Amazing Watercolor Fish / El asombroso pez acuarela

author: Carolyn Dee Flores
illustrator: Carolyn Dee Flores
translator: Carmen Tafolla 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press

As a lonely pet goldfish imagines the world outside of her tiny fishbowl, she encounters another fish in a bowl on the other side of a wall of books that separates them. Communicating with each other through fantasy and colors, they begin to see just what their worlds might look like without the barriers. 

Each page—consisting of vibrant and expanding visual art and partnering poetic storytelling in English and Spanish—contains hints that, when youngsters perceive them, add to the significance of the tale. 

Flores’s art—on a palette that begins with velvety-textured pencil drawings of a sad goldfish and her limited fishbowl environment and, page by page, expands to include increasingly layered translucent watercolors that give them more saturation—reflects the many colors and textures of the outside world the goldfish imagines and fills in with her own brush and watercolor paints—a world she can’t see behind the wall of books. At the same time, another lonely pet fish on the other side uses his brush and palette to communicate with her across the seemingly insurmountable barrier of books which, towards the middle, are beginning to fall open. And towards the end, the books have toppled and the two fishes are swimming together in one bowl. 

Youngsters might recognize that the pencil drawings represent the drab realities of the fish and their separate environments, and, as the translucent colors are layered on, their worlds become bigger and more imaginative and joyous—and maybe, their lives are expanding as well. Younger listeners may not immediately be able to interpret some of the visual symbolism here—or they might after a few back-and-forth page turns: the table top might be a continent (far off are tiny images of the Egyptian pyramids and a sailing ship), the toppling books might be continental divides or national barriers or The Wall, the water gushing out of the open door might be the fishes’ expanding world—the one that they had imagined and is now real.

Both Flores’ English and Tafolla’s Spanish rhyming poetry reflect their own and each other’s playfulness with the story, words and syntax, and together, present a rare cultural and linguistic collaboration. They have created two different and compatible ways of looking at the world; two kinds of poems that work beautifully and bounce off the art. 

Indeed, to read the English and Spanish versions alongside each other—the open, uncomplicated, rhyming English version and the “gran fantasía dramática” of the rhyming Spanish version—is a treat for hablantes, for English-speakers, and for bilingual readers alike. 

The Amazing Watercolor Fish / El asombroso pez acuarela is a gentle, powerful statement of acceptance, togetherness and friendship. Without hyperbole, without polemic—but with lots of symbolism—Flores’ and Tafolla’s loving and lovely story suggests the importance of jumping the walls in these challenging times. 

*Highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/30/18)

Another look at JULIAN IS A MERMAID

Dear Readers—

Since I wrote and published our review of Julián Is a Mermaid (see it here), there has been much online discussion about this book. Dr. Laura Jiménez has just published a personal and profound essay—entitled Trans People Aren’t Mythical Creatures—and, in the hopes that her writing will generate more of this important discussion, I asked her for permission to reprint portions of her essay here and she generously consented.

Dr. Jiménez’s essay begins:

In research we often provide what is referred to as a positionality statement. It helps our readers understand who we are, how our experiences and identities effect our understandings of the subject we are writing about. Positionality statements help avoid the fiction that research is neutral. In the age of #OwnVoices I have come to realize, or maybe I have come to admit to the realization, that I believe an author’s identity, community, and experiences informs the work they produce.

Then, Dr. Jiménez calls attention to the ramifications—of this story and its author/illustrator and its publication and the publishing industry—on the queer community and especially on queer young people. She writes,

Literacy is a social act, and I find that my reading of the world is better when done in collaboration with others who do not share my view of the world, my history, or my identity. So, I talked to teachers who are Dominican, to librarians, and finally, to a trans girl named Indigo. 

Had I known then—when I read and loved and wrote about Julián Is a Mermaid—what I know now, I would not have published the review as I wrote it. What I felt then was the power and love that Julián’s abuela felt in encouraging her young grandson to grow into his authentic self. This was apparent to me in the first few pages, in which Julián looks questioningly at a picture book of mermaids that his abuela had given him. As the story progresses, Julián comes out to his abuela, becoming more and more secure in himself and how he “fits” into his community. That, to me, was what empowerment looked like. 

But Dr. Jiménez saw something that I hadn’t seen:

The ease in which Julián’s abuela accepts and encourages him to show his whole self might be something the author put into the book as a wish or hope. But, by creating this almost immediate acceptance, Jessica Love negated the real struggle so many Latinx LGBTQ people must go through. Is that is the message the author is trying to send? Probably. But, it lands flat to me. For me, this comes from a place of privilege that would rather a mermaid trope carry the message and ignore the very real issues at work.

Read her entire essay here.

Dr. Jiménez nailed it. For queer children, empowerment—not to mention sheer survival—rarely comes so easily. I fell in love with this story precisely because of what had remained hidden. As a person from outside the queer community—even with dear friends who are queer—I hadn’t seen it. I see it now. 

The comments appeared on social media after I had published our review, and I hadn’t taken into account the negative effects that Julián Is a Mermaid, written and illustrated through the lens of a white cisgender author, might have on those who are empowering themselves to speak out—and those who are still not able to speak out. Jessica Love is extremely talented, and the book she’s created is lovely—but it’s not enough.

I would never write a story from outside my own community. It would be wrong. And I was taught by example, long ago, that those of us who evaluate books from outside of our own communities or experiences must listen to those from inside. 

In Professor Jiménez’s piece, she quotes Librarian Angie Manfredi, who wrote: 

Our library copy of JULIAN IS A MERMAID has finally arrived and it is adorable but I NEED everyone in #kidlit to acknowledge it would NOT be getting this amount of love and attention if it were written by a gender non-conforming queer IPOC—it might not even have been published.

When that comment first appeared, I pushed back. I loved this story and, in many ways, still do. But in retrospect, I agree that such a story “written by a gender-nonconforming queer IPOC” probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Because, for the most part, large and mid-sized publishers accept only “agented” manuscripts, and, in order to get through the door of a publishing house, authors and illustrators not only must be talented, but must be “marketable” as well—they must represent a certain “image” in the publishers’ collective consciousness. And, at this point, while #OwnVoices is being touted as the new “multiculturalism,” the door to publishing is still pretty much slammed shut to queer authors and illustrators (especially Indigenous / People of Color) who write and illustrate stories for and about queer children (especially Indigenous / People of Color). We all have a lot of work to do.

So, many thanks to Dr. Laura Jiménez and all those who have exposed an obvious problem that many of us had not seen. Because moving forward is sometimes painful—but the pain of ignored and underrepresented communities is far worse.

In gratitude,

Beverly Slapin
(published 9/29/18)

Shame the Stars

author: Guadalupe Garcia McCall 
Tu Books, 2016
grades 7-up 

As the Mexican Revolution rages across the border, Joaquín del Toro, the son of a wealthy Tejano rancher, dreams of taking over his father’s land and raising his family with his beloved Dulceña Villa, the daughter of a newspaper publisher. But a satiric poem in the newspaper—condemning the racism, violence, and general lawlessness of the notorious Texas Rangers—drives a wedge between the two families. The del Toros and the Villas agree that the Rangers are threatening their community, which has lived on this land before it was violently snatched from Mexico in the 1830s, but Joaquín’s father wants to negotiate with and appease the Anglos in power (hoping that local authorities will restrain the paramilitary Rangers) while, by means of the newspaper and the enigmatic opinion writer La Estrella, Dulceña’s father urges the Tejano residents to rise up and defend themselves.

Shame the Stars takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet, and like the original, this dispute between families is essentially a political one. In the first chapter, Joaquín’s father bans the entire Villa family from the ranch because of the newspaper’s incendiary articles and editorials. Joaquín must resort to sneaking out to masquerade balls and nighttime meetings in the woods—where coming into contact with Rangers is a constant peril. Ultimately, though, the families come together as Joaquín’s father realizes that the Rangers don’t want to negotiate but kill Tejanos, take their land, and drive the shattered survivors over the border to Mexico—and the elected and appointed authorities cannot or will not stop the vigilantes. While Joaquín and Dulceña’s families now face a common enemy, they don’t want their only children in the middle.

McCall’s powerful, well-researched work of historical fiction is told from Joaquín’s first person point of view, though she uses Joaquín’s poems, his and Dulceña’s letters, and actual newspaper articles from 1913-15 to offer additional perspectives. Joaquín’s poems capture what it was like for Tejanos threatened with ethnic cleansing: 

Lawmen have
been given free will
--orders to shoot
mejicanos on sight
In South Texas.

My blond hair
and freckled face
afford me a few seconds
to save myself.

A moment of hesitation
from a Ranger
buys me enough
time to speak out,
to clarify who I am,
establish that I belong 
on this side of the border. 

Readers come to understand the necessity of self-defense and the dilemmas Tejanos faced when confronted with a far more powerful and violent opponent, dilemmas that have become relevant again today on the border and elsewhere in the United States. McCall captures a history of cruelty and vigilantism that has been hidden from most young people (including those growing up in Texas). Her multi-dimensional teenage characters and the love between them will draw readers in and personalize the history. The family saga continues, one generation later, in McCall’s 2018 novel, All the Stars Denied is *highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 9/24/18)

Iron River

author: Daniel Acosta 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2018 
grades 7-up 
Mexican American

I’m telling you this now because I don’t know when I’m going to die. If you ask me why is a twelve-year-old kid thinking about dying, well, I don’t want to die. You hear people say they wish the old people had wrote things down because now they’re dead and their stories didn’t get told. But sometimes people die who aren’t old and that got me thinking: people don’t always die when they think they’re going to. So I want to tell you this story in case I die before I get old.

Taking place in the late 1950s, Iron River is a gritty, no-holds-barred telling from the point of view of a Mexican boy about to enter 8th grade. Everyone in the small town of Sangra (short for “San Gabriel,” ten miles east of Los Angeles) knows Manuel Maldonado, Jr., as “Man-on-Fire” because of his red hair and a large birthmark. His friends call him “Manny” or “Man” for short, and, to some of his relatives, he is “Little Man.”

Part of a strong, tight-knit, loving family, Manny lives with his hard-working parents, grandparents, and younger sister and brother in a small house practically abutting the railroad tracks; and other relatives live close by. Here, everyone knows everyone, and Sangra is a place where people’s experiences are riddled by poverty and drugs and violence and discrimination—and the scary, frequent, “baby earthquakes” of passing trains on the iron river.

Nevertheless, Sangra is home, and Manny’s narrative is straightforward—without a hint of “we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place” self-pity. Rather, readers will see neighbors helping neighbors, especially at times of need and at funerals. On the Maldonados’ front porch, for instance, is a “hobo chair,” where Grandma offers homeless men who ride the rails a sandwich, a place to rest in quiet solitude, and rosary blessings. 

Manny is well aware of his neighborhood’s history and culture, yet he internalizes popularized racist “history.” For instance, when he and his friend Danny first started playing “the Alamo,” he says, 

[We] couldn’t’ decide if we wanted to be the Texans or the Mexicans. Me and Danny are Mexican. To be the Texans would feel like traitors. But the Texans in the movie won, and we didn’t’ want to be losers….When we aren’t killing Mexicans, me and Danny and our friends Little and Marco throw rocks at trains. 

And some of the harsh realities of life are taken lightly, as well:

Little’s dad went back to Mexico after the Fourth of July and Little told us he still wasn’t back. He said his mom said Mr. Guti probably got stopped by the border patrol as a wetback. Big’s mom said he probably had to check up on all his other families down there, and it would probably take some time. We all laughed.

Yet, Manny also is quick to notice and comment upon the everyday racist micro-aggressions in his neighborhood and beyond: 

[We] got kicked out [of the movies] mainly because we’re Mexican. It’s the white kids that flatten out their popcorn boxes and throw them at the screen when the lights go out before the second movie starts, but [white kids] never get kicked out, and Mexicans don’t even buy popcorn. 

When Manny and his friends, unaware of the consequences for Mexican youngsters, place themselves in dangerous situations—such as when they’re caught train-hopping—punishment from their fathers is a swift and painful belt-whipping, something they will always remember. And afterward, Manny’s mom rubs his wounds with lard and wraps them with soft pieces of flour sack, and his grandma and mom tuck him into bed and bless him over and over.

The family and community members are complex, and Manny’s narration and the dialogue realistically include Spanglish, code switching, and Caló. Especially refreshing is that neither the Spanish nor these phrases are translated. Rather, readers who speak Spanish will go with the flow and readers who don’t will understand the meanings from the context. As well, terms of respect are given to those who earn them, such as “a sus órdenes,” always, to Grandma.

When Manny’s uncle, Rudy, is released from prison and returns home, the family circle surrounds him: 

Rudy moved slow when he went over and kissed Grandma on the top of her head. I looked at her face. She was smiling but worry was standing right behind her smile.

Me and Grandma watched him walk to my old room. He looked shorter than Dad but he was bent over so I couldn’t be sure. And he walked kind of sideways, like those dogs you see walking down the street that got hit by a car but lived. You can’t see any cuts or blood, but you know their insides are messed up, and they walk like Rudy. 

“Prison has worn him down, so be nice to him,” Grandma said and patted my hand. 

In this community, at this time, hard situations abound and resolutions—where there are some—are not always neat. And sometimes a family’s love and support are not enough. Rudy is a broken man, and he’s ultimately returned to prison, never to come home. The boys lob oranges at hobos on passing trains (for which they get grounded); later, Manny is obsessed with the thought that they may have killed a hobo whose body they found on the tracks. And when he takes a short cut through the San Gabriel station, Manny witnesses a racist cop, a “mean son-of-a-bitch” who is known to prey on minorities in the Sangra community—killing a Black teenager:

I heard a sound I’d heard once before. I stopped and listened harder. It was the sound of somebody getting beat up, and it was coming from inside. I hid in the shadows…. I leaned against the wall and waited for the sound to stop…. I heard punches and kicks and the voice of a boy crying. A man’s hard voice told him to shut up and called the boy 
dirty names and “nigger.”

The boy cried and cried, and then he started moaning and then he was quiet…. A shadow passed by me walking fast and breathing hard. Even though it was dark, I could see who it was. The shadow turned to look back, and I thought he saw me, but then he walked into the night and in a minute I heard a car start up and burn rubber and drive away fast.

The sight of his friend’s brother’s horribly mutilated body is Manny’s wake-up call. He must now decide whether or not to come forward and possibly risk his own freedom—and maybe even his life. 

While Manny’s character growth and his coming to speak out are central to the story, many of the chapters read as vignettes; each of them featuring family, friends or strangers who live in or pass through Sangra. Also running through the story is Manny’s matter-of-fact nighttime incontinence and, by the end, it is resolved—symbolic of how his life is changing for the better. 

The many layers of this beautifully built-up picture of an intelligent, goofy young kid who’s well aware of his surroundings and faces them head-on is a brilliant debut of a promising young writer. Iron River will prompt discussions of race, class, culture, and teenage sexuality, and resonate with middle-grade through high school readers. It’s *highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/13/18; revised 10/2/18, added interview with author)


Beverly: The Barrio San Gabriel (Sangra for short) and the people who live and work there in the late 1950s—Manny, his friends, relatives and extended family and neighbors, the pachucos, teachers and religious instructors, the shopkeepers, the people from other marginalized communities who have settled there, and those who are passing through, riding the rails, looking for work—are all real. What’s your relationship to Sangra?

Daniel: My maternal grandparents had met in San Bernardino where Grandpa was a railroad worker from Jalisco, and Grandma was the daughter of the owner of the boarding house where he lived. He had relatives in Sangra who had emigrated in the late 1800s from Jalisco. After their wedding they moved to Sangra, where my mother was born in the shadow of San Gabriel Mission. After World War II, my mom and dad moved in with my grandparents. So by the time I was born, our family had already sunk deep roots in Sangra. Many of the neighborhood kids were cousins!

I spent my childhood living in that house across the street from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. When I was about 13, my parents and my sister and I moved to our own house on the next street. After graduating from eighth grade I entered a Catholic seminary, where I stayed for the next five years. This period provided a physical and emotional distance from Sangra, and allowed me to see other neighborhoods and meet boys from other places. My preparations for the Catholic priesthood presumed my attending college, a given I probably would not have presumed for myself had I stayed in the neighborhood.

For me, Sangra was usually a safe place, and although there were dangers to be aware of and avoided, such as drug addiction and alcoholism, my parents were loving and affirming, and I had a bevy of tías who doted over me.

Our young narrator hangs out on the roof with his friends, peeks at girls’ chichis, hurls oranges, avocados and rocks at passing trains, astutely notes and comments on micro-aggressions from white people, and also tells how sometimes the Mexican kids get to return the favor. I especially like Manny’s story about how one of his friends would sell homing pigeons to white people—the same pigeons, over and over. Yet, Manny and his friends also sometimes root for the white “good guys” in the movies who shoot the “Mexican bad guys.” Everything about Manny and his friends is real, even their occasional typically teenage cognitive disconnect. In characterizing Manny and his friends, how did you come to achieve this balance?

Most Mexican Americans raised in Sangra were born on this side of the border, and Manny and his friends are confident in their second-generation American identity. They’re very different Mexicans than those in East LA, which tended to be more of a neighborhood for recent immigrants. By the late 1800s, Mexican neighborhoods like Sangra had sprung up along the SP rail lines across southern California; and Mexican neighbors of Sangra were well-ensconced in their communities. These Mexicans were proudly US citizens: the men were quick to enlist in the military after the start of WWII, and many were decorated for their heroism in combat.

These “settled” Mexican Americans often looked down on recent arrivals from Mexico for their bumpkin-like behavior that reflected poorly on them. They differentiated themselves from the “recien llegados,” criticizing them, for example, for letting their babies run around without clothes on.

Although Mundo sells homing pigeons to the white kids, it wasn’t a particular desire to get even with them for their prejudices. Rather, Mundo simply took advantage of kids who were naïve and loose with their money.

Mexican “good guys” like Elfego Baca, Zorro, and the Cisco Kid were few and far between, so when the choice was the “bad Mexicans” or the “good white guys,” the Mexican kids here rooted for the “good white guys.”

On reflection, I think that the only times my friends and I didn’t take our American identity for granted was when the white kids would remind us that we weren’t as “American” as they were. As a kid I could go to my white friends’ homes to play, but their parents never allowed them to come to our neighborhood. That always troubled me.

Why did you decide to have Manny’s matter-of-fact bed-wetting become a thread in the story? Every morning, he gets up, strips his bed, puts the wet sheets in the laundry room, and takes a shower. It seems to be no big thing. No one (except his cousin, Cruz, who shares his bed when Rudy returns home) calls it to his attention. I saw, towards the ending, that he was surprised when he had not wet the bed. 

I wanted readers to know Manny as a kid for whom life is not easy; his bed-wetting is one more thing he has to endure without understanding why. And since it occurs when the night train rumbles by, it’s become something the family has embraced—with no blame or demeaning—as just another routine to adjust to. As the narrator, Manny trusts the reader with this personal secret—it’s another way of pulling the reader more deeply into his story. Only Manny’s cousin, Cruz, threatens to tell everyone at school about Manny’s secret, which, as it turns out, he doesn’t.

Other characters have a complexity that will appeal to middle- and upper-grade readers. Uncle Rudy is one of them. Because his horrible war experience left him with traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, and drug addiction, he’s come home a wreck of a man. Manny’s father doesn’t allow him to be around the children; Grandma loves her son and knows that he’s in God’s hands; and Manny is confused because he doesn’t know the whole story. How were you able to see Rudy’s falling apart as a result of doing what he had to do during the war?

In a way, Rudy longs to go back to a time when he was innocent—as Manny is now—before his life began to unravel. Manny connects deeply with the deeply-flawed Rudy; and Rudy sees in young Manny a pure, unconditional love he can’t get from anyone else—not even his own brother or his long-suffering mother. When he returns home on parole with survivor’s guilt and drug addiction, Rudy is not strong enough to fight the forces that are dragging him back down. He doesn’t know how to live free.

Another character is that “son-of-a-bitch” cop, whom the community refers to as “the Turk.” He’s a small-town bad guy with a gun and badge and no conscience—an out-and-out racist who, as Danny says, “hates negros and Metsicans” and gets satisfaction from threatening, bullying and committing violence on people who can’t fight back. The gruesome scene in which he beats Manny’s friend’s brother to death—cried out for revenge, and I’m glad he got it. Who or what does “the Turk” represent?

The military and the paramilitary (or the police) enforce the “dirty work” of the community / state / nation. In a healthy society, the military only defend and the police administer the law equitably. In a dysfunctional society, the military and the police both serve the elites. In Sangra, “the Turk” enforces the boundaries of the disenfranchised minority community with varying degrees of ruthlessness. In the case of his stopping and harassing Betty for driving in the white part of town, it’s symbolic. In the case of his beating Lawrence Collison to death, it’s physical and symbolic.

Manny’s grandmother is one of my favorite characters. Strong, compassionate, humble and loving, she’s steeped in her Mexican culture and Catholic religion. Grandma sees washing the beans for the family’s daily meals—and laundering Manny’s wet sheets every day as well—as routine, not worthy of complaint. With her rosary almost always in her hands, she feeds and blesses relatives, neighbors and strangers alike—including any hobo who stops by. Grandma doesn’t abide being referred to as “Abuela,” but she’s fine with Manny’s respectful “a sus órdenes” when he addresses her. And when Manny’s father belt-whips him for doing something dangerous—an infraction Manny will never repeat—neither Grandma nor Mom try to stop him. Rather, they stand back, and, when the whipping is done, gently dress Manny’s wounds—and bless him, over and over. Did you have a model for Grandma in your own life?

Manny's grandma bears a close resemblance to my own grandmother, Manuela Ortega Sanchez. Manuela was a daughter of the son of a wealthy Mexican hacienda owner in Chihuahua. In the late 1800s and against her will, she and her single mother immigrated to San Bernardino. It was there that she met my maternal grandfather, a Mexican railroad worker from Jalisco, who was living at her mother's boarding house.

My grandmother was devoutly Catholic, educated by the German nuns at a San Bernardino Catholic school. She was able to read and write both Spanish and English, a rarity in that place and time! Grandma always carried the rosary with her and said it nightly, attended church services every day as well as Mass every Sunday, and related to me much like Manny’s grandma relates to him. She and my grandfather were highly-respected members of our Sangra neighborhood. In this culture (at least, then) the woman was the “queen of the house” and the man was “king of the outside,” and the roles rarely crossed these social lines. Manny’s family is like that.

Thank you. Good getting to meet you, Daniel! And I apologize for referring to you as a “promising young writer”!

Oh, I’m not in the least offended!

Radius of Us

author: Marie Marquardt
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
grades 9-12 

Told in the alternating voices of two traumatized teens, The Radius of Us is an attempt to explore how the “American Dream” can quickly turn into a nightmare, how young lives can be disrupted and broken, and how—with support systems available and in place—they can be healed. 

Seventeen-year-old Gretchen Asher is a white upper-middle class high school senior who has everything: her Mom and Dad are both professionals, her relatives and friends care about her, and she has a boyfriend and typical teenage worries. One night six months ago, Gretchen became the victim of a mugging by a Latino boy in a parking lot in her Atlanta neighborhood; and she now has sudden, debilitating panic attacks that leave her feeling unsafe everywhere. She is unable to attend school, socialize with her friends, or interact meaningfully with anyone. 

Phoenix Flores Flores, also a teen, has run from a town near Ilopango, El Salvador, torn through with gang violence. With his younger brother, Ari, he’s an asylum-seeker who has terrible secrets. Temporarily living with a caring, upper-class white lesbian couple (while Ari stays with another family), Phoenix has access to a private attorney and everything else the system has to offer while he awaits his day in court. Phoenix speaks “perfect American English” learned from missionaries in a bilingual school in his village, and easily communicates with Gretchen.

Together, through their growing relationship, the two wounded teens help each other come to terms with, and eventually begin to heal from, their traumatic experiences.

But The Radius of Us is problematic from the beginning. At the sight of a Latino teenager (who turns out to be Phoenix), chasing down a runaway dog, Gretchen is terrified:

[W]e saw that boy—his arms wildly shoving the bushes apart. That boy who was not yet a man, the one whose features I knew too well, whose face was etched into my mind, the shape of whose hands I couldn’t seem to forget. That boy with light-brown skin, deep-brown eyes, short dark hair….I took a few steps back, trying to shove his image out of my mind, trying not to let my body remember the grip of his hands.

A few pages later, Phoenix tries to figure out what he might have done to provoke Gretchen’s panic attack:

I’ve been in this place for fifteen days, and I’m already scaring away the white girls. What the hell is wrong with me? Back in El Salvador, I spent five long years working as a guide for visiting church groups….Those groups had tons of white girls, and I never had any problems with them. So what did I do to scare away this one?

Here, Phoenix, whom readers have just met, blames himself for being seen as a perpetrator. No matter how this story progresses, it sends a subliminal message to readers about who is likely to be victimized and who is likely to be a perpetrator. Moreover, while the story touches on the issues of mental health, identity, cultural bias, and immigration, it minimizes the terror of what the Salvadoran asylum-seekers endure every day, both at home and in the US. The only thing that YA readers will learn about El Salvador is that life is unlivable there and that young refugees are fleeing the murderous gangs. They will not learn anything about why the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) has become so dangerous, what the US role has been and continues to be in destabilizing Central America so that chaos thrives, organized crime rules, and terrorized people are swimming into the mouth of the shark. They will know only—gangs. 

Phoenix says, for instance:

My grandmother had a little courtyard with some fruit trees, and we used to plant beans and corn. But most people, they get jobs at factories, unless they’re too busy dodging bullets. Or shooting them.

YA readers will also not learn that trauma caused by the constant danger of living in a situation where your life is not your own and where you could be killed in an instant and where a normal reaction for you and everyone else is to flee—is way different from trauma caused by a single horrible experience and with people and a plan in place to help you deal with the flashbacks. Rather, the author, in attempting to show how trauma can affect everyone and how everyone can be healed and made whole again, presents a shallow observation and a false equivalence—and a contrived white-savior trope—that disappears the complex problems of abuse and trauma. 

In her Acknowledgements section, the author thanks the many teenage Central American asylum-seekers she spoke with while they were in detention. For her, she writes, 

This all began on a Saturday in May 2013. I walked into a detention center’s visitation room for probably the hundredth time, but still my heart broke wide open. As I spoke on the phone, through the glass, with a teenage asylum-seeker from El Salvador, I knew that I had to write this story. To…all the Central American asylum-seekers I have been so honored to know since that Saturday: I have learned so much from your bravery, your commitment to family, and your desire to find a better future. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me your stories, and for sharing with me your own American dreams. I wrote this book for you, with the sincere hope that—someday very soon—all of your stories might find a happy ending. Godspeed.

In the past few years, the question of who gets to write someone else’s story has been widely and hotly debated: from “use your imagination” to “write whatever’s in your heart” to “tell what you know” to “stay in your own lane.” No matter how much “research” this author has done, no matter how much the teenage asylum-seekers from Central America broke her heart, she has recklessly veered across other people’s lanes and, in doing so, has created yet another contrived white savior trope that mollifies the unforgivable. 

In The Radius of Us, the author handily resolves everyone’s problem: Phoenix’s gang tattoo is transformed into a phoenix, rising. A former gang member—who is now “legal” and “super-religious”—testifies on Phoenix’s behalf when he files his expensive appeal (because his sponsor has lots of money to fund it). Phoenix and Ari are granted asylum and become “legal,” and young Ari (an amazing artist who had been unable to speak all this time) attends middle school, where he writes and speaks and learns English slang. Phoenix will probably teach Gretchen to speak Spanish and cook pupusas, and she and Phoenix and Ari will probably wind up living together. Phoenix will probably quit his job at the Home Depot and he and Gretchen will probably attend university together. Phoenix and Gretchen and Ari are becoming whole again—together.

And what of the many thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers—who risk rape and murder on top of the death trains collectively known as La Bestia, or an agonizing death from heat stroke or thirst while attempting to cross the desert—as they continue to flee the Northern Triangle to seek asylum here? What of the many thousands who, once here, cannot afford the services of private appeals lawyers when the immigration courts rule against them? What of the thousands of “unaccompanied” young people who are swept up and remain in US detention, sometimes for years, sometimes permanently separated from their parents? 

All this author seems to be able to do is hope that their stories “might find a happy ending.” The Radius of Us is not recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/11/18)