Gabi: A Girl in Pieces

author: Isabel Quintero

Cinco Puntos Press, 2014 

high school-up 

Mexican American

As I’ve made my way through the dozens of books nominated for the Cybils Award in YA Fiction this year—I’m now up to 128—a few have come to stand out. One of my favorites is Isabel Quintero’s debut novel, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. Quintero’s novel shows that some of the most interesting, innovative, and honest titles come from the small press world.

The novel chronicles Gabi Hernandez’s senior year in high school. Because she skipped a year, she is a little younger than her peers, and she watches as many of them take risks and make difficult or outright bad choices. The story begins with her best friend Cindy’s unplanned pregnancy—the result, Cindy later reveals, of a date rape. Gabi’s mother, and many other mothers in their community, had gotten pregnant by accident and either had had children outside of marriage or married too young, and they warn their daughters: “‘Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.’ Eyes open, legs closed.” Still, the girls live in a hyper-sexualized environment that reinforces traditional gender roles and the double standard for women and men. Gabi chafes against the hypocrisy, as does her other best friend Sebastian, who is kicked out of his house when he dared to come out as gay. Gabi’s mother struggles to support the family while her father battles a meth addiction. Gabi’s efforts to connect with her father and to remember the good times are among the most poignant parts of a beautifully written and emotionally gripping story.

Gabi’s voice, her spunk, and her growing acceptance of who she is—a fat girl who seeks comfort in food while trying to live life on her own terms—give Quintero’s novel the kind of unforgettable quality that will make it a classic for teen and adult readers. Structured as a yearlong diary, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces moves forward through vignettes. Poems, play scripts, letters to her father and boyfriend, a hilarious graphic novel, and a list of “INSTRUCTIONS FOR UNDERSTANDING WHAT BOYS WILL BE BOYS REALLY MEANS” are interspersed with the diary entries and reflect perfectly Gabi’s emotions and passion. For example, one of the sardonic instructions reads, “When a girl says no, you might want to consider your position. I don’t think she meant yes. But I’m a girl, so what do I know? But because boys will be boys, you don’t really have to think about it.”

Gabi juggles her own ambitions with the expectations her community and the wider society have for her, and Quintero does a superb job of exploring the tangle of gender roles, body image, and sexuality that teenage girls face. But while Quintero explores universal themes, her language and well-chosen details give this novel a cultural specificity and richness so that it speaks directly to young Latinas while allowing others into the world of its author and protagonist. For instance, in talking about her light skin and how people have trouble believing she’s of Mexican heritage, Gabi observes:

This skin thing always pisses me off. What I need is a nopal on my forehead to let the world know about my roots. One of those flat cactus plants that my grandpa grew behind his house before he died—nopal en la frente. Yup. That would solve all my problems. It would say, “This light-skinned, White-looking young lady is of Mexican descent. Really, she is. Yes, she speaks Spanish. And English too. She is a sight to see, folks, a real marvel. (Unless you travel to Mexico, where there are lots more like her.)” The nopal would solve those problems.

The Spanish is not italicized, nor is there a glossary. One language is not privileged over the other, and readers are trusted to understand meaning from the context. The narrative flows seamlessly and lyrically between languages.

Award committees take note—this is an amazing novel from a bright new star! Highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann

(published 12/26/14)

Niño Wrestles the World

author: Yuyi Morales
illustrator: Yuyi Morales
Roaring Brook Press, 2013

Anyone who has seen, and therefore viscerally participated in, a Lucha Libre Mexicana, knows that the luchadores are more than “just” performance wrestlers, competing for trophies and money. As they enact the battles between good and evil, the audience is well aware of the political and social realities that the performances signify.

Sometimes, these confrontations are real, and the luchadores themselves organize their communities, fighting for social justice rather than trophies. In the amazing documentary, “Super Amigos” (2007), for instance, five mask- and costume-wearing luchadores are actually anonymous grassroots superheroes, who organize in the streets of Mexico City. And their battles—“Super Barrio” v. “El Casero Collero,” “Super Gay” v. “Homofobía,” “Super Animal” v. “El Matador,” “Ecologista Universal,” v. “Depredador,” and “Fray Tormenta” v. “Misería”—sometimes seem to be never-ending.

In Yuyi Morales’ beautifully crafted little picture book, we meet Niño, the three-year-old luchador who wears a red mask, orange and yellow sneakers, and blue-banded tighty-whities. No opponent is a challenge for our young hero’s skills, as he quickly demolishes the competition, the “rudos” of his little world. They are: “La Momía de Guanajuato” (the Guanajuato mummy, who has been chasing people since 1865), “La Cabeza Olmeca” (the mysterious Olmec Head), “La Llorona” (the Mexican ghost who abducts children to replace her own), “El Extraterrestre” (who hovers the earth in his flying saucer), and “El Chamuco” (the devil who tempts little kids into doing bad things).

Rather than using violence to defeat the “rudos,” our smiling little hero uses the “weapons” of his childhood: his skill at tickling, a jigsaw puzzle challenge, a doll decoy, a game of marbles, and scooters, Lego pieces, and a melting popsicle.

Pero, finalmente—¡aye, que no!—Niño is challenged by the worst, the most dangerous rudas of them all: “Las Hermanitas,” his twin baby sisters, who have awakened from their naps. Will they be the ones to defeat the great Niño? Will they render our champion luchador powerless? O, ¿tendrá una idea nueva?

Using the technique of digital collage, Morales loads each double-page spread with bright, bold watercolors, inks, block prints, and even salt; and announces each of Niño’s foes with typeface reminiscent of exciting Mexican Lucha Libre posters. Plus, Niño’s moves—“FWAP!” “SLISH!” “BLOOP!” “WHUNK!”—virtually leap off the page. As in her other picture books, there are details here that fans will notice—such as the image on the jigsaw puzzle cover: it’s from her book, Just a Minute.

Finally, master storyteller that she is, Morales seamlessly incorporates Spanish words and phrases into the sparse English text without the need to translate them, so young hablantes and English-speakers can enjoy the story—and action—together.

Last year, I had the good fortune to attend a reading of Niño, during which Morales held a large group of mostly preschoolers both mesmerized and cheering. She’s an international treasure, and Niño Wrestles the World is irresistible. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/26/14)

María’s Journey

author: Karen English
illustrator: Neverne Covington 
McGraw-Hill, 2000 
grades 3-4 

María’s Journey is the fictional story of the Quintera family, one of “eleven brave families [who] were the founders of what is now the city of Los Angeles in September, 1781.”

María, her mother, father, two sisters and baby brother are traveling some 1,000 miles from Los Alamos, Mexico, across the Gulf of California, to Loreto, and finally up to Mission San Gabriel, near where they will build a new settlement. Some travelers have been left behind because of smallpox. When the family finally arrives at the mission,

María saw outdoor cooking fires where women were preparing food. She passed a large vat where cattle hides soaked. She looked up at trees with long, thin brown pods hanging from their branches. She heard the melody of a flute. She found everything interesting and wonderful!

In reality, the California missions were forced labor camps, where incarcerated Indian people were separated from their children, harsh manual labor was enforced by intimidation and brutality, and filthy living conditions were the rule. Indeed, some 100,000 Indian people died or were killed in the missions. But none of this appears in María’s Journey—only the “bravery” of a settler family, and the budding friendship between a settler girl and an unnamed Indian girl.

The [Indian] girl sat down next to María and smiled. She placed a necklace of shells over María’s head. Then María took out the yellow ribbon from her pocket. She pressed it into the girl’s hand. Now María had a new friend in her new home.

The drawings, executed in ink over pencil and filled in with mostly yellow and red watercolors, complement the text. The faces of the Quinteros are inconsistently drawn, and the Indians are either faceless or expressionless. The repeating pattern on every page is María’s yellow ribbon, which, on the last page, is tied into a bow, intertwined with the shell necklace her new friend has given to her.

Part of McGraw-Hill School Division’s “Adventure Books” series, María’s Journey is such a tedious, boring apologia for Manifest Destiny that the best part of it is that it’s only 16 pages, including the title page, three full-page and two half-page illustrations, and a map. Not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/26/14)

Our California

author: Pam Muñoz Ryan
illustrator: Rafael López 
Charlesbridge, 2008
grades 1-4

Our California (previously California, Here We Come!) has been re-illustrated and re-designed, with short poems that celebrate 14 of California’s major cities and regions, and back matter that includes state symbols and additional artwork and information about each place.

López’s double-page spreads are stunning. Rendered in bright, bold acrylics on a palette of mostly reds, greens, blues and purples, the paintings are heavily saturated and textured by scratching and scraping the paint on grained wood. Some bring to mind the Mexican muralistas and WPA artists, others have a graphic-novel feel, and still others have a sort of folkloric tone. There is also a good deal of magical realism here. For instance, the spread for “Los Angeles” shows a movie director riding a terrified mastodon, who is stuck in the tautologically named “La Brea Tar Pits” near Hollywood.

However, Ryan’s text—and I cannot say this strongly enough—inculcates in young students the appreciation of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. Each descriptive spread consists of a rhyming four-line verse that—by disappearing the Indigenous peoples, enslaved people, and super-exploited poor and working people, all of whom actually built California—erases any real history and leaves youngsters with nothing of value. For example,

San Juan Capistrano is where you will learn
about a quaint village where swallows return.
Junipero Serra stopped here on his way
to build a grand mission from adobe clay.

Junipero Serra did not build anything. Rather, it was his padres and soldiers who wreaked havoc—physical and spiritual—on the enslaved Indian people who built the 21 missions that line El Camino Real.

Another example: In the section describing the Central Valley, López’s spread at least shows a few agricultural workers, but Ryan’s text disappears them.

The Great Central Valley, with its plentiful yields,
feeds the whole nation with its orchards and fields.
This rich, thirsty farmland needs water to thrive.
Canals, pumps, and dams keep this valley alive.

The back matter, consisting of 75 bulleted informational items, follows no organizational pattern other than proximity to the geographical locations in the text. Most of the items are incorrect and seem to have been haphazardly plucked out of less-than-authentic sources; and many of them appear to have been written by clueless elementary school students. For instance:

Thousands of years ago Asian hunters migrated to North America through what is now Alaska. Their descendants, the first Californians, later became known as Native Americans.

I could easily deconstruct each textual section, but I won’t bother. Despite López’s excellent artwork, Our California is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/22/14)

White Flower: A Maya Princess

author: Victor Montejo
translator: Chloe Catan
illustrator: Rafael Yockteng
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2005
grades 4-6 

Montejo’s grandmother, who was Jakaltek Maya, told him this Mayan version of the Spanish folktale, Blanca Flor. In this story, which is set in the classic Maya civilization, the father is W’itz Ak’al, the shape-shifting Lord of the Mountains and the Valleys, who rides huge deer and eats the spirits of those who had bargained their hearts for extreme wealth. W’itz Ak’al’s daughter, Saj Haq’b’al (White Flower)—rather than being a wimpy, self-sacrificing “Snow White”—also commands the forces of nature. One day, an impoverished young prince, Witol Balam—who has lost his family, his wealth, and even his memory—wanders into the area, searching for work and shelter. He encounters a kingdom and falls in love with Saj Haq’b’al and, despite all the fierce power that confronts him, takes on a series of impossible tasks in order to marry the strong young woman who makes the impossible possible while ameliorating her father’s wrath.

Yockteng’s softened watercolor and graphite pencil illustrations reflect both the detailed Maya symbols and patterns in the great city, and the flora and fauna of the lush, endless jungles. Here is Saj Haq’b’al, giving her voice to an ear of corn, transforming herself into a thorn hedge, and turning into a deep blue lake. Here is the pursuing queen, riding into an endless magical cornfield, futilely searching for the one ear she knows to be Saj Haq’b’al. Here is a seven-pointed ribbon becoming a path with seven branches to confound W’itz Ak’al in his pursuit of the bold fugitive couple.

Of course, we always knew the story would end well—the marriage party “lasted many days and the musicians played age-old songs on their marimbas, so that the people of the city could dance and forget all their sorrows.” Don’t let the length of the narrative stop you—White Flower is a well-told and beautifully illustrated story full of magic and magical realism that young readers will love. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/24/14)

Seeds of Struggle, Songs of Hope: Poetry of Emerging Youth y Sus Maestros del Movimiento

editor: raúlrsalinas
editor: Jennifer Shen
El Centro de la Raza, 1997
grades 4-up
Mexican American

It is never too early to expose children to good poetry. This excellent volume, done by the young people and their teachers who participated in El Centro de la Raza’s summer youth leadership conference’s writing workshop in 1997, is a companion to ¡Word Up! Hope for Youth Poetry from El Centro de la Raza (1992). In Spanish, English and Spanglish, the poems and artwork in Seeds of Struggle are an example of what our youngsters are capable of, when they are acknowledged as our most valuable resource.

In their introduction, Hap Bockelie and raúlrsalinas write: “When oppression becomes so unbearable to a people, poetry, among other forms of expression, flows and gushes forth, as part of the human spirit’s rebel scream against injustice.” It is the nurturing of this scream in a safe environment that has produced, for the past three years, pieces such as this group poem:

Hay que poner atención
la historia de nuestra gente
Quieren robar de repente
Don’t you know this is our home
El Centro es nuestro canton
Para seguir la nación
De conquistas y traiciones
We have truth in our canciones
You can’t buy us out with fear
People shed tears for what is here
They gave us their corazones.

Seeds of Struggle is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review first appeared in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (AltaMira Press, 2005). We thank the publisher for permission.

Sculpted Stones / Piedras Labradas

author: Victor Montejo
translator: Victor Perera
Curbstone Press, 1995
grades 7-up 

If our ancestors came to life
they’d surely give us, their descendants
thirteen lashes for being
sleepwalkers and conformists.
They always advised us
to struggle, build and forge ahead
so that no one’s left behind,
and no one’s forgotten by his brothers.
Yet today we Maya
remain hushed up
and have even forgotten the message
that might inspire us to break the silence.
That’s why if our ancestors came back to life
they’d give us thirteen lashes
to cure the amnesia of centuries
which has made us forget our names.

Victor Montejo is a poet, a human rights activist and an anthropologist, studying in depth his own people. After the massacre of his village in 1981, in which Guatemalan soldiers killed his brother, Montejo’s name appeared on a death squad list and he was forced to flee to the US. Since then, his life’s work has been to make known, in a variety of ways, the continuing human rights violations confronting the Mayan peoples.

After Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, after The Bird Who Cleans the World and Other Mayan Fables, after a spectacular children’s version of the Mayan sacred book, the Popul Vuh, comes this book of poetry, Sculpted Stones. Here, in Spanish and English, Montejo’s poems express the resilience of the Mayan peoples, expose the Guatemalan army’s attempt to destroy the Indigenous population, and give lie to textbook anthrobabble about “history” and “culture.”

In the first poem, “Interrogation by the Ancestors,” Montejo asks,

Just think:
what can we say
to the ancients
when they return
with thunder and lightning
and ask about the fire
they left with us
in the cone of the great volcano?

And for the poor, betrayed, sad, humiliated, plundered, frightened people, there is this advice (beginning, of course, with an anthropological discourse):

Among the Maya
to cure a fright
you put a fresh-laid egg
in the armpit
of the frightened person
and in that way
the self-worth and health
that the phantom has stolen
will return to the afflicted.

But, how can we cure
the pain and fear
built up over the many centuries
of plunder and negation
of our Mayan identity?

Someone said
the egg is a great idea,
but in our day it’s better
to confront
and do battle
with those causing the fright,
then endure the centuries
warming turkey eggs
in your armpits.

This is really good advice. Sculpted Stones is testament to a people’s tenacious determination to survive in the face of centuries of colonization. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review first appeared in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (AltaMira Press, 2005). We thank the publisher for permission.

Girl from Chimel // Honey Jar // Secret Legacy

In 1992, Indigenous and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s Nobel Peace Prize brought to a world audience the truths of the U.S.-orchestrated and –supported Guatemalan government’s 36-year campaign of genocide against the Maya there—and of one of the longest guerrilla resistance movements in Latin America. After her brother and mother were “disappeared” and her activist father was tortured and burned alive in the assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1980, Menchú went into exile and took up residence in Mexico, where she taught herself Spanish in order to denounce to the world the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army.

Despite the hardships and poverty her people have endured—and rebelled against—ever since the Spanish conquest, Menchú’s wonderful recounting of her childhood stories in these titles, in close collaboration with Guatemalan author Liano, shows what it is to live with beauty and integrity, with land, culture and community. Domi’s oil paintings, on a jeweled palette of all the colors of the Mayan forests, jungles and mountains, are a luminous symphony of colors and images.

author: Rigoberta Menchú Tum
author: Dante Liano
translator (Spanish to English): David Unger
illustrator: Domi
Groundwood Books/ House of Anansi Press, 2003
grades 3-7

As The Girl from Chimel begins, Rigoberta introduces herself and her village:
I am Rigoberta. Chimel is the name of my village when it’s large, and Laj Chimel when it’s small, because sometimes the village is large and sometimes it’s small. During good times, when there’s honey and the corn is so heavy it bends its green stalks, when the yellow, green, purple, white and multicolored orchids bloom, displaying their beauty, then my village is big and it’s called Chimel. During bad times, when the river dries up and ponds can fit into the hollow of my hand, when evil men walk the earth and sadness can hardly be endured, the village becomes small and is called Laj Chimel. Right now, I’m remembering Chimel…
It is in the hearts of the people of Chimel, then and now, that the old stories reside. Traditionally, told stories such as the ones in Menchú’s trilogy teach children how the world works. For young Rigoberta and other Mayan children, this is how they are taught about the history of the land and right behavior; about compassion, courage, and generosity; about asking permission from the nahuales, the spirits who reside in everything; about planting seeds and harvesting fruits; and ultimately, about fighting injustice and struggling for a better world.

author: Rigoberta Menchú Tum
author: Dante Liano
translator (Spanish to English): David Unger
illustrator: Domi
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2006
grades 3-7 

In The Honey Jar, Menchú imparts some of the cultural knowledge she learned as a child: How Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon created the stars, and Mother Earth and Father Sky, whom they carefully instructed in the creation of sea, land, plants, and animals. How each creature was assigned to be a nahual, a keeper of something. How the elders were given power and wisdom and why they deserve respect. What happens when people violate nature’s laws and don’t apologize and what happens when they do. How monkeys are descended from humans (not the other way around). How the weasel taught people to be grateful for what they are given. How a man and a buzzard exchanged bodies and what they learned from their horrible experience. How the hormigo tree, suffering from nostalgia—the illness borne of longing “to sing and release from its heart all the trills the birds had sung throughout its life”—is given the gift of music.

author: Rigoberta Menchú Tum
author: Dante Liano
translator (Spanish to English): David Unger
illustrator: Domi
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2008
grades 3-7 

In The Secret Legacy, Seven-year-old Ixkem’s grandfather is 100 years old, and he is ready to pass on his legacy and knowledge. Of all the people in the village, Grandfather chooses his youngest granddaughter to be the new caretaker of the cornfields. “But I’m too little,” Ixkem protests. “Neither age nor size has anything to do with it,” her grandfather assures her.

Off they go together, the old man and the little girl, through the forest, to the cornfield, the “best place to scare off parakeets, blackbirds, wild boar, squirrels, turtle doves, the smallest of worms and moths and even a few invisible insects who wanted to eat the corn. Now it would be Ixkem’s job.” Her yelling and thumping reach the nahuales who live at the center of the earth. A committee of b’e’n (as the nahuales are called in K’iche’ language) brings Ixkem down to their underground turf, where she tells them about life on the surface and the amazing stories her grandfather told her.

Among them: How an arrogant, boastful lion learns a lesson in humility. How the futures of young children can be shaped by what is done to their umbilical cords. What makes good people good and bad people bad. How a hummingbird brings happiness into the world. About the miracle of falling in love and the requirement of a lengthy courtship. How happiness comes from a peaceful heart and the love that others know how to give. Why the light in our eyes is a reflection of those who love us.

In exchange for these stories, the b’e’n whisper a secret in Ixkem’s ear for her to take back to her grandfather. Now that he knows that Ixken will hold this secret legacy for the next hundred years and that the Mayan lineage will “live forever in the forests, in the jungles, in the mountains and on the coasts of Guatemala,” the grandfather happily closes his eyes.

When one considers the past and recent history of the Maya, Menchú’s children’s stories become even more poignant, and each story in each book has a significant message for children today. As Ixkem explains to the tiny b’e’n,
There are some bad people with lots of power….They declare war on others, they enslave their fellow man, and they don’t know how to share their wealth. Of course there are good people who fight for peace, set slaves free and give to others. The future of the world depends on these good people.
In The Girl from Chimel, there is a story of Rigoberta’s mother, who as a child fought off a pack of coyotes to rescue her pet pig. It was said that the whole village was awed by her courage.
Our elders said, “This is a good sign. She’ll grow up to be a brave woman who will survive many challenges. She should thank her nahuales and they in turn will give her strength and wisdom and will protect her memory forever. Her sons and daughters and grandchildren will all be courageous.” 
If there’s a word to describe Rigoberta Menchú Tum and her mother and all the Maya who continue to struggle to maintain land, culture and community, that word would be “courageous.”

These three beautiful storybooks are about a happy little girl, secure in her world, with a “heart full of sunlight,” who, as an adult, wants for the world all that she had: “a mountain to protect me, a river to refresh me, birds to sing to me.” Both Rigoberta Menchú and her stories are an international treasure. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review first appeared in MultiCultural Review. We thank Editor-in-Chief Lyn Miller-Lachmann for permission.