Education of Margot Sanchez

author: Lilliam Rivera 
Simon & Schuster (2017)
grades 7-up 
Puerto Rican

In the summer between her freshman and sophomore year, Margot had been looking forward to carefree days in the Hamptons with her new private-school friends, Serena and Camille. But their pressure for her to look the upper class part leads her to charge $600 on her father’s credit card and now she’s been forced to spend her summer vacation working in one of the family’s “two sad-looking supermarkets in the Bronx” to pay back the debt. “Papi is delusional,” Margot says, “if he thinks I’ll stay locked up in this depressing grocery world.” 

Margot’s parents, coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico and now living in the upper middle class enclave of Riverdale (“Rich Adjacent,” as Margo calls it), want her to appreciate how hard they’ve worked. But Margot resents their strict rules about whom she can and cannot befriend, as well as the sexism that allows her older brother to get away with so much more while still inheriting the family business.

Margot’s summer of quiet rebellion leads her into the arms of Moises, a former drug user turned community organizer, of whom she naïvely muses: “Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and sign his petition when social justice and a side of seduction are being served?” But she cannot show her true self to him, any more than she can show it to Serena, Camille, and blond heartthrob Nick, whom she dreams of seeing at the end of the summer—if her parents let her off for good behavior. Under the surface, though, the entire Sanchez façade is beginning to crack, as a cashier training Margot turns up pregnant, Junior loses weight and has mood swings, and Mom cleans house through it all.

Margot, whose self-centered behavior has landed her the summer at the grocery store, struggles to see the world through others’ eyes. She blames her former best friend Elizabeth for dumping her, but Elizabeth, who now attends a public high school for the arts, turns out to be there for Margot—with a dose of tough love—when Serena and Camille vanish. Elizabeth, Moises, and cashierista Jasmine ultimately are the ones who educate Margot in the complexities of race, gender, and class that she has blithely ignored in her pursuit of social status. Her questioning herself is a painful process; for instance, she compares herself to Moises:

How does he do it? He’s had a rough childhood, from what Jasmine told me, yet that doesn’t stop him from always lending a hand. How does a person go from dealing drugs to pulling weeds? Maybe some people are born good no matter their circumstances. What if I was born to be selfish?

Lilliam Rivera’s debut novel is funny and wise. It places the reader in the middle of a gentrifying Bronx, seeing the changes from the point of view of a family whose business is threatened by the Trader Joes and Whole Foods that the new residents welcome. Yet the Sanchezes are not innocent either, as they look down on the struggling residents of the neighborhoods that their supermarkets serve. Like Renee Watson’s excellent 2015 novel This Side of Home, The Education of Margot Sanchez raises questions about urban space and class for which there are no pat answers. Along with this broader theme is a compelling story about a teenage girl caught between the image she is supposed to present and the person she wants to become. The Education of Margot Sanchez is highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 3/18/17)

A shorter version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission. 

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth

author: Cathy Camper
illustrator: Raúl the Third (González)
Chronicle Books (2016) 
grades 4-up 
Mexican American

Take any of your favorite Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairy Tales,” add some random Saturday morning cartoons and a scene or two from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” and toss in some Cantínflas, a little “El Chavo del Ocho,” and a telenovela played at double-speed. What you get doesn’t even approximate Cathy Camper’s and Raúl the Third’s high-octane, hyperbolic, over-the-top punny graphic novel for children and everyone else, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth.

In Camper’s and González’s first collaboration, Lowriders in Space, our three amigos—Lupe Impala (ace mechanic extraordinaire), El Chavo Flapjack Octopus (the washcloth-wielding dynamo), and Elirio Malaría (the prime detailer with a bill as steady as a surgeon’s hand)—rebuilt their wreck of a Chevy (“so slow it didn’t even go”) into a lowrider (“the most mechanically inventive, exquisitely detailed car in the universe, with powers gleaned from the galaxy!”) and won the (literally) Universal Car Contest. With the prize money, they were able to buy their own garage, “Bajito y Suavecito,” and became independent from their tyrannical boss. But. At the end of this first volume, their beloved gatito, Genie, frightened by several earthquakes, has disappeared, and Flappy (and the rest of us) see another giant adventure on the horizon….

The three amigos’ adventures continue in Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, just after Genie has gone missing. Gone is Genie, who loved it when Flappy sang to him. Gone is Genie, who purred soniditos while Elirio painted. Gone is Genie, who kneaded tortillas on Lupe’s belly until she fell asleep. So the three amigos get into their retro-nuevo super-ranfla—bajito y suavecito—and, following the trail of gatito paw prints, embark on the mero-mero of all road trips.

Their first encounter is a bad-guy character based in contemporary reality. He is the amigos’ “guide,” the serape- and sombrero-wearing Coyote, who looks somewhat like the “Big Bad Wolf” of Saturday morning cartoons—and who confuses the amigos and leaves them stranded in the desert, as do many of the human smugglers (“coyotes”) hired by desperate people attempting to cross over from Mexico and Central America.

After having been deserted by Coyote, the amigos follow the lead of a colony of bats, journey through a gigantic maíz maze, cross the railroad tracks, traverse a field of boulders, and head into a huge volcano. They encounter, among others: the fearsome ghost, La Llorona (who, they say, wanders the Earth, crying, “¿Dónde están mis bebés?” and grabs up children to replace her own), whom Camper and González have morphed into a sad kitty-cat with great big anime eyes that rain great big blue tears all over her umbrella-patterned dress. And El Chupacabra, the dog-like monster who feeds mainly on the blood of goats and other livestock, appears to have a special taste for Lupe (who is, after all, a ruminant mammal).


But the main bad guy—even worse than Coyote—is Mictlantecuhtli, the hulking, spine-chilling Aztec god—who captures creatures in his great corn maze and forces them to inhabit Mictlan. Here, he becomes el mero-mero, the rudo of all rudos in the Realm of the Dead’s lucha libre ring, swiftly transforming all who dare challenge him into piles of skeletons and whose eyeballs he wears around his neck. In a super-bout that challenges the very lives of los téchnicos Lupe, Flappy and Elirio (not to mention Genie)—their combined technical skills and brainpower, deep affection for each other, and ability to work as a team make for the emotionally best, most satisfying (and kind of unexpected) lucha libre finale ever (followed by a huge Día de los Muertos pachanga, in which La Llorona sings the beautiful, heart-rending ballad, “Cielito Lindo”).

Written in English with over-the-top puns and other wordplays and illustrations that effortlessly and appropriately incorporate Spanish and Caló, both the first and second titles ingeniously hold the attention of adults and are way silly enough to attract reluctant readers.

A few from Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, including this “knock-knock” encuentro:

Lupe: “Have you seen our cat?”
Coyote: “Knock-knock.”
Lupe: “Who’s there?”
Coyote: “Señor.”
Lupe: “Señor who?”
Coyote: “Señor gato? I don’t think so.”

Then there are Flappy’s malapropisms; here, the names for rock formations—“big dumb ignoramus rocks,” “sedentary rocks…like napping at the beach,” and one of my favorites, and I hope one of yours, “metaphoric rocks, the building blocks of poets everywhere”—which are accompanied by depictions of their correct names (carved out of the giant rocks themselves) and ten-second (at most) geology lessons about weathering and the erosion of rock formations.

There are also short “units” about technology, such as the mechanics of a swamp cooler—“hecho en un pantano”—and the wonders of electromagnetic coils, which, when combined with hydraulics, become powerful enough to make the lowrider “hip and hop, dip and drop,” freeing up the tires so the amigos can escape from the worst monsters in the Underworld.

And, spoiler alert: Genie’s rescue is super-special.

González’s art, in traditional Chicana/o doodling form with the time-honored red, blue and black Bic® pens (this time adding green) on what appears to be brown paper grocery bags stained with coffee, uses cross-hatched, stamped and spiraled patterns mixed with papeles picados and other designs as they happen to occur to him. A master doodler, González gives readers, in no particular order and for no discernable reason, a bunch of fun things to look at. Here, for instance, readers may find a hitchhiking Mexican Kilroy (yes, he was here), a jackalope, a gnome, cuddly bears, Olmec heads that appear to be rudos, Cheech and Chong, and a tiny raven among the crows (warning “nunca más”).

Although all of his flat-out silly illustrations will appeal to hablantes and English-speakers alike, González saves the most exciting, and by far, the most engaging ones for the mega-bust up on the last few pages, which readers of all ages will want to scrutinize over and over. González certainly ought to receive a Pura Belpré Prize for Traditional Mexican Illustration.

In Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, Camper and González ramp up their hyper-silliness to the level of a Roadrunner cartoon. Something goes wrong, the three amigos fall off a cliff, and the next thing is they’re having yet another adventure. I look forward to seeing the next in this series, maybe a prequel. Who are the three amigos and how did this inter-species trio get together? We know that Lupe, who runs the show, is an adult. And zoot-suit-wearing Elirio is probably a young man. Flappy, al otro mano, is less mature and the others look out for him. Is he a child or just childlike? Are they all roomies or is there a deeper relationship, sort of like with Bert and Ernie? Will we ever find out?

As in their first collaboration, Camper’s hilarious story and González’s ultra-detailed artwork encourage children to develop their imaginations and appropriate suspension of disbelief. Chicana/o children in particular, besides appreciating the cultural and linguistic references that are part of their everyday lives, may be encouraged to see Caló as poetic and beautiful as “regular” Spanish and that great Chicana/o art doesn’t need expensive stuff to produce. As well, children who are not Chicana/o (or who may not even speak or understand Spanish) will find a lot to learn about and enjoy, and unstated lessons both in the text and art. The story also works for teens and young adults as well, who will “get” some of the smart and funny references and nuanced word play on just about every page. For everyone, perhaps the most important thing they will find here is that community trumps individuality.

Pull-quote: “Lowriders to the Center of the Earth—a delightful, hilarious, exciting, culturally-driven collection of textual wordplay and artful doodles—is must reading for every age, ethnicity, gender and species! It’s the best hyperbole-driven graphic novel in the world!”

—Beverly Slapin
(published 2/7/17)


Enrique’s Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother


author: Sonia Nazario 
Delacorte Press / Random House, 2013 
grades 7-10 
Honduran

Journalist Sonia Nazario based Enrique’s Journey both on a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times for which she won two Pulitzer Prizes, and on an adult book of the same name, published in 2006.

When Nazario first met 16-year-old Enrique as he camped at Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican side of the Rio Grande just across from Laredo, Texas, he had traveled more than 1,600 dangerous miles—by train and bus, and on foot—from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, across the border of El Salvador, through Guatemala, to Nuevo Laredo. He had been caught, arrested and deported 17 times. Most children who begin this long and treacherous journey to the US are nabbed and sent back to Central America.

Enrique was five years of age when his mother had left him and his sister with relatives in Honduras. Her hope then was to escape the grinding poverty at home and get to the US, where she could earn enough money to send to her children and to return as soon as she could. But the last time Enrique saw his mother had been 11 years ago. Now, he missed his mother so badly that he was willing to risk his life to see her again.

Time and again, he had risked injury or death by jumping on and off of moving train cars; evaded murderous gangs, bandits, and border police; and braved both oxygen-sucking heat by day and bone-freezing cold by night. There was always sickness, hunger and thirst and, along with other secretive migrants, Enrique drank from muddy puddles and begged for food and rinsed his mouth with urine to prevent infection. This is Enrique’s harrowing story, which Nazario adapts for younger readers from her original book, and to which she appends an updated afterword, epilogue and additional notes about her research and writing process and what motivated her decision to get involved.

Gangsters who rule the tracks will kill the desperate migrants on a whim and bandits on the trains will take what little they have. Girls cake themselves with dirt and rip their clothes, trying to make themselves “ugly” in order to avoid rape. The young people band together when they can, avoiding snakes and robbers, and sleep wherever they can, including in sewage ditches and in graveyards, behind churches. Sometimes they sniff glue to take away the pain of cold and hunger. They eat whatever they can find or beg, and drink wherever they can find water:

Once, riding on top of a moving train, (Enrique) grew so hungry that he jumped forward to the first car, leapt off onto the ground, and raced to pick a pineapple. He was able to reboard one of the train’s last cars. Another time, he had gone two days without water. His throat felt as if it was swelling shut. There were no houses in sight. He found a small water trough for cattle. It was frothy with cow spit. Under the froth was green algae. Beneath the algae was stagnant yellow water. He brought handfuls to his parched lips. He was so thirsty that it tasted wonderful.

The migrants also encounter acts of generosity from people who can least afford them. In Veracruz, they meet families who live in humble houses on the edge of the railroad tracks, families of whom, as Nazario writes, “30 percent of children five years and younger eat so little that their growth is stunted,” who risk their own lives running alongside the trains, thrusting up bundles of food and clothing, plastic jugs of water—and prayers. In Nuevo Laredo, they meet Padre Leo, who brings in a doctor and a haircutter and, despite the danger of being charged with human smuggling, gives up his small apartment so that girls and women can have a safe place to rest. And, no matter what it takes, he and his volunteers make sure that the desperate migrants have a meal.

The thousands of migrants, Nazario writes, hop as many as 30 trains to get through Mexico, and many stop to work subsistence jobs along the way. For some, the trips take about four months; for others, about a year. Most of them are caught and try again.

On March 24, 2000, a field hand in Las Anonas encounters a bleeding and battered boy, naked except for his underwear, “stumbling first one way, then another.” He had been beaten and robbed.

His right shin is gashed. His upper lip is split. The left side of his face is swollen. His eyes are red, filled with blood. He is crying. He dabs at open wounds on his face with a filthy sweater he has found along the tracks.

Enrique whispers, “Give me water. Please.” In town:

[T]he mayor’s mother cleans Enrique’s wounds with water, salt, and herbs. She brings Enrique a bowl of hot broth, filled with bits of meat and potatoes. He spoons it into his mouth, careful not to touch his broken teeth. He cannot chew.

Figuring that it would cost three times more to bury him than to save him, the mayor of nearby San Pedro Tapanatepec makes sure he gets medical care.

Enrique represents millions of people who have come through, and his story does not have the ending that middle readers might hope for.

As a journalist, Nazario has professional boundaries: her reporting is pretty much limited to a presentation of the facts. She can’t tell the reader what she thinks of the gangsters or the rapists or the human smugglers (“coyotes”) who often leave their impoverished migrant or refugee “clients”—including children—to fend for themselves. On the other hand, while it may be more difficult for teen readers to understand the interiority of the main characters—their feelings and reactions to the horrible conditions they face—the value of well-written journalism is that it allows a greater, more rounded perspective than does fiction.

If Enrique’s Journey had been an “as-told-to” or based entirely on Enrique’s story, readers wouldn’t have the journalistic perspective that allows a comparison of migration today with migration 20 years ago. Nazario takes the story beyond the lives of Enrique and his mom, and in doing so, she creates a distance between the reader and Enrique. This is a trade-off, but one that shows the value of nonfiction in general and journalism in particular. While it lacks the intimacy of a first-person narrative, Enrique’s Journey provides a hair-raising, but not sensationalized, story of what really happens and is still happening. Indeed, Enrique’s story is intense; it places young adult readers into a picture that’s generally seen only in headlines or sanitized stories. It also serves as a model for young readers considering a career in journalism. Enrique’s Journey:  The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother (which is also available in Spanish as La travesía de Enrique: La arriesgada odisea de un niño en busca de su madre, not reviewed here) is highly recommended.

(Note: In a 2006 interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Nazario said that she recognizes that the influx of “such a powerful stream [of undocumented immigrants] will only change if it is addressed at its source, if the economies of these countries that are sending large numbers of people to the United States improve.” While she eloquently writes about some of the devastating results of this forced mass migration on individual migrants and their families, I would like to have seen an acknowledgement of their source: the US neoliberal / corporate “free trade” policies such as NAFTA that so deplete resources throughout Latin America as to impoverish millions of people, who are then forced to flee, as a colleague said, “into the mouth of the shark.” I strongly encourage educators to supplement Enrique’s Journey with well-written historic and contemporary materials about the economic and sociopolitical realities of the mass migrations of desperate people—including unaccompanied children—to el Norte.)

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/7/17)

Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho

author (English): Harriet Rohmer
author (Spanish): Rosalma Zubizaretta  
illustrator: Mira Reisberg
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1989
kindergarten-grade 3 
(Nicaraguan)

I have an old, dirty tan shirt with two gray-and-white dolphins painted on it from the San Diego Zoo. I’ve had it for a long time, won’t part with it even though it’s too stained and too small for me to wear. I think Uncle Nacho in Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho feels the same way about his hat, which is old and filled with holes.

When his niece gives him a new hat, Uncle Nacho tries to find a use for his old one or a decent person to give it to; but, somehow, that hat keeps coming back. Finally, when he stops worrying, a simple solution occurs.

Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho comes from an old Nicaraguan folktale as performed by the Puppet Workshop of Nicaraguan National Television. Harriet Rohmer, who adapted the story, says that it is about old habits and change in the new Nicaragua. This story teaches that old habits are hard to get rid of and new habits are hard to learn.

I like the brightly colored, outlined illustrations, and I like the fact that the book is bilingual. Children who speak Spanish or English can enjoy the story in their own language. Perhaps they can learn each other’s language, too.

I think this book is especially good for people who never seem to be able to get rid of things or break old habits. Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho is highly recommended.

—Carlos Albizu Ramos-Slapin
(published 12/25/16)

Editor’s note: My son, Carlos, wrote this review in 1989, when he was 11 and in the sixth grade. It was originally published in the New York Times Book Review. We both still like this book a lot.

—Beverly Slapin

Bike Like Sergio’s

author: Maribeth Boelts  
illustrator: Noah Z. Jones 
Candlewick Press, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3

“Every kid has a bike but me,” says our sorrowful young narrator, who longingly watches his friends having the fun he is denied. Ruben especially dreams of having a bike just like that of his oblivious friend, Sergio, who rides his new one while Ruben breathlessly runs alongside. But since he’s poor, he says, “I know that wishes won’t make money appear.” At the grocery store, while Sergio purchases a pack of football cards, Ruben buys only the loaf of bread his mom wants.

When he sees that the woman in a blue coat ahead of him in line has dropped what he thinks is “just” a $1 bill, he pockets it, and when he gets home, Ruben discovers that it’s really a $100 bill. He dreams of finally being able to purchase a bike, but there’s a decision he must make. This moral and ethical dilemma takes up most of the story. When Ruben thinks that he may have lost the $100 bill, he retraces his steps “from school to bike shop to home.” It’s raining, and “rain and tears feel the same.” This defining moment before he recovers the money lends him a measure of empathy, and finally, young Ruben decides to return the money to the woman who had dropped it. But still, he doubts his choice: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.” Ruben is poor, then rich, then poor again.

This narrative, for all young readers to digest, implies that Ruben and other children in his low-income community are instinctively drawn to thievery in order to gain material objects.

Jones’ digitally assembled watercolor-and-pencil illustrations, with ethnically ambiguous characters, complement the ethnically ambiguous story. All we know is that most of the characters are some kind of brown-tinted, and someone in Ruben’s family may be some kind of white, as hinted by the tiny framed picture on Ruben’s family’s wall of a group of white people.

What’s centered here, in text and illustration, is poverty. The “bike like Sergio’s” symbolizes all that Ruben doesn’t have. Rather, what he has is a scuffed-up apartment with lock and chain on the door, a sink full of unwashed dishes, items thrown around, drawers left open, and a mother who’s apparently too busy with four children to teach any of them how to put away their stuff. The neighborhood is scuffed-up as well, but Ruben’s beautiful (and ethnically mixed) classroom is well furnished and spotless. And the math class is working on—let’s hammer the point home in case nobody gets it—problems involving money. Even though Ruben’s dad has a job that requires him to wear a suit and tie, mom crosses items off her grocery list because this week, apparently, they can afford only a loaf of bread and a quart of orange juice until Saturday. And Ruben dreams of—having a bike just like those of his friends.

The story is a first-person narrative. So why does the title center the name of a material object (“a bike”) belonging to a minor character (“Sergio”), while disappearing the name of the narrator? Can this have something to do with the agency—or lack of it—of a child of color?

The major reviewers had only positive things to say about this story:

From Booklist: “…[A] friendly urban setting with just the right amount of detail to allow the important interpersonal dynamics to be front and center.”

From Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Sure to elicit discussion among kids, this is a morality play that strikes at the heart.”

From Horn Book:“[I]t leaves plenty of room for talking about what is most important in life from an authentically childlike perspective.”

From Kirkus: “Embedded in this heartwarming story of doing the right thing is a deft examination of the pressures of income inequality on children.”

From Publisher’s Weekly: “… Ruben’s ethical dilemma and emotional turmoil without preaching, and his struggle and journey toward the moral choice…(are) both dramatic and genuine.”

From School Library Journal: “This title hits on the issues of poverty, peer pressure, and self-control…. Parents of all economic backgrounds can use this selection to start a conversation about right and wrong.”

From Wall Street Journal: “…Boelts captures the agony of a moral dilemma…. In this rewarding tale, …Jones’s expressive, naïve illustrations reinforce the sincerity of a boy’s valiant struggle with temptation.”

Here are two alternate scenarios. Rather than poverty, what’s centered here are Ruben, his family and his community. (Since Ruben and Sergio could be Latino names, I’ll insert a few appropriate Raza cultural markers.) 


Scenario One



Rubén and Mamá and younger sibs go to the bodega to buy some masa and a bag of oranges. While Mamá’s back is turned, Rubén sees some bills fall out of Sra. Rodríguez’s purse. He picks up the bills and runs over to return them to her. Sra. Rodríguez gives Rubén una sonrisa y un abrazo and says, “¡Ay, Diós te bendiga, mijito!” Rubén, excited and happy, runs over to Mamá and tells her what has occurred. She gives him una sonrisa y un abrazo and says, “Estoy orgulloso de ti.” They all go home and, when Papá returns from work, Rubén tells him the story and receives una sonrisa y un abrazo. When Rubén goes to bed, he counts all the sonrisas y abrazos he has received this day.


Scenario Two



When Rubén comes home from school, Mamá asks him to go to the bodega and buy some masa and a bag of oranges. Outside the bodega, Rubén sees that a woman in a blue coat has dropped her purse. She picks it up, but she doesn’t notice that some money has fallen out. Rubén picks up five $20 bills and turns around to give them back to the woman, but she has gone! Rubén goes home with the money and tells Mamá what happened. Rubén and Mamá, with baby Elena in tow, return to the bodega and ask Sr. Martínez if he had seen a woman in a blue coat a little while ago. Sr. Martínez says that, yes, Sra. Rodríguez was just here and she lives somewhere on the next block. Mamá and Rubén (and baby Elena) start knocking on doors. Finally they find Sra. Rodriguez, and Rubén returns her money. Sra. Rodriguez is surprised and happy. She gives Rubén un gran abrazo and says, “¡Ay, Diós te bendiga, mijito!” And Rubén and Mamá and Elena soon find out that Sra. Rodriguez is about to take some fresh-baked cookies out of the oven….

No grinding poverty and no pining for something that’s unobtainable. No pretending that stolen money is found money. No contrived moral and ethical dilemmas and no sociopolitical metaphors about being poor and then rich and then poor again.

A Bike Like Sergio’s is a white construction of an economically marginalized family of color and their neighborhood. And it’s a white construction of the “ethical dilemmas” of a child of color—not to mention the sadness after having made the right decision: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.”

A Bike Like Sergio’s is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/20/16)


Gaby, Lost and Found



author: Angela Cervantes 
Scholastic, 2013 
grades 4-6 
Honduran American

Sixth-grader Gaby Ramirez Howard loves cats and storytelling. When an ICE raid breaks out at the factory where her mother works—resulting in her mother’s deportation back to Honduras—Gaby is left in the care of her father, whom she does not know well and who does not seem too interested in parenting.

Despite the bullying she experiences at school, Gabby is convinced that her mother will soon return. But she is distraught when her mother tells her the journey back to Kansas City is too expensive and too dangerous. Young readers will see that Gaby has been bottling up her feelings regarding her mother’s deportation and her father’s inability to take care of her; and, while her burst of emotions is not entirely surprising, it’s heart wrenching to read her outpouring of anger and frustration aimed at her mother:

“No, Mom! I’ve been patient. I’ve been patient for three months! And stop calling me your princesa. If I were your princesa, you’d be here. You said before that I was worth the journey. I’m your daughter and I want you to come back! You promised!”…. The silence that followed sent a sharp pain through Gaby’s whole body. How could she hang up on her mom? She ran out the front. Her father yelled after her, but she wasn’t stopping.

Gaby’s outburst reveals that her mother’s absence—even though it is certainly not her fault—has ruptured the unspoken expectations between parents and their children. Parents are expected to take care of their children and, at this moment, Gaby blames her mother for her inability to do so. I found this particular scene painful to read because it’s the broken immigration system that thrives on separating families and making it extremely difficult for parents to parent. As a result, the children are left feeling abandoned and unworthy. And while Gaby is furious, she is also sensitive to her mother’s difficult situation and feels a sense of responsibility to keep herself together for her mother’s sake.

This separation of mixed status families changes their dynamics and roles: Children are often forced to mature early and parents who have been deported must find new ways to parent. Because of this dynamic, Gaby does not let her mother know how much of a hard time she is actually having; and rather, she becomes a nurturer.

While dealing with her own family situation, Gaby, as part of a class project, volunteers at an animal shelter. She becomes responsible for creating flyers with stories about the shelter animals in hopes that someone will read them and give the animals a home. When Gaby encounters a cat abandoned by her neglectful owners, she steals the cat from the shelter and takes it home with her. Gaby, who feels abandoned herself, vows to nurture her new cat the way she wishes someone would nurture her.

Cervantes's narrative details Gaby’s downward spiral due to her mother's deportation, which has stolen the child’s sense of security and has traumatized her. After the deportation, Gaby sleeps by the door with the phone under her pillow so she doesn't miss her mother's return. She is not eating well, and she begins to push her friends away. But by the end of the novel, Gaby is in a much better state of mind: She has a better understanding of how dangerous it would be for her mother to attempt to cross Guatemala and Mexico to get to Kansas City, and she finds comfort in knowing her mother is safe and in knowing that her mother will love her despite the distance.

As xenophobic immigration laws have negatively impacted many, many mixed status families, Gaby’s story remains painfully relevant. Since 2009, more than 2.5 million people have been deported. Indeed, President Obama has deported more immigrants than has any other US President and the numbers continue to rise. In addition, the Supreme Court’s deadlock on DAPA has left many more families vulnerable.

Cervantes’s novel does not attempt to provide a solution to the fraught immigration system that has taken Gaby’s mom away; nor does the author give Gaby a neat, happy ending. Rather, Gaby, Lost and Found presents a realistic telling of the fear, anger, and pain involved when a child’s parent is deported. While immigration continues to be a prominent theme within Latinx children’s and young adult literature, many books focus solely on Mexican experiences—and even then, most of them involve “legal” immigration. Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name was the first Latinx picture book I read that has an undocumented protagonist; and Jorge Argueta and Rene Colato Lainez continue to be the leading authors writing Latinx children’s books that center Central American experiences. There’s a clear need for a broader discussion of immigration in Latinx children’s literature in order to capture and represent the multiplicity of migrant, immigrant and refugee experiences.

Gaby’s narrative gives hints to her life with her mother before she was taken away and, clearly, she has other interests. She’s a complex character—a fun, cat loving, regular girl. And it’s also evident that her mom’s deportation will impact the rest of her life just like it does for real Latinx children whose parents have been deported or face deportation.

Gaby, Lost and Found is the first Latinx children’s literature novel I’ve read where a parent is deported and does not return. It’s compelling because it captures the reality impacting many young Latinx living in mixed status homes. And, while providing an ending in which Gaby and her mom are happily reunited might have been satisfying for many young readers, my concern is that such “happy endings”—by resolving everything at the end—might serve to minimize the severity of the issue and to alienate children whose parents have not and cannot return. Here, by staying away from a too-neat and too-happy ending, Cervantes points out the long-term implications for families that have been separated by an immigration system that fails our families.

Cervantes’s novel addresses issues related to mixed status families including deportation, and Gaby is indeed a multi-dimensional character whose story extends beyond her mother’s deportation. Gaby, Lost and Found is a much-needed addition to conversations around Latinx literature and immigration. It’s an extraordinary story, and is highly recommended. 

Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD
(published 12/16/16)
  

An earlier version of this review first appeared on Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s blog: https://soniaarodriguez.com/2016/07/05/gaby-lost-and-found-expanding-the-conversation-on-latinx-kids-books-immigration/.


Rooster Joe and the Bully / El Gallo Joe y el abusón

author: Xavier Garza
illustrator: Xavier Garza 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016 
grades 5-7
Mexican American

Seventh-grader Joe Lopez is a burgeoning young artist “who can draw anything,” but he has a special passion for roosters. He sketches “roosters, roosters and more roosters,” he tells his best buddy, Gary, because roosters are strong and brave and will always stand their ground, even when threatened by an animal bigger than they are.

When Joe intervenes to save a classmate from a lunch-money shakedown by the school bully and his friends because his “anger at the injustice being played out is more than (he) could stand,” they mark Joe as their next victim. Joe refuses to be a “snitch” and to let fear rule him, but after an encounter in which he accidently “depants” his nemesis under the bleachers in front of everyone, Joe is sure there will be a price to pay.

Joe’s mentor is his soft-spoken Grandpa Jessie, who is an accomplished artist. While instructing his grandson about new painting materials and techniques, Grandpa answers Joe’s questions about why his own paintings focus on struggle: for badly needed change, for human rights, for better wages, against unfair laws. “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” he tells Joe.

“Just one person can inspire,” Grandpa says, and can motivate and unite many to struggle for justice. History, he says, is full of lessons about people who were looked upon as being small and powerless, “but bravely stood up to those who were bigger than them. They not only stood up to them, but actually beat them.” People such as “César Chávez[1] and Emma Tenayuka[2] became inspirations that motivated countless people to stand up and say, ‘No More’ to the abuses they were facing.”

And standing up to bullies, Grandpa says, is the same thing. Together with his friends, including Kiki, a girl from his past, Joe does just that. And, with encouragement from his art teacher, Kiki, Gary, Grandpa, and others, Joe enters an art contest—after which he becomes known as Rooster Joe. There are several believable middle-grade issues here, but the main thing that preteens will remember is the necessity of uniting others in the struggle for justice.

Garza’s bold, black-and-white sketches of Joe and his friends—and, of course, the ever-present roosters—complement this short, fast-moving story. And Baeza Ventura’s colloquial Spanish translation in this bilingual flipbook is, as usual, extraordinary. Here, for instance, Grandpa tells his young grandson, in English:

“El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” exclaims Grandpa Jessie. “That’s Spanish for ‘the people united will never be defeated.’ Even the tallest mountain will crumble when the people stand united against it.”

And Baeza Ventura’s Spanish reads:

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido—exclama. Hasta la montaña más alta se puedo derrumbar cuando la gente se enfrente a ella.

Rooster Joe and the Bully / El Gallo Joe y el abusón is a satisfying story about art and budding love interests and bravery and struggle and overcoming obstacles that will engage middle readers—and it’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/11/16)




[1] Some recommended picture books about César Chávez include: Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of César Chávez, Carmen Bernier-Grand’s César: ¡Sí, se puede! Yes, we can!, Monica Brown’s Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez / Lado a Lado: La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez, Richard Griswold del Castillo’s César Chávez: The Struggle for Justice / La lucha por la justicia, and Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: the Story of Cesar Chavez. All are reviewed in De Colores.

[2] An excellent picture book about Emma Tenayuca is Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Tenayuca’s That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia. It’s reviewed in De Colores.

Lowriders in Space

author: Cathy Camper
illustrator: Raúl the Third (González) 
Chronicle Books (2014)
grades 4-up 
Mexican American
  
In Camper’s and González’s hilarious graphic novel, three amigos—a mammal, an insect and a cephalopod—embark on a loopy, out-of-this-world adventure in an all-encompassing display of friendship and species diversity in which everyone speaks Caló.

The three, who live together and work at a car dealership six days a week, are the protagonists in the fastest, wildest hyperbole-driven story in the world. “Mechanic extraordinaire” Lupe Impala is “the finest mechanic south of Vacaville.” Ace car polisher El Chavo Flapjack Octopus wields “the wettest washcloth north of the Salton Sea.” And “the best detail artist around” is a mosquito named Elirio Malaría (“Don’t be scared, eses! Only lady mosquitos bite vatos for food!”).

They don’t have a cent, but they have big hearts, big ambitions and big dreams. They dream of having their own garage where they could build their own car: a lowrider that hips and hops, dips and drops. A lowrider that is low and slow—bajito y suavecito. One day, they see an announcement about a (literally) “universal car competition,” in which the “most mechanically inventive, exquisitely detailed cosmic car wins!” First prize is a solid gold steering wheel and a carload of cash—more than enough to fulfill all their dreams! But all they have is “the start of a car, the shell of a car. It was already low and slow, so slow it didn’t even go.”

After an uproarious, fast-paced intergalactic adventure involving at least one fart joke, the three have built a lowrider extraordinaire—bajito y suavecito—adorned with rockets and planets and stars and a tiny “burro-corn” on the front. They “cruised back to earth (with cinto de Orion on the roof), the milky way coated their car, stars stuck to the paint job like glittering dandelion fluff, (and) the Big Dipper gleamed from their license plate.” Their lowrider is, as one of the judges exclaims, “retro-nuevo cool.”

A note about the illustrations: After studying traditional Chicana/o art for many years, graphic artist Raúl the Third took the leap and returned to his cultural roots. For Lowriders in Space, his media became the time-honored red, blue and black Bic® pens, on what appears to be used brown paper grocery bags but is actually paper stained with Nescafé Suave. In this complementary partnership between author and artist, crosshatched, stamped and spiraled patterns mix with papeles picados, the characters change size and form according to the needs of the story, asteroids become pom-poms for the windshield, and the planet Pluto is transformed into a gearshift knob.

Teasing the reader, González’s dizzying graphic references fly by. Here is Flapjack, wearing a Chavo hat (of course), sitting in his bucket, blowing bubbles (as octopi do), except he’s blowing soap bubbles. Here, leaning against a wall in his super-cool posture, is Elirio, a Zoot suit-wearing mosquito with a Cantínflas mustache. Here are dust bunnies that are literally bunnies. Here are the Cartínflas garage and Sapo Bell taquería. Here—if you look really carefully—you’ll see Cheech and Chong. And here are our homies in the background careening down a hill on a handmade, fire-spewing, big-tired bike; while an aged, sombrero-wearing, serape-clad Pluto makes a token appearance. We see him sitting next to a nopal cactus, rather than leaning against it—as if to say, “adiós, tired old comic book stereotypes, y ¿qué tal? cool new graphic novel vatos.”

For children, Camper’s uproarious story and González’s over-the-top artwork together encourage development of imagination and appropriate suspension of disbelief. Chicana/o children in particular will appreciate the cultural and linguistic references that have deeper meanings for them. As well, children who are not Chicana/o (and even those who do not speak or understand Spanish) will enjoy the story’s fast pacing and great good humor, and may learn new things as well. The story also works for teens and adults, who will “get” some of the smart and funny references and nuanced word play on just about every page that younger readers might miss. (Such as the great Mexican comedian, Cantínflas, morphing into “Cartínflas,” the name of the garage; and the Mexican sitcom, “El Chavo del Ocho,” into “El Chavo Flapjack Octopus.”)

Camper’s glossary, explaining Spanish, Spanglish, Aztec and Caló references, words and phrases, along with technical and scientific info, is a hoot as well. Take, for instance, “holy mole*,” where the asterisk leads to a lengthy explanation of a “thick Mexican sauce for meat made of many ingredients, including peppers and chocolate.”

No less important is that an aspect of “diversity” modeled here—one that often escapes authors and publishers—is group, rather than individual, problem solving. No fake “multiculturalism” here. No tokenism. No ethnic overlays. Lowriders in Space is the real thing, and it’s hilarious. And it’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/22/16)