Book Reviews

EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE UNIVERSE by Tracy Holczer — book review!

Thoughtful, logical Lucy finds herself thrust into her emotionally raucous Italian family when her dad ships out for Vietnam in 1971. During his absence, she and her mom adapt to living with herb packets, chicken claws showing up in odd places, and her Nonnina’s pink kitchen. Well, mostly. Now that Dad is returning, though, everything will go back to the way it was before–the highly organized life of a doctor in traifullsizeoutput_166ning and his family.

But soldiers returning from war are never the same. And the world they come home to isn’t either. As Lucy deals with one emotional slam after another, her creative coping skills such as a Homeostasis Extravaganza make her relatable and also admirable. What she wants is to be brave and reasonable, but it might be time to add expressive to that list. With a new friend, a deepening appreciation for her huggy Italian family, and a vet family to track down, Lucy is learning to trust her heart.

My two cents: Loved it! In a nuanced weaving of history, closely observed characters, and poetic language, Tracy Holczer captures the both the discriminating mind and the open heart of her reader. Recommended!

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Book Reviews

EVANGELINA TAKES FLIGHT by Diana J. Noble — book review!

IMG_0310Kids aged 10-14 will enjoy meeting Evangelina and her family as they flee their village in Mexico during the Revolution in 1911. Gone are the scrumptious fruits of their hacienda and elaborate plans for Evangelina’s quinceañera. Instead, their lives turn to surviving a nighttime escape and a cold welcome in a Texas town. Readers will root for observant, kind Evangelina as she faces racism and condescension in school and throughout town. When her intelligence is noticed by a doctor, she finds a way to shine in the midst of cruelty.

My two cents! With lovely turns of phrase, a well-drawn historical context, and emotional depth, this book is a must-read at this time in US history, when we need to grasp both the horrors that refugees have endured and conquered, and the gifts and talents they bring to their new homes.

Find author Diana J. Noble here:

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Book Reviews

THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS by Tae Keller — book review!

imageLooking for a book with head AND heart? Tae Keller’s THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS laces Natalie’s science notebook to her quest to save her mother from depression. With friends Twig and Dari, Natalie sets out to win an egg dropping contest that will fund her plan to show her mother a miracle in New Mexico — the Cobalt Blue Orchids that grow in toxic waste. Her mother studied the flowers back when she went to work, back when she left her bedroom every day, back when she left her bed. Now that their own orchid has died, it’s up to Natalie to remind her broken mother how beautifully tough orchids can be and how alive. Even as she finds herself breaking rules, breaking in to her mother’s lab, and breaking out of her therapist’s expectations, Natalie’s hope never cracks. Recommended!

Stuff I liked most: 1) Keller’s honest portrayal of complex emotions, such as the moment when Natalie finds out that almost everything she thought about the orchid in the greenhouse was wrong  2) the fact that Natalie is realistically rendered — for example, her mom’s a scientist, but she herself is bad at science!

Find author Tae Keller here:

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Latina Heritage, Writing Tips

Can we really write outside our identity?

2011: José, Ramón, Juan, Steve FROM:

I opened the novel, ready to step into a fictional world. And this time, the main character would be Latina, a mirror of my own brown self. Chapter one captured my interest. Chapters two and three sailed by. But by chapter four, something was pulling me out of the book’s world. The character wasn’t Latina after all. And yet her name was. Her family supposedly was. But nothing they did or said seemed, well, Latino.

A perceptive friend asked, “What would being ‘more Latino’ look like?” I didn’t have an answer. Hadn’t I railed against stereotypes such as the sobrero-wearing Mexican snoozing under a tree? Hadn’t I wished for Latino characters who ate more than beans and rice? This novel had none of that, so why didn’t it feel authentic?

As a writer myself, I can relate to this author’s conundrum. Dump in a bunch of stereotypes and the book feels insensitive, even insulting. Leave out cultural details, and you get a thin portrayal or worse–seemingly Anglo characters “spiced up” with Hispanic names. Authors of all ethnicities run up against the same problem. The more our world is multi-, the more we want to portray that reality on the page, but aren’t sure how to do it.


This problem isn’t new. Twenty years ago I sat around a conference table hearing men and women discuss whether one could realistically portray the other. Men pointed to Thomas Hardy’s spot-on female voices. Women pointed to Jane Austen’s blunt-tongued men. Clearly, careful observation could yield convincing characters of the opposite sex.

Careful observation often falls short, though, when it comes to writing authentic characters of color. For a convincing portrayal, one must draw from actual experience–which might hard to come by. And it’s not just ethnicity. Characters who live with illness, with disability, in a different religious context from the author, or with a different sexual orientation provide the same challenge. To complicate matters, we all have overlapping identities–female half-Latina who meditates, for example. (That’s me, or parts of me!) Our differences are daunting.


However, our sameness is stunning. As humans, we experience universals such as love and suffering. As much as we DO want “mirrors and windows” for readers–books that reflect readers’ identities and books that open up new worlds for readers–we also delight in books that underscore our connectedness.

One would think that the novel I tried to read was doing just that: emphasizing that a Latina character isn’t any different than an Anglo one. But they are different, aren’t they? Rather than celebrating differences, this book masked them. Using Latino names felt like a commercial decision rather than a cultural one.


So what SHOULD writers do to portray people of color sensitively? A panel, part of a conference called WORDFest, held on March 24, 2018 in Hurst, Texas tried to answer that question, and I was on it. These are the notes I brought to the table.

For one, writers of color can and will write their stories. Movements like #ownvoices show that the typical reader and even the publishing industry is ready for more authors of color and other identities. Check out We Need Diverse Books for more on this.

Still, we could all use some tips as we build the diverse worlds our characters inhabit. I caution myself, even as I write this, to remember that there’s no easy recipe.

  1. Write against type. Experiment with characters who explode stereotypes and have complex back stories.
  2. Make culture matter. Show the character living with the values and realities of his/her culture, and let the plot be complicated by these realities.
  3. Do homework beyond TV shows. If your knowledge of any group comes from movies and TV alone, educate yourself by reading books about and by folks in the group you are researching, and build relationships with those folks organically. It’s okay to say, “I’m a writer,” and ask specific questions, but it’s no one’s job to explain everything to you.
  4. Invite sensitivity readers to read your work.
  5. BUT be careful not to assume that your friend of color/gay friend/etc. will read your entire novel.
  6. Create round characters that don’t come across as tokens.
  7. Be aware of your own privilege in whatever form. Read Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack.

Discouraged? Don’t be! I told this heartening story at the panel event: I had been visiting Monticello in Virginia with a group of college teachers as part of a program created by the Community College Humanities Association. We’d spent weeks reading deeply about Thomas Jefferson, including a book about the women in his life, especially Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had six children.

I read Annette Gordon Reed’s book as part of my fellowship studies. I recommend it!

In our last session, held in the hotel’s breakfast room, I sat rereading a poem. I had written it the night before, and I knew it needed more revision. I would be reading it to my colleagues momentarily, and the thing I was most nervous about was that the poem was written in the voice of Sally Hemings. I had dared to imagine myself as an enslaved mixed-race woman who had borne her first child (Jefferson’s) while still a teenager.

How could I possibly “get it right”? And how could I presume to have any idea what her life was like? Intensive study was one thing, but taking on her voice was another. Fortunately, a man sat down next to me, a man whom I had not seen before. I spoke to him easily, though we hadn’t introduced ourselves. Soon I confided my poetry doubts to him. His response was to laugh merrily and shake his head. “You go right on and write her voice,” he said. “You’ve been a teenager, you’ve been a mom. She’s a human being; you’re a human being. Go right on and write. I give you my permission!”

He was a black man, and I figured that he could, indeed, give me a kind of permission, and I’d feel a little better. But when our session began and he was formally introduced, I nearly fell out of my chair. He was a descendant of Sally Hemings herself. His generosity and encouragement led me to write several more poems in Ms. Hemings’s voice. It’s my hope that I am doing her justice and honoring the trust that her descendant put in me.

wrapped book
The Other Half of Happy features a half-Latina, half-Anglo tween

I’m also writing in my own voice–a bi-cultural twelve-year-old stars in my first novel, The Other Half of Happy, due out in fall 2019 from Chronicle Books. The book also includes a gay character, a black character, and a character with autism. I based these on real people, but I still needed my agent to point out that I had used “chocolate” to describe skin tone, which can be offensive — chocolate is a slave trade product, for one thing! Doh! And yet . . .

By celebrating both our shared humanity and our beautiful variety, we can write sensitively-created characters outside our identities. In fact, to depict the real world, in all its multiplicity, we must.


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Latina Heritage

When she said, “You people . . .”

Image Credit:

The truth is that I benefit from a great amount of privilege. As a lightly tanned Latina without a Spanish accent, I admit that I’m not followed or called names for being brown. I pass for white a lot.

At least I thought I did.

Me and my first son
My son and I in the 90’s; I’m his mom, not his nanny, folks.

Before I was hired in the 1990’s at a daycare center, the room of 0- to 7-month-olds was “the crying room.” Such a room could easily become that, but I had a simple philosophy: babies cry to express a need, and they learn that love exists by having a grown-up fill that need. “If they cry, pick them up.” I had a child of my own, and this had worked well (luckily, no colic). When it came to six, seven, or eight infants, I didn’t know if I would be able to keep them all happy, but I would try my hardest.

I learned to change a diaper at light speed and prepare a bottle in seconds. With some luck, some swings, a couple of play-gyms, and the ability to hold two babies and rock a third in a bouncy chair with my foot, I pulled it off. If a few napped simultaneously, the only sound anyone heard from that room was me talking to my little charges and singing songs, or their gurgley laughs — the ones that make babies irresistible. Well, maybe it wasn’t as perfect as all that, but that was my goal every day.

One day, my manager complimented me. She’d noticed the change. The 0 to 7’s room wasn’t the crying room anymore. I waited for her to credit my bottle and nap rotation or my repertoire of nursery tunes. Instead she said, “I knew this would happen when I hired you. You people are so good with children.”

My breath stalled. I hadn’t heard “You people” directed at me before. The fact that this was a compliment gave my brain internal whiplash. My success was being attributed to my ethnicity, which was offensive, but I heard myself saying, “Thank you.”

Actress Lupe Ontiveros played a housekeeper 150 times

I’d taken a sociology course, so I knew the term benevolent stereotyping. The examples in the textbook included assumptions like, “All black folks are good athletes” and “All people of Asian descent are good students.” I’d also heard my in-laws make comments intended to be complimentary, such as, “The Hispanics have good family values.” I felt no ill intent on their part, but that little “The” belied distance, created a “them” feeling that left me queasy.

In both instances, I could have confronted the speakers, even in a friendly way. But I didn’t. The main reason was time. I was caught off-guard and couldn’t regroup fast enough to interject. My head was spinning with the oddity of being “othered.” The experience was so rare that I didn’t have a ready response, hadn’t practiced it, hadn’t expected it.

This “oddity of being othered” is itself, I realize, highly privileged. I don’t mean to compare my experiences with the daily racism that so many endure. I do mean to confess that I thought the world was fairer than it is. I thought my Latin-ness went uncommented upon because people saw past stereotypes.

In fact, I don’t know what people think when they see me. Nor do I know what they think of my other identities: female, divorced, vegetarian, meditator, parent who home-schooled, person who once put birthday candles back on the shelf because she had to wait until pay day to afford them  . . . I can think of ways I might be judged harshly in any of those lights. I can’t know how often wrong assumptions are made about me.

intersectionality diagram

I do know that people can learn tolerance, even appreciation. I myself am learning it every semester at the community college where I teach. My transgender students are patient with me when I flub a “he” or “she.” My low-income students have tutored me in how many forms, how much standing in line, how early they submit the FAFSA to receive financial aid. My students of color are generous, offering their perspectives on literature or current events to enrich class discussion. My parent-students remind me how many tumblers have to align for them to get to class (the babysitter’s car has to run!).

Through these experiences, I hope to keep growing and to keep creating safe spaces for my students to grow as well. I guess I’ve kept my new mother philosophy: Meet each other’s need for respect and compassion. And when we cry, let’s pick each other up.

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