Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Hispanic or Latino American’ Category

A friend of mine and I like to collect cat books. What follows is a review of three picture books from her collection and one from mine. Two of the books are about homeless cats, a topic dear to my heart. The other two books are simply fun reads.

SenorCatSenior Cat’s Romance and Other Favorite Stories from Latin America is a collection of six popular Cuban stories retold by Lucia Gonzalez. Each story is followed by an explanation of its background and a short glossary. The sole cat story is the title one and written in poetic form. It tells of a cat who sat on a throne drinking spiced milk in his stockings of silk and golden shoes. One day he receives a note from a servant that informs him he’s about to be married. Upon being wed to his love, Sir Cat reacts in such excitement that he falls off the church roof and to his supposed death. Thank goodness cats have multiple lives! My friend used to sing this song in Spanish in grade school. The tale is also the one the author says she most enjoyed illustrating, and sand over and over as she painted the cats.

NobodysCatNobody’s Cat by Barbara Josse is based on a real-life experience by the author. In a straightforward and simple style, the author tells of a feral cat that didn’t belong to anyone but had babies she needed to care for. One crisp fall day, when her milk ran out, the feral cat ventured towards a nearby home of people. A boy came out. The feral cat wanted to run, but she stayed for the sake of her kittens. The family fed her a bowl of cream and this became milk for her babies. Then each new day, the feral cat deposited a kitten on the porch of this family until all her babies had found homes. I liked this story from start to finish, even if in real life, feral cats might take more time to adjust to humans. The parental love that the feral cat shows rings true to other experiences people have shared. If you enjoy this book, you’ll probably also enjoy Nobody’s Cats by Valerie Ingram.

BestFriendBest Friend by A.M. Monson tells of an unlikely friendship between a cat and a mouse. At the start, the two are playing checkers, and Cat is a clear champion. Mouse wants to play a different game, but Cat isn’t willing to compromise, and so the two separate. Cat is so determined to have his own way that he even puts out an advertisement in the community paper for a friend. Several residents answer Cat’s advertisement, but each has something wrong with them. One is too messy, another prefers sports, and a third is a daredevil. Whatever will Cat do? This story could’ve just as easily been about any two other animals, but my friend and I picked it due to a cat being one of the main characters. This is a sweet story about appreciating the friends you have.

ChristmasKittenPerfect for the holidays is The Christmas Kitten by Andrew Charman. The adventure starts out in an animal shelter, where cats of all sizes were enjoying themselves. They were happy to be inside and to have a regular source of food, even if the surviving the shelter meant dealing with a few fights. All the cats were content that is except Oliver. He wanted a family, and decided to escape to find his dream. If you’ve ever read Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman you’ll find the structure for the rest of the story familiar. First, Oliver encounters mice, next dogs, then bears, and finally the big zoo cats. Some of the animals are scared and others think themselves too good for Oliver. But even when he’s accepted, none of the animals feel like family. Then he meets another cat, who shows him where the real source of family is. Other than my disliking that shelter cats were portrayed as being pleased with their lot in life, which is nothing like reality, I adored this book.

This review is dedicated to Marlo, who regularly surprises with packages full of all things cat. There might be a toy, a movie, or a book. If you want to read more about her story, follow this link: Bonded Together by CKD.

Reyna Grande is the author of The Distance Between Us, a novel about family. Born in Mexico, Reyna was two years old when her father left for the United States to find work.  Her mother followed her father two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. When Reyna was ten, she and her siblings entered the U.S. with their father as undocumented immigrants. Reyna become the first person in her family to graduate from college and today she is well-known speaker and author. To find out more, check out my interview.

ALLISON: Tell readers something about yourself that they won’t learn from reading The Distance Between Us.

REYNA: I love gardening. I especially like creating butterfly gardens. My daughter and I raised monarch butterflies for a while and it was the most amazing experience. I think every child should have a chance to witness the transformation of a butterfly with their own eyes. It’s powerful. One of my favorite quotes, that I actually have framed and hanging on my wall, is: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” It inspires me.

ALLISON: You were born in Mexico. What is a favorite memory from Mexico?

REYNA: One of my favorite memories that I didn’t write about in the book is the time when I went on a pilgrimage with my grandmother, Abuelita Chinta. We went with the group from our local church. The procession walked to the churches in nine different towns. It was long and tiring to walk there, especially since I was only eight years old, but the people at every town would welcome us with a delicious meal cooked over an open fire. I can still taste those meals–pork in green chile sauce, rice, beans, and hot oatmeal drinks we call atole served with a piece of sweet bread. The pilgrimage was one of those times when we ate very well! I went there to pray for my mother’s return. I don’t think my prayers were answered, but at least I still have the memory of the food I ate.

ALLISON: When you returned to Mexico, you found yourself almost a stranger. Have you taken your children to Mexico? What has been their experience?

REYNA: I take my children almost every year because I want them to know the place where I came from, so that they can have at least a small connection to the place and the family I have there. I hope that by seeing the poverty I came from will help them appreciate what I’ve been able to give them in the U.S. They enjoy going to my hometown but they also complain about the lack of luxuries that they are used to here–like running water!  Over there, they have to boil their bath water on the stove, then put it in a bucket and throw the water on themselves with a small container. On the other hand, they very much love the food that my aunt cooks for them and they like the freedom that children have over there–such as being able to walk around the neighborhood, to go to the store by themselves, to play in the street with other children, things that here in the U.S. children don’t get to do because parents tend to be over-protective and their isn’t as much a sense of community as there is in Mexico.

ALLISON: You concluded in your memoir that despite the strain immigration put on your family, the hardship was worth it. What would you tell young people about overcoming challenges?

REYNA: I would tell them to do everything they can to overcome those challenges because otherwise, their lives would get worse instead of better. If you find yourself in a hole, try to climb out of it–you do that by making the right choices. Focus on school, on your dreams, on your future. If you make bad choices out of desperation, you only dig yourself deeper.  Remember, things don’t always have to be that way–they can get better, they can change. You just have to keep focused, stay strong, and above all, don’t lose hope.

ALLISON: You gave a special tribute to a teacher who changed your life. Have there been other mentors in your life? If so, what has been their influence?

REYNA: I had another teacher at UC, Santa Cruz who was very important to me. Her name is Marta Navarro, a Spanish and Chicano Literature teacher, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She–like my former teacher that I write about in the book–also encouraged me to keep writing. She introduced me to more Latino authors, and she was always available to talk whenever I needed someone to listen. I’m still in touch with her too, and she even came to my wedding!

ALLISON: The Distance Between Us is based on your adult memoir. What process was involved in rewriting it for young people?

REYNA: I didn’t want to water down the story for young readers so I did my best to stay true to the original. Mostly what I did was to put the book on a diet–meaning–I trimmed off all the extra stuff, details, backstory, inner thoughts, and only left what was essential. I cut out about 100 pages. I took out my  crazy uncle, and also some details about my love life that was inappropriate for young readers.

But by cutting 100 pages, it gave me some room to expand on things that young readers would find interesting, such as the border crossing. In the original, my border crossing is only one chapter long. In the young reader’s version, it is three chapters. I added more details so that young readers could really have a chance to experience that moment in my life that was very traumatic but also life-changing.

ALLISON: You’re open in your memoir about both the highs and lows of your family’s life. What has been the reaction of your family to your memoir?

REYNA: My siblings have been very supportive of my writing and they really loved the book. My mother didn’t read much of it because she said it was too painful. My father passed away before the book was published. My aunts from the Grande side got mad at me for writing about how mean my evil grandmother had been. But, that is how she was, and I wrote the truth of my experience living under her roof. I don’t feel guilty about what I wrote, and I understand that since she’s dead, my aunts would rather I had honored her memory by writing more positive things–but unfortunately, I had nothing positive to write about because all my memories of her are unpleasant and painful. Writing memoir is very tricky because you are writing about your family and they might never speak to you again if they don’t like what you wrote! Ultimately, if you write memoir, you have write your truth and no one else’s. You aren’t writing to please anyone. You are writing so that you can heal from the wounds of your experience.

ALLISON: You wrote The Distance Between Us to provide an awareness. What would like people who are not immigrants to understand? What books would you recommend a person starting out in their awareness of diversity to read?

REYNA: I would like for non-immigrants to remember where they came from. Everyone here–except for native Americans–came from somewhere. Perhaps it was a great-grandparent or grandparent who immigrated, who went through the trauma and heartbreak that new immigrants go through. If people honor the memories of those who came before them–their ancestors–I think it will make them more compassionate and understanding towards new immigrants. The U.S. has a history of discrimination against specific immigrant groups. Even those who managed to assimilate very well into American culture (like the Irish) at one point or another were heavily discriminated. I think it’s time that we accept that we are a multi-cultural society. We have people from all over the world who live here, and that is a beautiful thing!

Recommended Reading:

1) Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

2) The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

3) Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin

4) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

5) A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez

6) Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

The Distance Between Us is a young reader’s edition of an adult memoir by Reyna Grande. Her memoir weaves the universal story of a family’s resolve to reach their goal against all odds. By the same token, her memoir raises the question of how much should one be willing to sacrifice to obtain the impossible dream? The Distance Between Us also makes clear how arduous the road to a better life can be, while at times also offering hope and inspiration.

Reyna grew up in a poverty-stricken area of Mexico and her family’s goal was to have their own home. Unfortunately, her Papi couldn’t find a job in the weak Mexican economy. For that reason, he’d left two years ago for the United States. All that Reyna had as a child to remember him by was a glass-framed photo. Now her Mami is also readying herself to flee across the border so that she too might help earn money and the family could more quickly build a house in Mexico. Being left behind was hard enough for Reyna and her siblings, but little could anyone have imagined exactly how much more painful their lives would become. Reyna’s grandparents took care of her and her siblings, but only from a sense of duty, and so the children regularly starved, outgrew their clothes, and lived in squalor. That was only the start of the misery. When their mother eventually returned, she brought with her the news that their father wasn’t going to return: they had divorced. Never again was life the same, for their mother now acted as if burdened by her children, instead of sheltering them with love. When their father eventually smuggled them into the United States with him, he controlled their every move. He feared deportation, but also believed that his children owed it to him to invest their entire being into toiling for success. For a time, life was as miserable or more than it had been in Mexico.

After Reyna graduated college, married, and became an author, she couldn’t help but wonder if the sacrifices had been worth it. Sure, from the moment, she’d settled into the United States, Reyna lived in an apartment instead of shack with one room. There were glass windows, solid walls, carpeted floors, and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. Surrounding her were paved streets instead of dirt roads, and lawns with lush green grass and flowers of all kinds. In contrast to the stores in Mexico, Kmart was the biggest store she’d ever shopped at. For the first time, she got to see the ocean. If the family got sick with even a simple toothache, they could see a doctor and get treated. Despite the embarrassment over her struggles to fit into an English-speaking environment, there were so many more opportunities. Such as a good education. And a well-paying job. Yet the cost to getting these had been very high. Not only had her parents divorced, but her father had become abusive and her mother had kept the youngest sibling with her, and the children had become rebellious. Each family member would have to answer for themselves the question of whether the price had been worth it, just as we all need to decide how much we’re willing to lose for what we most wish for.

In her forward, Reyna Grande expressed the desire that her book would bring more awareness to the controversial subject and would encourage readers to not let anything keep them from becoming the person they want to be. Although The Distance Between Us tells a story as much about poverty as it does immigration, it should serve as encouragement to press on when life gets tough.

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Last week I posted part one of two about my seventh year of attending the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. In that post, I noted that it was special in a couple of ways. For the first time I had the opportunity to attend the sessions for students, and for the first time I had the opportunity to attend the adult sessions with my group of writing ladies. As usual, at the end of the day, I walked away with a bagful of signed books and dozens of typed pages of notes. This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for older readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.

TRENT REEDY: WORDS IN THE DUST

trentreedy_signTrent Reedy’s two favorite things are the Midwest where he grew up and books. Reedy started his presentation off by talking about the power of story. A story shows the struggle of people to survive. Life is one event after another.  Authors shape life into a story arc. Events are arranged into problems and solutions. Even nonfiction can be shaped into a story.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a dorky skinny kid with long nose….

Reedy grew up in the small farm town of Dysart in Iowa. He remembers it as a great place for kids, “a safe island in a sea of corn and beans”. Together with his friends, he had fun riding around on bikes and running around in forts. Sometimes, he browsed books on wire racks at grocery stores, but most of the books stocked were Harlequin Romances.

Did anyone enjoy middle school? If so, there are the doors. 😉

“When you’re a writer, you read differently and find things work or don’t work like you think they should.” Teachers helped Reedy discover reading, but not in an expected way. For a prize, a teacher gave him a book by Ann Martin called Me and Katie by Ann Martin and about an older sister who struggles to adjust to life with her irritating younger sister. Reedy learned through ridicule (as we learn many lessons) the difference between “boys” and “girls” books, but he continued to love the book.

During high school, Reedy decided he wanted to become a writer and he attended University of Iowa with this goal in mind. At the same time, he wanted to relieve his father of some of the stress of being a pipeline worker at Northern Natural Gas, and so he joined the Iowa National Guard.

Hoping to get back in time for college, Reedy accepted the first job offered him, that of Combat Engineer job. He now calls that decision, “the stupidest way to enlist”. Combat Engineers deal with landmines and plastic explosives. One needs to know what they’re doing, but Reedy was not a “Cowboy Commando” or “Super Soldier”. Despite his stint as a Combat Engineer, Reedy did graduate college and even served as a security guard at Dillards.

My whole life changed. I had lived in Riverside, Iowa, for nine years and never had to leave. Now I to say goodbye to family. I left an envelope of letters with my brother. These are the “If you are reading these letters….” Those are tough to write.

trentreedy_girlThe call to return to duty upset him. “Maybe it was easier to be angry than to be scared.” He was mad to leave home. He was also disappointed to hear his lead officer tell his unit that they were there to help. Reedy simply wanted revenge for 9/11. But when he got there and saw the kids and the moms, he couldn’t keep up the anger. There are thousands like those kids and the moms and they aren’t to blame.

His unit rented an Afghan house. It wasn’t designed for sixty soldiers with equipment. The temperature was 90 degrees and very hot. The unit would return from combat, take off their army wear, and their uniforms would be sweated through. Life wasn’t easy. They would maybe get three minutes of a shower every three days. If the well was dry and there was no water, too bad. For food, they’d get two sodas, glob of lasagna, and a little bit of corn.

One day I admired my tan, it began to itch, and I realized it was just dirt. The Taliban would threaten us daily. I had spent my whole life measuring time by crops, but in Afghanistan it was gun, filth, and fears.

Reedy talked about one simply tried to hold onto “who you were, who you are, and to stay that way until you can leave”. There was no time for anything but combat and sleep. There was no room to unpack. The arrival of a truck, despite food being spoiled because the refrigeration had gone out, changed Reedy. The truck was carrying mail too. His wife had sent him a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. Reedy needed that book. He needed something more than dirt, guns, war. He needed hope and beauty. The book “was a glorious reminder of friendship and that we can still find hope in the most challenging times.” As long as there were kids who could have friends, he could survive. And if he never made it back, it’d be okay. “It’s hard to live without music, art, literature, beauty.”

One day Reedy saw two kids playing. One had a box with a string and he’d drag it along. The girl just had yarn. “My parents were poor, but we had more than string. This is when I started to take this war to heart.” He saw a girl with a cleft lip and knew his unit had to help. They collected money to provide for her transportation to a doctor and for the surgery. She became the symbol for Reedy of all Afghans face, especially the girls and women. “The best moment was seeing her smile. I grew up being teased for my nose, but nothing like this girl must have faced. I promised her that I’d do anything I could to help her.”

Our leader called out “Dismissed”. One word and the total control of army was over. I could do whatever I wanted. I was free and alive.

When Reedy returned to Iowa, he set about keeping his promise by writing a book. He spent four years on it. Writing about an Afghan wedding was one of the toughest parts. Afghan weddings are detailed and he couldn’t find a common source. Then there was a scene that his writing instructor, Rita Williams Garcia, told him to cut. It was a violent and tragic scene, but Reedy felt the girl who inspired it deserved to be remembered, and so kept it. Words into Dust was also hard to write, because so many events from war had inspired it.

One day you’re feeling down. You think you’re going to spend the rest of your life grading papers. The kids will never get what “adverb is”. (It has verb right in it!) Then you get the call.

After finishing his manuscript, Reedy struggled to find a market. It was considered unlikely that a white Iowan could write from the viewpoint of an Afghan girl. Reedy himself wished that the girl could write her own book but, at the time he wrote Words into Dust, there was 90% illiteracy for females in Afghanistan. An intern gave his book a chance.

Reedy wrapped up his presentation by talking about the inspiration behind a few of his other books. Stealing Air is based on small towns. “In books there are always rich kids. Or they’re from cities. For us, rich is having a power glove for a Nintendo. I try to bring out small town experience in my books.”

If You’re Reading This was harder for Reedy to write than Words in Dust. “If I move events around, I worry that I’ll mess up everything. For each version, there’s a dozen revisions. There are also many versions where everything IS switched around.” By version six, Reedy was so frustrated that he started to swear. Finally, by version nine, Reedy started to feel as if things were working okay. There’s a letter at the end that Reedy wrote to his father.

trentreedy_msIn talking about his books, Reedy reminded aspiring writers in our audience that writing is in the revision. He showed a breakdown of how many edits his editor sent him, even after the book had already received multiple revisions. “The writing process is long. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s about the process and not about you.”

Reedy next referred to his opening line about how story is power. “This is the way I deal with things, through stories. I hope my stories will help others deal with situations in their own lives.” Reedy is a firm believer that books matter. They might be about different people and places, but there’s always “power in art, literature, and beauty”. Afghanistan taught Reedy that life isn’t just about the basics or survival. Without inspiration, we die inside. Books matter.

LINDA SUE PARK: LONG WALK TO WATER

Back then no one was talking about multiculturalism and so my parents thought they were doing the right thing, I’m glad that I can speak English as my first language but regret that I don’t know Korean. It’s harder for adults to learn and I can still only speak a little Korean. Before I traveled to Korea I learned the most important question “Where’s the bathroom?”

Linda Sue Park’s parents are from Korea, but she was born and raised in Illinois. There weren’t any other Asians in her childhood neighborhood but, because her family wanted her to do well in America, the family never talked Korean. Even so, they did eat Korean food and celebrate Korean holidays.

lindasuepark_babyphotosFor example, birthdays are big events. When Koreans celebrates a birthday, they wear special traditional clothes, attend a party, and play a game call The Fortune Game. In the latter, several objects are put on a table. Whatever object the birthday person grabs predicts their future:

  • pen—writer
  • book—teacher
  • spool of thread—long life
  • money—rich
  • cake—greedy and lazy

Park’s mom has told her that she grabbed the pen but there is no proof other than her word.

Where do I get ideas? For me the answer is complicated. Some books are a mix of ideas. Others do have that one Eureka moment.

After hooking her audience with a brief bio, Park turns to a discussion of her book Long Walk to Water. Her husband is a journalist and does stories on all kinds of people. He told her about Selba, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and said she should meet him. Her husband was right. “I was blown away by this guy. I even started telling strangers about him. I don’t usually do that but that’s how impressed I was.” After several years, she had a DUH moment. Instead of continuing to share Selba’s story to each new person she met, with a book, she could tell his story to multiple people all at once. Her husband had already written about him for an adult audience, but Park could reach young people.

Selba had been in school. His class heard bombs. The teacher said run away, but not home, and so they did. The boys became The Lost Boys of Sudan. It was a perilous journey. 5000 people died along the way. “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you would not have made it.” Every day was about finding food. Even clothing was traded for food.

lindasuepark_lostboysPark emphasized that everything she wrote in A Long Walk to Water is true. She then talked about how at one point, American visas were issued for many of the refugees. These were all halted, however, after bombing of Washington Memorial. All visas issues for those not already in the US were revoked. Park told of an especially devastating moment when a plane on its way to the US was ordered to go back. Since that time, there hasn’t been a new program put in place for the refugees.

Park’s husband has visited Sudan. He saw how the boys would go with cattle, stay with them, and then return at the end of the day. Some boys have education. The girls would instead walk four to eight hours to fetch water. They rarely had education. The building of wells is bringing about change. The girls are now getting to go to school too. UNICEF says the best way to combat illiteracy and poverty is to teach girls. They will educate others. Selba is the one bringing in the wells.

When The Long Walk to Water first got published, it received some good reviews but didn’t really make a splash. Then New York redid its curriculum. A librarian added Park’s book and it began to do well. This excited Park. She’d hoped people would see Selba has a hero. And they have. But the book has also inspired young people to help.
lindasuepark_wellsThe Long Walk to Water is a concrete example of how a book can help change the world. Building a well costs over $15,000. Young people have raised over one million to bring wells to Sudan. Many schools do $5000, which is a third of the cost. Over ninety of the wells in Sudan have been funded by students who have read the book. The most popular fundraiser is a walkathon, which helps students understand what the girls feel in having to walk. A quarter of a million people are using the wells.

Currently, Linda Sue Park lives New York. Like many women, she has a lot of jobs: wife, mom, grandma, writer, speaker, teacher of writing, pet sitter. This makes her always tired, but she’s also grateful for everything she has. “I have an awesome life: books, babies, and puppies.”

LOUIS SACHAR: WAYSIDE STORIES, HOLES, FUZZY MUD

I started writing Wayside Stories back in 1970, before students I talk to were born, and even many of their teachers were born. It’s good the book has been around so long, but it makes me feel old.

Louis Sachar was the lunch speaker at Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. He jumped quickly into talking about one of his most famous series, which was inspired by being a schoolyard supervisor. Back in his college days, Sachar’s favorite authors were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He enrolled in a class where he would study the original Russian, but found the language too much of a struggle. While trying to figure out what to take instead, Sachar encountered a school girl in the middle of Berkeley campus handing out slips of paper that read: “Help. We need teacher’s aide. Earn 3 credits.” He thought it started easier and so volunteered. Long story short, he loved the experience. “It was my favorite thing to leave the heavy world of campus and be with joyful kids.” After a time, the school needed someone to be a noon supervisor, and was willing to pay. The teachers wanted to take a break, but all Sachar had to do was hang out with the kids, and so he applied.

louissachar_signAfter Sachar graduated from Berkeley, because he’d always been interested in writing, he wrote a kids’ book. His first attempt took him ten months. The students where he had worked had called him “the yard teacher”. He turned himself into the character of Louis the yard teacher and featured some of the students. Then he set about trying to get the book published.

A small company accepted Wayside Stories. The book didn’t do well initially because the company had small distribution. He didn’t make much money from it or see it on many shelves, but had faith that felt it would do well if it would get noticed. Sachar received some fan mail and a “Book of the Year” award from New York schools. Then the company went out of business and the book went out of print.

I don’t outline. My best ideas come as I write. I try to get a page written, then take a break to play bridge. For a while, I feel there’s nothing getting done. But after a year I end up with something that works. I don’t talk about my books while writing them because then they become cemented and I want to be open to change.

Sachar didn’t give up, but went on to write There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. The book came about because a friend told Sachar about something that had happened to him in fifth grade. He knew Sachar wrote for kids and so was telling him about his childhood. When this friend was new to San Diego, a teacher brought him up to the front of the class. The teacher asked “Why don’t you sit over there?” but the class said to not sit next to Donny. Sachar’s friend said that was okay with wherever he sat, but the teacher agreed with the class. Sachar changed the names, but put the incident in a book. Editors told him that no teacher would act this way and it wasn’t believable and so wanted to cut the incident. But the story was true and so Sachar kept it.

A lot of publishers rejected There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. One editor expressed an interest but didn’t think there was enough to the story. Sachar asked to see her and she eventually bought the book despite not feeling it would do well. She took him out to lunch and invited another author. Sachar asked the author if she had ever taught. Proving how small of a world we sometimes live in, and how contacts can matter, it turned out the author’s mother had been a character in Sideway Stories. The mother was giving out copies of his book every year to her students. Eventually, the book got republished.

Among his fan mail were letters from a school in Texas. The students told him that their teacher had read his books and liked them. A handful of girls even wrote a letter saying that their teacher was attracted to him and she was single. Louis called up the school. The school was excited to have him visit. Girls made him cookies. The aforementioned teacher invited a group of colleagues to go out to a local restaurant. A counselor came along. Sachar and the counselor hit it off. They visited. He put her in a book. Eventually, he married her.

The idea for Holes came about from living in Austin. As much as Sachar and his family liked it there, Austin is very hot in the summers. And the summers are long. They start in May and they drag into September and October. One day Sachar had to do yard work and he got to thinking about a new character. He’d written close to twenty books about school and didn’t want to do another with that setting and so he put his character in a prison-type camp. About the same time, he took a trip with his daughter to Alcatraz, without telling anyone that the setting fit in perfectly with what I was writing.

What got me started was the excitement of kids and joy of youth. I didn’t seem as little darlings but as real people. I also didn’t have much trouble tapping into my feelings as a kid. Now I struggle. I like writing about kids because they still have the whole world open to them. Lately though, I have a more pessimistic view and that makes it hard to write to kids.

Five years ago, Sachar started to write Fuzzy Mud, when the question for him had become: “How can I write another children’s book?” The main character for Fuzzy Mud kept him going and inspired. In a world where everyone is jaded, her friends call her goody-goody, but she still tries to do right. She goes to a private school where kids are taught to be virtuous and is made to memorize ten virtues. She’s largely ignored but, as things turn scary, she draws on an inner strength. “Despite all the bad in the world, there’s still energy, good, and virtue. I started out trying to write a scary book, but then I kept going because of her.”

MATT DE LA PENA

The thing about growing up in my neighborhood is that everyone looked out for everyone but there were no education values. Working hard and being loyal were the values. We didn’t hear the message of education.

mattdelapenaMatt De La Pena grew up on border of Mexico in National City. A reluctant reader in high school, Pena read only three books as a student. One of those was House on Durango Street, which he felt was about his neighborhood, and he reread twelve times. “We need an invitation early on to people, community, and language that feel authentic.”

Pena was the first in his family to attend college, but he felt guilty about this success, as if he were selling-out for going to college. While being interested in what the teacher said, he often also thought about his family who weren’t getting to hear the lectures and about how real life was happening back home. When he’d first visit home, his uncles would ask him about college, but their eyes told him that they were waiting to see if he’d judge them.

Hispanics have the highest drop-out rate in the country and it’s taken time for them to see education has a good thing. Having an insider helps the family see the positive.

In college, Pena fell in love with books. Mostly he read books about the African-American and then Hispanic experience. One favorite was a short story collection called Drown, which focuses on the Dominic Republic, by Junot Diaz. Pena also fell in love with writing. His professors collected his work and sent it to five graduate schools. He got accepted by two for Masters in Fine Arts.

Pena going to college has been a mixed blessing. There are both losses and gains. Pena shared a story to explain. Pena was born when his dad was still young. His dad was a high-school dropout. He worked in the zoo as a sanitation person. He moved up to cleaning The Tiger River enclosure. He’d pick up whiskers and mail them to his girlfriend for good luck. He got to do behind-the-scenes tours and showed Paul Simon around. “Man, that dude is short,” his dad later said. (Subtext: His dad is tall.) “You know I shook his hand. He had the softest hand I ever touched.” (Subtext: His dad’s hands have calluses from hard work.) After Pena introduced his dad to books, his dad got his GED, then an education degree from college, and now he teacher in a migrant community. A migrant worker thanked Pena’s dad for giving him education but Pena pointed out, “My dad’s hands are soft in contrast.” Yet on the flip side, his dad now loves books. The first book he read was 100 years of Solitude, which he’s read five times.

I didn’t start out being a writer. But I used to always write poems. People might not be born to writers but they have an interesting way of looking at the world. Those often make good writers.

After Pena shared his background, he talked about his books. Balls Don’t Lie, which was made into a movie, had several inspirations. Pena used to play pick-up basketball and it a rule to never write a story about basketball. The vow lasted three weeks. Pena “learned about the world by play outside the rules. There’s a weird class system. In gritty San Diego, one sold jewelry or sold drugs or one worked at a gas station or in security. He wrote about “powerless powerful men.” Pena’s mom was a foster kid. The family doesn’t know what kind of white she is except that she’s French. In Balls Don’t Life, he explored: “What happens when a kid is moved from place to place without any control?”

Mexican White Boy is the most autobiographical. It raises the question: “Who is the most mixed?” When Pena was growing up, no one would acknowledge being mixed. Now almost everyone will say that they’re mixed. “The world is changing and people are now owning it. The highest growing demographic is mixed.” Pena expanded by using an illustration of his grandmother, who he believes made the best Mexican tortillas. She passed out tortillas based on family rank. “I’d get the first because I looked so light skin.” Pena believes that mixed is: “interesting and complicated” and likes to talk about “brown and brown racism”.

We Were There was inspired by Mice and Men. It’s also written as part of Pena’s evolution in going from writing about mixed kids to featuring mixed kids. It. “When I visited prisons, 97% of them were brown. When I visited the festival, 97% of them are white. This book was a chance to explore group homes.” With most of his books, Pena starts with character but with this one he began with plot. He knew there was going to be a crime. The character didn’t come later until when Pena was giving a presentation. “There was a young girl who left to go to bathroom. She was going to miss my presentation. Another girl took her seat. I thought maybe the young girl would protest. She stood in the back. A guy gave the girl his seat. I stopped and complimented him and asked him questions. Now I knew the character’s name was Miguel and the fact that he would give up his seat.” The guy became the heartbeat of the book.

mattdelapena_marketplaceAfter writing a few books about mixed groups, Pena took a different direction. He discovered that many copies of his books exist in underprivileged schools but not in urban books. One librarian told Pena that she loved his books but didn’t carry them because they didn’t have “those type of kids” in their school. So, he began to start featuring mixed kids without addressing the issue of mixed kids. “Diverse books aren’t just for diverse kids but are for everyone.”

Perhaps the book of Pena’s that most excited everyone is Last Stop on Marketplace, a picture book that won the Newbery. It took Pena five months to write and six months to revise. In that time, he rewrote it  100 times. He thought it needed to be big and tried forty different endings, but then returned to the small one. The surprise ending was intended: Kids would ask him as an author why would he come to their school and so the book is about the grandson seeing that he’s important in the world.

In ending his presentation, Pena encouraged aspiring authors to write what they can feel. To explain, he shared how a reader who liked his book about basketball but yet his favorite parts aren’t the basketball parts. “If you can’t access the feeling right away of a topic, then you shouldn’t be the one who tells the story. You can research a ton but it’ll only work if you feel the topic.”

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?


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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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