Tag Archives: Latinx

Esperanza Rising

unknown

This is a middle-grade book that gets everything right. Historical fiction based on the life of author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, it is authentic and heartbreaking.

Esperanza spent the first 13 years of her life in luxury on her ranch home in Aguascalientes, Mexico. But the murder of her father by bandits put an end to the beautiful dresses and servants waiting on her hand and foot. She and her mama, Ramona, flee with their former servants to the United States, leaving behind their wealth and her Abuelita.

They settle in California at a camp for Mexicans working the local farms, and for the first time in her life, Esperanza must earn her keep, and earn the respect of those she lives and works with. Facing not only hard labour but racism and more loss, Esperanza has to reinvent herself and learn what she is capable of surviving.

The characters in this novel are fabulous. Esperanza starts off as a slightly spoiled, pampered young girl, who has had a life never wanting for anything. As an only child, she is the centre of her parents’ lives, and of those of the servants that cater to her. She is a bit hot-tempered and doesn’t really think of her words and how they can affect other people. Servants are there to serve, and she loves them, but they are not her status. That is just the way it is. As life hands her hardships, she starts to change her expectations and learns to work. But it is not only her attitude towards labour that changes.

Esperanza begins to see that no one is better than another. And it is a tough lesson to learn. She goes from shunning a poor peasant girl on the train to working alongside and befriending people she would have once thought were lower than her. I love the passage where she realizes she cannot sweep the floor, and instead of ridiculing her, her friends teach her. She learns pride in her work and that friendship has no level.

Ramona is a wonderful character. After a life of privilege and losing her husband, she gives up her wealth and status to work on a farm and to stay with her daughter. And in doing so, she sets an example for the girl about what is actually important, and how all people are created equal, a lesson Esperanza had yet to learn.

Miguel, Isabel, Abuelita, Hortensia, Alfonso, Josefina and so many others make up Esperanza’s new extended family, and all contribute to her education and strength. They live with racism in every form, from Isabel losing the Queen of May crown in her third-grade classroom to a blond, blue-eyed girl, to Miguel losing his machine shop job to the unqualified white man from Oklahoma. They witness forced deportations of American-born Mexicans to a country they never lived in, and they struggle with the urge to strike for better working conditions, knowing that they could be among those sent across the border.

Muñoz Ryan’s descriptions make the story come alive. I could picture the thousands of acres of rolling hills of El Rancho de las Rosas, the plump juicy grapes waiting for harvest, the crowded and steamy train across the border, and the Depression-era dust storms and tiny accommodations of the work camp in California. She writes about events in America’s history that aren’t well known but affected the lives of thousands of people who came looking for a better life. Some may have found it, but some ended up worse off.

Read the author’s notes at the end. She talks about her grandmother and “Miguel,” and you might just jump for joy.

Esperanza Rising was published May 1st, 2002 by Scholastic Press. First published January 1st, 2000.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones

unknown

Paco Jones is a bi-racial 13-year-old, half Mexican and half white, and the new kid at his fancy private school. Nicknamed ‘Taco’ by his less-then-friendly wealthy white classmates, Paco is looking at a few years of isolation and ridicule. It might be different if he stood out for something other than his name and skin colour, like talent on the basketball court, or brilliance in the classroom. But no, he’s just a regular student and benchwarmer on the team. And he gets pooped on by a bird his first week. Great.

But the poop leads him to meet Naomi Fox, an African-American girl in his grade, beautiful, popular, and his soulmate. Of course, he can’t tell her he’s in love, as she is dating Trent, the most popular boy in the school. But at least he finds a friend. And then he spikes the punch at a dance on a dare, kids get drunk, and suddenly he has a newfound popularity.

This book is written as a flashback from Paco’s perspective as he himself is a middle-grade teacher, years later. Because of that, I think the characters and behaviours are a bit more mature than I would have expected from a group of 13 and 14-year-olds. Naomi and Paco were wonderful characters, but they aren’t written as young teens.

Paco is very relatable for anyone who didn’t quite fit in during those middle school years. Which I think was more of us than not. He is trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in, both at school and in life. He is aware of his parents’ expectations for him and follows in the footsteps of an older brother who didn’t want to follow that route. He gives in a little more easily to peer pressure than I would have liked, but in his circumstances, probably most would.

Naomi is a lovely, self-assured girl who also deals with racism and peer pressure. Trent is pushing for sex and she wants to wait, but she lets people think they are, to boost his reputation. She finds an understanding friend in Paco and the two form a bond that goes beyond shared bullying and pressures at school.

Paco’s parents are a present and strong force in the book and in the boy’s life. They are aware of the pressures they place on him and the abuse he takes at school, but also believe that he can live up to their expectations, and rise above the other petty behaviour. They do not dismiss the bullying and racism, but realize, sadly, that it isn’t going to end anytime soon, and Paco must figure out a way to deal with it. They see his schooling as a great opportunity and want him to realize it as well.

The cast of secondary adult characters really contributes to the novel. The teachers and coaches and principal of the school all bring their own baggage and ideas to the story, and Paco takes away lessons from each encounter with them.

This is an uplifting story about a young boy who is learning about himself and his place in the world. (And the cover is GORGEOUS). Author Dominic Carrillo talks about peer pressure and the fleetingness of fame and popularity, and how in the end, you must be yourself. It is a nice, fast read for anyone, and a great story for kids trying to find out where they fit in.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones was published March 27th, 2016 by CSP-Createspace.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia

unknown

18-year-old Francesa “Frenchie” Garcia has been in love with Andy Cooper since the 9th grade. But no one knows about it, least of all Andy. When he finally pays attention to her, they spend the night having an adventure and talking about life. And then he goes home and kills himself. And Frenchie blames herself. Now she needs to face all the changes in her life, from the loss of Andy to the loss of a best friend and the loss of her carefully planned future.

To help her cope, she spends time in the cemetery by her house, watching funerals, thinking about the lives of those who have died, and talking to the ghost of Emily Dickenson, who is buried in a plot there. Not the Emily Dickinson, but a suitable substitute with the same name who can offer the same advice the poet would.

I went into this book completely blind. I have never read anything by the author before and randomly picked this book (gorgeous cover!) off a list for Latinx Heritage Month, posted by Naz at Read Diverse Books.  He has great recommendations, in-depth reviews, and tirelessly promotes diversity in literature.

Well, Jenny Torres Sanchez gets it right. She somehow manages to capture the anger and confusion and the weight of grief faced by someone dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one. It is a beautiful story of an artistic, unique individual who is fighting an enveloping darkness, unsure if she even wants to find the light again.

Frenchie Garcia is depressed and lonely and dealing with it badly. Honestly, I didn’t really like her in the beginning. I sympathized with her, I found her authentic and witty, but there was part of me that wanted to shake her and yell “dealing with death isn’t an excuse for being a bitch to everyone!”  But of course it is. And I think just about everyone understands that – when they know the root of the bitchiness. The problem is that Frenchie didn’t tell anyone she was depressed and hurting, she just became more and more a loner, and more and more sarcastic and a bit nasty to her friends. And while I would never judge anyone’s reaction to death – we all deal in our own way – she expected her friends to understand and be there for her when they didn’t even know she needed them.

But what is wonderful and beautiful is how she manages to pull herself back into the light. She develops into a character of strength and it isn’t always obvious that it will happen. She finds a way to come to terms with Andy’s death, and she starts by retracing the steps the two of them took on the night of their adventure together and accepting that maybe he wasn’t the seeker of truth and knowledge that he, and everyone else, made him out to be. And to do that, she needs someone to be her sidekick as she was Andy’s that night.

Enter Colin. Colin is lovely. Not that we get to see that part of him at first. But he is amused by Frenchie and attracted to her wit, rather than turned off by her harshness. From an outsider’s perspective, he can see that she is dealing with pain, whereas her friends perceive her behaviour as petty jealousy. (Which it is, don’t get me wrong. But we’ve all had a Joel in our lives, the one who dumps you as a friend as soon as he has a girlfriend. And then boomerangs back when she dumps him. Only to do it all over again with the next one…)

Joel and Robyn are the friends that deal with Frenchie as best they can all the while trying to move on with their own lives. And Lily is the girlfriend we all love to hate; beautiful, talented, sweet, and taking away Frenchie’s best friend without remorse or realization.

Frenchie’s parents are present in her life in a way that isn’t often portrayed in YA. Even though I don’t think we ever even learn their names, they are not absentee, she has boundaries and love, even when she thinks they don’t understand her. Like the other characters, they are authentic and powerful in their own way.

This is a lovely novel that deals with incredibly sensitive and heavy subject matter. Sanchez doesn’t dumb it down for her readers, not does she over-dramatize it. She treats suicide and grief and depression with respect and sensitivity, and this book will have you at turns angry and hopeful and terrified and ecstatic as  you tear through the pages. I loved it.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia was published May 28th, 2013 by Running Press Kids.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)

unknown

15-year-old Brooklyn teen Alejandra is a bruja, the latest in a long line of witches in her family. But magic doesn’t hold a thrall for her; she has seen the dark side of it far too often. So as her own magic wakens and she realizes her incredible power, she makes the fateful decision to turn her power back to the Deos. Easier said than done. She tries a new canto at her Deathday celebration, and her entire family disappears, banished to Los Lagos.

Her only hope is Nova, the strange new brujo who has mysteriously entered her life and raises only questions with his tattoos and odd behaviours.

I was really looking forward to this one. It was released the day that I finished Shadowshaper, and I was so eager to dive into a culture of which I know next to nothing. The trouble with this story is that I just didn’t care. I wanted to. I wanted to love it, and parts of it I did. It draws on the magic and history of the Latin-American culture, which I found to be brilliant. And another enticing and intoxicating cover. But the execution and the characters felt rushed and thrown together.

I like that it is a diverse cast, including a bisexual main character. And written without stereotypes, just a normal teen. Fantastic.

But. I did not connect with Alejandra. Actually, I did not connect with any of them. Although I can understand the daily turmoil Alejandra went through, her choices were unimaginable. After living her life surrounded by magic, after seeing mysterious death, after being chased by malevolent spirits and almost dying herself and seeing her family scarred, and after realizing that her own powers were immense and out of control, she decides she doesn’t want the power, and attempts dispel it with no idea how to go about it properly? And then she blamed the one person who had warned her not to do it? It makes no sense.

The relationships in the novel never struck me as authentic. No one really seems to know each other (at least of Alejandra’s generation), and I’m not sure that you could date or be friends with a witch of the power displayed by her family and have NO IDEA that something odd is going on.

As for the bisexual element of this story, it just falls flat for me. Alejandra’s relationship with both Rishi and Nova is disappointing. While I am not the biggest fan of the love triangle to begin with, I did think this could be an interesting new approach. But the characters lacked chemistry, and while I applaud the attempt to add diversity to the novel, this feels like an afterthought thrown in. Nova is too much the stereotypical bad boy with the troubled past, and Rishi just lacks spark.

The pacing of the novel is way off. At first, author Zoraida Córdova does a good job building to the big event as Alejandra struggles with her powers, unable to control them, and wanting them gone. But after her family disappears and she has to follow them to Los Lagos to rescue them, the plot seems to slow down and takes one confusing turn after another. The characters make bad decisions, take the wrong path (even though they were warned), trust the wrong characters (again, after being warned), and then all of a sudden *poof* and Alejandra figures out a new aspect of her immense power just in time to correct the mistake. Ten minutes ago, she couldn’t control any of it. It is frustrating, not suspenseful.

I did enjoy the author’s notes at the end of the novel, where Córdova explains what is real, and what is straight out of her imagination. It is a great mix between the two.

So I will say not bad, but it never reached its full potential. And for all that I did not love this story, I seem to be in the minority. Most reviews I have read are glowing, so I do think the book is worth the read, just to see what you think. It is appropriate for the entire YA range.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) was published September 6th, 2016 by Sourcebooks Fire.

Shadowshaper

unknown

OH. This cover. Possibly the most beautiful I have seen in forever, and a perfect representation of what you will find inside.

Brooklyn teen Sierra Santiago is a talented artist and is looking forward to a great summer. The first party of the season is tonight, and then she’ll spend her months off hanging with friends and painting a huge dragon mural on the wall of the abandoned eye-sore of a  building next to the junklot. But everything starts to change when she sees the colours of one mural, a tribute to a friend’s brother who was shot by the police, start to fade, and a tear slide down the face of another. To top it off, the night of the party she is chased down the street by a dead body. Things you don’t tend to see day-to-day, normally.

These fantastical occurrences lead Sierra to the world of shadowshapers – people who call the spirits forth through art and storytelling and music. Sierra had not been aware of her family’s connection to the spirit world, but her brush with danger leads her to question and start digging into the world of the shadowshapers. She find out that not only does her family have a powerful connection to them, but also that someone is using the shadowshaper power for evil, trying to take all their spiritual force, and destroying the ‘shapers and the link to their ancestors.

I am in love. With this story, with Sierra, with Robbie, and with Tee and Izzy and Big Jerome and Manny and the whole cast of characters that make the novel come alive. And maybe a touch with Daniel José Older too, because the magic flowed through his pen.

Older weaves the experiences a person of colour would have in a white dominated society throughout the story, but within the context of an urban fantasy. I am in awe. Police brutality, misogyny, racism, spirituality, diverse culture, as well as the small, not unimportant, everyday bigotries and judgments that all people exhibit. Sierra’s own aunt passes judgment on her niece’s natural afro and Robbie’s darker skin. And while none of these experiences are the main focus of the novel, they serve to enhance the plot and develop the characters.

And Sierra is the type of female main character you want to find in a YA novel. She is strong, self-aware, has a great sense of her history and culture, and adds humour and  humility, and a touch of teenage angst. In short, she is authentic.

Sierra’s friends are also such a wonderful cross-section. Older writes these characters effortlessly, almost as if he picked teens off the street and had them describe themselves and their friends. Sierra has lesbian best friends, she has friends with African, Haitian, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican heritage, and all stand out as individuals while mixing together in a great representation of Brooklyn youth. And their dialogue is fresh and hilarious, and the use of slang throughout is perfect. (Well, I assume it is. I’m old, so it definitely isn’t MY vernacular.)

I love that while Sierra is interested in Robbie, she doesn’t let that get in her way. Too many times in YA the romance is made the most important aspect of the heroine’s life. Not here. Sierra finds Robbie hot, but she has other things to do first, like save her family, her heritage, the world.

I think my only complaint is the length of the novel. I wanted to learn more about Sierra and the shadowshapers and magic and the different cultures that were all touched upon, but could have taught me so much more.

This is a must-read for anyone of any age.

Shadowshaper was published June 30th, 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books.