Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Hispanic or Latino American’ Category

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?

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!

By the time you finish Canned and Crushed, a middle-grade novel, the main character and the manic style will have won you over. Because finding a novel with a Hispanic protagonist had proved difficult during her teaching days, Belford drew on her experiences with children of migrant workers and with bilingual students to create a story about Sandro, whose father is an undocumented engineer working odd jobs while waiting for paperwork and whose mother is absent because she has taken his little sister to Mexico for medical treatment. Belford’s book covers a lot of issues, including unemployment, bullying, and prejudice, but contain so much charm and laughs that I enjoyed the ride.

Throughout the course of fourth grade, Sandro undergoes a transformation in character, which is largely what makes Canned and Crushed work. Initially, Sandro comes off as overwhelmingly cheerful and even a little pretentious. As I continued to read, however, vulnerabilities started to slip through his bravado and to reveal Sandro as a likeable and sympathetic character. Yes, he is a precocious eleven-year-old who is constantly explaining his large vocabulary to readers, but Sandro also likes to play soccer and to invent stuff, as well as a boy who gets in over his head when family and school life start to unravel. When his sister gets sick, he tries to raise money by convincing the principal to allow him to start a recycling program. At the same time as trying to juggle this responsibility, he’s also facing disciplinarian actions from his teacher and torment from a peer. This leads to some bad choices on Sandro’s part. How Sandro learns to turn around his life and to grow in self-awareness, despite extenuating circumstances, makes for a fast-paced story.

The manic style also left me initially uncertain of how to feel, but soon reeled me in and kept me hooked. Others have compared the blend of seriousness with humor to the likes of Joey Pigza and the Wimpy Kid series. For me, I find myself thinking of Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick. It’s not Belford’s style is anything like the latter, but that in both the character voice is so unique as to leave one both hesitant and impressed. To give you an example, consider lines such as: “So, you notice I’m standing in the hallway. Yes, I’m in trouble. You probably want to know why.” While it’s not unheard of for the narrator to address his readers, it is a more unusual technique. Once I got used to it, I found the style very personable and effective. Moreover, it seems the perfect style for a character whose point of view might not be completely reliable, but whom we need to thoroughly understand if we are to embrace him.

Given that I first encountered Canned and Crushed as a multicultural book reviewer, to wrap up my review, I’ll address how Belford’s novel works on the diversity level. Belford’s extensive experience in working with students of various cultures shows through in her compassionate portrayal of a dual-ethnicity family, where the father unintentionally ended up in America without the correct documentation. There’s no indication of the family trying to avoid this law, but rather the story is about issues that arise while they attempt to make their papers right. In addition, Belford also strikes a perfect chord in her exploration of how students of different cultures can like or dislike another, without race being the actual issue. When Sandro realizes that he’s being accused of prejudice, he acts just the way I’d expect the average young person to who is kind in heart.

As a first novel, Canned and Crushed has its flaws. At the same time, Belford has given readers a complex male Hispanic lead, something still too unheard of in literature. She’s also provided a lot of gentle lessons, as well as heart, to a creative story. I expect Belford to be around for a long time as an author in demand.

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

How would you rate this book?

BibiBelfordBibi Belford graduated with a B.A. in English and her masters in Bilingual Literacy. She worked as a playground supervisor for children of migrant workers and later as a literacy coach and reading interventionist for an elementary school in Illinois, before she retired and turned to writing middle grade novels. She’s also a mom of four grown children.

As a teacher and a mother, there was always something to do instead of write. When Belford finally got the time to write, she drew on those experiences to fill her fiction. Her students would always tell her that they couldn’t find any books they liked. Belford observed too that finding a book with a Hispanic protagonist tend to prove difficult. And so she wrote a story about Sandro Zapote, “whose father is an undocumented engineer working odd jobs while waiting for paperwork. His little sister has a heart ailment, and because his mom was born in the United States, she can take her back to Mexico for treatment.”

Find out more in my interview below and also check out my review tomorrow of her first novel Canned and Crushed. Save the date: March 24!

ALLISON: If you were to write the story of your childhood, what would be the highlights?

BIBI: My childhood was very strict, but because of the era, very free at the same time. After breakfast in the summer, we took off with our neighborhood buddies and roamed wherever we wanted to. During the school year, we rushed home, changed our clothes and disappeared for hours. We played baseball in the open fields, rode bikes on dirt roads with potholes, and invented all kinds of mysterious adventures that involved spying and treasure. We built our own ramps and sledding hills. We climbed trees and made forts with leftover lumber. When the six o’clock whistle blew, we hightailed it home for dinner.

BIBI: My father was a college professor and my mom stayed home with the kids, but she had a teaching degree. We were not allowed to say we were bored or they put us to work.

In today’s terms my family would have been considered low socioeconomic. I had two pairs of shoes. This year’s school shoes and last year’s school shoes. We drank powdered orange juice, called Tang and ate Spam. We helped pick fruits and vegetables and “put them up” which is nice way to say we ate our own canned produce because it was cheaper than canned goods from the grocery store. We didn’t own a TV until I was nine and most gifts I got for were used, but lovingly reconditioned by my mom or dad. One year they gave my brothers and me a huge chalkboard by painting the wall of the basement black. I made the mistake of saying I might want to be a doctor someday and that year I received a kid-sized microscope for my birthday. Weird!

ALLISON: Middle school is a time of transition from being a child to becoming an adult. How easy or difficult was that change for you?

BIBI: Well, here’s where having strict parents was not helpful. When other girls were wearing mini-skirts and listening to the Beatles, I wasn’t allowed to look or act like everyone else. I was very irresponsible and lost things frequently, so they made me carry a briefcase to school to stay organized. And my parents refused to let me quit playing a musical instrument, even though I begged them everyday. So, if you can imagine a very short, middle school girl with glasses, riding a bike to school everyday with a briefcase in the basket on the right and a clarinet in the basket on the left, you will get a good idea of the super nerd I was, back when being a nerd was not popular! Worst of all, I wore an undershirt instead of a you-know-what and at that time the Beatles big hit song was Ba-Ba-Ba-Barbara Ann. I won’t put in the details of the cruel song that kids sang when I rode by on my bike.

ALLISON: Why did you become a teacher? What is your biggest challenge in getting kids to read?

BIBI: I took a job working in a nursing home when I was in high school so I could get experience for my career as a doctor or a nurse. We were called candy-stripers. I quit after one week.

I realized I would never become a nurse or a doctor, so I decided I wanted to be a writer. I loved writing stories and my friends and I even had a little writing club. I graduated early from high school and my English teacher wrote a letter to the college I planned to attend, exempting me from basic college English, so I was able to start right out in the advanced level classes in January. I was in way over my head, but loved my professor and worked hard. The following year, I enrolled in journalism classes, but when I wrote an article that was published in the newspaper about the price gouging of the local grocery store compared to the stores downtown, the store manager called me and made me feel so bad, I knew I couldn’t be a newspaper reporter.

So…. that left me to fall back on the other thing I was good at. Teaching kids. In California, teachers had to have an academic major, so I got an English major and a fifth-year masters in Education. I also spoke Spanish, so I did my student teaching in bilingual classrooms and worked on migrant playgrounds while I lived there. I believe I’ve taught over 1,000 kids to read. The biggest challenge is finding the student’s strength and teaching them using that strength. So many times when a student is considered a struggling reader, they start to struggle with self-esteem. Building up both the self-esteem and the reading proficiency can be challenging.

ALLISON: You’re now in your sixties. What has been your favorite age—childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle age, senior? Why?

BIBI: Whew. That’s a loaded question. If I created people, I think I would do it backwards. Start them out old, and then as they learn and mature, give them more time to enjoy life by having them grow younger. I love the wisdom I have about life, but hate the wrinkles and the arthritis that goes along with it. I would definitely not go back to those middle school days, but my college days opened up whole new worlds. I learned to surf and mountain climb. I babysat for some famous people and became a nanny. Being a mother of four kids ranks right up there with the best years of my life.

ALLISON: What is it like to be retired but essentially starting a new career?

BIBI: At first I felt very isolated and unmotivated. I missed all my teacher friends and wondered if I made the right decision, but the rough draft was due to my editor in January, so that kept me going. I decided to volunteer at a school in Chicago two mornings a week and Fridays at my old school and that has been wonderful. It keeps me in touch with kids, allows me to share my expertise, and gives some structure to the week. I’m not great with the whole marketing, publicity thing, but I’m learning and that also keeps me busy.

ALLISON: What advice would you offer to other aspiring mature authors?

BIBI: The biggest thing people say to me is, “I’m writing a …” and I say, “Is it finished?” They always say, “No.” Until you finish the story, you can’t evaluate whether your character has completed an arc. You can’t edit or revise. Don’t get hung up on carving out the perfect writing schedule or space. Know your target audience. Then just sit down and write. Get a routine. I eat pistachio nuts and write outside when I can. I always read some inspirational material, either from a devotional, a writing magazine or one of my favorite writing books.

ALLISON: You write for middle-grade students. Any thoughts of writing for other ages? Why or why not?

BIBI: I originally thought I wanted to write for the YA market. I pitched a story about two girls from completely different backgrounds who both have self-injury issues and meet in therapy. However, it wasn’t edgy enough and I had not done my research on the market expectations. The girls were a little young for the YA market, but their problems were a little too mature for the middle-grade market. So, when the agents and editors I was pitching asked if I had anything else, I quickly summarized Canned and Crushed, even though it wasn’t half done. Now that I’ve been reading middle-grade and writing middle-grade, I really love that age and the range it offers.

ALLISON: What experiences did you draw to write Canned or Crushed?

BIBI: Most of the events in Canned and Crushed either really happened to me as a teacher, or are a combination of things that really happened. I really did have a student who spit down the stairwell from the third floor. I really did have a student whose father collected road kill. One of my neighbor’s sons was hospitalized for Kawasaki Disease. And one of my students had no insurance and missed two weeks of school because she went to Mexico for eye surgery and stayed with her grandparents. Of course, some experiences come from my children’s lives, but what happens in the family, stays in the family.

ALLISON: Both your current novel and your upcoming novel fall into the category of multicultural literature? What drew you to this type of literature?

BIBI: I actually wrote Canned and Crushed for one of my former students. I was walking in the fourth grade hallway and he came up to hug me. He had worked really hard for three years, learning to read in my reading program. I asked him what he was reading now that he was in fourth grade and he told me he couldn’t find anything he liked to read. I asked him what he wanted to read, and he said, you know, books with kids like me. I asked him if he would read a book if I wrote it, and he said yes. That’s when I started writing Canned and Crushed and one year later, I was able to read the chapters of Canned and Crushed to his fifth grade sheltered/bilingual class before it was published. He was pretty excited. And he did read it!

I think kids want to read about real people with real problems. When they relate to a character, they just might be able to triumph over life’s problems like the character, and be their own hero. I want to write books about characters whose stories just have to be told.

The second book, Crossing the Line, deals with prejudice, and how we all must “cross the line” to stand in the gap when groups are marginalized. My husband and I were biking along the lake shore and stopped to read a dedication plague to a boy named Eugene Williams. When we got home I started researching and my heart broke when I realized his death was the inciting event in the worst race riots in Chicago. And yet, here we are today and what have we learned? Chicago is a very segregated city with a lot of racial prejudice.

I wanted to write a book showing how friendships can bring about change. A group of fifth graders just finished reading the first draft for their literature circle book and they gave me their annotated copies. They all identified the theme as “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And many of them added, “We have the same problems they had in 1919.” I’m working on a companion book to Canned and Crushed right now, and it’s about a little girl learning to deal with her new diagnosis of diabetes and worrying she won’t be able to do the things she loves to do. One of my favorite girls at school had this problem and her mom told me that there’s a very high incidence of diabetes in Latinos, which I didn’t know.

ALLISON: What else do you like to do besides write?

BIBI: I would love to say something really grand, like scuba dive or rescue rhinoceroses, but I guess I’m a little boring. Read at the beach. Watch movies and eat popcorn. Sew for my granddaughter Hazel, the princess! Facetime with my grandkids: Hazel and Hank. Bike along the lakefront in Chicago. Go out to eat with Groupons. There’s sooooo many restaurants in Chicago.

The Place Where You Live by James Luna is an easy-to-read attractive picture book with a universal message of what makes a place a home. The simple rhyming text contains a recurring refrain and feels comfortable to read. Vibrant illustrations lovingly celebrate families and neighborhoods. In addition, although I would have appreciated seeing even more of them, there are some multicultural elements.

On one level, this is a pleasant and enjoyable book. The first page contains just this opening line: “This is the place where you live.” Each subsequent page expands on that sentiment. The place where you live comes alive in the morning with hot chocolate and warm foods. It includes the family garden, neighbors, the store across the street, as well as of course school. It also includes after school recreation in the form of libraries, parks, baseball fields, and even a street vendor. The place where you live also winds down in the evening with the yard, the porch, and the loving arms of family. Each spread contains a soft-pink background and boasts cheery folks and blue skies. Over all, wonderful thoughts wrapped in warm colors!

All these compliments aside, there are other aspects to consider. First, will this book stand out in a sea of other picture books? For younger readers, I think an overwhelming yes. The limited text, reassuring repetition of the line “here in the place where you live,” and the lavish colors should have high appeal. Older readers, who have not yet graduated on to chapter books, might wish for more of a story line.

Second, as a reviewer of multicultural books, I have to wonder about the diversity. English text is placed at the top, followed by Spanish text (which according to Kirkus Reviews is a direct translation and loses its rhymed format) at the bottom. The breakfast menu includes tortilla, but otherwise the majority of the foods are American. In fact, nothing about the text really stands out as being diverse. The place where you live could be my neighborhood, your neighborhood, or the neighborhood of the author or the illustrator.

The Place Where You Live was chosen by Texas children as the winner of the 2012 Tajas Star Book Award. Books on the award list are intended to encourage children ages 5-12 to explore multicultural books and to discover the cognitive and economic benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. The Place Where You Live is a light-hearted picture book that doesn’t particularly teach anything about other cultures, but will positively promote the feeling of belonging to a community and to family.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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