Undercover Latina by Aya De Leon

Undercover Latina (The Factory)

Aya De León

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Oct. 11, 2022

Pages:

Suitable for ages: 10-14+

Themes: Latino, Culture, Racism, Privilege, Spies, Intelligence organization, Adventure, Diversity   

Opening paragraph: “A grown man is no match for a teenage girl on a skateboard. Even if he’s wearing sneakers and athletic gear. We called this guy El Rubio, because of his pale blond hair, and I was supposed to grab the briefcase from him. Then I’d skate the two blocks from the hotel lobby to where my parents were waiting with the car running, and we’d get away clean.”  

Publisher’s Synopsis:

A Latina teen spy goes undercover as a white girl to stop a white supremacist terrorist plot in a fast-paced middle-grade debut from a seasoned author of contemporary crime fiction.

In her debut for younger readers, Aya de León pits a teen spy against the ominous workings of a white nationalist. Fourteen-year-old Andréa Hernández-Baldoquín hails from a family of spies working for the Factory, an international organization dedicated to protecting people of color. Her parents have been working for the Factory for 20 years. For her first solo mission, Andréa straightens her hair and goes undercover as Andrea Burke, a white girl, to befriend the estranged son, Kyle Summer, of a dangerous white supremacist.

In addition to her Factory training, the assignment calls for a deep dive into the son’s interests—comic books and gaming—all while taking care not to speak Spanish and blow her family’s cover. But it’s hard to hide who you really are, especially when you develop a crush on your target’s Latino best friend. Can Andréa keep her head, her geek cred, and her code-switching on track to trap a terrorist? Smart, entertaining, and politically astute, this is fast-paced upper-middle-grade fare from an established author of heist and espionage novels for adults.

Why I like Undercover Latina:

Aya De León’s Undercover Latina is a gripping and well-executed spy story for both tweens teens. Readers will learn about racism, culture, and passing as white. The plot is timely, heart-stopping at times, packed with action and completely believable in today’s world.  Once I read the opening paragraph (above), I knew I wouldn’t put this book down until I finished it.

The worldbuilding is extraordinary, especially the fantasy gaming world the author invents — Triangulo — a fictional Latin American game. I thought it was a real game because of how she linke it to Comic Com, which gamers will love. De León creates strategies to play the game and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) characters with back stories that are culturally rich. Players use magic to free 17th century enslaved people in the Caribbean as they travel back and forth from past to present. Gamers will find this interesting.

The characters are racially and economically diverse. The Arizona high school Andréa attends is split between the typical “mean” white kids and those of color. Andréa passes for white and assumes the name ANN-drea. She’s befriended by the popular white girls, which causes a lot of inner conflict,  She has to listen to how the white girls label people of color, especially how Latinos .But she is an agent and  she has to keep quiet and cool-headed so she doesn’t blow her cover. She struggles with being true to herself and her culture. She finds her group with nerdy Kyle (white),Rámon (Latino), and Imani (Black) who are deep into the game of Triangulo. Imani is sent by the Factory to help ANN-drea learn the game. Undercover

Undercover Latino is a smart informational and well-written novel that is fast-paced and exciting to read. It is written for upper middle grade and young adult readers. Be sure to read the Author’s Note about her own family experiences as light-skinned Latinos who could and did pass for white. And she “hopes that her book will resonate with readers of all backgrounds and skin tones.” And I hope this novel turns into a series, because there are many more Factory assignments for Andréa.

Aya De León is the AfroLatins author of several suspense novels for adults as well as The Mystery Woman in Room Three, a free serialized online novel about two undocumented Dominican teens who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, and is active in movements for racial, gender, and climate justice . She lives in Northern Califronia.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Make sure you check out the many links to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

 

 

 

 

My Bindi by Gita Varadarajan

My Bindi

Gita Varadarajan, Author

Archana Sreenivasan, Illustrator

Scholastic Books, Fiction, Aug. 16, 2022

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Themes: Culture, India, Belonging, Believing in yourself, Embracing your heritage, Multicultural

Opening: “My mother, my amma, places a big red dot on her forehead. She wears a bindi every day…even when she sleeps.”

Publisher’s Synopsis: 

In this universal story about embracing who we are and where we come from, a young girl finds the magic, power, and history of wearing a bindi for the first time, in this moving and lyrical picture book debut from Gita Varadarajan.

There in the mirror, I see a shining star.

My mother’s joy, my father’s pride.

And then I see something else:

I see me.

The day has come for Divya to choose her bindi.  But as she prepares for school, she begins to have doubts.  What if she gets made fun of? What will it feel like? Will she be brave enough to face her classmates and their questions? But Amma assures her that her bindi will bring protection. After Divya looks inside Amma’s special box to find the perfect bindi to put on, she gazes in the mirror and discovers a new side of herself, and it gives her strength.

In this tender debut picture book, author Gita Varadarajan crafts a powerful story about belonging, embracing your heritage, and believing in yourself. Archana Sreenivasan’s vibrant and magical illustrations bring to life this journey of self-discovery. My Bindi is a universal message of the importance finding oneself and celebrating the unique beliefs and experiences that make us who we are.

What’s to like about My Bindi:

What a special story about courage, believing in yourself and trusting your friends to support you.

As Divya peers into her Amma’s beautiful bindi box, she sees “a galaxy of bindis — like a million stars in the sky.” There are so many dazzling bindis to choose from — raindrops, stars, moons — but she picks a blazing sun.  When she sees the bindi glimmering  between her brows, her feelings get all mixed up.

Her classmates’ response is delightful. Of course they are very curious, ask lots of questions and think it’s cool. I enjoyed how her teacher invites Divya to tell the class what she’s wearing and why. It is so important to share different customs.

Readers will learn about the Hindu cultural heritage and the meaning behind the wearing the bindi, a spiritual tradition handed down from mother to daughter. Make sure you check out the author’s note at the end of the book about wearing bindi.   

Such beautiful, lively and expressive artwork by Archana Sreenivasan’s. The colorful illustrations just jump off the pages and children will adore pouring through the pages. 

Resources: This  book is a wonderful read aloud in any classroom and perfect for every school library. It opens the door for kids to share cultural traditions of their own in a welcoming setting. Have are sharing day, or have students write about a family tradition. 

Gita Varadarajan was born and raised in India. She has worked with children all over the world and currently teachers at Riverside Elementary School in Princeton, New Jersey. My Bind is her new picture book debut, and she is also co-author of the middle-grade bestseller Save Me a Seat.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

 

The Heart of Mi Familia by Carrie Lara

The Heart of Mi Familia

Carrie Lara, Author

Christine Battuz, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Nov. 10, 2020

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Themes: Bicultural families, Intergenerational relationships, Identity, Culture, Traditions, Bilingual

Opening: “In my home, two worlds become one. My family is a mix of dos culturas, I am bicultural.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

My mommy was born in the United States. My daddy was born in Central America. In, my home, two worlds become one.

Follow a young girl as she works with her abuela and her grandma to create a wonderful birthday present for her brother that celebrates her multicultural family and honors both sides and generations of her family. This follow up to the award winning Marvelous Maravilliso: Me and My Beautiful Family is a must-read for all families.

Why I like this book:

Carrie Lara has written a heartwarming story about a little girl who is proudly shares her bicultural family.  Her mother was born in the United States and her family traveled on a ship from Europe. Her dad was born in Central America and came to the US by bus with his parents as a boy. She shares her culturally-rich visits to her abuela’s home near the ocean during the summer months. And she visits her grandparent’s vineyard home in the autumn, when the pumpkins are ripe for picking.

The story is laced with a lot of Spanish words that children will easily remember. The girl shares how lucky she is to visit and celebrate two different cultures because she can include all those traditions — foods, music, games, artwork and language — at home in her own blended family gatherings.

This story is based on the author’s own bicultural family life experiences.  So she speaks from experience. It is a treasure for bicultural families to use as a discussion book with their children. Kids need to see themselves in stories. And, teachers will find creative ways to use it in their classrooms!  Christine Battuz’s illustrations are beautiful! They are colorful and happy, and love of family shines through each illustration.

Resources: There is a Reader’s Note to parents to help them work with their children to acknowledge the differences, encourage them to explore their cultural histories, talk about cultural identity and help them deal with discrimination.  A must read for teachers too!

Carrie Lara specializes in working with children and families on child and human development, including foster and adoptive youth, those with learning disabilities and special education, and children dealing with trauma, using attachment-based play therapy. She lives in Sonoma County, CA.  Visit her at FB @authorcarrielara.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Reviewed from a copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar

American as Paneer Pie

Supriya Kelkar, Author

Aladdin Books, Fiction, Jun. 9, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Indian American, Culture, Bullying, Racism, Family, Friendship

Book Jacket Synopsis: As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

Why I like this book:

Supriya Kelkar’s American as Paneer Pie is a tender story about an 11-year-old Desi girl, who faces teasing from kids at school and prejudice in her community. Her journey is one of hope and heart. It is also realistic fiction that is based on the author’s own early experiences as an Indian American. This story appealed to me because we adopted a son from India in 1985. I am fascinated with the culture and its beautiful traditions. Our son dealt with a lot bullying and curiosity from others, but he was fortunate to find a group of friends who had his back.

Readers are in for a treat because a lot of the story focuses on details about Lehka’s family dynamics and culture.  Even though her family is the only Indian family in town, they interact with a large Indian community in Detroit. Readers will be introduced to the many celebrations, like Diwali, the five-day Indian Festival of Lights, which is as important to Hindus as Christmas is to Christians. They will also enjoy the food preparations, the spices used in all the dishes, the music and dancing, the Bollywood movies, Indian comic books, and the colorful clothing, bindis and bangles worn during a variety of special events. And there is a recipe for Paneer Pie (similar to pizza) at the end of the book.

It is so easy to love Lekha. She experiences the angst of middle school, but she’s tired of the questions about her heritage, the bullying, and being made to feel different. She just wants to fit in and spends much of her time skirting conflict. When another Indian family moves across the street, Lekah is excited to have a friend like, Avantika. But the relationship is complicated, because Avantika doesn’t share Lekah’s concerns and is proud of her heritage. Lekah’s best friend and neighbor, Noah, brings a lot of fun and humor to the story.

The book is timely because it explores important issues of racism, xenophobia and foreigners through Lekha, who is tired of feeling helpless and not American enough. She begins to find her voice after family members are beaten on the street, a racial slur is sprayed across her family’s garage door, and a newly-elected senator is hostile towards immigrants taking away jobs in Michigan.  There is a lot of growth in Lekha, although most of it is toward the end of the book.

American as Paneer Pie is an important story that Indian American youth will find relatable. And it is a book that can be read in the classroom to create empathy and respect for all cultures. Perfect for school libraries.

Supriya Kelkar was born and raised in the Midwest where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Her books include Ahimsa, That Thing about Bollywood, and American as Paneer Pie, among others. Make sure you visit Kelkar at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*I won an advanced reading copy on Rosi Hollenbeck‘s Kidlit blog, She’s also regularly reviews books for San Francisco and Manhattan Book Reviews. If you haven’t read her blog, please check it out.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boy’s Soccer team

Christina Soontornvat, Author

Candlewick Press, Nonfiction, Oct. 13, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12 (teens and adults)

Themes: Thailand, Tham Luang, Soccer Team, Entrapment, Flooding, Cave divers, Rescue workers, International teamwork, Culture

Book Jacket Synopsis:

On June 23, 2018, twelve young players of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach enter a cave in northern Thailand seeking an afternoon’s adventure. But when they turn to leave, rising floodwaters block their path out. The boys are trapped! Before long, news of the missing team spreads, launching a seventeen-day rescue operation involving thousands of rescuers from around the globe. As the world sits vigil, people begin to wonder: how long can a group of ordinary kids survive in complete darkness, with no food or clean water? Luckily, the Wild Boars are a very extraordinary “ordinary” group.

Combining firsthand interviews of rescue workers with in-depth science and details of the region’s culture and religion, author Christina Soontornvat—who was visiting family in Northern Thailand when the Wild Boars went missing—masterfully shows how both the complex engineering operation above ground and the mental struggles of the thirteen young people below proved critical in the life-or-death mission. Meticulously researched and generously illustrated with photographs, this page-turner includes an author’s note describing her experience meeting the team, detailed source notes, and a bibliography to fully immerse readers in the most ambitious cave rescue in history.

What to love about this book:

Christina Soontornvat has adeptly written a story about the rescue of the Thai Soccer team that is riveting and heart-pounding. Most readers know the ending of the boys’ rescue. What they don’t know is the herculean international effort (10,000 people) it takes to bring the team out safely, against all odds they won’t survive. Soontornvat has readers sitting on the edge of their seats as they absorb the details of their harrowing rescue, and the power of the human spirit to survive. The story is suspenseful to the end.  All Thirteen is the best nonfiction I’ve read in a long time.

Soonornvat watches the search for the boys on Thai television. When she returns to the U.S. and sees the media coverage of the rescue, she realizes that “she didn’t see any Thai faces.” The media focuses much of their attention on the expert British and other western divers involved in the ultimate rescue. With her Thai background, she feels she can bring the Thai culture into the story that others miss — a story that “lets the country and culture shine.” Her goal is to showcase the relentless work of the Thai Seals, the military, rescuers, the Get-It-Done-Crew and ordinary volunteers who work day and night to feed everyone and do what ever is needed.

All Thirteen is painstakingly researched. Soontornvat returns to Thailand in October 2018 with only one interview scheduled with Vern Unsworth, a British “cave man” living in Mae Sai. He’s spent many years exploring all the cave passages of Tham Luang and knows it better than anyone. This is a lucky break for Soontornvat because everyone knows and respects him. The two connect and she finds herself booked solid with interviews. It is also important to note that Soontornvat’s mechanical engineering background helps her take scientific information and make it understandable for readers.

The book is beautifully designed and easy to read. There is a narrative that flows throughout the story that draws readers into the center of the action and holds them spellbound. Gorgeous photographs adorn every page chronicling the rescue and diving efforts, the caverns inside of Tham Luang, the boys, the volunteers and the water-diversion teams working to lower the flood levels inside the cave.  Readers are also treated to inserts about the beautiful country of Thailand, the culture, Buddhism, temples, maps of the cave system, diving rules, and information on oxygen concentrations and hypothermia.

Important to the story is the strong relationship between the boys and Coach Ek, the 25-year-old Buddhist soccer coach. He is a major reason the boys survive. He teaches the boys meditation as part of their soccer training. The cave is damp and chilly. The boys are wet, cold, starving and living in complete darkness, except for necessary times when Coach Ek turns on a flashlight. They do have clean drinking water. Coach Ek is determined to keep the boys from panicking or falling into despair before the divers find them on Day 10. He urges them to rest and conserve energy. The boys meditate. They scratch “help” messages into the cave walls. They make promises to look after one another forever. They dream and talk about seeing their families. When divers find them, they are surprised by the boys morale.

Favorite quote: “Breath by breath they each became master of the one thing they can control inside Tham Luang: their own minds.” Page 55

All Thirteen is written for middle grade students, but is also appropriate for teens and adults. The deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. This compelling discussion book belongs in every school library. It’s a perfect Christmas gift for readers who love survival stories.

*Note:  My enthusiasm for All Thirteen was enhanced by attending a virtual zoom book launch October 18 with Christina Soontornvat. It was moderated by author Kate Messner and sponsored by the Book People. If you have a similar opportunity to attend a virtual event, it is worth your time.

Christina Soontornvat is the author of several books for young readers, including the middle-grade fantasy novel, A Wish in the Dark. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in science education and lives with her husband and two children in Austin, Texas. Visit Christina at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy is provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Islandborn by Junot Diaz


Islandborn

Junot Díaz, Author

Leo Espinosa, Illustrator

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Mar. 18, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Immigration, Community, Culture, Memory, Diversity, Imagination, Belonging

OpeningEvery kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else. Hers was a school of faraway places.

Synopsis: When Lola’s teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families emigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can’t remember the Island she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends, and their memories — joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening — Lola’s imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to the Island. As she draws closer to the heart of her family’s story, Lola comes to understand the truth of her abuela’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

Why I like this book:

Junot Díaz has written a poetic and nostalgic story about Lola’s family immigrating from their home on the Island (likely the Dominican Republic) to build a new life in New York City.  Lola’s lively and exuberant curiosity leads her on an enchanting journey of discovery of self-discovery. She relies upon the memories of her family, friends and neighbors to help her imagine an Island and a culture that has bats the size of blankets, music, dancing, bright colors, sweet mangoes, beautiful beaches, tropical sunsets, hurricanes and a terrifying monster (dictator) who hurts the people. Leo Espinosa’s dazzling illustrations bring Lola’s Island to life. They are a beautiful celebration of creativity and diversity. Brown children will see themselves in the many different skin-tones. Beautiful collaborative effort between the author and illustrator. This book belongs in school libraries.

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This is How you Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award Finalist. Visit him at his website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.