I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Some people have a weakness for handbags or designer shoes.  Some people are coffee  connoisseurs.  Some people live for garage sale bargains.  My father collects old phonographs and my mom has acquired an assortment of small wooden and ceramic chickens from around the world.  My husband adores tacos, my eldest daughter is devoted to sitcoms from the 90s and my youngest daughter is a puzzle enthusiast.

I love books…I love books more than ripe mangos and dark chocolate and nearly as much as I love travel…travel with books is my idea of heaven:)

My love for books runs deep.  On the surface I adore the rush of entering a book shop with aisles upon aisles of written word.  I like to trail my fingers over book covers and to read the biographies of authors and illustrators.  I feel secure and snug in my home office where shelves of my favorite novels and children’s books surround me.

And on a more profound level, I love what books provide me with…imagination, escape, contemplation, reflection and above all, perspective.  I am a 41-year-old woman from the United States living in Guatemala and yet when I open a book, I am given a ticket to enter  a world that may belong to a character whose life looks very different from my own.  This ticket is what Rudine Simms Bishop would call a “window,”  an opportunity that offers a reader a  view into the lives of others.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez was my invitation to experience and relate to the life of fifteen-year-old Julia, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who is growing up in a gritty Chicago Neighborhood.

Let’s imagine, even if just for a moment, what our world could be if we took the time to relate to others, gain new and different perspectives, learn of the struggles and accomplishments from people who have stories that are not our own.   I am not a social scientist, but I am a preschool teacher, and I spend most work days  living in a microcosm of a mini society.  I predict that if we collectively read more diverse books that provided us with “windows” into the lives of others, empathy, kindness and compassion would  replace judgement, assumption and discrimination. 

Title:  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Regional/Cultural focus:  USA/Mexico

Author:  Erika Sánchez

Genre:  juvenile fiction

Themes:  cultural identity, family, coming of age, grief

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is brilliantly told through the voice of teenage Julia.  She is grieving the death of her sister Olga, who had always been “the perfect Mexican daughter.”  Olga was everything that Julia is not.  Olga was dedicated and obedient.  She had an ordinary job and spent time in the evenings watching telenovelas with her mom.  Julia is rebellious,strong-willed, sassy and  confrontational.

After her sister’s  death, Julia is surprised to discover a few provocative accessories in Olga’s bedroom.  She is determined to learn more about Olga’s not-so-pristine identity and in the process, she gains new insight into her family, her friends and ultimately herself.

We journey with Julia through her day to day…in her house where her family is falling apart in light of  tragedy, in high-school with the complexities of friendships, in cultural worlds of meeting family expectations while following her academic dreams.

What I love:

  • Julia’s voice is deeply present throughout the novel…painfully vulnerable at times and shamelessly hilarious at others.
  • Erika Sánchez doesn’t sugar coat difficult themes in her novel.  She explores topics such as death, immigration  and depression in a way that is both real and approachable.
  • While not the focus of the novel, there is a touch of romance.

Discussion:

  • In the first chapter of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter we learn that Julia is grieving the death of her sister.  Have you ever lost someone close to you?  What words come to mind when you remember that period of your life?
  • Julia feels that she is not meeting her family’s expectations of who she should be/who she should become.  What are the expectations that Julia’s family has for her?  How do they differ from her own hopes and dreams?  What are your hopes and dreams?  Are they the same as the expectations that your family has for you?
  • While Julia often feels alone, there are people throughout the book who play important roles in supporting her.  Who are they?  How do they help her?  Who are the role models/helpers in your life?

Activities:

  • In many ways I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a story about identity.  Make a list of words that come to mind when thinking about your identity.
  • Write a short diary of your day-to-day, from morning to night.  What do the details of your daily life reveal about your identity?
  • Learn more about mental health resources and how you can be a support system for friends who are struggling with depression.

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Diary

 

The term historical fiction may sound like an oxymoron.  We believe history to be true and fiction to be a concept or idea invented by the imagination.  The word history is complex in nature, his-story (insert eye roll and a deep sigh here), which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines first as:

1: tale, story

and follows with:

2: a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes

Our brains like to categorize…good and bad, young and old, fact and fiction, etc, hence the concept of historical fiction is difficult to grasp for many young readers.  However the content of historical fiction is often easier to contemplate and relate to than non-fiction.  Historical fiction gifts us the opportunity to meet and connect with characters from all over the world during a specific moment in history, learn about their lives (joys and struggles) and experience that very sweet spot in literature where fact and fiction mingle.

I have traveled to India consecutively over the past three years and I have learned a great deal about Indian culture and history from texts, conversation and films.  However, the history of India’s independence from Britain in 1947 and the complications that resulted in the division/creation of two countries (Pakistan and India) has remained a murky mess in my understanding of India’s past.

I recently read The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani and not only fell in love with the voice of 12 year old Nisha who narrates the story but also with Hiranandani’s talented writing skills.  She cleverly weaves fact and fiction together as she shares the complexity of Pakistan’s partition after India is newly freed from Britain.

Title:  The Night Diary

Regional/Cultural focus:  India and Pakistan (1947)

Author:  Veera Hiranandani

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

Themes:  family, belonging, identity, social justice

Nisha receives a diary on her 12th birthday, a safe space for her to record her thoughts and feelings.  Nisha is shy and struggles to talk with others, hence she finds solace in “sharing” her words in her diary.  The year is 1947 and Nisha discovers that while some people are celebrating India’s independence from Britain, her family has little to rejoice in.  Nisha’s mother (who has passed away) was Muslim and her father is Hindu.  When the area of India that Nisha lives in becomes Pakistan, she and her family must flee.  Nisha and her family become refugees and embark on a dangerous journey to reach their new home on the other side of the border.

Told through a series of letters that Nisha writes to her mother in her diary, we learn of Nisha’s story and in turn, a dramatic moment in history.

What I love:

  • A diary!  Reading words in a diary format feels intimate and personal.
  • Nisha has a twin brother, Amil.  While siblings, they have different strengths and weaknesses  and provide the reader with varied points of view throughout the book.
  • Hiranandani’s words are heart-breaking and tragic at times.  She shares experiences that are alarming and real and yet, Nisha’s story is also one of hope, love and integrity.

Discussion:

  • The Night Diary is a refugee story.  What are some of the current refugee plights in the world today?
  • We see Nisha’s image of herself change throughout the book.  Often she doesn’t identify herself as being brave.  Do you think Nisha is brave?  Why or why not?
  • Hiranandani frequently writes about food and meals in The Night Diary.  Why do you think she has chosen to do this?  What is the importance of food and meals in your family?

Activities:

  • The Night Diary is a story of identity.  Make a list of words that you would use to describe  your own identity.  Take your writing a step further and create a zine about your identity.
  • Hiranandani uses abundant figurative language (similes and metaphors)  in her book.  Some examples include: “I  needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them” (p.36) and  “She was like an old, soft blanket that I barely even noticed was there” (p. 141).  What are a few of your favorite similes and metaphors from the story?
  • Nisha occasionally alludes to Gandhi.  Investigate, who was Gandhi?  What did he believe in?
  • Learn about the religions in the story including Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Happy reading!

If  you love juvenile historical fiction as much as I do, you might also enjoy the following titles:

If you’d like to explore refugee stories, consider:

 

 

 

 

Teen Reading

Some people are natural born readers…it seems as if they passed through the birth canal with a book nestled in their hands.

Many of my mornings are spent in an early education center where I can quickly   identify the young preschool students who prefer to dedicate precious recess minutes to “reading” a book under a tree instead of playing hide-and-seek in the school garden.  When they are a bit older, those same children may refuse to come out of their rooms for dinner as a result of being engulfed in a story.  And often those children  grow into teens and adults who maintain a love for the written word.

I was that child and that teen.  I am that adult.

I wondered if my two daughters would inherit my book enthusiasm and, I confess,  I  tried to nudge their attraction to reading along from the very beginning.  Yes, I  read to my daughters in utero:)

My eldest daughter Emma who is now 13, had displayed mild interest, a euphemism at best, to books for the first decade of her life. There have been a few exceptions throughout her childhood.  She adored silly books like  Elephant Wellyphant by Nick Sharratt (a fabulous British author and illustrator), and most Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler books such as The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom.  When she began to read chapter books on her own, she’d choose  graphic novels…but only if she had to.

Over the past year, to my great delight and surprise, Emma has discovered that she likes to read…hallelujah!  She’s devouring what she loves…myths and legends from around the world, titles like The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta and  The Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes.  Perhaps we are all natural born readers, yet some of us take longer to distinguish what genre of literature truly captivates us.

Emma’s enthusiasm for juvenile literature has encouraged me to reconnect with my own love for teen novels…I’ve always  appreciated good coming-of-age stories.  Over the past month, I’ve read 4 young adult/juvenile novels written by diverse authors that I would recommend for teen audiences.  Throughout the month of January I will explore the  titles below on Sail Away Story and share why I cherish them:

  1.  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sánchez
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
  3. The Night Diary, Veera Hiranandani
  4. Kira Kira, Cynthia Kadohata

Happy reading!

The First Rule of Punk

I am the mother of a tween.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tween is defined as:

  1. Between
  2. Preteen

As I reflect on my  current  state of motherhood as mama to my nearly 12- year-old Emma, the word that resonates  with me is surreal.  How did my first born suddenly transform into an almost teenager?  She’s  as tall as I am, and, we have been sharing shoes for the past six months.  Equally as boggling is the idea that I am the mother of an almost teen!  While I celebrated my 40th birthday this year, my internal identity is at a constant 28-years -old, the age I was when Emma was born.  When I was in my early twenties, and envisioned motherhood, I often saw myself as the mother of a baby, or a toddler, or an eight-year-old, yet I rarely thought about mothering a teen.  Hence, my present day-to-day with a tween in the house has a dream like quality to it.  Emma will graduate from primary school this year, she’s desperate to dye the points of her silky blond hair blue, her favorite past-time is filming herself or her sister performing remakes of songs by artists I’ve never heard of.

And yet, she continues to hold onto the fringes of her childhood innocence.  She enjoys having a snack after school prepared by mom, she is totally  oblivious to her own beauty and she still solicits cuddles before falling asleep at night.

Luckily for us both, my tween hasn’t given up our ritual of bedtime stories.   While we are no longer reading Beatrix Potter and Eric Carle,  we do take delight in loosing ourselves in the pages of great novels read aloud before the lights are turned off.

We both relished The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez which just happens to highlight 12 -year -old Malu, in the midst of tween life.  Emma loved the voice of Malú, one of curiosity, authenticity and sensitivity.  As a mother, I appreciated reading a story with a confident girl  main character to my daughter.

Regional/Cultural focus:  The United States with attention to latino culture

Author:  Celia C. Pérez

Genre:  juvenile fiction

Twelve year old Maria Luisa (Malú) is beginning the school year in a new city.  She’s not happy about the changes on the horizon, and  she’s only mildly open-minded about attending a different school.  Her father, who hasn’t made the move to Chicago with Malu and her mother, owns a record shop a thousand miles away.  He and Malú share a deep love for music, especially rock.  He reminds his daughter that the first rule of punk is, “always be yourself.”

Taking this message to heart, Malú embraces the challenges of being “the new student” at a delicate age.  The reader discovers that Malú is fiercely independent, funny, empathetic, and a little rebellious.  She loves designing zines, practicing music with her band, The Co-Cos, and skateboarding.  As the novel progresses, we journey with Malú through her tween days, as she finds her  voice (both literally and figuratively)  and claims her own unique identity.

What I love:

  • The zines that are woven through The First Rule of Punk are engaging, fun and innovative.
  • Malú is an ordinary girl with an extraordinary spirit.  She is a positive and real role model for tweens.
  • Pérez incorporates Mexican-American culture and history into Malu’s story.  We learn of Lola Beltran, a celebrated Mexican singer and explore cultural celebrations such as Dia de los Muertos.

Discussion:

  • What kind of music do you like?  Do you have a favorite band? What genre of music speaks to you?  Why?
  • Malú uses zines as a way to express herself.  How do you express yourself?
  • Do you ever feel that the rules are your school are unfair?  Why?

Activities:

  • Create you own zine.  Find ideas here.
  • Look at different altars made for Dia de los Muertos.  Arrange your own altar to remember and honor friends, family and pets who have passed away.  17d19b78c3dca98f2f152dc17f0fa922
  • Investigate Lola Beltran and learn more about her life.

Before We Were Free

Every other Sunday morning, I reunite with 7 junior high students at the neighborhood school in Santiago Atitlan.  I could write an entire essay about how these seven students are exceptional, pushing the boundaries of social and cultural norms, dreaming big, and vibrantly confident, but that would be a post for a different blog on young,  emerging leaders in rural Guatemala.

The teen reading group has been meeting for two years now, and the participants self selected  themselves to meet twice monthly and use books as a tool to explore culture, current events, history,  literature and their own personal stories via books.

Recently we finished reading Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez and I was impressed and inspired, yet not surprised by the conversation generated by our circle.

Guatemala’s current President, Jimmy Morales, who has been in office for 1.5 years, has recently been under scrutiny by national and international organizations.   Just three years ago, former President Otto Perez resigned after national protests and he was subsequently arrested.  He was accused of fraud.

Hence, when a group of teens is encouraged to explore the theme of freedom, especially in the light of corruption, conversation becomes thought provoking, genuine and real.  As we compared the current stories of Guatemalans to those living in Alvarez’ book in The Dominican Republic under Trujillo’s dictatorship in the 5o’s and 6o’s  we we able to identify similarities and differences.  Most intriguing was our conversation about civil disobedience…when do we feel compelled to break rules in order to obtain personal freedom or the freedom of a group of people?

I do not know how the next weeks will transpire in Guatemala.  There is talk of planned protests and social media is overloaded with criticism of the current state of affairs.  However, I do know that the 7 teens in our reading circle are confident, critical thinkers, and leaders who, even at a young age, are capable of generating ideas about what’s just, on a personal and political level.  They are also aware of the power of their own voices, and sometimes, during periods of conflict, our voices  become the strongest resistance.

Regional focus:  The Dominican Republic

Author:  Julia Alverez

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

In Before We Were Free, we meet 12 year old Anita de Torre in the year 1960, in the Dominican Republic.  We quickly learn that many of Anita’s extended family members have emigrated to the United States and that her Uncle Toni has been missing for some time after displaying opposition to the dictatorship of Trujillo.  Through the eyes of a young girl, we witness the fear, hope and struggles that are a constant presence for those living through a time of political unrest, all the while confronting the day to day of adolescence.

What I love:

  • Alvarez educates the reader about the history of the Dominican Republic, the Trujillo Dictatorship and Las Mariposas.
  • Before We Were Free is a true “coming of age story.”
  • Before We Were Free is less intense than Alvarez’s adult novels such as In the Time of The Butterflies, but equally as impactful.
  • What’s not to love about a strong, young, curious, female main character!

Themes: freedom, adolescence, war

Discussion:

  • In your own words, describe freedom.  How do you know that you are free?  Or lacking freedom?
  • Throughout the book,  Anita keeps a diary where she can record her thoughts, when she unable to speak them.  Do you keep a diary?  Why or why  not?
  • Can you remember a time in history or currently when a group of people or an individual has fought for freedom?  When? Why?  Where?  What happened?

Connections:

  • Research a recipe from the Dominican Republic such as Tostones (fried plantains) and prepare them for your friends and family.photo-1
  • In Before We Were Free, we learn that the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961,  was ruled by dictatorship, or a government in which  power is controlled by one person or a small group of people.  What kind of government exists in your country?  Explain how the government of your country functions.
  • In the book, Anita refers to “The Butterflies/Las Mariposas.”  Investigate and learn about the Butterfly Sisters and the important roles they played in the history of the Dominican Republic.28d0b5fa2cd600a0c24eb27f03710b61

 

Number the Stars

Lois Lowry is one of my favorite authors in the genre of young adult literature.  Surprisingly, I only discovered her writing as an almost 40 year old.  If you haven’t read The Giver, I suggest that you add the title to your summer reading list.  Lowry has a gift for writing stories that are both profound and approachable for her audience.  

I was overjoyed when my 11-year-old daughter, Emma, was assigned to read Number the Stars with her 5th grade class.  Emma and I don’t always agree on the same books, but we both found ourselves looking forward to our evening ritual of reading this story to each other.  

Regional focus:  Denmark

Author:  Lois Lowry

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

In Number the Stars we travel in time to 1943, Denmark, where we meet the Johansen family and the Rosen family.  The two families share many similarities.  The mothers are companions and often drink afternoon tea together, the families live in the same apartment building and ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and 10-year-old Ellen Rosen are best friends and classmates.  As the  antisemitism of World War II spreads through Europe,  the Rosen family is targeted by the Nazi’s.  When Mr. Rosen suspects that his family will be “relocated,” The Johansen’s quickly receive Ellen as one of their own.

Throughout the story, the reader continues to meet characters who demonstrate bravery and courage.  We are confronted with asking ourselves, “what would I do?”

More than a story of individual courage displayed by Annemarie, we learn of the courage of a country.  We discover that during the war, the resistance movement in Denmark was successful in smuggling nearly their entire Jewish population, some 7,000 people, across the sea to Sweden.

What I love:

  • Lowry educates us about the history of World War II while creating personal connections with main characters.
  • A story that highlights everyday heroes.
  • Number the Stars reminds us of “the power of one.”

Themes: bravery, courage, empathy, war, memory, hope, friendship

Discussion:

  • How  is friendship displayed between Ellen and Annemarie?
  • What are a few acts of bravery and courage that are identified in the book?
  • Remember a time when you had to be courageous and stand up for somebody else.  What happened?
  • Throughout the story, different characters tell lies to protect the lives of others.  Generally we are taught that lying is dishonest.  Do you believe this is always the case?  Why or why not?

Connections:

  • In Number the Stars we learn that many Jews are forced to immigrate or become refuges in new countries.  Investigate groups of people who are currently facing similar circumstances.  Who are they?  Why are they unable to stay in their country of origin?  Where are they fleeing to?
  • Make a new book cover for Number the Stars.    What important elements or symbols would you include in the cover art?
  • Imagine that you are living during a time of war when every day products are hard to purchase.  We learn that coffee, shoes and tobacco are difficult to purchase in Annemarie’s town during the war. Make a list of every day items that you would miss if you lived in a time of rationing.
  • If you were able to invite a character from Number the Stars to your house for lunch, who would you choose?  Make a list of questions that you’d like to ask the invitee.

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Island of the Blue Dolphins

*Book cover illustration by Lucia Calfapietra and lettering by Nicolò Giacomin.

As a child, I loved the solitude of my school library.  I was quiet and dreamy, and preferred the cool calmness to the library over the loud games of the playground.  When I was in 4th grade, Mrs. Bingum, our school librarian recommended Island of the Blue Dolphins for me to read.  While four-square tournaments were in full swing on the asphalt, I was lost in the story of Karana, a young Native American girl, not much older than myself , learning to survive alone on an island not far from where I lived.  I recently reread Island of the Blue Dolphins with a teen reading circle, and was quickly enamored for the second time with Karana’s story.  

Regional focus:  North America

Author:  Scott O’Dell

Genre:  juvenile historical -fiction

Travel back in time to the early 1800s and meet 12-year-old Karana, a native of an island off the coast of California who is unexpectedly left behind, alone, when her tribe is forced to flee. Karana lives in solitude on the island for 18 years, and writes of her experience of survival.

.What I love:

  • I read Island of the Blue Dolphins as a child! 30 years later, I continue to love the book.
  • A true story of courage and adventure of the spirit.
  • The newest edition includes a powerful introduction by Lois Lowry, Newberry Medalist and author of The Giver.

Themes: survival, resilience, courage, coming of age

Discussion:

  • How do we know that Karana is resourceful and resilient?
  • In the story, Karana becomes good friends with a dog. Are there animals in your life that provide you with friendship and company?
  • If you were Karana, would you have returned to the island to save your brother? Why or why not?
  • What do you think that Karana thought of the man who rescued her after living on the island alone for many years?
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins has won many awards. Why do you think it is a celebrated book?

Connections:

  • Island of The Blue Dolphins is a story of historical fiction. Investigate the true story of Karana.
  • Make a map of Karana’s island.
  • Investigate wild plants in your neighborhood that you can eat.
  • Write your own survival story, fiction or nonfiction.