Celebrating Pura Belpré Award Winners: Spotlight on The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales

PuraBelpreAward

The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone was marked on Sunday, June 26, during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. In honor of the award’s anniversary, we have been highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Viola Canales, the winner of the 2006 Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for The Tequila Worm.

 

Review by Cindy L. Rodriguez

The Tequila Worm CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Sofia comes from a family of storytellers. Here are her tales of growing up in the barrio, full of the magic and mystery of family traditions: making Easter cascarones, celebrating el Día de los Muertos, preparing for quinceañera, rejoicing in the Christmas nacimiento, and curing homesickness by eating the tequila worm. When Sofia is singled out to receive a scholarship to an elite boarding school, she longs to explore life beyond the barrio, even though it means leaving her family to navigate a strange world of rich, privileged kids. It’s a different mundo, but one where Sofia’s traditions take on new meaning and illuminate her path.

MY TWO CENTS: The Tequila Worm begins as vignettes and then moves into a more traditional narrative when Sofia, the Mexican-American protagonist, is a fourteen-year-old high school freshman. In the beginning, a younger Sofia relays special family-centered moments–some downright hysterical and others more poignant–such as her First Communion, making cascarones for Easter, and celebrating both Halloween and Día de los Muertos. Throughout these moments, Sofia learns about her culture and, at times, is torn between her tight-knit community and the “American” world beyond her barrio in McAllen, Texas. After trick-or-treating in her neighborhood and then in another, wealthier part of town, Sofia has this conversation with her father:

“I wish I lived on the other side of town,” I said, looking out the window at the darkness.

“Why, mi’ja?”

“Because they live in nice houses, and they’re warm.”

“Ah, but there’s warmth on this side, too.”

“But…it’s really cold at home, and most of the houses around us are falling apart.”

“Yes, but we have our music, our foods, our traditions. And the warm hearts of our families.”

Another example is when Sofia is verbally bullied, called a “Taco Head” by students when she eats her homemade lunch at school. First, she is embarrassed and avoids the cafeteria entirely, spending that time on the playground or eating inside a stall in the girls’ bathroom to avoid ridicule. With the help of a P.E. teacher, Sofia returns to the lunch room, proudly eats her tacos in public, and is given the advice to get even, not by kicking the bully (which Sofia wants to do) but by kicking her butt at school.

Sofia, indeed, excels in academics and is offered a scholarship to St. Luke’s Episcopal School, a prestigious boarding school in Austin. Sofia’s family doesn’t understand why she wants to leave her home. When her mother asks, “But what’s wrong with here?” Sofia responds, “Nothing. But the Valley is not the whole world…I just want to see what’s out there.”

Eventually, Sofia’s family allows her to attend St. Luke’s, as long as she promises to remain connected and learn how to be a good comadre to her sister Lucy and cousin Berta. In the place she calls “Another Mundo,” Sofia learns to appreciate her family’s stories and traditions, understanding how they have shaped her and connected her to a community rich in other ways. The young girl who once hid after being called a “Taco Head,” grows into a young adult who is “brave enough to eat a whole tequila worm” and who confronts a classmate who writes a note telling Sofia to “wiggle back across the border.” Sofia responds by saying, “My family didn’t cross the border; it crossed us. We’ve been here for over three hundred years, before the U.S. drew those lines.”

The novel’s end leaps ahead in time, with Sofia as an adult, a civil rights lawyer living in San Francisco, who fights to preserve her changing neighborhood and who often visits to happily participate in the traditions she questioned as a child.

The novel’s main events are closely connected to the author’s life, as she, too, was raised in McAllen and attended a prestigious boarding school before attending Harvard University. Many of Canales’s own experiences, portrayed through Sofia, would be easily recognizable to younger Latinx readers who straddle two cultures and find value in each as they come of age.

TEACHING TIPS & RESOURCES: The Tequila Worm naturally lends itself to lessons that explore Mexican-American culture–specifically cascarones, quinceañeras, and Día de los Muertos–as well as broader literary elements, such as character development and universal themes. For classroom ideas, check out these links, starting with this fabulous, thorough Educator’s Guide created by Vamos a Leer: Teaching Latin America through Literacy

A Study Guide created by teacher Bobbi Mimmack: https://sites.google.com/a/chccs.k12.nc.us/bobbi-mimmack/the-tequila-worm-by-viola-canales

An author interview in Harvard Magazine: http://harvardmagazine.com/2006/01/the-beauty-of-beans.html

Viola Irene CanalesABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the Stanford Law School website): Early in her career, Viola Canales served as a field organizer for the United Farm Workers and an officer in the United States Army, where she was tactical director at a Brigade Fire Distribution Center overseeing Patriot and Hawk missile systems in West Germany, and before this, a platoon leader at a Hawk missile battery. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she practiced law at O’Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles (while also serving as a Civil Service Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles, to which she was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley) and San Francisco, and then headed up the westernmost region of the Small Business Administration under the Clinton Administration. Her book of short stories, Orange Candy Slices and Other Secret Tales, was published by the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press; her novel The Tequila Worm, published by Random House, was designated a Notable Book by the American Library Association, and won its Pura Belpré Medal for Narrative, as well as a PEN Center USA Award. El Gusano de Tequila – her Spanish translation of the novel – was published in 2012 by KingCake Press. Her bilingual book of poems The Little Devil & The Rose (El Diabilito y La Rosa) was published in 2014 by the University of Houston.

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She was born in Chicago; her father is from Puerto Rico and her mother is from Brazil. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU and has worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Celebrating Pura Belpré Winners: Spotlight on Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez

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The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy.

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Victor Martinez’s Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida, winner in the narrative category in 1998.


Review by Cecilia Cackley

Parrot in the OvenDESCRIPTION (from GoodReads): Dad believed people were like money. You could be a thousand-dollar person or a hundred-dollar person even a ten-, five-, or one-dollar person. Below that, everybody was just nickels and dimes. To my dad, we were pennies.

 Fourteen-year old Manny Hernandez wants to be more than just a penny. He wants to be a vato firme, the kind of guy people respect. But that’s not easy when your father is abusive, your brother can’t hold a job, and your mother scrubs the house as if she can wash her troubles away.

In Manny’s neighborhood, the way to get respect is to be in a gang. But Manny’s not sure that joining a gang is the solution. Because, after all, it’s his life – and he wants to be the one to decide what happens to it.

MY TWO CENTS: The subtitle of this book translates as ‘my life’ and that’s exactly what it is. Narrator Manny Hernandez tells the reader the details of his life without leaving out any of the tough, ugly parts—and it’s the truth in everything that gives the book its poetry. Manny is an honest character, confessing his struggles and fears to us and not apologizing for anything. Manny guides the reader through his family, neighborhood, and school, detailing everyone’s struggles, disappointments and moments of peace. This is not a book where there are always clear sides of good and evil, or winners and losers. Manny joins a gang and goes through a violent initiation, but almost immediately afterward, when he sees a fellow gang member rob someone, he realizes that he is not a person who hurts others like that and returns home to his family. Like most teenagers, Manny is just trying to survive and figure out his life and the truth of that is what makes his story so compelling.

Parrot in the Oven was published in 1996 (It won the Pura Belpré Medal in 1998 and the National Book Award in 1996). Although several of the Newbery honor titles that year touched on difficult subjects such as abuse, drugs and historical violence, it would be four more years before the Michael L. Printz award was established to specifically honor literature for teens. Since then, YA literature has received a lot more recognition and the debate about what is appropriate for teens to read and what we should be honoring with awards has become much more heated. Victor Martinez knew what was important: for teens to have books that told them the truth and let them know that whatever they were struggling with in their lives, they would figure it out and they were not alone. Parrot in the Oven is one of those books and we are lucky to be able to share it with readers today.

TEACHING TIPS: Parrot in the Oven provides lots of opportunity for discussion, making it an ideal book to read as a class. Because the book is organized into chapters that each tell about a different place, person, or experience, it serves as a good example text for students doing writing projects. Just as Manny writes about his grandmother’s garden, a boxing match, his sister’s miscarriage, you can encourage students to pick a place or experience of their own and try to describe it in detail, the way Manny does his own life.

Relationships are also central to Manny. Students could work in small groups to discuss Manny’s relationship with his different family members, teachers, and people in the neighborhood, and search the text to find evidence for how he feels about these people and interacts with them.

The ending of Parrot in the Oven is satisfying but not entirely definitive. Manny has seemingly made a choice about his future, but we don’t see any results of that choice. This provides an opportunity for students to imagine what Manny might be doing in a year or three years, and write a short piece showing how his choices have changed or not changed his life.

*****

Victor MartinezVictor Martinez was born and raised in Fresno, California, the fourth in a family of twelve children. He attended California State University at Fresno and Stanford University, and has worked as a field laborer, welder, truck driver, firefighter, teacher, and office clerk. His poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies. Mr. Martinez was awarded the 1996 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Parrot in the Oven, his first novel. Mr. Martinez lived in San Francisco, California, where he helped to found the poetry collective Humanizarte. He passed away in 2011.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Click here for a review from Teaching Latin America Through Literature.

Here’s a printable lesson plan from HarperCollins.

For book guides and lesson plans from Teaching Books, click here.

 

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.

Celebrate Earth Day By Reading Kid Lit Books As An Ecocritic

 

By Marianne Snow Campbell

Earth Day is here again!  It’s a time to honor the natural world that surrounds us, consider how we can take better care of the environment, and take action keep our planet healthy and beautiful. In schools, many teachers and students will join together to read and discuss books with environmentalist lessons – The Lorax, The Great Kapok Tree, a variety of picture books about recycling and picking up litter. Last year, Lila Quintero Weaver shared a beautiful post about books celebrating “Latin@ Heroes of the Planet” and other “Earth Day-friendly books with Latin@ connections.” I love the strong messages that these texts carry and believe that they should play a prominent role in educating children about conservation and ecology.

However, reading literature with overt lessons about the earth isn’t the only method for learning about environmentalism. There’s another, somewhat subtler, approach – ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is a form of literary analysis that investigates how literature depicts nature and, ideally, inspires readers to take action to keep the natural environment healthy. But it’s not just for literature scholars – kids of all ages can be ecocritics, too!

To start an ecocritical analysis, choose a book that depicts nature but isn’t about ecological themes like conservation, recycling, and saving the earth.  For example, I like to use Maya Christina González’s Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol, a poetic, bilingual picture book that celebrates the strength and beauty of trees, as well as humans’ connections with these majestic plants.

Throughout the book, the narrator, a child, embodies nature by pretending to be a tree. They begin as a seed nestled in the earth. Slowly, they sprout from the earth and stretch toward the sky, just like a young sapling. As the child/tree grows, they are joined by other children, who also identify as diverse, strong, leafy forest residents:

“Trees!

More and more trees

Trees and trees

Just like me!

 

¡Árboles!

Más y más árboles

Árboles y árboles

¡Iguales a mí!”

 

To explore a book like Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol with an ecocritical lens, young readers can ponder questions (adapted from Dobie, 2011) that facilitate thinking about nature and readers’ relationship with the earth:

  • How do the author and illustrator depict nature in this text?
  • What is/are the relationship/s between humans and nature in this text?
  • What does this text tell you about nature?
  • Do you agree with this text’s representation of nature?  Why or why not?
  • Does this text make you want to do something to help the environment?  Why or why not? What do you want to do, and how can you accomplish these goals?

Let’s apply those questions to Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol. When I consider these questions in relation to this book, I’m filled with awe and gratitude for the trees that surround me. I love how González depicts trees and humans as equals. In both the text and the illustrations, she presents children and trees as one and the same; people are trees, and trees are people. Nature isn’t a commodity for us to consume. This representation makes me rethink my responsibility for the environment and how I should treat nature as I want to be treated. Trees care for me by cleaning the air, providing shade, and sharing their beauty, so shouldn’t I do more to care for trees? Even though Call Me Tree isn’t about conservation, it certainly makes me want to do my part to respect and sustain the natural world.

Doing ecocriticism can benefit kids in a variety of ways. By analyzing and evaluating representations of nature in texts, they’ll flex their critical thinking muscles. Moreover, ecocriticism’s blending of environmental science and literary studies can help science lovers get more into literature (and vice versa). Also, readers who enjoy expressing themselves creatively can take ecocritical analysis a step further by creating their own nature poetry, art, music, and drama.

 The best news? There are tons of literature by Latinx and Latin American authors that kids can explore with an ecocritical lens. Below are some great books for readers of all ages that feature various types of nature motifs. (Special thanks to Lila Quintero Weaver, Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, Cindy L. Rodriguez, and Cecilia Cackley for their rich contributions to this list of suggested books!)

 

Picture Books

It’s Our Garden (George Ancona)

Kids get their hands dirty and grow food for their community in this nonfiction tale about a school garden.


Prietita and the Ghost Woman / PRIETITA Y LA LLORONA
(Gloria Anzaldúa, Maya Christina Gonzalez)

Prietita wanders the South Texas woods seeking a medicinal plant for her ailing mother.  What will happen when she meets la Llorona?

 

Domitila y el mar (Nina Basich, Teresa Martínez)

After receiving a postcard from her uncle, who’s vacationing at the beach, Domitila can’t get the sea out of her head. (Text in Spanish.)

Domitila

 

Un pueblo lleno de bestias (Francisco Hinojosa, Manuel Monroy)

A group of overprotected children escape their stifling village and create their own community in the desert. (Text in Spanish.)

 

I Know the River Loves Me / Yo sé que el río me ama (Maya Christina Gonzalez)

Can a child and a river be best friends?  Of course!

 

Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra (Jorge Argueta, Lucía Angela Pérez)

In this sumptuous collection of poetry, Argueta explores his childhood connections with the earth.

 

Chavela and the Magic Bubble (Monica Brown, Magaly Morales)

Magical bubble gum takes Chavela back in time to visit a grove of sapodilla trees and the people who harvest their chicle in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

 

Middle Grades Books

Silver People: VOICES OF THE PANAMA CANAL (Margarita Engle)

This collection of poems about the construction of the Panama Canal is narrated not only by humans, but also by animals and plants.

 

The Dreamer (Pam Muñoz Ryan)

As an adult, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda often incorporated nature into his work.  This account follows the young Neruda (born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto) and his encounters with the natural world.

 

Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz Ryan)

Forced off of their wealthy ranch in Mexico, Esperanza and her mother immigrate to California to work the land.

 

Where the Flame Trees Bloom (Alma Flor Ada)

Natural imagery permeates Alma Flor Ada’s stories of her childhood in Cuba.

 

My Ocean: A Novel of Cuba (Enrique Pérez Díaz)

Struggling to understand why friends and family are leaving Cuba for the United States, Enrique seeks solace and comfort in the ocean.

3364012

 

Young Adult Books

I Will Save You (Matt de la Peña)

The beach plays a central role in this mysterious, psychological novel.

 

The Living (Matt de la Peña)

Earthquakes, tsunamis, and disease give readers a different perspective of nature in this intense thriller.

 

Under the Mesquite (Guadalupe García McCall)

Wrestling with her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the responsibility of caring for her siblings, Lupita seeks refuge and resilience in the shade of a tree.

 

The Vicious Deep (Zoraida Córdova)

Nature meets fantasy!  Tristan has always loved the water – a love that begins to make sense when he discovers that he’s heir to an underwater kingdom.

 

Out of Darkness (Ashley Hope Pérez)

The East Texas woods are a place of safety for Naomi and Wash as they cope with violence and racism.

 

 

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.

 

Listening Latinx: An author’s audiobook experience

OutOfDarknessAudioCoverI have been listening to audiobooks for nearly three decades, so it was something of a dream come true to see Out of Darkness go into production shortly after it received a Printz Honor. Before production began, though, I found myself wondering if my strong opinions about narration, pronunciation, and the like would get in the way—or set me up for disappointment. What if the narrator’s voice didn’t match the texture or tone I’d imagined in writing?

I needn’t have worried. I loved how involved I got to be in the process with Listening Library. Executive producer Aaron Blank proved scrupulous in his attention to detail, from the pronunciation of my last name (yes, that accent mark means something, as I explain here) to the particulars of how to say “Cari” and “Beto,” the names of the twins in the novel. Yes, I might have sent him audio recordings of me pronouncing their names…

A few people have asked me if I wanted to narrate my own book. In general, I find that author-narrated audiobooks are rarely as effective as those narrated by actors. In particular, I have an aversion to the sound of my own voice on recordings, so that option wasn’t even on the table. (Although I would like brownie points for recording this brief introduction to Out of Darkness.)

WashAsJackie

Robinson: my image of Wash

Aaron shared my sense that it was important to cast a Latinx narrator or a narrator with exceptional Spanish and cultural competency. We also agreed that it would be important to find talent capable of handling the wide range of voices, including Henry’s oil field diction and Wash’s African American Vernacular. It’s possible that I sent Aaron YouTube videos to illustrate the flattening of vowels common among East Texans as well as examples of intonation for Southern accents and African American Vernacular that captured the particularity of speech without any whiff of caricature. And (*secret revealed*) since I always pictured Wash as a young Jackie Robinson, I had to send some footage of a film about Robinson, too.

I listened to many wonderful auditions, but Benita Robledo’s beautifully modulated voice stood out immediately. She settled quickly into the world of the novel, managing not only to capture the texture of Naomi’s experience but also the nuances of other point-of-view characters as well.

BenitaRobledo_ItsAWrap

Benita’s voice is as beautiful as she is. Sometimes you can feel that smile in the narration.

It’s a tremendous boon that, as director Tony Hudz noted, Benita gets “all the pronunciations, pitch- and letter-perfect.” But what Benita brings is more than that. Also a Texan, she grew up near Brownsville and (again quoting Tony) “knows this turf” emotionally and psychologically. In my listening, I hear the spark of connection, sincere animation of my words that comes in part from recognizing the silences that they seek to counter. Benita shared this about the experience of bringing Out of Darkness to sound:

In the still hush of the recording studio, with only my voice and my director to guide me, I would lose myself in Ashley Hope Pérez’s words. Sometimes I’d get so involved in the story, I wouldn’t realize a whole morning had passed and it was time for a break. She has an incredible talent for creating beauty even in the ugliest of times. For me, getting to live and breathe Out of Darkness, was nothing short of magic.

The admiration is mutual. Ditto regarding my feelings for Lincoln Hoppe, who masterfully renders the passages in the voice of “The Gang,” which captures the collective voice of the senior class. The Gang is a kind of ugly distillation of the thoughts circulating and is often thick with unexamined racism. Because of the character of these sections, and because it is the only first-person narration in the novel, we felt it should have a different narrator. (Benita does all the other chapters.) Here’s what Tony had to say about Lincoln’s role:

Lincoln_Hoppe_NotEvil

Lincoln Hoppe

The first thing you have to know about Lincoln Hoppe is that he’s a 6’4″ puppy dog. With glasses. One of the sweetest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. It is thus a tribute and a testament to his professionalism and skill as a reader when I say that he captured full well the ugliness and evil of The Gang. God, he did a good, awful job. And I think the slightly husky/sometimes almost raw texture of his voice will play off beautifully against Benita’s relative sweetness and lightness.

And it does, friends, it does.

Benita and Lincoln’s voices animate the narrative world of my book. Benita captures the beauty and audacity of hope in the face of prejudice, and Lincoln distills the surprising lyricism of some of the darkest threads of human consciousness that I’ve ever tried to write.

A caveat: it’s hard to listen to the prologue of Out of Darkness. This is through no fault of Benita’s. The prologue is difficult to read on the page, too; I wanted it to be that way. As one reviewer noted, the prologue acts as “a litmus test to see if you can emotionally handle this haunting novel.” The prologue figures the tremendous loss of the New London school explosion, which left one in four children dead, and the terrible possibilities it unleashes in the imagined world of my novel. Hearing this part read aloud ups the ante as Benita’s voice evokes the human stakes of tragedy.

NLSchoolExplosionatNight

Some of the lights that inspired the opening of the prologue.

It’s a difficult beginning for a difficult book. But it is a kind of difficulty that, I believe, we need to reckon with. It’s the kind of difficulty that helps us face, honestly, all that we are capable of in moments of great loss, the beauty and the horror of our humanity.

Want to listen to Out of Darkness on audio? It releases April 26. Pre-order it from Listening Library or Audible. You can also request it on CD at your local library or get a digital check-out through Overdrive.com.

And, PS, here’s the scoop on Out of Darkness, copy courtesy of the brilliant folks at Carolrhoda Lab:

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

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller 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 sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

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.

 

Author Samantha Mabry on her Debut Novel, a Student’s Shrug, and Straddling Two Cultures

 

By Samantha Mabry

I teach English at a community college in downtown Dallas. Currently, some of my students are reading a book entitled Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado. In his book, Corchado, who was born in the Mexican state of Durango and raised in California and El Paso, Texas, writes mostly about his own reporting on the drug trade and corruption in Mexico, but there’s also an interesting, underlying theme he explores regarding identity: what it means to straddle two worlds, to have a foot on each side of the border, but to never feel fully rooted, truly at home in either place. As he puts it, he can sometimes feel too American when he’s in Mexico and too Mexican when he’s in America.

Among my students, discussions have taken place regarding what it means to be a part of two cultures. When I ask if they’re able to relate to Corchado, many nod their heads, and one girl said, “Absolutely.” She then elaborated: “At home, I’m Mexican. At school, I’m American.” Then she shrugged. Like, obviously. She made it seem like it was pretty easy to understand what the different expectations are in different spheres of her life and that it took little effort and not a whole lot of thought to navigate those spheres.

I keep thinking about this student –in particular, that shrug. Like, what’s in that shrug? What does that shrug mean? I want there to be something deep in that shrug because I am critical by nature and like for things like shrugs to mean something, to be symbolic, to say something about what it means to be a Mexican-American young woman living in Texas right this minute. I keep thinking about all the comments I could have followed up with: Okay, so you’re Mexican in one place and American in another. Is there an identity that feels more true to you? Are you more Mexican than American? Would you say you are Mexican-American? Would you call yourself Chicana? Latina? Hispanic? Do these words, these markers of identity, matter to you, or am I just really wanting them to matter??

My mother is Mexican-American, though I think she would say she’s just American. Or Hispanic. My dad’s mother was from Puerto Rico, and his dad was white. I’m light olive-skinned with brown hair and brown eyes, but my last name, Mabry, is European. I first heard Spanish at my grandmother’s house but learned it properly in a classroom. I call myself mestiza because that’s what really rings true for me. I think that identity matters, and I think that –particularly for those from mixed backgrounds or with migrations or diaspora in their histories –identity can be fluid. I think that many Latinx people, like Alfredo Corchado, are standing with one foot here and one foot there. Some of them may be standing with an imbalance: one foot rooted in one place more heavily than the other. Some may feel as if they have many limbs, all which are reaching across geography and back into time. Some may feel, however, like they’re not straddling at all. It is not my place, of course, to tell another Latinx person how to be or how to feel.

In my book, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, both of the main characters are of mixed backgrounds, racially and culturally. They are a mix of white and non-white. Lucas, the narrator looks white, has a white kid’s name, but there’s something else there, tugging in his blood. Isabel is the product of an English father and native Puerto Rican mother, and sides with her mother when it comes to her identity. I specifically tried to make their histories and their identities complex. They are influenced –haunted and inspired, inspired or haunted –by their past. They are trying to fix centuries-old errors and clear new paths.

So…after all that, we’re back to the shrug. Is it simple, or is it complex? Is it a small gesture that signifies nothing, or something brimming with meaning? Maybe it’s simple: with these people, I am this one thing; with those people, I am this other thing. It’s easy to figure out. Simple, simple. Or maybe it’s complex: a gesture so full that words pale. It’s obvious that I want it to be the latter, but who cares what I want? I wrote a book about complex identities, one that I hoped explored nuance, but of course that’s not the only way to write about identity.  Someone –maybe me, maybe not –needs to write the story about the Mexican-American girl who is Mexican at home and American everywhere else. And maybe she is wildly complicated but not because of that, but because of all the other things that go on in a young woman’s life.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which releases April 12, 2016 with Algonquin Young Readers, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Samanth Mabry author photo

Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is her first novel.

Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

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Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

This book talk is based on an uncorrected advance copy.

FROM THE PUBLISHER: School: failure. Romance: failure. Family: failure. Suicide: failure. There’s only one thing left to try: living.

When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital psychiatric ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But there she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experiences with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

MY TWO CENTS: Another fifteen minutes and the pills would’ve done their work, extinguishing all the bright, unrealized promise of 16-year-old Vicky Cruz’s life. Luckily, someone finds her in time. When she wakes up in the psychiatric unit of Lakeview Hospital, in Austin, Texas, her stomach has been pumped, and the first voice she hears belongs to Dr. Desai, a therapist whose guidance and fierce advocacy serve to pull Vicky away from the brink.

At Lakeview, Dr. Desai oversees the treatment of teens hospitalized with serious mental-health issues. Vicky becomes intimately acquainted with three fellow patients, who play integral roles in her healing journey and offer compelling stories of their own:

E.M. came to Lakeview after one of his violent outbursts resulted in court-mandated treatment.

Mona wrestles with bipolar disorder, which was recently compounded by trauma at home. Child Protective Services removed her little sister from the custody of their mom and stepdad.

Gabriel is a young mystic who initially withholds the exact nature of his mental illness from the others in the group. In Vicky’s eyes, he’s a tender soul who moves in and out of functionality.

Lakeview is the primary setting for much of the novel, but some scenes unfold during off-site excursions, including a stay at Dr. Desai’s working ranch, where the patients perform minor farm chores, and go on a wild-river adventure that nearly leads to tragedy but ultimately opens new avenues for transformation. And there are more wild rides as two of the characters plunge into distressing setbacks. Despite her own shaky condition, Vicky responds to others with empathy, leading her to find greater definition in her own life’s purpose.

Vicky’s road to recovery is far from smooth. Shortly after surviving “the deed,” as she calls her suicide attempt, she’s hard pressed to pinpoint what’s so unbearable about her life. But she’s certain she’ll try to escape it again. Strong clues lie in the hollowness of her family relationships. Her mother died of cancer six years before, and less than one year later, her father remarried. Throughout her mother’s illness and even after her passing, Vicky’s father and her older sister, Becca, detached themselves from the trauma. By contrast, Vicky was the sensitive and attentive child who felt her mother’s absence keenly. Afterwards, it was Juanita, the family housekeeper, who served as Vicky’s truest human connection. Unfortunately, Juanita’s arthritis is too disabling for her to continue working and she plans to return to her native Mexico.

Once Vicky leaves the chilly environment of home and enters the warmer climate of the treatment unit, she begins to entertain the idea that life may be worth living. After consulting with an outside therapist, Vicky’s father and stepmother try to convince her to return home and resume normal activities, including school—the general idea being to jump back on the horse after a fall. Vicky’s instinct tells her this won’t work. For one thing, “our house is not a good place to figure things out,” she realizes. Bit by bit, through flashbacks and in conversations in Dr. Desai’s office and with her new friends, we see that Vicky’s family may be well off, but it isn’t well. For example, whether born obtuse or blinded by unresolved grief, Mr. Cruz uses words as bludgeons, and for Vicky, these words and the attitudes behind them strip her of the sense that she is lovable.

Francisco Stork brilliantly depicts the intangibles of interior life, an ability that he ably demonstrated in his 2009 YA novel, Marcelo in the Real World. In The Memory of Light, Stork summons these powers to communicate the nature of depression. Here’s how Vicky tries to explain its mysterious operations to herself: “I imagine a whole bunch of little minerlike elves who live and work inside the dark tunnels of my brain. They wear flashlight hats of different colors and push clanging carts full of words on steel rails from one corner of my mind to another.”

Vicky experiences small, but important epiphanies during her hospital stay. In a particularly shining scene, Dr. Desai shares approaches to unlocking the vicious circle of obsessive thoughts. One of the nuggets from this conversation is a fable from Dr. Desai’s native India that illuminates the self-defeating nature of holding on to such thoughts.

All of the teen characters and many of the adults in this novel are Latin@s, representing a full range of personalities, social and economic classes, and occupations. The Cruz family belongs to the wealthy sector of Austin. Vicky, who attends an exclusive private school, is markedly aware of her privileged status—and of the fact that it doesn’t shield her from mental illness. Her exposure to the less-privileged lives of her new friends alerts her to her father’s snobbish attitude toward working-class Latin@s. She sees the hypocrisy, too. His own grandfather arrived in the United States from Mexico without a penny.

The Memory of Light is a compelling view of teens in crisis. It points the way toward life beyond depression, yet steers clear of romanticizing serious mental illness. Although it’s primarily Vicky Cruz’s story of dealing with suicidal depression and the agony of living in a family broken by loss and dysfunction, the intertwining narratives of the other young characters charge the novel with extra vitality and shed light on the many faces of mental illness.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Don’t miss Cindy L. Rodriguez’s timely reflections on how depression is viewed in the Latino community. Her article includes a list of YA novels featuring Latin@ characters wrestling with mental illness.

On his website, Francisco Stork features two blog posts related to the topic of depression and the writing of The Memory of Light. See them here and here.

In this article, a school psychologist offers tips for teachers on classroom strategies to help depressed students.

francisco_storkABOUT THE AUTHOR: Francisco X. Stork is a Mexican-born author of six novels for young people. Among these is the multiple award-winner Marcelo in the Real World. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he spent much of his law career working in the field of affordable housing. Learn more about Francisco and his books at his official author site.

 

 

 

IMG_1291Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.