Last Night I Sang to the Monster Review

lastBenjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster (2009) is a powerful and heart wrenching story of a young man’s encounter with trauma and violence and his journey toward healing. Eighteen year old Zach wakes up in a rehabilitation center far from his home in El Paso, TX for what he think is his abuse of alcohol but in reality he cannot remember why he’s there or how he got there. Throughout the narrative, Zach reflects on moments in his life that might have led to his arrival at a rehabilitation center. His therapist/counselor, Adam, encourages him to remember the event that landed him at the center in order to be able to begin healing; however, the pain is too great and Zach remains emotionally stunted for much of the novel. At the center, Zach meets a diverse group of people that struggle with addiction and mental illness and he is forced to contend with his own struggles; however, his refusal to remember leaves him more vulnerable to pain. He meets an older man, Rafael, who is at the center seeking treatment for his alcoholism which worsened after the death of his son. Zach looks at Rafael as a father figure and in return Rafael provides advice and guidance for processing pain and trauma. Rafael shares with Zach that one of the ways to get the “monster” to stop hurting is to sing to it. When Rafael leaves the center, Zach is distraught and appears to be spiraling down again. Zach must learn to sing to the monster if he wishes to find healing and one day leave the center.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a beautiful novel. Through Saenz’s prose the reader is privy to Zach’s inner pain and struggle. Saenz’s captures the complex relationship between addiction and trauma in such a way that the reader cannot escape until we know that Zach will be ok. It is obvious through Zach’s memories that varying forms of violence have always been a part of his upbringing and it is once they culminate into a catastrophic event that he is forced to deal with it. The importance of remembering is palpable throughout the novel. As a reader, I begged Zach to remember so that I could understand why he’s at the rehabilitation center; however, as Zach recounted his story I felt that maybe remembering would be too painful. The reader’s investment in a character is a sign of an incredible author and remarkable story. Last Night addresses an abundance of issues ranging from alcoholism, abuse, and death to think about ways of healing and living otherwise. As a part of Latina/o young adult literature, Saenz’s novel stands out not only because of its wonderful prose but because the issue of addiction and its consequences on the self and on others is a conversation that requires more attention. Overall, Last Night I Sang to the Monster demands to be read multiple times in order to really appreciate Zach’s healing process and Saenz’s marvelous words.

 

*Originally posted on GoodReads

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano Review

revolution

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano(2012) by Sonia Manzano opens with a frustrated fourteen year old Evelyn getting ready for her summer job at the Five-and-Dime. Her desire to fit in to American society and distance herself from her Puerto Rican heritage is disrupted when her Abuela comes to stay with them. Abuela’s orange hair and bright clothes makes her anything but the traditional grandmother Evelyn expected. Abuela taking over Evelyn’s bedroom with makeup, hair rollers, and flashy clothes is only the first of many changes that serves to transform Evelyn’s understanding of her own identity. While Abuela’s presence creates tension in the Serrano household, a new youth group arrives to challenge discriminations against their neighborhood. The Sanitation Department eventually stops picking up the garbage and as it continues to accumulate so does the tension around the Young Lords’ intent to politicize El Barrio, NY. The rise of the Young Lord’s movement gives Abuela and Evelyn an opportunity to discuss the relationship between what is presently happening in their community and the Ponce Massacre (1937) of which Abuela has kept newspaper clippings. The Young Lords organize El Barrio in a way that Evelyn has never experienced and their demonstrations and marches provide the community with a visibility they later utilize to demand social change. As the political situation intensifies in El Barrio Evelyn and Abuela become more involved with the Young Lords. Their involvement creates a rift between them and Evelyn’s mother but it is through all of this process that Evelyn recognizes the importance of her Puerto Rican heritage.

Among many things, Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is a historical young adult novel. (Re)tellings and (re)imaginings of history is currently a popular strategy in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Like Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy (2005) and Bejamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012), Manzano ask that today’s young adult reader travel back to a time when their grandparents and/or parents were children and adolescents. This literary move to focus on a historical event is brilliant for many reasons. First, it asks Latina/o readers to examine their own background as a way to understand their present identity. In The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, it is extremely significant that there are moments of reflection that help Evelyn understand that her presence in El Barrio is not coincidence. In other words, Evelyn needed to learn her parents’ and grandparents’ journeys in order understand her own identity and her relationship to El Barrio. Secondly, novels like Manzano’s centers stories that have remained marginalized in mainstream history books. Evelyn is such a wonderful character precisely because she sounds and behaves like a typical teenager. At the beginning of the novel, Evelyn wants nothing to do with her parents and their stories. She is embarrassed of them and her community—and this right here is a very honest and common feeling (that too often remains silent) amongst Latino children and teenagers of (im)migrant parents. Throughout the novel, Evelyn learns to center her Puerto Rican culture as a way to find empowerment rather than to feel embarrassed by it. Lastly, Manzano’s novel, and others like hers, create intergenerational discussions around issues of discrimination and gender (to name a few themes present in Evelyn Serrano). In other words, novels like these emphasize that significant social change requires a community talking to one another. While the Young Lords were central in the mobilization of El Barrio, it was also with the support of their elders and younger members that they were able to stand strong against the discrimination the community faced.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano presents a genuine story of identity formation for a young Latina coming of age at a moment in U.S. history where Latinos are violently forced to assimilate into mainstream society or risk their lives by speaking up and challenging the discrimination they experience.

Teaching Tips:

When teaching The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano it will be helpful to provide a historical context for the novel from which to guide student discussion. Manzano provides a bit of this discussion in her afterward where she explains that the events in the novel are based on true events. The Young Lords: A Reader (2010) edited by Darrel Enck-Wanzer and Palante:Voices and Photographs of the Young Lords, 1969-1971 (2011) are excellent resources for educators to learn more about the group’s history, motivations, and outcomes. Pairing the novel with some of the essays in these sources for more advanced or older students can also provide a basis for discussing race, class, and gender both within the party and in the context of the US.

A thematic approach to teaching Manzano’s novel can be one way to broadly discuss the Civil Rights Movement and relating topics. Novels like Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2011) about three young African American sisters and their adventures with the Black Panthers and children’s books like Monica Brown’s Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (2010) about the leaders of the farmworkers movement can provide rich conversations about the array of issues impacting people of color at this time. Discussing children’s and YA books on the Civil Rights movement not only allows students to learn more about specific racial discriminations and community empowerment but also creates opportunities for students to discuss how those issues impact them now.

Another approach to teaching the novel is to discuss characters and character development. Evelyn’s relationship with and to her Abuela is a very complicated one because they have different personalities and because Abuela represents a cultural heritage Evelyn wishes to avoid. Their relationship, however, is central in the novel. Other YA novels like Claudia Guadalupe Martinez’s The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (2008) and Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (2003) present similar granddaughter/grandmother relationships wherein both characters engage and learn from one another. Asking students to interview their grandparents or a family elder could be a possible assignment for students of any age to participate in an exercise similar to the character development of the protagonists they read.

*Originally posted on GoodReads. Also available on Latinos in Kids Lit http://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/09/11/libros-latinos-the-revolution-of-evelyn-serrano/

Super Cilantro Girl Review

superUpon learning that her mother has been detained at the border, Esmeralda Sinfronteras transforms into a superhero to rescue her mother from ICE. She uses the power of cilantro to grow taller than a house, with hair longer than a bus, and skin so green it could have only come from cilantro. Super Cilantro Girl flies to the border, climbs the dark and dreary detention center to her mother’s window, and simply picks her up and puts her in her pocket and they fly home. The ICE agents are so mesmerized by the power of cilantro that they do not notice or prevent Super Cilantro Girl from rescuing her mother. The next morning, Esmeralda makes a huge discovery about her and her mother.

Author Juan Felipe Herrera and illustrator Honorario Robledo Tapia have created a magnificent children’s book about the transformative power of imagination. Esmeralda is emblematic of the many children who have been separated from their families due to unjust and xenophobic immigration laws. Herrera and Tapia go beyond common debates about immigration to give a face and a voice to the children impacted by this. Esmeralda gains the power and courage she needs to confront ICE from the environment around her. Her grandmother and the land serve as vessels for alternative knowledge that guide Esmeralda through her journey. Furthermore, Herrera’s and Tapia’s reclamation of the color green juxtaposes Esmeralda’s power with the cultural and social power of the “green card.” In Esmeralda’s imagination, her power is much stronger than anything ICE or a green card could ever have.

There are several ways to read race, gender, and class into this story in order to come up with a thorough analysis of how immigration impacts Latina/o children and their families. What I appreciate most about Herrera’s children book is that hope and empowerment are central to the narrative. Giving Esmeralda superpowers reveals the possibility for change that manifests from a child’s imagination. Super Cilantro Girl encourages children to dream, hope, and fight for their rights even if it means going against an entire state apparatus like ICE.

*Originally posted on GoodReads

Moony Luna Luna, Linita, Lunera Review

MoonyFive year old Luna Lunita Lunera fears that she will meet monsters on her first day of school. Her adoring parents remind her that she is a big girl now, bigger than the moon, and that there is nothing to fear. She finds the courage she needs to get to school but decides that maybe school is not such a good idea after all. Again, her parents encourage her to find her big girl strength and take her to school. While there, Luna is still not convinced that there are no monsters at her school and hides under a table. Her fellow classmates look for her and ask her to come out and play. Luna joins them in all the singing and coloring and decides that maybe school is not so bad. At pick up, she tells her parents that there were no monsters at school and that tomorrow she will be bigger and stronger than the moon!

Author Jorge Argueta and illustrator Elizabeth Gomez give life to the most adorable character in Latina/o Children’s literature. Together they have created an encouraging and loving story about a child’s fears about their first day of school. One of the fascinating aspects of this book is the multiple ways that Luna’s story is told. Because it’s a bilingual book, something that is very common among Latina/o children’s books, the story is told is Spanish and English. Simultaneously, Gomez’s illustration present an additional storyline–the “monster’s” first day of school. Gomez’s illustrations suggest that there is indeed a monster at school and that it is also afraid of its first day of school. Another significant factor in this text is the positive representation of the parents. Luna’s mom and dad are present throughout this pivotal moment in her life. Her mother reads her a bed time story at night and her father braids her hair in the morning. And both of them go pick her up. Their presence is extremely important because it challenges negative and harmful stereotypes about Latino parents taking a back seat in their child’s education. Such stereotypes are further challenged by allowing the character of the mother to be there to read Luna a bed time story. Lastly, the promotion of bilingual education, seen through the offering of the story in Spanish and English and through the depiction of Luna’s classroom as a bilingual classroom with a Latina teacher, is extremely powerful. Given national attacks on bilingual education and budget cuts on such programs, Argueta and Gomez present a wonderful opportunity to advocate for bilingual and multicultural education. Overall, this book is a must read and must have because it’s way brilliant.

 

*Originally published on Goodreads and also available on Latin@s in Kids Lit: http://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/05/15/libros-latin0s-moony-luna-luna-lunita-lunera/