juana and lucas

Friday, January 20, 2017 | | 0 comments
It’s Inauguration Day here in Washington, DC. I have the day off of work because I live a couple of streets away from Arlington National Cemetery and my office is on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s still a Friday, but the library is closed and I don’t want to turn on the TV. I do want to do something constructive – something that will make a difference and build up my spirits. So, I’m reviewing a book by a local author – by a Spanish-speaking immigrant, even. I want to share with you a book that is adorable, smart, different, and immensely readable. Let’s talk about Juana Medina’s Juana & Lucas.

juana and lucas by juana medina book cover
Fans of Judy Moody and Clarice Bean will love Juana, the spunky young Colombian girl who stars in this playful, abundantly illustrated new series.

Juana loves many things — drawing, eating Brussels sprouts, living in Bogotá, Colombia, and especially her dog, Lucas, the best amigo ever. She does not love wearing her itchy school uniform, solving math problems, or going to dance class. And she especially does not love learning the English. Why is it so important to learn a language that makes so little sense? But when Juana’s abuelos tell her about a special trip they are planning—one that Juana will need to speak English to go on—Juana begins to wonder whether learning the English might be a good use of her time after all. Hilarious, energetic, and utterly relatable, Juana will win over los corazones — the hearts — of readers everywhere in her first adventure, presented by namesake Juana Medina.

Juana is a rambunctious girl who lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her mother and her dog Lucas. Juana loves many things – her abuelos (grandparents), art, her best friend at school, her city (and of course her Mami and Lucas!)… but she does not love learning English. It’s difficult, it’s boring, and she wonders what the point is. When her grandfather tells her that the family will visit Florida, everything changes. Juana MUST learn English!

Juana & Lucas is an illustrated chapter book with a lot of heart. Juana has the same sort of thoughts and worries and dreams as any kid – she’s relatable, and she’s smart and fun. While Juana is hilariously lamenting how boring English is, she drops many little tidbits about life in Colombia, and the reader learns a bit of Spanish too – all Spanish words are italicized and understandable in the context of the story. Juana’s happy, functioning family (in a unique environment) is also important, as oftentimes parents in children’s lit are absent, dead, or worse.

Author Juana Medina both wrote and illustrated the text, and her art is a colorful mix of black lines and watercolor. The effect is cheery and vibrant, and the simplicity of the figures and outlines is likely to inspire her grade-school readers to imitate and carry on telling Juana’s future adventures. My favorite page spreads were the ones where Juana identifies every item by name.

In all, Juana & Lucas is a vibrant, fun early picture book for any kid or kid-at-heart.

Recommended for: early readers, reluctant readers, fans of comics and art, and… anyone, really!

Fine print: I picked up an advance copy of this title for review consideration from the publisher at Book Expo America.

the princess and the warrior

I go through cycles with book discovery. Sometimes I rely on recommendations from my book club, other times I pay attention to what the book blogging community seems to like, and occasionally I’ll go on a “throwback” kick and look up the backlist titles of favorite or new favorite authors. With Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture book The Princess and the Warrior, it was pure serendipity. I had planned to visit the Abrams booth at Book Expo America (an enormous annual book fair)(in other words, heaven!) to look for another title, and saw an image of the cover and note that Tonatiuh would be signing copies later. I quickly identified the story as fairy tale/myth, the art as traditional Central American, and was instantly sold.

the princess and the warrior by duncan tonatiuh book cover
Award-winning author Duncan Tonatiuh reimagines one of Mexico’s cherished legends. Princess Izta had many wealthy suitors but dismissed them all. When a mere warrior, Popoca, promised to be true to her and stay always by her side, Izta fell in love. The emperor promised Popoca if he could defeat their enemy Jaguar Claw, then Popoca and Izta could wed. When Popoca was near to defeating Jaguar Claw, his opponent sent a messenger to Izta saying Popoca was dead. Izta fell into a deep sleep and, upon his return, even Popoca could not wake her. As promised Popoca stayed by her side. So two volcanoes were formed: Iztaccíhuatl, who continues to sleep, and Popocatépetl, who spews ash and smoke, trying to wake his love.

The Princess and the Warrior is the story of Itza and Popoca, who according to legend lived long ago in the area near modern-day Mexico City. Princess Itza spent her days in the fields, teaching poetry to the workers. She had no interest in leaving her life to live in a palace, and so she was not swayed by the rich men who wanted to marry her for her beauty. Popoca, a simple warrior, won her heart with honesty and a promise of loyalty. In order to gain her father’s blessing, Popoca went out to fight a fierce enemy clan. When he was close to defeating them, Itza was tricked by the enemy’s messenger and fell into a sleep from which she never awakened. Popoca kept his promise to stay by Itza, and in time they turned into two volcanoes which look over Mexico City today.

I am HERE for fairy tale retellings and myths and legends, and this one is a great one, wrapped up in a beautiful package. Tonatiuh’s retelling includes not only a bittersweet story (ugh, the angst of lovers divided by deception!), but he also highlights the use of poetry, sprinkles Nahuatl and Spanish words throughout, and focuses on characters who defy gender stereotypes (Itza by valuing honesty and loyalty above riches and compliments, Popoca by accepting Itza as she is and promising to stay by her forever and then following through). Love story based on honesty, loyalty, and intelligence, featuring Native American characters, with a mythic background? It just hits on so many of my favorite things, and we’re not even counting the fact that I spent three years in grad school focused on Latin American history. I really like this book, friends.

On to the art! Which is basically a bonus for me at this point but for most people it can make/break a picture book. As you may be able to tell from the cover, the style pays homage to traditional pre-Columbian art, where people and animals are always depicted in profile. The digital collage method that Tonatiuh used highlights the texture of the textiles of the characters' dress (linen and other woven materials are distinguishable), and the colors and backdrops are bright and active. The style might take a minute to adjust to, but it enhances the story and adds another layer of context to the legend. There's plenty for little eyes to look at, and the Jaguar Claw warrior panels are particularly engaging.

In all, The Princess and the Warrior is a lovely picture book suitable for all ages. I plan to gift it to my young cousin who is obsessed with princesses, and I'll also strongly encourage my elementary school teacher friends to stock it in their classroom libraries. Diverse kidlit FTW!

Recommended for: fans of myth, legend, and pre-Columbian history, and anyone with a stake in supporting diverse children's literature and #ownvoices.

Fine print: I picked up a copy of this title for review consideration at BEA. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

ten books i’m thankful for

Friday, November 25, 2016 | | 1 comments
I assume that even my casual acquaintances know about my obsession with books and reading, but I guess there are still people out there who don’t know the exact extent (it’s kind of refreshing, really). When I went around taking an informal survey of coworkers and friends this week asking them, “What books are you thankful for?” there were a lot of raised eyebrows and confused looks.

On the other hand, I did get a couple of thoughtful/helpful responses, and in one case, was gifted a book (A Distant Grief by F. Kefa Sempangi)(thanks sister-in-law!). So, a couple of days late… here are the books I’m thankful for right now. Looking at the collection of titles, this list could also double as “a history of Cecelia, in books.” My hope is that by this time next year I’ll have ten new books to add to a list like this – and more diverse ones.

Ten Books I’m Thankful For

1. Corduroy by Don Freeman – One of my favorite picture books from childhood, and now a staple for baby shower gifting. Not is it a universal “lost toy” story, but the main characters are WOC. Ensuring that the little ones in my life read and see stories with as many diverse characters as possible is a personal mission of mine.

2. Bible – It’s cliché, but I am thankful for all of the time I’ve spent with this book. I value the lessons I’ve learned, the comfort I’ve gained, and the literary illusions and history I understand because of my background with it.

3. Magic for Marigold by L.M. Montgomery – My favorite L.M. Montgomery book because I read it first. I also credit this book with giving me very specific ideas about acceptable hospitality (there must always be cake in the house!), family politics, and how friendships evolve over time.

4. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter – I read this book multiple times a year for years… I’ve re-read it more than thirty times. I put its charm down to super-independent female characters and wish fulfillment.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Some of the first fantasy I picked up on my own without prompting or my mother reading it aloud first. I liked it so much that I tried to find more of the same, and it set me on a lifelong search for and love of fantasy.

6. Patricia C. Wrede’s young adult fantasy – After I fell in love with fantasy I used to browse the shelves of my local library looking for likely book covers, and that’s how I found Patricia C. Wrede and my first young adult fantasy. I’ve been a fan ever since, and I used Wrede to find other favorites like Robin McKinley and Garth Nix.

7. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – Look, I won’t say that I grew up with Harry Potter. I was a bit too old to be in that crowd. But I did read the books eventually (in grad school), and I talked about them with my siblings and we all went to see the movies together over holidays when I was home. So not only did I love the books, they helped me bond with my family. Priceless.

8. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ romances – Speaking of bonding, my sister and I used to share SEP’s books with each other. They’re funny, intelligent stories (if a little unlikely!), and one of us would buy and read the book and then send it off to the other. That was a nice change after a childhood where Ginny wouldn’t read anything I said was good. For a passionate reader, that was frustrating!

9. C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity – I’m thankful for this book because it was one of the first books I read that dissected my faith in a way that stripped out the emotion of experience and made logical sense. I go back to this book when I am overwhelmed by the (seeming) American evangelical Christian monolith, or when I find myself judging instead of loving. It’s wise and simple and a good tonic for pride.

10. Check, Please! webcomic by Ngozi Ukazu – One of my best finds of the past two years (thanks, tumblr!), this webcomic combines many of my interests: baking, hockey, and a happy, fluffy love story. Many days over the past year have been made 100% better by a comic update. I can’t recommend it enough!

What books are you thankful for?

This post was inspired by The Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday.

carry on

Monday, November 21, 2016 | | 5 comments
Shortly after I moved to the DC area I joined the DC chapter of the Forever Young Adult book club (DC FYA for short)(I may have mentioned this fact before?). The girls from book club have become good friends, and they are really sweet about the fact that I often show up without having read the book (or when I skip a meeting, like yesterday! Eek!) I trust them for recommendations. Melissa-from-book-club insisted that I would like Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, and I knew she was probably right. I wasn’t in the mood to read it at the time, so I sat on the recommendation for a few months. Then on my flight home from France I saw it on my Kindle app and thought, “Yeah, I’ll try that.”  Seven hours of travel later, I was almost home and exhausted, but with that happy I-just-finished-a-fun-book feeling.

carry on by rainbow rowell cover art
Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here—it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you'd expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, a “Chosen One” with a temper, and his final year at a magical school. If that sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things. Simon was originally introduced to readers through fan fiction about a fictional book within another of Rowell’s books (Fangirl), and it was meant to be a Harry Potter-esque story. If that last sentence didn’t make sense to you, it’s fine: You don’t need to have read anything previously to ‘get’ Simon’s story. It’ll feel familiar no matter what because it is a loving send-up of some of fantasy’s well-worn tropes.

As mentioned above, Simon is back at his magical boarding school for his final year. He expects life as normal (or as normal as his life gets): foiling his roommate Baz’s evil plots, proving that his roommate Baz is a vampire, and figuring out what the next threat to his life from the Big Bad in his world will be. Then Baz has to go and spoil it by not showing up (the nerve!). Life goes on, but Simon just can’t let Baz’s mysterious disappearance go. Add in ghosts, not-dealing with his girlfriend-who-probably-cheated-on-him-with-Baz, and magical deadspots of increasing size, and you have a recipe for angst and apocalypse.

So those are the bare bones of the plot. What’s the book like? It’s delightful and yet predictable. How does that work? Good points: it’s well-written, it’s funny, it’s meta, and it’s told from multiple perspectives, which adds a thin slice of mystery to some events which might otherwise be completely unsurprising. As I said, though, it’s not particularly surprising or groundbreaking, though now that I write that I don’t think I can name a young adult fantasy novel with gay boys and a happy-ish ending.* So maybe it IS groundbreaking?! Let me know in the comments if there are titles I’ve overlooked. When I say it’s predictable, I mean that I knew what was coming around every corner before it arrived, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy it.

Things that I thought were particularly well done: characters with varying levels of self-awareness and intelligence (instead of a cast entirely made up of self-possessed/talented teens – it was a welcome change), LGBTQ love story (I don’t think that’s a spoiler – you can see it coming a mile away!), female characters of various ages and awesome, family foibles, and diversity (in fantasy!). Rowell is also very talented at writing banter and dialogue in general – you hear the different voices of the narrators loud and clear.

This is a parody of popular fantasy, so the magic is exceedingly silly, but the author did enough worldbuilding that it worked. At least, it did if you imagined Rowell sharing the joke with you. She didn’t take herself too seriously, and that light-hearted feel contrasted nicely with the world-ending stakes.

In all, Carry On is a fun and funny diverse read that’s perfect for turning off the real world for a bit and enjoying a trope-tastic magical alternative.

Recommended for: fans of Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy series, Gina D’Amico’s Croak (and fantasy in general), and anyone who appreciates good dialogue and a sarcastic narrator.

*ETA: I've done a bit of looking and found several books (gayya.org has a lovely masterlist), and I've even read some of them, so I was clearly a little out of it while writing the review. A book I'm in the process of reading (The Rest of Us Just Live Here) fits the criteria, for goodness' sake! Sorry all. Still, send me your recommendations! I clearly need to read more (and more carefully).
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