Category: books

How to write a Latinx character and other questions

Look at this graphic:

diversity_tinakugler

The first time I saw this illustration I cried. I mean, LOOK AT IT! One and a half books representing the Latinx characters in children’s books? The equivalent of three pages representing the Native American people? Look at the similarly dreadful percentages of representation of our African American children, and our Asian and Pacific Islander kids?

This is what one of my favorite authors, Junot Díaz, said about the dangers of a person not seeing themselves reflected on the pages of a book:

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

Every kid deserves to see themselves as the heroes of their favorite fantasies, their thrillers, their fluffy funny books. In all the books. I guess we can all agree on that, right?

The children’s book community has been aware of the tremendous need for more representation of “marginalized” communities in the books ALL of our kids read. These books representing our characters from “minority” groups aren’t only mirrors. They’re also windows through which all of our children can experience someone else’s existence and experiences.

The creation and incredible influence of the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS ORGANIZATION (for which I’m so grateful!) has brought the issue to every day conversation, and has kept the conversation going. Some writers, in their desire to increase representation want to tell stories of characters of a different background from their own. Which is okay. IF, and that’s a huge if, if the representation is accurate and respectful, ie: not perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

And many writers get this, this huge responsibility. They have expressed tremendous concern over getting representation wrong, of offending readers, of harming their readers, of provoking public anger. Because ultimately, we write for children. I write for myself, but in the end, my mind is always on the young people my words will affect because words are powerful; they’re life changing.

The fears many writers feel aren’t unfounded. *I* am afraid of not representing my culture in an appropriate way. I’ve found things in my own writing that’ve left me reeling with shock. These problematic elements have leaked into my writing after years of seeing my culture diminished as a stereotype on most media I’ve consumed all my life. The harm of wrongful representation is immense.

There have been several instances of readers, bloggers, and critics questioning the representation of characters and situations in children’s books (A Fine Dessert, A Cake for George Washington, and When We Was Fierce are clear examples). These complains and concerns are valid. Seeing your cultural/ethnic group, your religions, your language butchered and misrepresented is a terrible thing. Many times as a reader, I put my feelings aside and gave the author a second, third, fourth chance. Not so much anymore. If a book is offensive, I won’t recommend it. I won’t support that author anymore.

A few months ago I started offering sensitivity reads to children’s writers. My main intent was to be a consultant and a sort of guide to writers who write outside of their culture and comfort zone. But these are things to consider:

1- I’m not the voice for the whole Latinx community.
2- I’m not even the voice for the Argentine community in the US.

However, I know that having an extra set of eyes on a manuscript is vital for any writer wanting to be honest and respectful when crafting characters and situations that haven’t been experienced first hand.

I’ve had some writers reach out with questions. I’ve loved helping them.  Here’s a non-inclusive list of things to consider when writing a Latinx character:

  • Culture is more than race/skin color/language.
  • Culture can  be conveyed in several ways including but not limiting to food and language.
  • Members of a minority group sometimes act one way within their community and another in different situations, environments.
  • Skin color affects all aspects of a person’s life. Sometimes privilege such as financial or class privilege will protect a person from some situations, but not from all. For example: I’ve been asked at restaurants to refill drinks, and I didn’t look like a waitress at all, nor was I wearing anything similar to a server.
  • If you’re dark skinned people will assume you’re: poor, illegal, uneducated. Not all people, but these are all scenarios I or people close to me have experienced.
  • If you have an accent people will assume you don’t understand them.
  • If you have an accent people will assume they will not understand you.
  • If you have an accent, people will think your English isn’t proper, or that you can’t write in English.
  • If you have an accent, people might be surprised you have a college education or, gasp!, higher form of education.
  • Religion is an important part of the Latinx community, not matter what denomination, if any, the person belongs to. Some beliefs like La Virgen de Guadalupe, and love (for the most part) for Pope Francis are widespread in our community
  • It’s highly offensive to use our beliefs and deities as the basis of a whitewashed fantasy world. If you’re writing about our aboriginal people’s gods (Aztec, Mayan, etc), be aware these are living religions TODAY. No, using them is not the same as portraying Greek or Roman gods.
  • Countries of Latin America and Spain have different accents, foods, customs, and idiosyncrasies. Regions within each country, communities within each region have different accents, foods, customs, and idiosyncrasies from each other.
  • A lot of Latinx people in our communities were born in the US. They’re second, third, fourth generation Americans.
  • Not all Latinx people speak Spanish.
  • People who immigrated to the States won’t have an accent after a few years. Example: someone who immigrated as a child won’t have a significant, recognizable accent as an adult.
  • Puerto Ricans aren’t immigrants when they move to the US. They’re already US citizens.
  • In spite of what the media shows, there are more types of Latinx characters than the gang member, the illegal immigrant, the narco, the bubbly, sexy Latina, etc. These exist too, but please, go beyond the stereotypes!
  • Family is a huge influence in our lives, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. I’d never heard the term “extended family” until I arrived in the States. Community is also vital for our people.
  • Educational achievement is a family affair. We’ve been taught that education can free us, and it’s true.
  • Our countries have a rich heritage of thinkers, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, teachers, writers, musicians, and artists of every kind.
  • Many of us have lived real life dystopian societies (hello Dictadura era).
  • In many of our countries, women have been the president and head of the executive power.
  • Latinx people are a combination of all the ethnic groups on earth. We come in every shade and color, and even within families you can find a dark skinned person whose siblings are red-headed or blond with ultra white skin.

Again, this list isn’t all inclusive. I just wanted to show all the aspects in which culture affects a person. The ways in which it will affect your character. The reader will notice if the only thing the writer did was slap a Spanish sounding name and dark skin on a character. I notice. Kids are smart. Kids know when they’re reading truth and when they’re reading a composite of wikipedia facts.

So my friends, write your stories with the characters that knock on the doors of your mind. But do it responsibly. Read the writers from the group you want to write about and you’re not a part of. Like Jackie Woodson said in a lecture, come to their house and see things from their eyes. Respect your readers, and write the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it’s a lot of hard work.

World Book Day

Yesterday was World Book Day. Every day is now World Day This or That, but yesterday, when I saw the post of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, I had to share my own tribute to my beloved books.

I like reading books because they answer questions I didn’t yet have… #WorldBookDay https://t.co/HXDlGuqlMZ pic.twitter.com/I5v1x6apfF
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) April 23, 2015

First of all, she’s an astronaut, and although it’s a cliche, I wanted to be an austronaut until I was about sixteen years old. Second, I love miniature books, and the fact that she chose to bring some along to the ultimate adventure just blew my mind. Third, her words; “They answer questions I  didn’t yet have.” So, so true!

So here’s mine. Two videos of my sweet Teddy Bear, also previously known as Baby Hulk and Miracle Baby, reading Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear and Panda Bear, Panda Bear. He’s not a little baby anymore, but his status of fifth child has granted him eternal babyhood and favoriteness in our family.

Books saved my life. They make me happy. They make me dream. They make me think and feel. Why are books important to you? Which ones are your favorite?

I see an adorable gordito reading to me

Scenes and Early Readers

My kids’ second Spring break is over and I’m in full production mode for Packet 4 and my free lance project in a non-fiction project. I’ve been toying with chapter books and early readers these past few days, and I’ve been trying to read as many chapter books as possible. I’m shocked (not really. Maybe a little) by the lack of diversity in early readers and chapter books. I only found KEENA FORD, by Melissa Thompson and RUBY AND THE BOOKER BOYS, by Derrick Barnes, and DYAMONDE DANIEL, by Nikki Grimes. I found SOFIA MARTINEZ, but I haven’t received it yet, and I’m anxiously waiting to read it with my daughter who’s in second grade and loves chapter books. More than ever, We Need Diverse Books in which every child may see herself.

I’ve also been studying on scene, and one of my VCFA friends recommended THE SCENE BOOK, by Sandra Scofield. It’s a treasure trove of advice that’s keeping me up at night thinking about my WIP. I’ve also been up reading Nation, by Terry Prachett and because of some wonderful news I can’t wait to share with everyone.

Books. Wonderful books. I love to see them, talk about them, touch them, arrange them in shelves and find them under my kids’ pillows every morning when I make their beds 🙂

What books are you reading?

The World Cup is here. I repeat: THE WORLD CUP IS HERE!!!!

Brazil 2014 starts today, and I admit, I’m happier than a kid on Christmas morning or my middle schooler on the last day of school. In my house, we breathe, eat, drink, and dream futbol (I detest the word soccer, sorry). This is the one time my two passions merge. Books and sports are beautiful. Sports inspire my writing, and writing has always been the medium through which I express myself, like a sport. It’s no wonder my first “real” novel had a futbol soccer star love interest, and this one I’m working on is about an Irish dancer. Some say dance is an art, others that dancers are God’s athletes. I tell you, my Irish dancers practice up to eight hours a day during the summer. They’re athletes in every sense of the word.

If you’re new to the World Cup but want to know more about it, this short clip explains how it works.

And here’s a link that will tell you all the schedules, TV listing, etc.

Now back to books. Alex Morgan, the US Women’s National Team super star and my daughters’ heroine, has a series out. It’s cute and fun and it’s about girls being strong and wonderful!

There’s also Hope Solo’s bio for young readers.  

There’s even a Magic Tree House: Soccer on Sunday.

Do you know of any books I can add to this small list? Name them in the comments! I hope you have a wonderful World Cup month, whatever you do!

A tribute to Max and the Wild Things

Sad but true: I rely on twitter for my news. This morning, I checked the trending topics and all sleepiness left me in a second. Most trending topics had to do with Maurice Sendak, Max, and the wild Things. Unlike many twitter deaths, this one was real. It might be that I’m over-emotional. Being in the last trimester of my fifth pregnancy gives me that right. The thing is that I’ve spent most of the morning mourning for someone I never met in real life, but oh! how much influence he’s had in mine!

I didn’t know about Max and the Wild Things when I was a kid (I know. I cry for little Yamile too), but my husband did. In fact, in his early childhood, Jeff thought he was THE Max. I have pictures and countless family stories to prove it. Jeff, the epitome of a business man, always busy and on the phone, was a Max.
This morning he was already busy on the phone, but when I told him the news, I caught a glimpse of the young boy he was, and what sad news this were for him. 
I read Where the Wild Things Are for the first time when my Handsome Boy was still a little baby. I loved it immediately. It wouldn’t become our family’s book until El Cangri came along, and he hit his crisis that lasted the good part of his first four years. With El Cangri, we read the book first thing in the morning, before nighttime, and before bedtime–in both, English and Spanish. El Cangri knew all the words. He still does. Every time we reached the page in which Max is chasing the poor dog with a fork, he’d ask if the dog was Coco (our Maltese), and I said yes. His eyes would get all shiny and bright as he whispered, “And that’s me!” I’m sure he wondered how in the world he had ended up in the pages of a book. 
One Halloween, before I even knew the movie was coming out, I made a wolf costume for El Cangri, which is still our kids’ favorite outfit 🙂 
El Cangri during his Max stage

Now, my Princess Peach reminds me so much of Max, although in a different way. She’s not mad (usually); she’s just plain wild. I love her so much for it! The dogs are terrified of her though. The other day, Jeff spent a long time searching for Dandi, our Yorkie. He finally found her here:
Dandi, waiting for Papa to rescue her

I read through my twitter feed and was touched by the way thousands of people said their goodbyes to Maurice. Perhaps the one tribute that hit me the most was: “I hope someone kept supper warm for you.”
There’s a lovely article on The New York Times too. (Disclaimer: the comments made me cry more than the article itself. Just saying).
Have a lovely trip, Maurice, sailing the seas to where the wild things are, you King of them all!

Please share: What’s your favorite Sandak book or any other kids’ book? I’d love to have a discussion!

The Most Beautiful Bookstore in the World

Last December, I traveled to Argentina, for only the second time in fourteen years. The first time, I traveled with my Cangri who was barely one year old, and I was eight weeks pregnant. It was April, the time between Summer and Fall (in the Southern Hemisphere). I was there for two weeks–one week was scorching Summer, the next freezing Winter. To say it was stressing and hard to go back and see everything as an adult is an understatement.

This second trip, I resolved to enjoy everything. The whole family traveled together–all six of us plus my parents. It was Summer! Christmas. What else could I ask for?

Books!

I found books, of course. And while in Buenos Aires, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting El Ateneo, only one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Years ago, a theater operated there and now it functions as a haven of culture.

My husband likes books okay. When we walked into El Ateneo, he looked at me and asked, “How long are we staying here?”
I didn’t want to scare him, so I said, “An hour?” Meaning three or four.
He just nodded. “I ask because this is the coolest place I’ve ever seen.”
And my heart flooded with love. For him and the millions of books around me.
Here are some pictures:

                                                              Unassuming on the outside
 
Three stories of books, music, film, art inside

Me and a part of my stack of books

 My two middle babies
 Frescoes on the ceiling

 Spanish versions of The Dark Divine and Hush, Hush. I felt I had ran into friends
 Another part of the stack
 Heaven!

 Balconies where people can go and read and live. I would have if I could…

And more books