY SLEEVE

 

By Marianne Snow Campbell

Today we’re very pleased to host a dialogue with Diana López in honor of her newest middle grades novel, Nothing Up My Sleeve, which released on April 19.  This book follows three friends – Dominic, Loop, and Z – as they discover the exciting world of stage magic one summer. It’s equal parts humor, character study, and magic lessons – a fun and fascinating read. After finishing Nothing Up My Sleeve (click here for our book review), I was definitely curious about Diana’s creative process, so I’m very grateful that she was able to answer these questions for me. Enjoy!

I love the backdrop of stage magic in Nothing Up My Sleeve.  What inspired you to explore this topic?

My husband, Gene, inspired me. I wouldn’t know the first thing about magic if it weren’t for him. He’s an aficionado with a great collection of magic books, props, and videos. Over the years, I’ve been a tagalong at magic lectures and conventions, including the TAOM convention that I write about. Magicians are so creative, and if you think about a magic performance, you’ll realize that it’s just another form of storytelling. How could I resist? I had to write this book! And I had so much fun finding magic tricks that resonated with the characters’ personal lives. This is what stories do—give us tools for coping and for celebrating life.

Another important source of inspiration comes from my nephews who turn absolutely everything into a competition. Think about it. Competitions are wonderful for writers because they have a built-in sense of conflict—you’re “fighting” against others but you’re also fighting against yourself as you work to problem-solve or overcome insecurities. In a sense, a competition is a form of story, too.

Also, could you describe your process in creating this book?

I carry a little notebook around and jot down bits of dialogue or names of interesting things. I sometimes take pictures, too. Anything that feels like a good detail for a story. The magic shop, Conjuring Cats, is completely inspired by JCR Magic in San Antonio, for example.

Eventually, I realized that I wanted to write about three boys at a magic competition. But who were they? What kind of magic did they do? What else were they dealing with? To find out, I had to do a lot of exploratory writing, stuff that never gets into the final novel. It’s my way of searching for voices. And with three boys, I needed three voices that were distinct.

Once I had the voice and general sense of where the book was going, I started drafting. I’m not an outliner. I prefer to write, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. Stuff gets moved around, deleted, added, and the story eventually works itself out. I know it’s not the most efficient way to write, but for me, it’s the most enjoyable.

What made you decide to use three narratives? How did you go about developing Dominic, Loop and Z?

My previous books follow one character, so using three narratives was a new experience for me. From the beginning, however, it felt like the best approach for this novel. I love competitions—sports, board games, reality shows like Survivor or Amazing Race. It’s fun to root for someone, but often, I find myself rooting for more than one person. Something similar happened when writing this book. I found myself rooting for all three boys, so I wanted to give each of them time on the stage.

Using three perspectives also gave me a chance to explore how different people learn a new skill and perform in front of audiences. I love the unique set of abilities and insecurities that accompany each character. One of my favorite experiences with this book was taking a classic sleight, like the French drop, and seeing how the boys used their personalities to create different versions of this one move.

As for developing the characters, Dominic, Loop, and Z are very loosely based on three of my nephews. I love to eavesdrop on their conversations, and I’ve had plenty of chances to witness how they fight and how they show affection. Writers harvest ideas and voices from their environment, and that’s exactly what I did. I even called my nephews when I was looking for creative insults like “Fungus Foot, Toilet Clogger, Slobber Boy, and Stink Bomb.” Yup, they get total credit for that.

What do you want readers to carry away from Nothing Up My Sleeve and your other middle-grades books, Confetti Girl, Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, and Choke?

I want them to enjoy the books. Just have fun. It breaks my heart to hear young people (or anyone) complain that books are boring. If I can make people laugh or nod because they recognize a bit of themselves in the story, then I have done my job.

For readers who like to dig a little deeper, I’ve posted some discussion guides on my website. You can find them on the “classroom” page http://www.dianalopezbooks.com/classroom.php . Find a friend and have a book chat. Published books don’t belong to the authors anymore. They belong to the readers.

    

As an author and creative writing professor, you clearly know a thing or two about writing. What kind of advice would you like to give to aspiring young writers out there – especially writers who want to publish books that celebrate diverse experiences and perspectives?

Aspiring writers are probably tired of hearing this, but it bears repeating because it’s so true. The best way to improve your writing is to read, read, read. And if you’re interested in celebrating diverse perspectives, then buy those titles. Do a little research to discover writers from your community, and then support them. We need to let publishers know that there’s a real interest in these books.

The second bit of advice is to pay attention to the world around you. Just read the signs, watch the people at parks or malls, browse the aisles at grocery stores. Examine familiar places as if seeing them for the first time. The diversity is built-in, and these are the details you want to capture in your books.

Since you published your first book, have you seen a change in the quality/quantity of diverse books published?

Yes, there’s an enthusiastic call for diverse books right now. I’m thinking of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, and I’m seeing more diversity in our award-winners. This makes me very happy.

But, we still have a long way to go. I grew up in a working class, Mexican American family, a group that is still underrepresented. Here is a population statistic from “A Demographic Portrait of Mexican-Origin Hispanics in the United States” by Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Mark Hugo Lopez: “Mexicans are by far the largest Hispanic-origin population in the U.S., accounting for nearly two-thirds (64%) of the U.S. Hispanic population in 2012.” Two-thirds of the Hispanic population in this country! I haven’t done the research, but I’m curious. If you took all the books published by Latinos in this country, what percentage will be by Mexican Americans?

So, moving in the right direction? Yes. But are we there yet? No. That’s why it’s an exciting time to be a writer and an advocate for diverse books.

Do you have any new book projects in the works?  Can you share anything about these projects?

Right now, I’m working hard to spread the news about NOTHING UP MY SLEEVE. I like to write short stories, too, so I’m using the time between book projects to finish and polish some shorter pieces I’ve been working on.

I was so excited to find out about CentroVictoria!  Tell us about your work there.

Photo credit: Todd Yates

Photo credit: Todd Yates

CentroVictoria is supported by the University of Houston-Victoria, where I work. Its founding director is Dagoberto Gilb, author of BEFORE THE END, AFTER THE BEGINNING. Our goal is to promote Mexican American literature and art. Right now, we’re doing this in two ways. One is the publication of an annual magazine called HUIZACHE. It’s a beautiful magazine, and I highly recommend it for people interested in Latino literature. Please visit our website http://huizachemag.org/ to learn more. The second way we promote the literature is to help educators. Dagoberto and his son, Ricardo Gilb, edited a textbook that was just released by Bedford St. Martin’s. It’s called MEXICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE: A PORTABLE ANTHOLOGY, a great resource for those who want a taste of important works and a sense of how the literature has changed. Dagoberto and Ricardo did a phenomenal job. For my part, I wrote an instructor’s manual full of discussion questions. It’s available as a downloadable pdf file.

To learn more about me, my books, and my work with CentroVictoria, please visit my website at www.dianalopezbooks.com

 

 

MarianneMarianne Snow Campbell is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, where she researches nonfiction children’s books about Latin@ and Latin American topics and teaches an undergraduate course on children’s literature. Before graduate school, she taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Texas, her home state. She misses teaching, loves critters, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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