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.
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.
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.
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)
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.