author interview: Estela Bernal

Estela Bernal made her debut as an author this past May with Can You See Me Now? (Pinata/Arte Publico). As you get to know her today and find out a little more about Can You See Me Now? you’ll be impressed but, be even more impressed to know that she’s donating 100% of her proceeds to education and animal rights.

Just a little about the book. Kirkus says:

Tragedy strikes on Mandy’s 13th birthday when her father is struck by a drunk driver and killed. Now grief—both her own and her mother’s—complicates the already confusing landscape of early adolescence.

can u see me nowWith her mother working more and more hours in the wake of her father’s death, Mandy begins spending most of her time living with her grandmother. Often the target of bullies, loner Mandy approaches Paloma to be her partner for a school project. Paloma is also a misfit, but she carries herself with a self-assured grace that Mandy finds compelling. As she becomes closer to Paloma, she learns about the practices of yoga and meditation, which are foundational in Paloma’s family. An overweight boy in class, Rogelio, is also touched by tragedy when his family’s home burns down, and Paloma invites him to join their yoga crew. As the three continue practicing together, they each begin to cultivate their own peace amid the chaos in their lives. Though each faces personal challenges, they find friendship and support in one another. Bernal has succeeded in crafting a story that acknowledges tragedy without wallowing in it, placing her emphasis on resilience and personal growth. The quick pace and distinctive characters make for a smooth, well-crafted read.

Middle-grade readers should respond to this tender story of learning to connect with others through open eyes and an open heart. (Fiction. 10-13)

And Estela’s interview!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in South Texas (the Rio Grande Valley).

Estela Bernal

Estela Bernal

Do you have any pets?

I love animals and have had many pets through the years.  I currently have two cats.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I grew up in a home where we had no books.  There were no public libraries in my hometown either.  Despite the lack of age-appropriate reading material, I fell in love with books as soon as I learned to read.  I remember reading the Weekly Reader and whatever else I could get my hands on at school.  Although I don’t remember where I got it, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth was one book I read and re-read.  I’ve always been a dreamer and this book opened up an exotic new and very fascinating world to me. 

Meat or vegetables?

Vegetables, absolutely!  As an animal lover, I volunteered with many animal welfare organizations until I was able to form my own.  Through it I do community education and help provide low-cost spay/neuter services to residents’ pets in underserved communities.  It would be hard to justify rescuing some animals while eating others.  Besides, I find that when I eat a healthy diet, I feel so much better.

Which famous person would you most like to have write a review for your book?

So many famous and not-so-famous people come to mind.  It always makes me happy to hear about celebrities and other public figures who are also great philanthropists and who help raise awareness about some very important issues facing society today.  But there are also many unsung heroes quietly working to help make their communities better places to live.  I sincerely believe we all have the potential to do good and that, after all, is what really matters.   Two of my own favorite causes are education and animal welfare so my choice would have to be someone with similar ideals.

What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?

Although man-made treasures are priceless, I believe that natural treasures are absolutely essential.  I’d love to see all public waterways, land (public, private, agricultural), and all living beings protected and preserved for our well-being and that of future.


Why would you be up at 3am?

Usually, I’m only up at that time if I’m traveling and have to catch an early flight.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

I’m currently making my way through a 100 Greatest Books for Kids list and just started Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León.  I’m also reading my latest copy of Glimmer Train.

What made you decide to write about a teen who discovers yoga?

One of my nephews died accidentally a few years ago.  The accident happened in front of his wife and children and I began to wonder how such a tragic event would affect any family who witnessed such a tragedy. That also got me thinking about how a child, already weighed down by grief, would cope with the additional burden of parental abandonment and being bullied on top of everything else.   Adolescence is tough enough as it is, and adding all this other stress can lead to such despair that anyone could easily be overwhelmed.  I wanted to introduce the idea that there are alternatives to violence, that there is help even when we think there is no safe way out of certain situations, and most importantly, that there are ways to access inner peace. 

When I first discovered yoga, I was going through a stressful period in my life and still remember the feeling of calm and well-being that I experienced when I was able to slow down the thoughts racing through my mind long enough to catch my breath and try to put things in perspective.  The character Paloma seemed the perfect vehicle through which to introduce the topic and Mandy, of course, was the ideal student.

I’m sorry to hear your family experienced such a tragedy. I can definitely see how that experience could inspire your writing.

I haven’t had the opportunity to read Can You See Me Now, but I do know it’s about a thirteen-year-old girl whose father dies in a car accident and her mother blames her for it. At 13 (or there about) to which adult were you the closest?

I was a very shy child and at thirteen I was closest to my mother.  Because I was the youngest child in my family and my parents were old enough to be my grandparents, the fear of losing them seemed to always be in the back of my mind.  If my mother wasn’t there when I got home from school or from playing with my friends, I panicked.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Again, this is a hard question to answer because there are so many authors I admire, but I’d have to say Harper Lee ranks pretty high on my list along with Sandra Cisneros.  Although their work is very different, I find the characters so easy to relate to and the stories so hard to forget.

What’s the trick to writing humor?

I’m sure there is a trick to it and I suppose part of it is to be naturally funny.  I don’t set out to write humor, but because I do write about serious issues which can be hard to address when writing for a younger audience, I try to ease the tension by including bits of humor here and there as I weave the story.  The humor I use is based on things that tickle my own funny bone.

What does diversity mean to you?

Diversity to me is inclusivity.  I try to write about things that all readers can relate to regardless of their racial or social background because, no matter what other commonalities we may or may not share, there are certain things that we all have to experience at some point in life.

Speaking of diversity, I’m glad to see that the need for diversity in children’s literature is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.  Although the need has always been there, it’s great that diversity among the writing population is also changing, however gradually. 

Thanks, Estela! It’s a pleasure getting to know you!

Visit Estela’s website.

review: Silver People

silvertitle: Silver People

author: Margarita Engle

date: HMH Children’s Books; March 2013

main character: Mateo

Strange as it seems, the ‘globalization’ of international trade did not begin with the Internet but was launched a century ago when a new waterway suddenly made the world seem small.” This line ends Silver People, the story of the workers who built the Panama Canal in which Margarita Engle combines the voices of workers from Cuba, Panama, Jamaica and the United States to tell the story of the conditions in which the Canal was built. From the very beginning of the story, readers are aware of the differing treatment people received that took into account details such as skin tone, country of origin and gender. Although perpetuated by the Whites in power, this racism is so institutionalized that not even they can alter this system. They’re also aware of the culture of the Panamanian people and the flora and fauna of the country.

The story begins in 1906 when young Mateo is recruited from his home in Cuba with the dream of high wages and a more satisfying life. In her trademark open verse style of writing, Engle deftly recreates the back-breaking hardships and the imposed racism that the work crews endured throughout the eight years it took to complete the project. She manages to capture the inhumanity of their treatment while at the same time realizing their character to the reader. And, she does this in a way that will neither overwhelm nor disturb young readers. Engle relates the story with gentle care and compassion by making this a story of Panama and not just the Canal. She literally brings the setting to life by giving voice to trees and monkeys. While the Canal was built to facilitate trade, the act of building it had a huge impact on the biodiversity of the region. Mateo meets Augusto and learns how to develop his artistic talents as they draw life forms found in the Panamanian rain forest.

Rich details trace the impact of non-indigenous footprints on the environment. I always enjoy Engle’s novels as they recreate less known people and places with well researched details. They’re layered in ways that each reader will truly have a unique experience with the book. While I focused on the harshness, others will wander through the jungle scenes with others will watch as relationships develop.

Engle’s other works include The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, The Wild Book and Mountain Dog.

Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award

The Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award is currently seeking submissions to be considered for the 2015 award in two categories:

  • Works for Younger Children These are books appropriate for children from birth to 12 years old [or Infant to 5th grade]
  • Works for Older Children These are books appropriate for children ranging from 13 years old to 18 years old [or 6th grade to 12th grade]

All submissions for 2015 must have a publication date of 2014 to be considered.  To submit a book for considerations please send four copies of the book to:

Jesse Gainer, Director

Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award

Department of Curriculum and Instruction

Texas State University

601 University Drive

San Marcos, TX 78666

The Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, established in 1995, recognizes and honors authors and illustrators who create quality children’s literature that authentically depicts the Mexican American experience in the United States.



Male Monday: Juan Felipe Herrara

I am merely posing for a photograph.juan_felipe_herrera_163x249.
Remember, when the Nomenclature
stops you, tell them that—“Sirs, he was posing
for my camera, that is all.” . . . yes, that may just work.
Poet. Artist. Teacher. Activist. Writer. Poet Laureate of California.
“Your friends, and your associates, and the people around you, and the environment that you live in, and the speakers around you – the speakers around you – and the communicators around you, are the poetry makers.
If your mother tells you stories, she is a poetry maker.
If your father says stories, he is a poetry maker.
If your grandma tells you stories, she is a poetry maker.
And that’s who forms our poetics.”
~Juan Felipe Herrara

Male Tuesday

2-4 April, Forever My Lady by Jeff Rivera is free to download on Amazon. Please take the time to download it. Please!! Take the time to download and have your friends download it, too! You don’t have to have a Kindle or plan to read the book. You do have to take the time to show your support for books by Latinos. Download free here.

A synopsis of the book from Amazon:

Dio Rodriguez grew up on the streets and knew all too well the hard, cool feeling of the barrel of a gun tucked down the back of his jeans. But his hard exterior softened when he met Jennifer. Jennifer understands Dio like no one else and makes him want to be a better man. Suddenly a drive-by shooting lands Dio in a prison boot camp and sends Jennifer to the hospital. When Dio learns that Jennifer is pregnant, he realizes that he must find a way to turn his life around and return to his lady. But can trainee Rodriguez get his act together among the hardcases in prison? And will Jennifer be waiting for him if and when he does?

Literature by authors of color is definitely worth supporting. Have you read any of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s books yet? His YA novels include Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, Last Night I Sang to the Monster and Aristotle and Donte Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I loved Aristotle and Dante and was not surprised after it won so many awards at ALA Midwinter. I was able to speak with Saenz at ALAN last November and when our conversation was done, he actually offered me the copy of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club which he had been carrying with him. I should have had him autograph it.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz has been awarded the prestigious 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his book Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club!The PEN/Faulkner Award is America’s largest peer-juriedImageProxy.mvc prize for fiction, and past winners have included Phillip Roth, Sherman Alexie, John Updike, Julie Otsuka, Ha Jin and others. As winner, Sáenz receives $15,000. Each of the four finalists—Amelia Gray for Threats (FSG); Laird Hunt for Kind One (Coffee House); T. Geronimo Johnson for Hold It ‘Til It Hurts (Coffee House); and, Thomas Mallon for Watergate (Pantheon)—receives $5,000. Sáenz is the first Mexican-American and the first Texan to win the award. It’s been 15 years since a small press published a PEN/Faulkner Award Winner. Cinco Puntos is wonderfully happy for Ben and extremely proud to have published his book.
Read more about the award in the El Paso Times.

(quoted from email from Cinco Puntos Press)

Yes, I should have had it autographed!!










book review: Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe

"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self." ~Aristotle

"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self." ~Aristotle

title: Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe

author: Benjamin Alire Saenz

date: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers; Feb, 2012

main character: Angel Aristotle Mendoza

RL: 3.9

Aristotle and Dante Discover the secrets of the universe is a philosophical tale of two boys coming of age. Ari and Dante meet one summer at a local swimming pool and while they quickly and easily become friends, they both also are caught up on their perceived aloneness. Both boys have been given a strong moral foundation by their families, delivering the groundwork of rules and order that Aristotle (the philosopher) believed were necessary for humans to attain reason.

Ari has no friends and is often unwilling or unable to talk about things that really are important to him. While it’s easy to explain his lack of articulation through his father, it would be more accurate to simply realize that this 15 year is still a boy who is lacking the ability to reason out and explain why he does what he does. It’s his mother, a teacher, who pulls him out. Watching his transition to adulthood is not easy as we’re taken through what feels like hell to him.

Dante, who also has no friends, wants to connect to his Mexican heritage. He actually admits to liking his parents, a true rarity in YA fiction. He is fascinated with birds and hates shoes. Such keen imagery is  straight from Purgatorio, as is the importance of art as a reproduction of nature; water and rain; Dante’s laughter; Ari’s fever and more.

A crucial scene in the story is when Ari’s legs are broken in a tragic car accident. There’s a discussion in the hospital with a doctor that relates to readers the Aristotelian concept that no part can ever be well unless the whole is well. As the bones begin healing, we see relationships begin the slow process of healing as well.

One small, small thing I couldn’t understand in the story is why Dante’s family, when returning from Chicago to El Paso decided to drive through Washington D.C. Do the geography: it doesn’t quite make sense.

And the universe? Together and alone, the boys explore and discover mind altering substances, girls, artists, poets, work, pain and friendship.  Aristotle, in his scientifically ordered mind described three types of friendship. I think when Ari and Dante developed their friendship, they realized a fourth level that even these two great philosophers missed.

Saenz builds his story around ancient philosophers without weighing it down. Rather, he craftily builds layer upon layer of meaning to the story. Our characters, Dante and Ari, read like two 15-year-old boys who are at the end of the purest of times for boys: they can like their parents, verbally express whatever comes to their mind, touch and even wonder. They meet at a swimming pool and take the plunge into growing up.

To course across more kindly waters now
my talent’s little vessel lifts her sails,
leaving behind herself a sea so cruel;
and what I sing will be that of the second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven.


There is no better pairing for this book that Dante’s Inferno. eHow offers several ways to ‘get through’ Inferno including a photo essay, movie, audio lecture which analyzes the poem and even an online reading of the poem itself. If you really want to excite students (or yourself!) about the works of Dante Alighieri, then play Dante’s Inferno the video game.

Benjamin Alire Saenz was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, forty-two miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. He was the fourth of seven children and was brought up in a traditional Mexican-American Catholic family. Saenz  is an award winning poet, writer, professor and painter. His previous young adult works include Sammy and Juliano in Hollywood ( ALA 2009  Outstanding Book for College Bound Students); Last night I sang to the monster and He forgot to say good-bye.

10th Annual International Latino Book Awards

Best Young Adult Fiction – Spanish
Samuel Maximo y Niketon – Ariel Gonzalez – Libros en Red

2nd Place: La Gran Aventura Jordi – Sierra I Fabra – Editorial Bambú

Best Young Adult Nonfiction – English
Ay Mijo! Why do you want to be an engineer? – Edna Campos Gravenhorst

Best Young Adult Nonfiction – Spanish
La disciplina hasta los tres años – Jeanne Lindsay y Sally McCullough – Morning Glory Press

2nd Place: El reto de los párvulos – Jeanne Lindsay – Morning Glory Press

Best Young Adult Nonfiction – Bilingual
Mi sueño de América / My American Dream – Yuliana Gallegos – Arte Público Press

Complete list.