Book Review: Becoming Maria by Sonia Manzano

Acting Out Transformative Possibilities: A Review of Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

Becoming MariaBy Marilisa Jiménez García, Ph.D.

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: This is the remarkable true story of a girl plunged into a world she never expected. It’s the story of dreams—some of them nightmares, others visions of romance and escape. It’s the tale of a family that is loving and troubled, and of the child who grew up to become a television star.

Set in the 1950’s in the Bronx, this is the beautifully wrought coming-of-age memoir of Emmy Award-winning actress and writer Sonia Manzano, who defined the role of Maria on the acclaimed children’s television series Sesame Street.

MY TWO CENTS: Sonia “Maria” Manzano held a prominent place in American culture for over 40 years, both as a writer and actor on Sesame Street. While many Latino/a readers have struggled to find characters reflecting their experiences in books, Manzano filled this void on one of the most beloved American television franchises in history. Manzano’s performances shaped the way viewers understood Latino/a culture by breaking stereotypes through an expansive repertoire: from friendly neighbor, to comical mime, to new mother, to glamorous leading lady a’ la Ginger Rogers. Indeed, when she announced her retirement this summer, the outpouring of public tributes and reflections on her legendary career underlined just how closely audiences over a generation identified with Manzano’s evolution into a television icon. Now, as a novelist, she continues to respond to the need for Latino/a protagonists. Her newest book, a memoir, highlights the transformative capacity of theatre and performance for young people.

Becoming Maria provides generations of readers with an opportunity to experience Manzano’s evolution from a young Latina, a puertorriqueña, in the Bronx into a promising performer. It is a journey Manzano also reveals as a struggle to reconcile the love and abuse she witnessed in her family life. Becoming Maria is truly the portrait of an artist, as an early passage in the text demonstrates how, even in moments of distress, a young Sonia developed a gift for observation and imagination:

I run to our fourth-floor window, looking for anything, when I see Uncle Eddie’s car pull up. Out spills his wife, Bon Bon; my uncle Frank; his wife, Iris; and my beautiful mother. She is dressed in a soft-colored yellow dress with pleats down the front that she made herself. My father enters my line of vision as he lunges for her. Her brothers restrain him, and I can tell even from the fourth floor that Ma would rip his face off if she could.

There is something beautiful in the picture they make jerking around in the streetlight. And when the Third Avenue El comes swishing through, right in front of our window so suddenly, I feel like I am in the center of the universe and I am happy that they have had this fight because it has introduced me to the wonderful window. And that’s where I go every day, all the time between assaults when there is nervous calm (Manzano 8-9).

Young Sonia’s ability to both observe and “see beyond,” to borrow a phrase from The Giver, her surroundings and circumstances allows her distance and a space to imagine other possibilities. Through this “window,” young Sonia is able reinvent moments in her life. As children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop has established, a “window” can also function as a metaphor for literature which gives audiences insight to other worlds and cultures.[1] In this moment, young Sonia’s decision to frame her circumstances also signals Manzano’s own expertise providing access into the literary and theatrical worlds she has created for years.

Becoming Maria adds to Manzano’s titles of works marketed for young people. The closest to this text’s breadth and maturity might be her recent young adult novel, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (2013), which also features a strong, Latina protagonist coming into her own as a young woman—though the major plot points and struggles emphasized in Evelyn Serrano concern the collective plight of Puerto Ricans in the late 1960s in East Harlem and the rise of the Young Lord’s Party. As in Evelyn Serrano, Becoming Maria includes moments where the young Sonia contemplates the conditions of Puerto Ricans in the New York community and the island, particularly the treatment of Puerto Rican woman by the men in the community. In particular, a young Sonia is frustrated with the realities of internal sexism in a patriarchal culture:

Down with Puerto Rico! Revenge on the island! Screw those people!” becomes my internal battle cry as I vow to shun and reject the place I’ve never been to, where kids drown in sewage, the place of dead mothers, of negligent fathers, of starvation and poverty, of macho men throwing coconuts at their wives’ heads for fun! I know all the horrors even beautiful songs written about the island can’t cover up and will not be fooled by it! (177)

Young Sonia’s struggle to reconcile her views about her home life as both nurturing and abusive parallels with her feelings about her native land. As a writer, Manzano carefully demonstrates how Latino/a authors can both affirm their respective cultures while still encouraging readers to think critically. In fact, the tone and style of Becoming Maria underlines a sense of maturity and confidence in Manzano’s own voice as a novelist.

Overall, Manzano’s work fits into a tradition of Puerto Rican writers including Pura Belpré, Nicholasa Mohr, Piri Thomas, Judith Ortiz-Cofer, and Eric Velasquez who have also written for younger audiences. These writers also demonstrate the power of the creative arts as transformative practices for young Latino/as. Manzano’s position in acting and screenwriting, however, highlights the importance of cultivating spaces in media and performance arts as part of narrating Latino/a histories and counter-narratives.

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Women’s Studies/History: Consider having students read Manzano’s Becoming Maria alongside Mohr’s Nilda (1973) which also emphasizes the evolution of a young female artist. In terms of Latina women’s history, have student compare the differences between the experiences Mohr describes to that of Manzano. Similarly, Becoming Maria might be read in comparison to Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican (1993) in which Santiago narrates her journey into performance and New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts, a school which Manzano also attends and describes in the book. How is the journey into performance different/similar in Manzano and Santiago versus the journey into visual arts in Mohr?
  • The Wonderful Window: Young Sonia’s fourth-floor window functions as a kind of retreat which underlines the importance of creating private spaces of reflection and observation for young people. Ask students to reflect on the spaces they retreat to as a means of gaining perspective.
  • Dramatic Arts/Reader’s Theatre: Becoming Maria greatly emphasizes the dramatic arts as a kind of transformative pedagogy for the young Sonia who finds a sense of voice through drama. Consider following up this novel with a play referenced in the book such as Shakespeare’s works and/or Godspell.

[1] Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix–xi.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Marilisa_Jimenez-GarciaMarilisa Jiménez García is a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY. She works at the intersections of Latino/a Studies and childhood and children’s literature studies. She attended a performing arts middle school for theater and is currently working on a book manuscript on the history of Latino/a children’s and young adult literature and an essay on the Latino/a “YA” tradition. One of the chapters in her manuscripts is about Sonia Manzano’s work. She is also conducting a survey of NYC teachers on teacher education and the use of diverse lit. in the classroom.

Book Review: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

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DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

OUR TWO CENTS: 

Cindy L. Rodriguez: As soon as I finished Ashley’s novel, I wanted to reread it as a writer. I want to pull it apart and study it because it’s that good. One of the things I appreciate most was the slow burn of the narrative. The novel opens with the explosion, and then flashes back to show how the characters’ live intersect before the event. The fuse lit in that opening scene coils through the narrative, gaining in intensity as the story leads back to the explosion and then its aftermath. The tension in Naomi’s home, school, and community is palpable throughout the story and increases slowly as we’re led into the heartbreaking climax.

Ashley masterfully balances the big picture and the smallest details. Her writing made me think of a photographer who could both go wide and capture a panoramic view and then zoom in for a close up and not lose anything in this process. She also beautifully balances the swoony magic of falling deeply in love for the first time and the absolutely brutal realities faced by African-Americans and Mexicans at this time in history. BRAVA!!

Lila Quintero Weaver: Ashley’s command of narrative is impressive! In Out of Darkness, she tells a story set in the American past and makes it feel of the moment. It holds all the markers of a historical novel, starting with the cataclysmic explosion of 1937 that looms with ominous eventuality over the characters we come to care about. Threaded with lively detail, the historical richness comes through in social customs, daily activities, and the speech patterns and cultural attitudes typical of 1930s east Texas. No easy feat. I detect a massive amount of research behind it all.

This devotion to authenticity translates into contemporary meaning through the story’s characters and the complicated problems they face. Naomi’s most serious problem is a predatory stepfather whose capacity for evil keeps her in a constant state of vigilance. There is no escape. She has no money or resources and she feels deep loyalty toward her two tender stepsiblings. Because Naomi is Mexican-American and lives in a part of Texas where Mexicans aren’t numerous, she has no community to fall back on and is looked upon by some white classmates as dirty and worthless. When she falls hard for Wash, a young black man who offers her a chance at true happiness, Naomi steps into the arena of forbidden love—one she must keep hidden from society and the stepfather who follows her every move with lecherous eyes. What a story!

Others agree with us, too! Out of Darkness received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. Here are some quotes and links with more information about and praise for the novel:

“The beauty of Perez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.” —Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Michael L. Printz Award Honoree

Teen Library Toolbox (an SLJ blog): http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/09/book-review-out-of-darkness-by-ashley-hope-perez/

Detailed review from The Midnight Garden (YA for adults): http://www.themidnightgarden.net/2015/08/outofdarkness.html

Q&A on NBChttp://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/out-darkness-latina-author-n419026

Diversity in YA post: http://www.diversityinya.com/2015/08/words-that-wake-us/

Q&A on our site earlier this weekhttps://latinosinkidlit.com/2015/09/09/qa-with-ashley-hope-perez-about-out-of-darkness/

And this post by Forever Young Adult nails the “casting call” for novel if it were made into a movie. Their picks of Christian Serratos as Naomi and Titus Makin Jr. as Wash were spot on! Nicely done, Forever Young Adult!

   

TEACHING TIPS: Although the New London, Texas, school explosion was the worst school disaster in our nation’s history, it’s one many (most) students have probably never learned about but should, as it has interesting implications concerning race and class worth exploring. Out of Darkness asks readers to think beyond the black and white dynamics of U.S. race issues by adding Latin@ children to the segregated schools system and portraying the daily concerns and realities of Mexicans who could or could not “pass” as white. Also, the violent consequences of marginalized romantic relationships isn’t often explored in curricula, but might be/should be considering the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. A book like Out of Darkness could help teen readers appreciate the long history of struggle and violence experienced by people who have wanted to live and love freely.

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE AUTHORAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Out of Darkness, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez about OUT OF DARKNESS

A Star is Born

We’re so thrilled to begin our third year online with a celebration of Out of Darkness by our amiga and co-blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez! Her third novel, which released September 1, is historical fiction, with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. Using multiple points of view, Ashley develops a cast of complex characters who confront brutal racism and violence in addition to the beauty of first love. Amanda MacGregor of Teen Librarian Toolbox said, “Pérez’s story is nothing short of brilliant”, and we wholeheartedly agree! In fact, we think it’s one of the best 2015 releases! If it’s not on your to be read list, it should be. Click here to read Ashley’s post about her work on this novel, and for more insight, see our Q&A with her below.

Ashley, in the last two years, you finished your doctoral dissertation, changed jobs and geographical locations, and gave birth to a second child. How did you manage to write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life?

When you put it like that, it does sound pretty outrageous! The short answer is that, when our first son was one, we moved to Paris for a year. I taught a ton of university English classes, ate yards and yards of bread, and worked on the first draft of the novel. I gave myself that year off from academic research. When we got back, I used the novel as a daily carrot to motivate my academic writing: if I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.

You don’t shy away from controversial territory! This story contains sexual abuse, incest, brutal racism and frank sexuality. Talk about shaping these elements within the boundaries of young-adult fiction.

Wait–there are boundaries to young adult fiction? No one told me!! Really, though, I shouldn’t be glib. It’s just that Andrew Karre (my editor for Out of Darkness as well as for The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait) has always seemed more interested in pushing or crossing boundaries than in upholding them. He’s probably one of very few YA editors who sends emails that say things like, “could the sexual details in this scene be a little more explicit, not so coy?” Speaking more broadly, I’ve found it useful to give myself permission to cross even my own boundaries if I felt like doing so would help me get a scene closer to where I wanted it to be. As Andrew puts it, it’s easier to go too far and then scale things back than to strike the right note by trying to tiptoe forward.

You can tell that the frank depictions of consensual sexual activity is where I feel myself most challenged, but the racism and abuse that are part of the story in Out of Darkness are probably what’s harder for readers to contend with. The reality of racism in the world of 1937 East Texas didn’t seem like something I could—or should—varnish in any way. And sexual predation, now as in the past, flourishes in response to the social and economic vulnerability of potential victims. My main character, Naomi, is extremely vulnerable in both of these areas because of her ethnicity and precarious situation in the household where she lives. Being beautiful only puts her at greater risk.

WHITESonlyWhat went into your decision to use multiple points of view?

I was thinking about angles on the story and contrasts from the time I began feeling my way into the historical material for Out of Darkness. Part of what attracted me to the story was my curiosity—almost entirely unsatisfied by historical sources—about how the African American community experienced the explosion of the (white) New London school. The tensions and interplay between characters’ visions of the world seemed integral to the telling of this particular story. This was especially true since I wanted to recenter the narrative on experiences and perspectives that have been, at best, marginal in mainstream history.

I think readers needed to see the world through a range of characters’ eyes in Out of Darkness to grasp how dramatically different our experiences can be even when we are living in the same community. This understanding is not just a source of interest vis-à-vis the past; it can help contemporary readers reckon with the reality of inequity now. For example, it makes possible reflection on dramatic contrasts in schooling experiences or interactions with police for people of different backgrounds.

The racial complexity in this story is fascinating. As a brown-skinned person, Naomi falls between racial identities and finds doors closing in both the white and black communities. Was New London a mostly white settlement in that era? Did your research turn up instances of Mexicans caught between, as Naomi was?

 Prior to the East Texas oil boom, New London was a small agrarian community with  deeply segregated black and white communities. The discovery of oil meant the influx of many outsiders, both those who were working in oil and those who were simply attracted to the possibilities of a more prosperous community. Even though African Americans were mostly excluded from oilfield work (digging ditches was an exception), newcomers also arrived in search of jobs as chauffeurs, maids, busboys, line cooks, and craftsmen. I could not confirm the presence of a Mexican American like Naomi. Although I strongly suspect that a little girl named Juanita Herron was Hispanic, it’s impossible to know for sure. Still, I was satisfied that it was at least plausible for light-skinned children like the twins to slip into the school in much the way that families in Texas with American Indian backgrounds did. For example, the Drinkwater family in New London probably had Cherokee heritage, and their children attended the white school.

newlondonexplosionNIGHT

What was it about this particular event in history that made you want to dive in and create this narrative?

The New London explosion happened close to home (about 20 minutes from where I grew up), but I knew almost nothing about it and only rarely heard it mentioned. When I started, I didn’t know where the explosion would be in the timeline of the novel, but I knew that I wanted to incorporate it. The more I explored, the clearer it seemed to me that my way “into” the story would be different from the approach taken by historians, although historical detail is of course very important to the world of Out of Darkness. I wanted to think about what the explosion meant for the victims and their families, but I was even more interested in following its repercussions outward.

What becomes possible in a community that has been shattered in this way? What forms of brokenness in the community beforehand might have been overshadowed by the deaths of almost 300 children? For example, I wanted to explore the quieter, but no less terrible, effects of segregation. After all, black children were spared from the explosion precisely because they had been excluded from the opportunities at the white New London school, which was billed in newspapers as “the richest rural school in the country.”

And, as is usually the case, I began imagining particular characters. In the case of Out of Darkness, Wash and Naomi came first, then the twins, then their stepfather Henry. Once I had Wash and Naomi, I had to find a space for them to be together (a special tree in the woods), and that’s how the Sabine River and the East Texas landscape became important to the story. I loved writing about the natural spaces of my childhood. Sometimes describing that physical beauty was a bit of a reprieve from the harshness of my characters’ circumstances. And I think I even managed to fall a bit in love with Wash myself.

 

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

22295304By Cecilia Cackley

DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): Sierra Santiago was looking forward to a fun summer of making art, hanging out with her friends, and skating around Brooklyn. But then a weird zombie guy crashes the first party of the season. Sierra’s near-comatose abuelo begins to say “No importa” over and over. And when the graffiti murals in Bed-Stuy start to weep…. Well, something stranger than the usual New York mayhem is going on.

Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future. Shadowshaper releases June 30, 2015.

MY TWO CENTS: Sierra Santiago is one of my new favorite heroines. She makes plans and follows through, is clear-eyed about the shortcomings of people she loves and takes charge with attitude. As Sierra follows her grandfather’s direction to find Robbie and fix the murals in her neighborhood, more and more secrets keep coming to light and she discovers an entire spirit world that has been hidden to her, but to which she is strongly connected. Older weaves in many great discussion points among the action and supernatural fighting, including colorism, gender expectations, ethics (or lack thereof) in anthropology and handling difficult family members. The Brooklyn setting and Sierra’s group of friends add realism and humor to the story, making this fresh, exciting adventure a must read for YA fans.

TEACHING TIPS: There are many different ways this title could fit into the classroom. The themes of appropriation and anthropology would fit nicely into a history or sociology classroom. Librarians will want to recommend this to teens who love fantasy or adventure stories with urban settings. Art teachers could also add this title to a list of books involving murals and large scale public art projects, as well as discuss the tradition of honoring the dead in art or have students design their own murals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which began in January 2015 with Half-Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex and Strange Horizons and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as a NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter.

RESOURCES:

Interview from Source Latino: http://thesource.com/2015/06/08/source-latino-interview-with-shadowshaper-author-daniel-jose-older/

Review from Debbie Reese about overlap with Indigenous history: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2015/04/daniel-jose-olders-shadowshaper.html

Interview from School Library Journal: http://www.slj.com/2015/06/interviews/qa-urban-fantasy-counter-narrative-daniel-jose-older-on-shadowshaper/#_

Interview from The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2015/05/the-rumpus-interview-with-daniel-jose-older/

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Shadowshaper, visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out WorldCat.orgIndieBound.orgGoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

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

Book Review: Stranger (The Change #1) by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

By Eileen Fontenot

16034526DESCRIPTION FROM GOODREADS: Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, “the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. “Las Anclas” now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.

Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

MY TWO CENTS: After finishing an ARC of this book, which was officially released 11/13/14, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that unlike many sci-fi/fantasy books I enjoy so much, this one left a very pleasant feeling and hope for the future and not a lurking doom cloud of worry about what humanity will be like once we destroy the environment/bomb ourselves silly/let computers take over. Yes, there are terrible creatures lurking in the desert, but Las Anclas has an abundance of people who are working together to protect each other from those dangers.

But yes, there is still bigotry among certain people in power against those with “the Change,” but all does not seem completely hopeless. There are some teenagers with their own Changes – along with respected adults – who are fighting for acceptance. As for non-traditional male/female relationships, the people of Las Anclas are quite easy going; being gay or considering polyamory is very normalized behavior. In addition to the variety of relationships and differences among the characters that contemporary readers would recognize, the racial diversity of the cast of characters is not tokenized and does not feel forced in any way.

Teens who may not see themselves represented very often in sci-fi/fantasy novels can surely find a character that speaks to them – whether they are in a non-traditional romantic relationship, physically disabled, or experiencing mental illness. Or just feeling out of place and out of step with the so-called “normals” favored in society.

TEACHING TIPS: Youth services/teen librarians and high school teachers and librarians can encourage readers to write their own short stories and experiment with different points of view, like this book does. Teens and their instructors can discuss what using this narrative technique does to a plot, setting, and character development.

For teachers with an artistic bent, get the teens to draw or write about the flora and fauna of the future. A good tie-in would be a conversation about the ecological implications of war and how that would change what animals and plants look like and how they would behave. The drawings and ideas can range from silly to serious.

And finally, it would be interesting to find out what teens felt about building a positive society in the face of such challenges – a kind of positive utopia that existed in this novel. What would they do to become effective leaders in a harsh world, with little resources? What compromises would they be willing to make?

AUTHORS: From Goodreads: Rachel Manija Brown is the author of all sorts of stories in all sorts of genres. She has also written television, plays, video games, and a comic strip meant to be silk-screened on to a scarf. In her other identity, she is a trauma/PTSD therapist. She writes urban fantasy for adults under the name of Lia Silver.

From cahreviews.blogspot.com: Sherwood Smith began her publishing career in 1986, writing mostly for young adults and children. Smith studied in Austria for a year, earning a masters in history. She worked many jobs, from bartender to the film industry, then turned to teaching for twenty years, working with children from second grade to high school. To date she’s published over forty books and been nominated for several awards, including the Nebula, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and an Anne Lindbergh Honor Book.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Stranger (The Change #1) visit your local public library, your local bookstore, barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, goodreads.com or indiebound.com.

 

Eileenfontenot headshot Fontenot is a recent graduate of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. She works at a public library and is interested in community service and working toward social justice. A sci-fi/fantasy fan, Eileen was formerly a newspaper writer and editor.

Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith on Collaborating & Bucking the ‘Received Wisdom’ of Publishing Diversity

By Eileen Fontenot

16034526This post-apocalyptic, western-tinged adventure is more character-driven than you may expect. A diverse group of teenagers in Las Anclas narrate the story in third-person point of view–Ross, the stranger in town, who has a valuable item coveted by several factions and experiences PTSD episodes after escaping death from a bounty hunter; Mia, the town engineer who helps Ross in his new life; Jennie, a Ranger that is “Changed,” that is, has some sort of superhuman powers; Yuki, a former prince that struggles with settling down in LA and with his boyfriend, Paco; and Felicite, a scheming climber, lusting after power but also hiding a secret of her own.

This narration style does not detract from the action scenes, which find the characters battling deadly–and extremely crafty–desert animals and a neighboring army, which has a bloody history with the city of Las Anclas. Co-authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, however, portray most of the characters as well intentioned; even the least sympathetic main character did merit some empathy by the end of the novel. Nearly all of LA’s citizens are trying to make their town a better place to live in the way they feel is best – even if they can’t agree on what course that will take. But one thing they are not prejudiced against is non-traditional relationships. Same-sex and polyamorous relationships are accepted; Change powers have become the new issue that divides the community. The book’s dearth of white main characters is noteworthy as well.

Smith, who has authored more than forty books and been nominated for several awards, including the Nebula and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and Manija Brown, TV, comic strip, urban fantasy and video game writer and PTSD/trauma therapist, were kind enough to answer a few questions about this and future writing they’ll share and getting diverse works published.

Eileen: I’ve really enjoyed reading Stranger, especially the five POV characters. Any particular reason why you decided to write the novel in this way? How do you feel this structure lends itself to this genre/setting, etc.?

Rachel: It has multiple points of view (POVs) because it’s about a community, not a lone individual. The post-apocalyptic town of Las Anclas is very community-oriented—for better and for worse—so we wanted the structure to reflect that.

We also thought it was fun, for both us and our readers. Different people notice different things, and speak in different voices. For instance, Yuki Nakamura, who loves animals, was born on a ship, and is very introverted, always notices the wildlife, thinks in nautical metaphors, and only focuses on the people he actually cares about. Felicite Wolfe is the mayor’s ambitious daughter, so she pays close attention to everyone around her in order to make a good impression on them, manipulate them, or gain some knowledge she might be able use later.

Sherwood: While Mia, the youngest town engineer in Las Anclas’s history, keeps getting locked inside her head, sometimes spinning around so much in questions that she doesn’t know how to act when it comes to socializing. Poor Mia! She was the most fun to write about.

Rachel: The POV characters rotate throughout the series. Ross, Mia, and Jennie have POVs in all four books, but the other POVs switch off, with old POV characters dropping out and new ones taking their place.

Eileen: You have a co-author, Sherwood Smith–how did you come to work with her? Did you experience any challenges/benefits working with a co-author? What was the process the two of you used to write the novel? Did you each take character(s) and only write their chapters?

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Rachel Manija Brown (l) and Sherwood Smith (r)

Rachel: We both used to write TV, and we met to collaborate on a TV series. It didn’t sell, but we enjoyed working together so much that we kept on writing together.

Both of us write all the characters. We outline the story in advance, then literally sit next to each other at the computer, one typing (usually Sherwood; she’s much faster than me) while we alternately dictate the story. Any given sentence may have been written by both of us.

Sherwood: I have done several collaborations, and enjoyed them all, though each is very different. The fun part of writing with Rachel is that we never get writer’s block, because as soon as one of us runs out of ideas, whether on a single sentence or in a scene, the other either picks up with it and zooms ahead, or we can talk it out. Sometimes act it out!

Eileen: I see that you are a PTSD/trauma therapist, and one of the characters appears to be experiencing PTSD. What are your thoughts on including a character struggling with a mental condition? For you, is it similar and as important as including many characters of diversity?

Rachel: I definitely think that mental conditions are an aspect of diversity. But that’s not all there is to it. Ross’s experiences with PTSD are largely autobiographical. I don’t mean that they’re based on my clients, I mean that they’re based on what I went through as a teenager. I wanted to show that you can go through a lot of trauma and have it affect you–even affect you a lot– and not have it ruin your life, or mean that you can never be happy or never find love.

Sherwood: I agree with Rachel. There are aspects of Ross that also come out of my own childhood experiences. Rachel and I discovered that though our lives were very different, we shared certain emotional responses to situations that can cause symptoms of PTSD. This, in turn, made me very aware of similar emotional responses in students during the years that I taught, and though I am not trained as Rachel is, experience caused me to read up on the subject, and to seek ways to help kids feel a sense of safety, and agency.

Eileen: Stranger is incredibly multi-racial and diverse in many ways. What are your thoughts on getting your book published? I know from reading you and Sherwood’s PW blog post that you had at least one agent request that this diversity be toned down somewhat. Can you tell our readers a bit how you overcame this? Any advice for other authors who are marketing their diverse book or trying to get it seen by agents/publishers?

Rachel: Yes, an agent had trouble with Yuki being gay. In general, we had difficulty with the fact that gay and lesbian romances are just as important as straight romances. It’s also extremely unusual for a YA dystopia to have all the POV characters be people of color. We really had to persist to make the book available to readers.

Sherwood: I think it’s important to note that we do not believe that any of the agents or editors who asked, or hinted, or expressed doubts, about the diversity of our characters are bigots or anti-gay. It’s just that there has been such a strong “received wisdom” in marketing that protagonists must be straight and white or the book won’t sell. And publishers are primarily in the business of selling books. This received wisdom was probably true in 1950, but we don’t believe it is true today.

Rachel: Persistence is the key. If you want to go the traditional publishing route, be incredibly persistent. If you choose to self-publish, hire someone skilled to do the cover, and research how keywords and other important self-publishing techniques work. And know that there are readers out there who will really, really want to read your book. Luckily, nowadays it’s much easier to get it to them.

Eileen: I have read that Stranger is Book One in a series. What’s the status of the series and can you give us any juicy tidbits about what’s to come? Are you working on anything other than this series?

Rachel: Stranger stands on its own, but it’s also the first of a four-book series.

Book two is Hostage, in which we spend time in Gold Point, the city ruled with an iron fist by King Voske, the villain of Stranger, and meet a surprising new point of view character. Book three is Rebel, in which Ross’s past comes back to haunt him. The new point of view character in this book is someone we met back in book one, but maybe not someone expected to get a point of view. Book four is Traitor, in which all the plot threads and characters from the first three books come together in a battle for the future of Las Anclas. The new point of view character is someone whose perspective you may have been waiting for.

I’m currently working on the third Werewolf Marines book, Partner. That’s urban fantasy for adults under the pen name Lia Silver. It’s also diverse and also involves PTSD, but contains too much sex to be suitable for younger readers.

Sherwood: I’m working on the sequel to Lhind the Thief, which is YA fantasy with a character not quite human. It’s called Lhind the Spy, and it explores questions like belonging, what love is, the consequences of power—but these are also meant to be fun, so there will be chases, and magical razzle-dazzle, and an elaborate dinner party for powerful people that goes very, very wrong. That will be published through Book View Café, a consortium of writers who have been publishing work that is difficult for New York publishing to categorize. For DAW, I have been writing A Sword Named Truth, which is the first of a series about teenage allies, many of them in positions of power, who have to try to overcome personal and cultural conditioning to work together against a very, very powerful enemy.

Rachel and I also have other projects planned, which we will write together.