Monthly Archives: March 2013

Book review: Meg Medina’s “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass”

YaquiDelgadoYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick) has one of the best titles of the year so far. And the young adult novel by Meg Medina boasts a story as compelling as its title.

Piddy Sanchez is a half-Cuban, half-Dominican teenager living in Queens who has started attending a new high school. One day, she is told that Yaqui Delgado, a classmate she doesn’t know, is after her. As another student tells her:

“‘You’re stuck-up for somebody who just showed up out of nowhere. Oh! And she wants to know who the hell you think you are, shaking your ass the way you do.’ … Interesting, I’ve only has an ass for about six months, and now it seems to have a mind of its own.”

Piddy is on the lookout for Yaqui. And her fear leads her to skip classes and neglect her studies. To add to her stress, she becomes involved with a boy from a troubled family, and she starts questioning her mother about the whereabouts of her father, whom she’s never met.

Delgado is a fast-paced, easy to read novel that accurately conveys the fear of bullying and the angst of being an adolescent, that awful time in life when nothing you do is right.

Take this scene where Piddy is hanging out with her mother’s best friend:

“I don’t say anything else as the sputtering radio fills the room. Lila wouldn’t understand what it’s like to be hated. Everyone loves her; everyone wants to talk to her at a party. … I don’t know that secret charm – at least not at (school), where I’ve become a loser just like that.”

While YouTube is mentioned, I would have liked to have seen the presence of more cyberbullying since it’s so rampant today – although I understand that the characters come from low-income families whose parents don’t own computers or smartphones.

But that’s a minor complaint. Overall, Yaqui Delgado is a excellent novel for teens, who will relate to the main character and her troubles. The book kicks ass.

Meg_MedinaMore about Meg Medina:

Virginia-based Medina is the author of the 2012 young adult novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind and the 2011 picture book Tía Isa Wants a Car, which won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Classic book review: Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street”

HouseonMangoStreetSandra Cisneros’ 1984 novel The House on Mango Street (Vintage) is just 110 pages long. It doesn’t have a sweeping plot. It’s a collection of interlinking stories about a young girl, Esperanza, her family and her neighbors. It’s the little details about everyday life that have made the book the classic that it is today.

I first read Mango Street more than 15 years ago, and I distinctly remember one line from the book, from the chapter called “My Name”: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters.”

I’ve missed Cisneros’ work. It has been 10 years since her last novel, Caramelo, was released. Last year, I read Women Hollering Creek, a collection of short stories from 1992, and just as I reread Mango Street, I remembered why Cisneros is such a beautiful writer. The conversations sound like she has been eavesdropping on your family and she makes commonplace objects sound extraordinary, almost poetic. Take this passage from the chapter “Hairs”:

“Everybody in our family has different hair. My Papa’s hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands. … But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she make room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring.”

Or this line from “Hips”:

“One day your wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?”

Many of the stories deal with universal adolescence angst. But several of the stories – including a thread about Sally, a beautiful girl who ends up married before eighth grade – show a gritty reality that is part of Esperanza’s tough Chicago neighborhood.

Mango Street is easy to read and relate to – there’s little wonder that it’s now part of the high school literary canon. It’s the only Latino book on the PBS’ The American Novel series and NPR’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.

Cisneros released a book Have You Seen Marie? last year, but it was much too brief. Here’s hoping that a new Cisneros book will be published soon.

scisnerosMore about Sandra Cisneros:

Sandra Cisneros grew up in Chicago. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment of Arts and the MacArthur Foundation. She also founded The Macondo Foundation writer’s group.

Source: I purchased this book.

This book is the latest in my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.

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Meet children’s author Margarita Engle, author of “The Lightning Dreamer”

Margarita_Engle.2Margarita Engle has tapped into her Cuban-American heritage to create award-winning children’s books about the history of the island.

Her latest book, The Lightning Dreamer, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, is out March 19. The story depicts the life of poet and abolitionist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in free verse.

In 2009, Engle was the first Latino/a to win the Newbery Honor Award for The Surrender Tree, about a nurse who helps those while war rages in Cuba in 1896. That book also won the Pura Belpré Prize, which honors children’s books that depict the Latino experience.

She also won the Pura Belpré Prize in 2008 for The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

She also has won three Américas Awards (for the 2012 Hurricane Dancers, The Surrender Tree and The Poet Slave of Cuba) and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award (for The Surrender Tree).

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian was selected as a Kirkus Best Children’s Book.

Her other novels include The Firefly Letters, Tropical Secrets and The Wild Book.

The California-based Engle also has written two books – When You Wander and Mountain Dog – inspired by her work with search and rescue dogs.

LightningDreamerQ: Tell me about your book, The Lightning Dreamer.  What inspired you to write about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda?

A: My interest in Avellaneda is two-fold. First, as one of Latin America’s earliest and boldest abolitionist writers, she was far ahead of her time. Her interracial romance novel, Sab, was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only did Sab make an impassioned appeal for emancipation, it surpassed that narrow goal by showing the need for complete equality, with interracial marriage portrayed as a normal aspect of Cuba’s culturally mixed society. In addition, Avellaneda was one of the most celebrated feminist writers of the nineteenth century. Her poetry, prose, and plays were devoted to a lifelong struggle against the archaic custom of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls. In fact, Sab is thought to be inspired by real people Avellaneda met at the age of 15, when she was sent away to a country estate “to rest,” after rejecting an arranged marriage that would have been profitable for her family.

TulaLike so many other early abolitionists and feminists, Avellaneda (right) has been forgotten by history. She is no longer well known outside of her native country of Cuba, and Spain, where she lived much of her adult life. I wanted to help bring her back from obscurity. In particular, I felt excited about depicting her life in accessible free verse, hoping that young readers might be inspired by her independent way of thinking. She believed in the Golden Rule. She used stories and poetry as a way to make an emotional plea for complete equality, and completely voluntary marriage. She was brave enough to do this a time when most writers restricted interracial love stories to lurid tales of wealthy men with forbidden mistresses.

Personally, for me, the most impressive aspect of Avellaneda’s life is the way she overcame obstacles while she was still very young. Her mother regarded reading and writing as inappropriate for girls, so she had to write in secret, then burn her stories and poems.

Q: Many of your children’s books are about Cuban history. Why did you choose that particular subject to write about?  How do you research the subjects?

A: My mother is Cuban and my father is American. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but during long childhood visits to the island, I developed a deep bond with the extended family, and with tropical nature, as well as an interest in Cuba’s complex history. I loved listening to stories my grandmother and great-grandmother told about their own childhoods. Listening made me wonder, and wondering makes me want to write. The research process is slow and painstaking. I read everything I can find about a subject, both in English and Spanish. I utilize bibliographies, working my way farther and farther back in time, hoping to discover diaries or other first person accounts. Since many of those primary sources are not yet digitized, I rely on interlibrary loan as a way of obtaining antique volumes. Once the research is complete, I begin selecting those aspects that seem most important to me. Since most of my books are novels in free verse, I have to omit many facts and figures. All the names and dates of history won’t fit into a poem. My goal is to offer young readers a friendly, welcoming page filled with thoughts and feelings that have some universal resonance, in any time, and every place.

Q: What made you want to become a writer? Were there any Latino writers who influenced you?

A: As a child, I was such an avid reader that writing just seemed natural.  While I was very young, I wrote poetry, and even when I drew a picture, there were always a few mysterious words scribbled in crayon, like the start of a story.

When I was little, my mother recited José Martí’s Versos Sencillos, and later, on my own, I discovered that I loved reading poets as diverse as Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado and Jorge Luis Borges. I found it strange that so few women were represented in Latino literature. Emily Dickinson had to fill the gap where Latina poets were missing from library shelves in the U.S.  Eventually, I discovered Gabriela Mistral, and Dulce María Loynáz.

As a graduate student at U.C. Riverside, I had the privilege of taking a creative writing seminar from Tomás Rivera. He was a great Mexican-American poet and novelist, the first Latino Chancellor of a U.C. campus, and a wonderful educator. He taught me to write from the heart, without worrying about publication. So that’s what I do. I choose subjects that inspire me, instead of ones that are popular. He also taught me that writing takes practice, so that’s what I continue to do. I write at my own speed, as if time does not exist.

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Book review: Alex Espinoza’s “The Five Acts of Diego León”

Diego LeonHollywood is made of illusions. But real life can be the greatest illusion of all. And that’s the premise of Alex Espinoza’s The Five Acts of Diego León (Random House).

León begins with Diego as a child, when his father is gone from their small village to fight in the Mexican Revolutionary Ward. Diego eventually moves to a larger town to live with his wealthier maternal grandparents. Now an adult, he would have a well-off, if dull, life if he stayed there. But Diego – who found joy in performing folk dances and theater in his youth – yearns for something more.

While the war rages on in Mexico, Diego moves to Hollywood. And, of course, nothing is what it seems. Diego has to struggle to find work as the Great Depression hits, and he begins to struggle with who he is, both personally – when he has to betray some friendships – and romantically – when he falls in love with someone unexpectedly.

Little wonder he feels most comfortable on the movie set.

 “Diego wanted to stay there, in that magnificent studio lot where French cancan dancers walked alongside nurses, where police officers mingled with criminals, where barons in fancy top hats and tuxedos shared cigarettes with homeless men in rags. It was all absurb and funny and dizzying. And yet he felt at home there, among the costumes and extravagance, among the chaos and commotion. This was where he wanted to be, where he needed to be.”

Espinoza writes in simple language, with a fast-moving plot and frequent dialogue, so the book is easy to zip through. He smoothly weaves in historical details with the plot, and the book never feels like a textbook.

But Diego still seems a mystery to the readers – I enjoyed the book, but I never seemed to make an emotional connection with him – and maybe to himself. A twist at the end didn’t hit me as much I thought it would, but it may surprise others.

Deigo León shows how Hollywood and humans are such a mystery.

AlexEspinozaMore about Alex Espinoza:

Espinoza’s first novel was the 2007 Still Water Saints. He was born in Tijerina, Mexico, grew up near Los Angeles and now teaches creative writing and literature at California State University, Fresno.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Book review: Daniel Hernandez’s “They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth”

TheyCallMeAHeroDaniel Hernandez Jr. makes an outstanding role model for young Hispanics, LGBT youth and all youth in general – even though he doesn’t want to be.

His memoir is called They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth (Simon & Schuster) because of the response he received for his actions at a 2011 event in which a gunman began shooting at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a public event in Tucson, Ariz.

Six people died and Giffords was shot in the head. Giffords was saved thanks to the help of Hernandez, a 21-year-old intern at her office, who drew on his first aid studies he learned in high school to help control her bleeding.

Hernandez was besieged with interviews and awards. He later was lauded at the 2011 State of the Union address and threw the ceremonial first pitch at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game later that year.

But Hernandez thought he would have done what anyone else would have done.

“I didn’t expect to be a poster boy for all the groups I happen to represent – Hispanics and people in the LGBT community. I never imagined that I would become a role model; this concept seemed foreign to me, because I was so used to not getting any attention. … As I told a reporter, whether I’d acted as I had during the shooting because I’m Latino or I’m gay or that I happened to be there on January 8 didn’t really matter. I’m not a model Latino or a model member of the LGBT community. The best way I knew to be a role model was by focusing on being the best Daniel Hernandez I could be.”

The book, co-authored by Susan Goldman Rubin, is a quick read and the first part of the book, which describes the shooting and aftermath, is riveting. The book, written in a conversational tone, then delves into Hernandez’s childhood and how he became politically active.

But keep in mind that the book was written for middle school students and older. I had to remind myself of this when the text seemed too simple or there was more telling than showing. The book could have used more anecdotes to tell the story better.

I also felt the book didn’t say enough about Hernandez’s life as a gay man. Hernandez also doesn’t mention Arizona’s anti-immigrant policies and ban on ethnic studies – but, again, this is a book for teenagers.

Still, this book could inspire youth to become more active their community. Hernandez’s work ethic is relentless and his passion of community service is tremendous. He drafted and helped pass a bill that gave college students time off from class to vote, managed an election for an Arizona state representative and was appointed to serve to the City of Tucson commission on LGBT issues – all before he could drink alcohol legally.

And if a young person isn’t inspired to volunteer for their community, this book could help them take pride in just being themselves. As Hernandez says:

“I was always different from most kids, and I was okay with it. I wasn’t very concerned with how others perceived me. I just wanted to be myself.”

Daniel HernandezMore about Daniel Hernandez:

Hernandez, who graduated from the University of Arizona in 2012, was elected to serve on the Sunnyside School Board. He also serves as a motivational speaker.

Source: I purchased this book through Amazon.com.

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Cascarones and carpets: A look at Easter books for children

It’s Easter season. The holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an important event in the Latino community. Here are some books about the holiday and Latino rituals:

celebrate-mardi-gras-with-joaquin-harlequin-alma-flor-ada-paperback-cover-artAlma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy cover the beginning of the Lenten season with the bilingual children’s book Celebrate Mardi Gras with Joaquín, Harlequin/ Celebra el Mardi Gras con Joaquín, Harlequín. In A Surprise for Mother Rabbit/La sorpresa de Mamá Coneja, Ada tells a story of diversity by using rabbits.

ImageIn Dance of the Eggshells: Baile De Los Cascarones, by Carla Aragón, two children learn the history of the confetti-filled eggshells that are crushed on people’s heads. This MexConnect.com story also gives some background into the eggshells.

LegendoftheCascaronThe Legend of the Cascarón, by Roxanna Montes-Bazaldua also tells the history of the eggshells. Want to learn how to make cascarones? Check out this webpage from PBS Kids and this YouTube video.

Sawdust CarpetsSemana Santa is the Holy Week that leads to Easter. In Amelia Lau Carling’s Sawdust Carpets, two Asian children visit Antigua, Guatemala, during that time and learn about its traditions – including the elaborate carpets made for the processions.

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Book review: Raquel Cepeda’s “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina”

BirdofParadiseRaquel Cepeda wasn’t sure of her cultural identity. Even her friends and family weren’t sure.

“Papi said I wanted to be Black because I love hip-hop, and a low-class Dominican because I like graffiti and b-boys. The kids … said I wanted to be white because I played tennis … Casimiro said I needed to recognize and embrace my natives indios and africanos in order to strengthen my spiritual guide … Caridad told me I had a vibe of a Black and white gringa. And Blackie said I could be from anywhere. But I like being Dominican, sort of, especially one born in Harlem who likes to wear socks in the winter.”

Her search for her personal and culture identity is the subject of her memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina (Atria). Readers may be inspired to investigate their own heritage after reading her book.

Cepeda divides the book into two parts, beginning with her personal life. Her parents split up early and Cepeda moved between her relatives – in the Dominican Republic and New York City – throughout her life.

Unfortunately, she was frequently abused by her father and neglected by her mother. Cepeda uses a conversational tone, good description and dialogue to keep the story moving, but these sections are intense and hard to read at times. (Some readers may be turned off by the explicit language.)

Cepeda found solace in the hip-hop world, becoming a music journalist. But when she has her own family and her father almost dies, she yearns to learn more about her heritage and persuades her parents to take DNA tests. She finds her father’s family can be traced to Africa and her mother’s family to Europe. Cepeda delves into Dominican Republic history, noting that many of its residents (and Latinos in general) can claim to be several races.

She quotes Ken Rodriguez, a software trainer and avid genealogist.

“ ‘In my opinion the biggest misconception is that Hispanic is a race in the first place. Hispanic people are generally a mix of different racial backgrounds. You can be White, Black, Asian, Amerindian, Jewish, and still be Hispanic,” he says, echoing a sentiment of many Latino-Americans. ‘What unites us is the Hispanic culture, not our race.’”

Cepeda creates a fascinating and compelling look at the complex issue of ethnicity by personalizing the issue. You even may want to get your own DNA tested.

cepeda_raquelMore about Raquel Cepeda:

Cepeda has written for various publications and edited the anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years. She also directed and produced the 2007 documentary film Bling: A Planet Rock.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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