Category Archives: Latino/a

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.’” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

Ripper by Isabel Allende, translated by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne

RipperJust as her latest book was hitting shelves, the near-deified Isabel Allende opened mouth, inserted foot during an interview on NPR and set off a firestorm of negative reaction. On mysteries, she intoned, “I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke.” Uh-oh. Two-and-a-half weeks later (after at least one bookstore returned all copies to her publisher), she was out apologizing, insisting her own comments were the joke. They say no press is bad press, but …

Having already loaded Ripper on my iPod before her ‘joke’ grabbed headlines, curiosity made me hit that ‘play’-button. I would have loved a studio sneak peek to see what sort of faces narrator Edoardo Ballerini must have made while recording what became the final 14.5 hours; to his credit, except for briefly stumbling over a Scottish accent, Ballerini admirably slogs through the almost-500 pages.

“My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd,” Allende revealed in that infamous interview. [Call me wrong, but Amanda seems to be 17 here, referenced thusly on pages 30, 146, and 190.] “My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.”

What Allende should have also warned was that she was throwing in just about every stereotype: the ex-vet Asiaphile who can’t satisfy his dragon-lady S&M girlfriend (because he couldn’t finish that “manual” with “something beige in the title – or maybe it was gray”), the arrogant old rich man who falls for someone of the wrong net worth, the innocent good girl corrupted by the popular big-boy-on-campus, the Asian houseboy (although he has the glorified title of ‘butler’ – so that at least one person can say, ‘the butler did it’; he didn’t), and on and on! Oh, she even adds ghosts (magic realism made Allende mega-famous, after all) – including one named Sharbat, “like the girl with green eyes on the famous National Geographic cover“!

So that ‘nerdy’ sleuth, Amanda, and her grandfather/”henchman,” Kabel (an acronym of his real name Blake), regularly play a computer-facilitated game called Ripper with a group of motley teens scattered around the world. They’re the first to discover that the gruesome murders plaguing San Francisco are the work of a serial killer, long before Amanda’s father – “deputy chief of homicide detail” – and his team catch on. Meanwhile, Amanda’s long-divorced mother Indiana – that “plump” protagonist – is caught between two men, leaving her rather oblivious to the rest of reality; after eight murders, she goes missing …

Mystery/thriller aficionado I’m not, but I had the whodunnit figured out as soon as the character appeared, with hours upon hours to go as yet. Because the murderer was so obvious, I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be right, so I gritted it out to the bitter end; thank goodness at least I was multi-tasking because I’m never, ever going to get those hours back! Finally finished, I guess I can only claim temporary insanity.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Latino/a, South American

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseWhat a year Benjamin Alire Sáenz has had: in the adult market, he made literary history last May as the first Latino writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his seven-story collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club; his latest young adult title had equally spectacular success, winning the Stonewall Book Award’s “Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award,” the Pura Belpré Award, and named an Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book.

While I sheepishly confess I haven’t read Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club (for shame!), I can wholeheartedly agree with every judge who deemed Aristotle and Dante so prizeworthy across various audiences. If you have the choice to go audible, take it: Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, the composer-lyricist of Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer finalist, In the Heights) superbly captures the voice-breaking self-discovery of adolescent angst.

At 15, Aristotle, or “Ari,” is the much-younger youngest child of four, and the only still living at home with his fragile mother and distant father. His two older sisters have their own lives, and his older brother has been lost to the family since he went to jail. He’s the embodiment of the ‘angry young man’ – “bored,” “miserable,” and unwilling to accept how much he still needs others, including his parents. When Ari meets Dante – a “squeaky”-voiced fellow 15-year-old who offers to teach him how to swim – their tentative relationship grows to encompass not only each other, but their families, as well. From unsure companions to best friends, through misunderstandings and separations, these not-yet-mature teens learn to share their lives with honesty, warmth, and ultimately love.

“I had second thoughts about writing this book,” Sáenz admits in his opening “Acknowledgements.” “In fact, after I finished the first chapter or so, I had almost decided to abandon the project.” How grateful are we that he persevered to create such a thoughtful, compassionate,  authentic story. Through Aristotle and Dante’s revealing journey, Sáenz gives readers the opportunity to discover and explore their own secrets, and secure their personal place in the vast universe.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Latino/a

Mi Familia Calaca | My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weill, illustrated by Jesús Canseco Zárate

Mi Famlia CalacaCheck out this fabulous overview in today’s New York Times highlighting what real American families look like these days: “Families.” Be sure to scroll through all the imbedded slide shows – you know what they say about pictures and words.

Inspired by all different types of family permutations, the timing seems perfect to share this rather nontraditional one in which the lively members are  … well … maybe not so alive anymore. But don’t fret! Family ties are forever, right?

“In Mexico the skeleton is a beloved and humorous figure. Its origins go back to pre-Columbian times,” explains author and educator Cynthia Weill whose many books celebrate “folk arts from around the world.” Her last title, Count Me In!, highlighted her artistic Oaxacan connections. Those Oaxacan discoveries continue with her latest collaborator, Jesús Canseco Zárate, who spent a month each in bringing these well-dressed, modly-heeled, always grinning sets of bones to life by hand, creating quite the homage to “Mexico’s long history of paper mache or cartonería.

Meet Anita, the rosy-cheeked, red-ribboned, Mary-Janed “big sister,” who will be your guide to her extended family … in both English and Spanish, too! We’re all global citizens, after all. Her brother Miguel, she insists, is “a brat,” but baby Juanito is “so cute!” Her parents “are the greatest,” and her grandparents, “the best.” Her great-grandmother – have walker, will travel! – “tells wonderful stories.” The puppy and kitty make the “wonderful family” complete. Quite the family portrait indeed!

For the youngest readers not yet traumatized by too many dystopic zombies, Anita’s “maravillosa familia” introduces just the right holiday sentiments: this is Turkey week when loved ones gather, and the winter cheer is right around the corner. As scattered siblings and multi-generations gather, here’s an entertaining, uniquely illustrated way to teach the kiddies about some of those neverending family connections.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, .Translation, Latino/a, Nonethnic-specific

Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash | Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual by Monica Brown, illustrated by Sara Palacios, Spanish translation by Adriana Domínguez

Marison McDonald and the Clash BashIn case you need an introduction to the “unique, different, and one of a kind” Marisol McDonald, check out her 2011 debut here: Marisol McDonald Doesn’t MatchNow that she’s starring in her second book, I hope that means Marisol’s got her own series going, so we can look forward to more of her irrepressible, energetic adventures from award-winning author Monica Brown and her co-conspirator illustrator Sara Palacios.

Marisol is turning 8 – “which rhymes with ‘great,’ no less! – and she “just know[s] [her] birthday will be fabulous, marvelous, and divine.” Marisol’s only birthday wish, though, has nothing to do with princesses, unicorns, or even pirates. Marisol just wants to see her grandmother who lives far away in Peru. Two long years is too long to be separated from “Abuelita’s smiling face.” Alas, not only is the plane ticket expensive, but as Marisol’s mother explains, a visit entails getting the right papeles – visas. “I don’t understand,” Marisol wonders. “Why does Abuelita need papers to see her own family who miss her so much?” Why indeed?!

As her birthday quickly approaches, Marisol prepares for her celebration by making “a unique, different, one-of-a-kind invitation” for each of her friends. She welcomes them with delighted glee when they arrive in mismatched costumes. “Welcome to my Clash Bash birthday party,” she tells her friends as she “show[s] off [her] soccer-player-pirate-princess-unicorn self.”

As she’s about to enjoy her birthday cake, her parents pull her into the study … where they’ve prepared a most unexpected surprise. Abuelita might not have been able to deliver birthday hugs in person, but technology gifts Marisol the next best alternative. Certainly can’t call Abuelita a Luddite!

Brown, who is herself “the bilingual daughter of a North American father and a South American mother” – hence the dual English/Spanish text on these pages – draws on her own experiences: “Like Marisol, my family was spread across two continents, and like Marisol, I missed my family dearly,” she writes in her ending “Author’s Note.” Brown shares how her mother surprised the family by using her first real estate commission to fly her Abuelito from Peru to the U.S. for a longed-for reunion. “This book celebrates a family’s love, all that is unique about each of us, and all that is still left to discover.” Here’s hoping Marisol’s unique series continues to offer many more gleeful discoveries indeed!

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, Hapa, Latino/a, South American

Don’t Say a Word, Mamá | No digas nada, Mamá by Joe Hayes, illustrated by Esau Andrade Valencia

Don't Say a WordTwo sisters are always so kind, helpful, and nurturing that they make their Mamá feel like she’s “‘the luckiest mother in the whole wide world!’” Rosa grows up to marry and have three children; she lives just down the street from Mamá. Blanca chooses the single life, and lives just up the street from them both.

One year, each sister plants a garden. Of course, each sister plans to share her bounty with the other. In the dark of night, one sister delivers tomatoes to the other, while the other sister does the same. Neither notices the other. Both sisters naturally stop to share with their mother, each asking that Mamá keep the deliveries a secret: “.. it will be a surprise. Don’t say a word, Mamá.’”

When each sister discovers her undiminished bounty in the morning, each decides to share more with Mamá. For awhile, Mamá appreciates all the plump tomatoes, and then later the golden ripe corn. But when she receives an overabundance of chiles, she decides it’s high time to reveal her thoughtful daughters’ secret exchanges. Banging her posole pot one evening, Mamá declares, “‘I promised you both I wouldn’t say a word, but I had to do something … [W]hat was I going to do with all those hot chiles!’” Sharing laughter and goodness, she rejoices once again that she’s “‘the luckiest mama in the whole wide world!’”

Joe Hayes, best known as a storyteller of American Southwest folklore who has sold over a million copies of his books (!), adds to his long list of bilingual titles from Texas boutique publisher, Cinco Puntos Press [" ... we specialize in publishing bilingual children's books. We love bilingual books because they mirror the incredible place where we live"]. Mamá is Hayes’ first collaboration with Mexican artist Esau Andrade Valencia, who works in saturated, rich hues that emphasize and enhance the depth of love, caring, and commitment the sisters have to each other and to their Mamá. His brush presents tomatoes so tantalizing, corn so sweet, and chiles so peppery, as to make the taste buds salivate from memories of a perfect Sinaloan posole! Join Hayes and Valencia for this delicious fare that’s both nourishing for the grumbling belly … and the hungry soul.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, Latino/a

Here I Am by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez

Here I AmI haven’t seen Patti Kim‘s name on a book cover in quite a while … more than 15 years have passed since her still-resonating debut novel, A Cab Called Reliable, was published in 1997. But who’s counting – all the good things in life are worth waiting for, right?

In a most memorable example of ‘show, don’t tell,’ Kim’s so-worth-the-wait picture book has nary a word in sight. Whimsically captured in artist Sonia Sánchez‘s dazzling panels-in-constant-motion, Here I Am is an exquisite book to be savored again and again … each ‘reading’ promises to reveal yet another delightful, thoughtful detail.

A young boy boards an airplane with his family and arrives in a dark new city. When he enters a virtually empty apartment, he longs for his brightly lit family home somewhere far away. He treasures his one memento, a red seed that holds within its tininess all the wonderful, comforting memories of back home.

His new life is strange and unfamiliar, marked with words he can’t comprehend and conversations he doesn’t understand. One day, leaning out the family apartment window watching the world go by, he drops his precious seed, and watches with dismay as a little girl picks it up and skips away. He rushes out in a mad chase … and after a few moments of initial worry, he finally begins to glimpse the many delights of his new neighborhood: delicious smells, finding a lost coin, trying his first soft pretzel, laughing at a bullseyed pup, wandering through a vast new park … and best of all, finding his first friend and discovering the limitless joys of sharing.

Kim’s only words appear on the final page as a letter to “Dear Reader,” in which she reveals her own immigration story that began “almost 40 years ago.” Drawing on her memories – “I have to admit, moving was scary … But it was also exciting …” – Kim explains that Here I Am “is about leaving a beloved home, coming to a different place, and taking on the tremendous task of creating a new life for yourself.” Overcoming the fear of the unfamiliar was the turning point for Kim, which she duplicates for her young protagonist: “What happens to us when we forget to be afraid? We loosen our firm grip on what belongs to us. We open our hands. We share. We give.”

Surely, this is Kim and Sánchez’s gift … not just to recent immigrants, but as Kim says, to anyone “facing something new and different in your life.” Unfettered by specific language requirements, Here is truly a universal story for all. No translations are ever necessary, as Kim “encourages you to live out your own story of arriving to that place where you can say, ‘Here I am.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Korean, Korean American, Latino/a

A Handbook to Luck by Cristina García

Handbook to LuckTell me if you’ve heard this one before: a Cuban, an El Salvadorean, and an Iranian land on the page and spend decades trying to find their place in the world. Yes? Then, you must have read Cristina García‘s A Handbook to Luck. No? Then read Cristina Garcia’s A Handbook to Luck!

In 1968 Los Angeles, 9-year-old Enrique Florit’s wait for his widowed father’s career as a magician to take off seems to be finally over when Papi announces they’re Las Vegas-bound where he’ll be the warm-up act for Sammy Davis, Jr. Further south in San Salvador, Marta Claros, also just 9, has been forced out of school to sell used clothes to help her pregnant mother; she manages to sneak visits to her brother Evaristo who left the family and lives in a tree. Two years later, on the other side of the world in a Tehran garden, Leila Rezvani is annoyed at her mother who won’t stop flirting with her imported, sweating British horticulturist, even as she’s somewhat awed (then manipulated) by her dying older brother.

Over the next two decades, these three lives (with rare intrusions by the tree-dwelling fourth) will dovetail. Misguided Enrique will prove to be a math wiz who gets into MIT but finds himself unable to abandon his increasingly erratic, gambling father; both remain forever haunted by the accidental death of Enrique’s mother. Desperate Marta finally gets off the San Salvador streets by becoming a teenage bride but finds true contentment thousands of miles away with a married Korean immigrant whose manhood was damaged by seven months of torture. Privileged Leila with her Swiss diploma and her should-have-finished UCLA-degree will marry half a twin and lose herself over and over again. And runaway Evaristo will eventually climb down from his tree, detour through California, before climbing a remote mountain alone …

Cuban-born García – best known for her 1992 National Book Award finalist debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban – moves fluidly between viewpoints and dates, while changing gender, ethnicity, social status, backgrounds with ease. If you choose to stick the book in your ears, narrator Staci Snell effortlessly matches García’s pace, adjusting inflections and tones to voice each developing character. García deftly reveals details of her protagonists’ lives in limited parcels, making sure each chapter both hints at and holds back just enough to keep reading to the next, and next, and next. Magic and accident, running from and running to, entitlement and entrapment – life is about perspective and, as García’s Handbook attests, it’s also about luck.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Iranian, Latin American, Latino/a

The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Poet Slave of CubaAwarded the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal, “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth,” Margarita Engle‘s biography-in-verse introduces Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano to younger readers.

Born into slavery in 1797 to a titled family, Juan is quickly adopted – in the way pets are claimed – by the wife of a wealthy plantation owner he refers to as La Marquesa: “The boy is much cleaner than poodles and parrots / or the Persian cats … / I treat him like my own / I tell him he’s the child of my old age.” He must call her Mamá, even though he has a loving mother and father of his own; La Marquesa pampers him, while he performs her every request.

By the time La Marquesa passes away when Juan is 11, she has allowed his parents to buy their freedom and promised Juan’s upon her death, but instead, he is sent to his so-called godparents where his new owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, treats him as a prized possession she both abhors and cherishes. His near-death experiences of violent abuse are countless, and often he is saved just in time by his cruel owner’s son, who both admires and cares for Juan like a sibling. In spite of all that horror, Juan manages to find inspiring solace in the power of words.

Engle enriches Juan’s own story with the rotating voices of his parents, his owners, his defender Don Nicolás, and even “The Overseer” who comes to feel shame for the abhorrent beatings he is forced to inflict on Juan. The result proves to be a celebration of a remarkable life of tenacity and imagination that miraculously rises out of tortuous conditions. If you choose the audible option, you’ll be rewarded with a full-cast performance, although it’s slightly marred by a strangely affected narration of La Marquesa de Prado Amano; oddly, narrator Yesenia Cabrero has no such issues when she voices Juan’s mother’s passages. If stuck-in-the-ears is how you read, make sure to still check out the page as Sean Qualls‘ gentle drawings are certainly worth a special visit to your library or local bookstore.

That Juan Francisco Manzano’s literary legacy survives more than two centuries after his birth, is inspiring testimony to both his difficult life and his creative accomplishments. And, that Engle – herself a Cuban American poet, as well as novelist and journalist – received over a dozen awards and honors for Slave seems surely to be poetic justice indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Latino/a

How Far Do You Love Me? by Lulu Delacre, translated by Verónica Betancourt

How Far Do You Love MeParents, listen up: here’s a heart-fluttering game to play with your kiddies, especially perfect just before bedtime to send the little ones off to slumberland. It’s as simple as asking the question that is this title, ‘How far do you love me?” and then let the imagination roam around the world and beyond …

“I love you to the stop of the peaks / lit by the morning,” a mother tells her young daughter riding high astride her shoulders overlooking the Grand Canyon. And “[t]o the meeting of the sun and the mist / painting a rainbow curve,” a father assures his little boy on the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania.

“I love you to the crests of the desert / where the wind sweeps sand from the dunes,” an Egyptian mother shrouded in niqāb and abaya soothes the swaddled bundle in her arms. And “[t]o the crown of the eucalyptus tree / tickling the belly of the sky,” an Australian father hugs his growing son as they gaze up together at the branches high above on Kangaroo Island.

Most important of all, love, of course, can’t be contained: “And I love you farther than the stars, / to the space beyond the space we know, / where light becomes love / that nestle deep, / deep inside you.”

Author and illustrator Lulu Delacre, a thrice-winning Pura Belpré Award honoree, traveled through time and space, in dreams and reality, with her daughters when they were growing up, as she explains in her author’s note (with map) at book’s end. The mention of her daughters is especially heartwrenching: in 2004, Delacre lost daughter Alicia, who was just 16 when she was killed in an auto accident. Delacre channeled that devastating tragedy and hopeful recovery into her remarkable 2007 young adult title, Alicia Afterimage, in which she surely sojourned to that “space beyond the space we know” to reunite, even momentarily, with her beloved child. Here in her latest title – translated by daughter Verónica Betancourt – Delacre affirms that ‘how far do you love me?’ will always be a shared, unbound journey of endless love.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Latino/a