Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

Archive for January, 2018

Heads Up: Some Latinx-focused events in RVA

A quick round-up of things you might want to put on your calendar for the next few weeks.

  • Journalist Juan Gonzalez, co-host of Democracy Now, will speak at the University of Richmond this Wednesday night. His talk is called Paradise Lost, and the lens is on Puerto Rico – the roots of its economic collapse, the devastation since Hurricane Maria, and what it’s really going to take to bring back that beautiful island. (January 31, 2018, 5 PM, Ukrop Auditorium, at University of Richmond, 28 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173)

 

  • How do kids learn to love words, books and reading – especially if English is a challenge for them?  Storyteller and picture book author Carmen Agra Deedy will be at the University of Richmond to work her magic on audiences, weaving personal story and insights. (Here’s a shot of her new picture book which is all about finding your voice.) Wed., February 21, 2018, 5:30 – 6:30 PM, University of Richmond Center for Leadership

 

  • I have a new book for your bedside table:  The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande whose memoir is this year’s All County Reads selection in Henrico County. She’ll be appearing at Glen Allen High School, to discuss the book on Wed April 11, 7 – 8:30 PM. (Doors open at 6:30 PM.) Meanwhile, you can go to any of your local libraries after Feb 1 to register to win a free copy of her book.

    (young readers edition)

     

  • And a PS, you’ll have to hurry if you haven’t seen Nuestras Histórias at the Valentine Museum. How long have Latinos been in the Richmond region? Where are we from?  What have been our contributions so far? Hurry. The exhibit closes April 15. The Valentine Museum, 1015 E Clay Street, Richmond, VA 23219

 

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary: An Interview with NoNi Ramos

As readers of this blog know, I like to introduce new Latinx writers, especially those whom I’m lucky to meet in person on the road. Today, I’m talking with debut novelist Noni Ramos about The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary (Carol Rhoda Lab Books/Lerner 2018; 292 pages; Young adult.) She’s a new voice, but it’s a startling and strong one, and I predict a long career of great work.

Macy is the girl you’ve probably seen in school at some point. She’s the one who spends a lot of time in the office being “supervised” by long-suffering deans when things get too hot in the classroom, the one who has a million labels pinned on her. LD, ADD, disturbed, at-risk – the list goes on.

Told in a dictionary format of the words that define her life, Macy’s story is about the girls who are at the heart of those labels and how they get there. It’s a heartbreakingly honest work and, at times, a darkly hilarious one, too. As an author, what Noni brings to the table is a master class on voice and edge. Here she talks a bit on finding the character and how her own experiences as teacher and foster mom led her to the story.

 Congratulations on this as your debut novel. What kind of writing had you been doing leading up to this? How did you find Macy’s story?

Muchas gracias!

Poetry and plays are my first loves. It wasn’t until well after my MFA that I delved into writing YA. Macy embodies the voice of all the kids who sit in the back of the room. The student who keeps you up at night. The student who shows up late, and you think, despite yourself (and with too much excitement), is she absent? But she is NEVER absent. She’s embodies all those students.

I’m curious about the challenges of drawing these characters since we’re in a world that’s chaotic and out of control. Macy is so difficult and violent, and yet we root for her. What were some of the decisions you made in how you developed her so that she felt sympathetic?  

Macy is concrete poetry. She’s rough and jagged. She doesn’t fall into that “wise-child” trope. The dictionary structure makes her world accessible. Gets the reader past the barbed wire. On the outside we see the child who sets a trash can fire. Inside, we get to know why.

What makes kids like Macy sympathetic to me is their fierce protectiveness of family–for Macy, her brother Zane and George and Alma. Another—the humor. The hijinks. Macy may be 25 in in inner city-kid years, but in reality she’s only 15. And sometimes, because of the childhood she’s missed, she’s more like seven, five …

The love and friendship between Alma and Macy is heartbreaking. Each girl is used and abused by her parents and is working her best to get by. I don’t want to offer spoilers, but what is it about Macy that makes her a better survivor than Alma?

I think Macy has learned not to expect anything from anybody. For all her skewed thinking, she believes in her raw intelligence. She’s never trusted externals. And for all the failures of adults in her life, she believes in justice. As a teenager, she has survived more than most adults.

So Alma—it’s complicated. When a kid of color makes it out of poverty, we celebrate. We say, they stuck with it. They studied hard. School is the answer. When I was growing up, I was told I better be good at school or I’d be cleaning up other people’s garbage.

I’m a teacher. I believe in public education. But school isn’t the only answer. At least not in isolation. For every kid we celebrate, there are hundreds more who aren’t making it. Or who aren’t living their dream. Because of segregation. Because of inequity. Because of the lack of representation (in books). Because of mental health issues. Because of rape culture. The teachers are qualified. Inspired. What tools can we give them so we have more Almas and the Almas of the world make it? We shouldn’t be expecting just that rose in the concrete. We should be expecting a whole bush. A garden. And what do we do with those Macys? What’s our dream for her?

Authors Emma Otheguy, David Bowles, and Noni Ramos at NCTE 2017

For all the hard life circumstances in this story, it’s also very funny. I’m thinking of the exchanges Macy has with the people at her school as well as the chapters focused on Macy’s insistence that vaginas should come armed or spit fire, and the day she tapes her breasts. Tell me about your choice to use gallows humor at the most intense moments of the novel. What did humor offer you as a writer that other strategies didn’t?

I think funny-but-true is what I wanted for Macy. How does a kid navigate through Macy’s world? I feel like was easier for Odysseus to get home than Macy to get to school and back again. How does a kid’s brain process all this “adult” stuff. Humor is survival for Macy. It’s sanity. It’s Macy’s feminism.

With the “gallows humor” maybe I’m pushing the reader to see Macy. Not the hair, not the piercings, not the desk-throwing.  Just that little girl hiding in a sweat shirt.

 What were the considerations you had in how you drew emotionally disabled kids and their families?

One big issue I thought about was how to write an emotionally disturbed person of color. I specifically left any mention of race or culture out unless it referred to power and triumph. I  wanted Macy’s circumstances to be distinctly separate from her being Puerto Rican.

That being said, I wrote Macy’s story.

One of my biggest sources of pride is Kirkus and Booklist saying I wrote with empathy and authenticity. Those are the keys to representing anyone with dignity. Even Macy’s mother is entitled to back story and a measure of forgiveness.

I read in your bio that you are a foster parent yourself. What has drawn you to that role, and how did that experience impact your work on The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary?

I always wanted to be a foster parent. For awhile I taught third-fifth grade and fostered! What drew me to it was my desire to avoid kidnapping charges. I had students that I was terrified were going to get taken by CPS.

These two kids in particular—their dad lived down the block, but disowned them. Their mother was MIA. Then their grandmother got breast cancer. So so many abuelas were taking care of their grandkids in our barrio. I heard the one girl talking about this casually while piecing puzzles together. I went home and said, Miguel, can we take them?

He said no, of course, but got the computer and showed me a website about foster parenting. The journey began. (Luckily my students’ aunt stepped up.)

I am not fostering now. The training required is rigorous and all-encompassing. There are months of interviews, self-defense training, CPR, character witnesses, classes …. GODDESS BLESS all those foster parents out there. My activism continues through my teaching and writing.

 What are you working on next?

Right now I’m editing my second YA book, The Book of Love, about my overachiever, Verdad, who’s struggling with her best friend’s brutal death while meeting her mother’s expectations. She falls for a classmate—who happens to be trans—and their romance forces her to confront her demons and figure out who she really is. It’s about the ordinary reality of a real POC kid: burgeoning sexuality, family expectations, dealing with institutionalized racism, planning for a future. And then there is that magical middle grade novel and picture book. Stay tuned!

Pre-order your copy of The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

 

Connect with Noni Ramos:

https://twitter.com/NoNiLRamos

https://www.facebook.com/DisturbedGirlsDictionary/  

https://www.instagram.com/noni.ramos/           

http://nonilramos.tumblr.com/

 

The First Rule of Punk: A Guest Blog Post by Celia Pérez

Feliz Año Nuevo, everyone!

The holidays, a chest cold, and assorted family emergencies kept me off this blog for a few weeks. Sorry about that!  But I’m back with the best launch into 2018.

As we head into award season, I’ve had a chance to think about so many of the books that I especially loved last year. Among my favorites of 2017 was a little gem of a middle grade novel: The First Rule of Punk by Celia Pérez (Viking Books for Young Readers 978-0425290408)

Celia is a librarian, a mom, and a zine addict who has confirmed for me that, yes, folding those suckers can be the hardest part.  She’s also an advocate for quality Latinx lit for kids.

What I especially love about Celia’s debut is that, like a good zine, she puts pieces of a girl together to give us something that feels completely fresh and new. Maria Luisa (MaLú) is the daughter of a college professor and a musician. She’s a punk rock fan – including Mexican punk rock –  and a kid from a blended heritage.  She’s also a kid who has to move to a new city for middle school because her mom has taken a teaching position in Chicago. Suddenly, MaLu is attending a majority Latinx school, where she’s promptly labeled a coconut – brown on the outside, white on the inside.

This is a sweet and thoughtful novel, deserving of its many starred reviews and accolades.  Moving is never easy for a kid, and Celia handles all the questions about friendship and identity with a wise touch. Along the way, the novel takes us on a fun  journey of discovery about Chicago, about zines, and most of all about music. All told, Celia wonderfully captures the experience of US-born Latinx kids, which is now the typical experience.   If The First Rule of Punk is not yet in your classroom library, you need to order now.

So, to kick off 2018,  Celia agreed to take my readers and me on a photo-tour of the city where she lives, and where her lovely novel unfolds. (This is no small feat in a Chicago winter, people.) Take a look. Makes you want to book a trip this spring…

Welcome Celia!


Chicago, A novel Photo tour

by Celia Pérez

When Malú, the young protagonist in The First Rule of Punk, is forced to leave behind everything that is familiar to her, she can’t imagine ever thinking of Chicago as her home. But it’s hard not to love Chicago. It’s a city made up of diverse, unique, and vibrant neighborhoods and is rich in arts and culture. I know, I sound like Malú’s mom trying to sell you on Chicago, right? How about a little photo tour of the city as it appears in The First Rule of Punk instead? I pulled inspiration from several places and neighborhoods. Here are some of the ones included in the book.

One of the locations people often ask about, with the hope that it really exists, is Calaca Coffee. Unfortunately, Calaca isn’t a real place, but it was inspired by two coffee shops that are. The inside of Calaca was modeled after Kopi Cafe in the Andersonville neighborhood. Like Calaca, Kopi has floor seating, short tables with lots of pillows set in a loft area you take a few steps up to. It also has a warm, inviting look and feeling to it that I wanted to be a part of Calaca. But Cafe Jumping Bean in Pilsen has the vibe I wanted for the coffee shop. There aren’t any album covers up on the walls or a paper mache Frida Kahlo greeting you at the door, but it’s funky and colorful, and they always play cool music. It’s definitely the kind of place Malú would fall in love with.

Kopi

 

Cafe Jumping Bean

Speaking of Pilsen, while Malú’s new ‘hood is never named, it was heavily inspired by Pilsen, one of two historically Mexican neighborhoods in the city. Like a lot of Chicago, Pilsen is a neighborhood where past and present come together. There continues to be a large working class Mexican community, but it also has a thriving arts scene of young Mexican Americans creating work that, much like in Malú’s story, combine history and traditional culture with more modern influences. Art is everywhere in Pilsen so keep your eyes open!

Pilsen: El Corazón

 

Pilsen Manhole cover

When Malú first moves to Chicago, her mom takes her all over the city on the L to check out the sights of their new home. These are some of the places they visit.

Pilsen 18th St L

 

Pilsen NMMA

 

Pilsen NMMAL LaCatrina

Lake Michigan! Did you know it’s the only one of the Great Lakes located entirely within the United States? It’s also pretty cold year round, but not as cold as it was when I took this photo!

Lake Michigan

At the Art Institute downtown, Malú sees Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Seurat!

 

Malú gets her new library card at the Harold Washington Library Center, the headquarters of the Chicago Public Library (and the biggest public library building Malú has ever seen). It’s a beauty!

Library and L

 

They also make a visit to Chinatown for tea and custard buns. Yum!

Chinatown

And finally, yes, Laurie’s Planet of Sound is a real record store. It’s in the Lincoln Square neighborhood right next to a brown line train station. You can find vinyl records, DVDs, magazines, T-shirts, and maybe even a cassette tape or two!

 

Laurie’s New & Used Records CDs & Video

I really enjoyed writing a story set in the Chicago. I was eager to see Malú find her place in her new home. I was excited for her to see the Chicago I love and to maybe learn to love it too. It’s a city of treasures. Some of these treasures are obvious, and others require that you really open your eyes and your mind to see them.