Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Middle Grade Twofer: Stella Díaz!

I’ve gotten into a groove (of sorts) when it comes to my middle grade reading; I’ve been reading one upcoming book and one from my TBR, trying to keep both lists copasetic. I had to read Angela Dominguez’s latest two Stella Díaz books back to back because I enjoyed them so much! I wrote about the first Stella book, Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, when I read it in 2018 (and revisited in a book bundles post this past June), and finally read the next two. Stella is such a great young heroine for middle graders; read on and see for yourself.

Stella Díaz Never Gives Up, by Angela Dominguez, (Jan. 2020, Roaring Brook Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781250229113
Ages 6-9
Stella is finished with third grade and is ready to take on saving the world: well, the oceans, to start. She’s found her voice and a new confidence; she’s signed up to attend a special summer camp at the Shedd Aquarium in her Chicago hometown, and she can’t wait! After a trip to visit family in Mexico, she’s ready to meet the marine animals and hopefully, make some new friends. While at the Shedd, she learns about the danger to sea life that water pollution, especially plastics, poses, and is determined to take action. Starting a group called the Sea Musketeers, Stella and her new camp friends work on ways to take action, starting with asking members of her family to sign a pledge to use less plastic. In addition to Stella’s new environmental awareness, she has to navigate new friendships and navigate some bumps in the road with her best friend, Jenny. Stella is such a wonderful and relatable character! She’s working through a lot of feelings in this book: her best friend, Jenny, is interested in saving the oceans, but has her own passion for dance; her older brother, Nick, is about to enter high school and has a part-time job, so their relationship is evolving; her dad is not as active in her life as she’d like, and she’s still uncomfortable with the fact that she’s not fluent in Spanish. Stella shows readers – adults and kids alike – that there’s a lot of growing, evolving, and change in a kid’s life! The story has a great pace, characters that are equally interesting and likable, and a strong call to environmental awareness and action that helps kids see that they can make positive changes in the world. Spanish words throughout the story – translated by Stella for us readers – give a richer feeling to the prose and give readers some new vocabulary. There are black and white illustrations throughout.
Stella has her own website! Visit and find a multitude of resources, including an activity kit, a copy of Stella’s and the Sea Musketeers’s pledge, and links to environmental resources, including the Shedd Aquarium.
Stella Díaz Dreams Big, by Angela Dominguez, (Jan. 2021, Roaring Brook Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781250763082
Ages 6 to 9
Stella’s starting fourth grade! She’s got good friends, she’s president of the Sea Musketeers, and she’s… OVERSCHEDULED. She’s taking swimming lessons, and jumps at the chance to join a new art club at school. She’s also got a lot more homework this year… how is she going to keep all of her projects and studies straight? When things start to slip, Stella realizes that she’s going to have to learn to organize her schedule, and she’s going to have to start sharing some of her responsibilities. A story about growing up and taking responsibility, the narrative and the situations are growing up along with Stella and her readers. As a second grader, she was overcoming her shyness and learning to speak up. Now, a fourth grader, she’s navigating complex feelings and relationships, including sharing responsibility – and the recognition! – with others for her ideas; her feelings about dating when her mother makes a new friend with a single dad who just moved to the town, and when the school bully taunts her and her best friend, Stanley, and the desire to do all the great things we want to do versus the reality of what we have to do. Angela Dominguez takes these challenges on with ease, letting readers know that it is all going to be okay; this is a normal part of growing up, and offers some ideas for how to jump those hurdles.
Put Stella Díaz on your shelves, if you don’t already have her there. She’ll look great next to Jasmine Toguchi, Ramona Quimby, and Dominguita Melendez.
Posted in Uncategorized

Celebrating Ignacio (Nacho) Anaya on National Nacho Day!

Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack, by Sandra Nickel and Oliver Dominguez, (Aug. 2020, Lee & Low), $18.95, ISBN: 9781620143698

Ages 6-10

Not all heroes wear capes. Ignacio Anaya was born in Northern Mexico in 1895, and raised by a foster mother who made him delicious quesadillas. He grew up and became well-respected in the restaurant industry, handling everything from waiting tables to greeting guests and making sure everyone was well taken care of and happy. When a famous foodie asked him for “something different” one night in 1940, Ignacio – called “Nacho” for short – searched the kitchen until he noticed a bowl of fried corn tortillas. Thinking of his foster mother’s delicious quesadillas, he put his own spin on them, by melting cheddar cheese on them, topping each with a piece of pickled jalapeño pepper, and serving them up as “Nacho’s Special”. And, my friends, a legend was born.

Nacho’s Nachos tells Ignacio’s story, from the beginnings at his foster mother’s table through to his fame as the creator of a dish that appealed to everyone, everywhere, including actors and presidents; even allowing him to open a restaurant of his own. Ignacio’s original recipe is included in the back matter, along with an afterword on his life. There are sources and an author’s note addressing the somewhat tall tales that have arisen about Nacho’s life. Sandra Nickel creates a wonderfully inspirational biography, and Oliver Dominguez’s mixed media artwork is realistic and has gorgeous earth colors alongside colorful nightlife scenes. A fantastic addition to picture book biographies.

Warm up some cheddar cheese, have some nachos, and celebrate the life of Nacho Anaya today! Check out the National Nachos Day website for recipes and the history of the celebration.

Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Big moves, big thoughts in A New Home

A New Home, by Tania de Regil, (April 2019, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536201932

Ages 4-7

A boy from New York City and a girl from Mexico City are each moving, and nervous about their new home. Readers quickly understand that the kids are swapping places: the boy is moving to Mexico, and the girl, to New York. They voice their worries about everyday things they will miss: an after-school snack on the way home; cheering on a local sports team; having places to play. Optimistically, they also think about the new friends they will meet, and hope they enjoy their new home.

A New Home speaks to kids’ concerns and fears over leaving the familiar and starting over somewhere new, as it reassures those fears by illustrating another child enjoying those same things. The boy from New York stands under a T-Rex skeleton in the American Museum of Natural History as the girl from Mexico City stands in front of the Sun Stone in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, each hoping there will be places for their classes to explore their past. The book touches on some of the challenges of city life, including homelessness and poverty. Back matter provides more information about the places and images that come up in the book; everyday images like hot dog carts and street music all get their moment here. Soft, yet bright illustrations make big city living a little less overwhelming.

A New Home is a good addition to your books about moving. Brightly and Moving.com offer reading lists with further book suggestions. There’s a free, downloadable activity kit available through the publisher.

Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, picture books

La Frontera: An #OwnVoices story in two languages

La Frontera: El viaje con papá – My Journey with Papa, by Alfredo Alva and Deborah Mills/Illustrated by Claudia Navarro, (May 2018, Barefoot Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781782853886
Recommended for readers 6-10
This bilingual picture book tells the true story of the author’s childhood migration, with his father, from Mexico to Texas to find work and a better life. Young Alfredo and his family live in a small Mexican village, where his father, grandfather, and uncle work as laborers. When the labor becomes too difficult for Alfredo’s grandfather, Alfredo and his father must leave their village and cross la frontera (the border) to find work.
Based on the author’s true story,  La Frontera: El viaje con papá takes place in the 1980s, but resonates with readers today: a child and his father leave everything they know to come to the United States for a new life. The boy has to adjust to a new culture, new language, and new people; people who may not always be welcoming. Claudia Navarro’s artwork is expressive and warm at times, harrowing in others, providing an emotional punch to the story: the crossing itself, in particular.
The book is bilingual English and Spanish, which makes me so happy. These books build a bridge between two cultures by sharing a language; I loved having them at my last library, where most of my patrons are bilingual Spanish/English language learners. It works on an empathy-building level, too; sharing a story together can speak volumes to readers who may not understand another’s struggles. Here, a personal story with strong themes of family, separation, migration, poverty, and resilience can illustrate what a nightly news story may not. Back matter discusses the author’s background, borders, and immigration, and features photos.
 La Frontera: El viaje con papá has a starred review from Booklist and is a Junior Library Guild Selection for the 2018 elementary Spanish category. It’s a worthy add to Own Voices collections. Booktalk this with another powerful bilingual picture book, Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds, by Jorge Argueta.
Posted in Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Blog Tour: Playing for the Devil’s Fire, by Philippe Diederich

devilsfirePlaying for the Devil’s Fire, by Phillippe Diederich, (March 2016, Cinco Puntos Press), $11.95, ISBN: 978-1-941026-29-8
Recommended for ages 14+

Photojournalist Philippe Diederich wrote his debut novel as a way of communicating his sorrow and anger at the brutual narcoviolence and corruption infecting Mexico. The brutal and gripping story follows 13 year-old Libero “Boli” Flores as he sees his town, Izayoc, crippled by the town’s new inhabitants: men who wear shiny guns, expensive clothes, and drive big SUVs; men who have a lot of money to spend, and men who don’t like to be questioned or crossed. When people speak out, they show up dead.

Boli’s parents know it’s no use to go to the local police, so they head to a neighboring town to seek help, but they never arrive. Boli waits for someone to bring he and his sister, Gaby, some kind of news. Hope comes, briefly, in the form of El Chicano Estrada, a small-time luchador that Boli sees at a wrestling match. Boli, a devoted fan of lucha, particularly the legendary El Santo, begs Chicano to help him locate his parents. Chicano sees the corruption and grim reality facing Boli and the people of Izayoc; it awakens something in him, and he tries to be the hero that Boli needs. But Chicano also knows a truth that Boli hasn’t learned yet: the world is not a good place.

This is a vicious, heartbreaking story about the end of childhood. It’s a grim, powerful, and beautifully written novel, with unforgettable characters: Boli and Gaby are two siblings struggling to move on with their lives in the most horrifying circumstances; their Abuela escapes into her memories of the past to cope; Chicano is someone who just wanted to get by until he found someone that believed in him. Diederich looks at the morality, or lack of it, using Boli as the lens.

Who do you turn to in a town when everyone can either be bought or murdered? This is the question at the heart of Playing for the Devil’s Fire, and it is a very real question facing many Mexican communities. It’s an eye-opening look into a reality many young people face. Philippe Diederich puts a very human face on the cost of the neverending war on drugs.

This is not a book for middle grade or middle schoolers. There is graphic violence (the story begins with a child finding a decapitated head), language, and overall content that is disturbing and upsetting. I’d suggest this for upper high school, young adult, and adult readers, because it is a brilliantly written book that will make readers think, and hopefully, talk.

Playing for the Devil’s Fire has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Philippe Diederich grew up in Mexico City where he played marbles in the streets and became a fan of lucha libre – pastimes he revisits in Playing for the Devil’s Fire. This is his first novel for young adults, but his short stories have been published in literary journals, and his mystery, Sofrito, is a culinary mystery that travels from Havana to New York City. His author website offers a newsletter and more information.

Playing for the Devil’s Fire Blog Tour

August 31: Rich in Color review  (http://richincolor.com)

Sept 1: The Pirate Tree review & interview (http://www.thepiratetree.com)

Sept 4: Guest Post for Clear Eyes, Full Shelves (www.cleareyesfullshelves.com)

Sept 5: Review, The Brain Lair (http://www.thebrainlair.com)

Sept 6: Rich in Color author interview (http://richincolor.com)

September 7: Edi Campbell CrazyquiltEdi review (https://campbele.wordpress.com)

September 8: Anastasia Suen, #KidLitBookoftheday (asuen.com)

September 9: Reading Through Life author highlight plus links to blog tour  (http://readingtl.blogspot.com)

Sept 9: Guest Post, The Brain Lair (http://www.thebrainlair.com)

September 12: Linda Washington (https://lmarie7b.wordpress.com/ )

September 13: Excerpt, Review, Mom Read it (https://momreadit.wordpress.com)

Posted in Early Reader, Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Realistic Fiction

A school can be anywhere: Armando and the Blue Tarp School

armandoArmando and the Blue Tarp School, by Edith Hope Fine, Judith Pinkerton Josephson/Illustrated by Hernán Sosa (March 2014, Lee & Low), $12.95, ISBN: 9781620141656

Recommended for ages 5-8

Armando’s family are pepenadores -trash pickers – living off things they can use, recycle, and sell from the city trash dump community where they live. Armando works with his father to help support the family, but dreams of being one of Señor David’s regular students. Señor David sets up a blue tarp in his colonia and teaches the children how to spell, count, and learn words in English, and says a school can be anywhere – even on a tarp in a colonia. At first, Armando’s parents discourage him from attending the school, saying that they need him to help the family and that they have always been pepenadores, but slowly, his father sees the importance of an education and allows Armando to attend the school. Shortly after, a fire burns down several homes in the colonia, Armando’s included, and it’s Armando’s picture of the blaze that runs in a newspaper and calls support to the colonia. Money and support come into the community, allowing for a new school building to be built.

Inspired by the real-life Señor David: a New York City special education teacher in the 1980s who went to Mexico to teach children living in the Tijuana colonia – Armando and the Blue Tarp School shows kids that education is a privilege not every child enjoys. Armando desperately wants to learn; he saves bits of erasers, paints, and paper he finds while working alongside his father in the trash dumps, and is thrilled when Señor David returns to his area. Kids will also see that not all parents understand the value of education: Armando’s father scoffs at his son’s “dreams of school”. To many parents in poverty-stricken areas, education takes time away that could be spent working and earning money for the family. For many families, work is survival and education is an expense they can’t afford.

This is a great book to use in classroom, library, and home discussion about how education is perceived throughout the world, and it opens up a chance to find out from kids what they think about education. Do they understand how important it is in the long run? Ask themselves to think about Armando, and put themselves in his place. There are some activities at the Blue Tarp website, some discussion questions, and suggestions for expanding on the story’s theme.

Armando and the Blue Tarp School was a nominee for a California Young Reader Medal and was turned into a stage production in 2009; kids can listen to one of the songs from the show and watch video taken from the show at the Lee & Low blog.

An author’s note at the end of the book provides more information about David Lynch, his Responsibility organization, and the Los Angeles Times article about his work in Mexico that prompted an anonymous donor to donate money to build a school in the Tijuana colonia. There are photos of Lynch and his colonia students, success stories of previous students, and a glossary and pronunciation guide.

A valuable addition to #weneeddiversebooks and school-age collections.