Book Review: The Meaning of Consuelo

meaning of consueloThe Meaning of Consuelo
Written by Judith Ortiz Cofer
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux  2003
ISBN: 9780807083871

Age Level: Young Adult Fiction

Book Summary:

The Signe family is blessed with two daughters. Consuelo, the elder, is thought of as pensive and book-loving, the serious child-la niña seria-while Mili, her younger sister, is seen as vivacious, a ray of tropical sunshine. Two daughters: one dark, one light; one to offer comfort and consolation, the other to charm and delight. But, for all the joy both girls should bring, something is not right in this Puerto Rican family; a tragedia is developing, like a tumor, at its core.

In this fierce, funny, and sometimes startling novel, we follow a young woman’s quest to negotiate her own terms of survival within the confines of her culture and her family.

My Thoughts:

In reflecting on The Meaning of Consuelo, Julia Alvarez expresses what one finds at the heart of the book that makes it both beautiful and sad at the same time: “A bittersweet tale of the price one pays to re-invent the story handed down by one’s antepasados and familia. Consuelo is both herself and every mujer, and her story her own and that of her island, torn between self-discovery and safety.”

It’s not a light read. How could it be? From the very first chapter, we realize that what follows is the unfolding of la tragedia that would forever change Consuelo and her family. The novel tackles a number of difficult themes such as mental illness, sexuality, gender, rejection, poverty, independence, tradition, and progress. Like many other books we’ve featured, this is a coming-of-age story. Our protagonist, Consuelo, struggles for the right to define herself at the same time that she grapples with the mental illness of her sister, society’s rejection of her gay cousin, and the growing tensions between the traditional Puerto Rican culture of gente decente and the increasing influence of progressive America.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that Consuelo’s family is a dysfunctional one. Her family fails to successfully handle the homosexuality of her cousin Patricio, or the mental illness of her sister Mili. The family appears unable to accept either situation, as these are not issues of gente decente. In different ways, the family loses both Patricio and Mili as a result of the decisions they make. This isn’t to say that the family is ‘all bad.’ We all know that families are complex, and they come with both the good and the bad. Tempered by the expectations of what it means to be a mujer decente, Mami’s family is one with a history of strong women. Surprisingly, it is Mami’s mother, Abuela, who is the most explicit in her support of progress toward gender equality. While she may cling to the traditions of past generations of women, she does embrace the technological progress that made life easier for women: “She then vowed to invest in every product that allowed her the luxury she had never had as a wife and mother—time for herself” (p. 26). To a certain degree, it’s painful to watch Consuelo’s relationship with her parents unfold as she ages.   To her parents, Consuelo is the strong, dependable, serious child who needs little parenting or attention, and as a result, little love. She is certainly strong, but it is troubling to watch as she struggles through her teenage years not only alone, but also responsible for her mentally ill younger sister. As many of our students may also have to deal with equally complex family dynamics or feelings of isolation, the novel creates the space to connect those experiences to classroom learning and discussion.

There’s something difficult about watching Consuelo come-of-age on her own, with little support from her parents, but there’s also something empowering in seeing Consuelo decide for herself how she will be defined. The idea of being the outsider, el fulano or la fulana, is an important one in the story. At the beginning of the novel it’s used as a means to separate the gente decente from others; it’s a way to enforce the economic and social stratification of society. Both Consuelo and the reader are introduced to the complicated notion of the outsider through the neighborhood transvestite. He’s good enough to come through the backdoors to do manicures, but must be completely ignored if seen out in public. But by the end of the novel, something changes, at least for Consuelo. She’s realized that there is a certain power in embracing the idea of la fulana. Shunned for the choices she makes with her boyfriend, Consuelo accepts the role of la fulana, and is empowered in doing so. By refusing to play the role of the shamed fulana, Consuelo’s peers find they have little power over her. Other reviews have called Consuelo “gritty and brave.” I agree. Here is a protagonist that suffers through experiences that many of our students may be all too familiar with. She survives, and on her own terms. She chooses how she will define herself, not limiting herself to the traditions of her family or her society. This is the takeaway, the real lesson we want all of our students to master.

Our complete educator’s guide is available here.

If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:

If you’re interested in hearing what the author herself has to say about her work, check out the following online interview:

 

¡Mira, Look!: Featured Author: Judith Ortiz Cofer

JudithHey there readers, this week I am honored to introduce Judith Ortiz Cofer, the author of our last featured YA book for this academic year, The Meaning of Consuelo. Ortiz Cofer was born in Hormingueros, Puerto Rico, where she spent her formative years until her father’s job in the Navy had them move to Paterson, New Jersey. Ortiz Cofer, though, returned repeatedly to the island, often staying for months at a time with her grandmother. Her passion for story telling was inspired by the many stories she heard from her grandmother during these visits.

In her writing, she deals with issues that have been themes in her own life, such as having experienced the opposing world views of her parents who disagreed about living on the island. While her mother wanted to maintain strong ties to her tradition and heritage, her father wished to disassociate himself and his children from the stigmas and lack of opportunity of being from the island. In an interview done by the Annenburg Foundation, she states, “I now know that it was my heritage; this is my material, this is what I can write about because I have intimate knowledge of it. So in a lot of my books, beginning with my early poetry and then on to my novels…my theme is: When you are always between cultures and between languages, how do you negotiate the world? And I think that is a very contemporary theme because America is constantly being populated and repopulated by new immigrants, and that is what makes this country unique.” This theme is evident throughout our featured novel, The Meaning of Consuelo, in particular.

Her books are relevant to multiple audiences, from those in high school all the way through adulthood. With writing that is at once personal and political, Ortiz Cofer deals with issues that pertain to Latin@s throughout the United States, including family networks, language maintenance, and identity formation.

Ortiz Cofer holds a B.A. in English from Augusta College and an M.A. in English Literature from Florida Atlantic University. After 26 years as an English professor, she retired from the University of Georgia in December 2013. We can imagine that her students must have been inspired to have her as teacher, for Ortiz Cofer’s writing is as flexible as it is creative. She shifts with apparent ease between writing poetry, essays, novels, short stories and creative non-fiction – all of which have garnered her critical acclaim. As evidence of her success, in 2010 Ortiz Cofer was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She has received grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation and the George Council for the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Florida Fine Arts Council.

This month’s featured book, The Meaning of Consuelo, was no exception to this rule. The novel was awarded the 2003 Américas Award, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and was also included on the New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age 2004 List.”

To learn more about Ortiz Cofer and her work, check out some of the following resources:

¡Mira, Look!: Pumpkinheads

Phead Lets be friendsHey there readers! This is a special review of a series of books sent to us for consideration. The series, titled Pumpkinheads, is a collection of books for toddlers and preschool-age children. Here is a description from the author Karen Kilpatrick:

“As the mother of three multi-racial children, I felt it was important to develop books that help kids learn from and interact with others, while encouraging acceptance of self and the celebration of their unique strengths and talents. Children learn about themselves, the world and others through storytelling and play, and these new books invite them to explore important social and emotional themes appropriate to their age in a fun way.”

Ella ShareThe Pumpkinheads series involves protagonists who represent a mix of racial backgrounds and ethnicities. The characters appear woven throughout the series and each one seems to have his or her own distinct personality. The stories help children build awareness and acceptance of their feelings by portraying the often turbulent emotions that children often experience at this young age. Sad LuluMany children will connect with the relatable stories of the characters who struggle with being sad, shy, lonely, possessive over their things, being excluded from a group, and feeling/looking different from others. Simultaneously, the books also deliver positive messages including the importance of sharing, listening, appreciating the natural world, incorporating everyone into playtime and, perhaps most importantly, learning to love yourself just the way you are. In a message from the Pumpkinheads, the reader is told “Beauty comes from within, from a warm and loving heart. But you should love your outside too, and here’s a place to start: Look in the mirror like Danza did-you know what to do! Take your time, gaze for a while, and enjoy that wonderful you!”Phead Love Me

These stories were meant to be read out loud. The text of the books is perfect for its preschool- aged audience in that it includes alliteration, rhyming, repetition, and exclamatory onomatopoeia — writing techniques that capture the reader’s attention and make the experience of reading more fun and enjoyable. This lighthearted approach is mirrored throughout the series, which as a whole emphasizes learning through play.

PheadBang bangMost of the books end with a spread about “The Pumpkinheads Answer,” in which each character answers a question such as, “How do you make new friends?” ”What is your favorite instrument?” “What do you like about you?” and “What do you practice?” The repeated presentation of Pheads Answercharacters in this form highlights their individuality and can lead readers to become invested in their favorite characters. I recommend this series mostly because of its success at presenting characters and situations that are so relatable to children.

I found the books to be a great tool for teaching about emotions and delivering positive messages. One of the best things about a series is that the stories and protagonists endure and evolve. Children can become attached to this series’ particular characters and literary style, leading them to be eager and excited to read more. Here are some lesson plans including common core standards to go along with some of the books:

To learn more about the Pumpkinheads series check out the website.

Book Review: Serafina’s Promise

It’s been a wonderful, but incredibly busy semester around the LAII! I’m a little behind in getting out our monthly book reviews, but I finally have some time to get caught up! Here’s my review of April’s featured novel.

Serafina’s Promise
Written by Ann E. Burg
Published by Scholastic Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780545535649
Age Level: 10 and up

Book Summary:

Serafina has
a secret dream.
She wants to go to school
and become a doctor
with her best friend, Julie Marie.
But in their rural village outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti,
many obstacles
stand in Serafina’s way–
little money,
never-ending chores,
and Manman’s worries.
More powerful even
than all of these
are the heavy rains
and the shaking earth
that test
Serafina’s resolve
in ways she never dreamed.
At once heartbreaking and hopeful,
this exquisitely
crafted story
will leave a lasting impression
on your heart.

My Thoughts:

Burg’s novel-in-verse is perfect for younger students. As we’ve said with almost every novel-in-verse we’ve read for Vamos a Leer, this is a great format for developing, struggling, or hesitant readers. All of the white space on each page keeps readers from being overwhelmed. The dialogue is simple which minimizes any frustration for a reader trying to track who is talking. But it’s not just the genre that makes is a good choice for younger students. Haiti’s history is both traumatic and violent, some of which continues to manifest in the present. For those of you familiar with other young adult novels like Krik? Krak! and In Darkness, Serafina’s Promise may seem like a fairy tale version of life in Haiti. While Burg alludes to the traumatic history, it’s not nearly as explicit as in some of the other above-mentioned young adult novels. While this can certainly be a critique of the book, I also think that this is one of the reasons it can be useful in the classroom. Novels like In Darkness and Krik? Krak! are excellent resources for both the teaching of quality writing and realistic portrayals of life in Haiti. But we can’t use these books with our elementary school students. For most of these students, even if the reading level isn’t too advanced or the books are used as read alouds, the themes aren’t appropriate. Burg provides a novel about Haiti that we can use with younger students. She allows us to introduce these students to Haiti so that they can learn about a country rarely mentioned in our classrooms and begin to think about what life might be like there.

One of the more powerful pieces of the novel is in the experience the reader can have in comparing his or her life with that of Serafina. Serafina’s circumstances are so different from what many of our students are familiar with in the U.S. Things that many of us take for granted in our daily lives in the U.S., are not remotely available to Serafina, her family, or her neighbors. While our education system in the U.S. is anything but perfect, schooling is available for everyone. It’s important for our students to realize that education is not a guarantee in other countries. In Haiti the cost of an education is something that many cannot afford. Students need to reflect on what the ramifications are when a country doesn’t provide education for its entire population. What does it mean if many are left illiterate? How does the lack of an education affect the quality of one’s life? Would our students work as hard as Serafina does in order for the chance to go to school? While Serafina’s childhood will be difficult, if not impossible, for many of our students to truly grasp, it’s important that they try. They need to imagine a life without TVs, video games, cell phones, electricity, or even running water.

A more universal theme in the novel may be the family dynamics and relationships. While Serafina is close to both her father and her grandmother, she struggles to connect with her mother.   Relationships, especially those with family members, can be complex. As Serafina realizes, some of her inability to understand her mother is related to her mother’s fearfulness and anxiety that comes from her own traumatic childhood experiences. A discussion around the nature of the family’s relationships in the novel can provide the space for students to think about and possibly share connections that they see to their own lives. I also really appreciated the way Burg wove in explicit discussions of emotions. As I’ve talked about before, emotions are something that we discuss far too little in our classrooms, especially when we consider how much they influence the ways in which we process our experiences. Serafina experiences a wide range of emotions. Burg addresses not only the positive ones such as happiness, joy, and hopefulness, but also the ones we are less likely to address in classroom discussions such as anger, frustration, and jealousy. I found her use of “angry bees” to be a potentially powerful way to model for students one way to process emotions through creating a metaphor to describe the way their emotions make them feel.

While Burg may not explicitly address the more violent aspects of historical and contemporary life in Haiti, she does allude to these things, which provides the teacher the opportunity to delve deeper. Serafina’s struggle to understand why they learn French instead of Creole in school is one example of this. Serafina knows that the French conquered Haiti, and she questions why they continue to learn in the language of their conquerors instead of Creole, the language the majority of people speak. This creates a way to open up a discussion about conquest and colonization and the contemporary ways in which people continue to be colonized.

While it may not be as realistic as other young adult novels set in Haiti, it’s still a novel I’d recommend for the classroom. Not only does it provide an age appropriate introduction to Haiti, but it does this through a strong protagonist who is a female of color, something that is sadly still lacking in much of our classroom literature. In the end, Serafina’s Promise is a message of hope in contrast to the harsh reality of life in Haiti.

Our complete educator’s guide is available here.

If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:

If you’re interested in learning more about the author, check out her website.

If you’re interested in hearing what the author herself has to say about the book, check out the following guest post:

Lastly, here’s a video to accompany the novel:

¡Mira, Look! Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day; Celebremos El día de los niños/El día de los libros

Book FiestaGreetings, readers! I am honored to have had the chance to present such great books this month pertaining to themes such as poetry and Earth Day. This week I have another wonderful one. At the end of April, there falls a special holiday that is perfectly addressed in this week’s book: Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day; Celebremos El día de los niños/El día de los libros written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Rafael López.

Here is a description from Goodreads:

Take a ride in a long submarine or fly away in a hot air balloon. Whatever you do, just be sure to bring your favorite book! Rafael López’s colorful illustrations perfectly complement Pat Mora’s lilting text in this delightful celebration of El día de los niños/El día de los libros; Children’s Day/Book Day. Toon! Toon!

Book Fiesta LibraryBorrowing from the traditional Mexican holiday “El día de los niños” (Children’s Day/Book Day), El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros also known as “Día,” is a celebration that emphasizes the importance of literacy for children of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In April, book fiestas are held in libraries, schools, homes, parks, and wherever reading can be found. Though events celebrating Día generally take place around April 30, the joy of reading is really meant to be celebrated daily. The celebration therefore involves not only an annual event, but also a year-long commitment to linking children and their families to books. Founder Pat Mora states that “Día creatively celebrates all our children, the importance of bookjoy in their daily lives, and promotes culminating April Children’s Day, Book Day celebrations that unite communities.”

Book Fiesta SubmarineBook Fiesta AirWhen Mora created the holiday, she also created this beautiful book to accompany and feature it. Boldly and vibrantly illustrated, the story takes us through scenes depicting a diversity of happy children celebrating the day by reading their favorite books. We see children reading in cars, on planes, and in trains; at the library; with their parents on a boat; and at home in their a yard. We also see more imaginative settings such as reading while riding an elephant; sailing with a whale; submerged in a submarine; and elevated on a hot air balloon. Children will be able to relate to the scenes with which they are most familiar, and also to expand their imaginations with the more incredible ones.

Book Fiesta LanguagesMora emphasizes reading across geographies and languages. Not only is the book written in English and Spanish, but it also highlights other languages: “We read in English and Spanish in Chinese and Navajo too.” The book opens a window for students who enjoy reading to be exhilarated that there is a holiday dedicated to the practice, and it will invite more reluctant readers into seeing and feeling bookjoy.

The end of the book includes a letter from the author and suggestions for celebrating Children’s Day/Book Day; El día de los ninos/El día de los libros. For even more ideas, check out the following resources:

  • Another resource by Pat Mora, a Dia planning booklet titled: Children’s Days, Book Days: Planning for a Día Year.
  • A toolkit of resources for teaching about Día by Texas Library Association
  • Here is a video from Colorín Colorado wherein Pat Mora describes “The Story Behind Book Fiesta.”

Día has also been successfully promoted as “Diversity in Action.” Check out this webpage for more information and free program resources including booklists, planning tools, coloring and activity sheets and more. We encourage all our readers to celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day; El día de los ninos/El día de los libros this week, this month, this year — and every day!!!


Images: Modified from Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day; Celebremos El día de los niños/El día de los libros. Illustrator: Rafael López.

WWW: The First Female Hip Hop Artist from Oaxaca, Mare Advertencia Lirika

mare5bContinuing along with our theme of the merger between women’s rights and poetry in Latin America, we have an amazing video resource to share today.  Unlike past examples, however, today’s post will focus on a present day, female, indigenous hip hop artist from southern Mexico and an amazing video that comes with English subtitles so the entire class can appreciate the poetic lyricism of her call for human rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, and a greater social consciousness.  Her name is Mare Advertencia Lirika, and today we will be watching the video for her song entitled “And What Are Your Waiting For?” (Y Tu Que Esperas?).  In this song, Mare combines the metrics of rap lyrics with elements of social resistance that have been present in her community for quite some time.  At 1:45 of the video, Mare says:  “We have been denied our own history/ Our words have been taken by other mouths” (1:45).

Mare Advertencia Lirika, was born in Oaxaca, Mexico in January of 1987.  She is Zapoteca, which is the predominating indigenous group in the Oaxaca valley, along with the Mixtecs.  The Zapotecos and Mixtecos of Oaxaca have had a long and storied history of resisting colonial, state and international powers.  Because Oaxaca has traditionally been and still is one of the poorer states in Mexico, its long tradition of nationally and internationally renowned artists, educators and politicians may seem somewhat antithetical.  However, no one in Mexico would deny the cultural significance of the state of Oaxaca in terms of its production of Mexican national identity and social awareness.  Mare began rapping when she was sixteen and was the first and only female rapper in the state of Oaxaca.  She has released several albums and has been involved in several documentaries as well.

Cuando Una Mujer Avanza or “When a Woman Steps Forward” is one documentary film of a series produced by Manuvuelto, a community based media production whose efforts emphasize that of immigrant and indigenous communities. The documentary focuses on “Mare” a young, indigenous, hip-hop artist from Oaxaca, Mexico. Throughout the documentary, Mare revisits her life as a native Zapotec woman and uses her unique experiences to share with others her perspective and insight on music, community, identity and gender. It is a portrait of her life, and by implication, it tells the story of many women in Oaxaca constricted by institutionalized sexism but discovering empowerment through hip-hop’s global market for social justice. Mare embrace’s the world of hip hop and through her lyrics tries to empower and open the minds of people to strive for social justice.

In 2012, after the completion of the film, she and its activist filmmaker, Simon Sedillo, toured the United States to promote the film.

Mare has many more music videos online, however I chose the one I did because of the English subtitles, which offers an amazing opportunity for in class, close up analysis of the lyrics.  However, if there is more time or interest in watching a longer video, the link to “When a Woman Steps Forward” provides an amazing look at the documentary.

Enjoy and have a wonderful weekend!

¡Mira, Look!: Call Me Tree/Llámame árbol

Call Me TreeSaludos, readers! In light of Earth Day (April 22) and National Poetry Month I am delighted to present to you a very special book that perfectly celebrates a child’s relationship to nature through bilingual poetry. Call Me Tree/Llámame árbol, written and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez, is a beautiful book that manages the unique achievement of being gender neutral.

Here is a description from Goodreads:

In this spare, lyrically written story, we join a child on a journey of self-discovery. Finding a way to grow from the inside out, just like a tree, the child develops as an individual comfortable in the natural world and in relationships with others. The child begins “Within/ The deep dark earth,” like a seed, ready to grow and then dreaCall me Tree earthm and reach out to the world. Soon the child discovers birds and the sky and other children: Trees and trees/ Just like me! Each is different too. The child embraces them all because All trees have roots/ All trees belong. Maya Christina Gonzalez once again combines her talents as an artist and a storyteller to craft a gentle, empowering story about belonging, connecting with nature, and becoming your fullest self. Young readers will be inspired to dream and reach, reach and dream . . . and to be as free and unique as trees.

Tree DreamingAs you might surmise from the Goodreads summary, this book is about a child who embodies nature by becoming a tree. The poetry carries the reader through the child’s imagination, from growing into a tree to the discovery of other diverse children-trees, and includes a metaphorical message that suggests all trees, like all people, belong in the world.

The book has received a lot of attention for its non-gender specific protagonist. This was a very deliberate decision made by the author. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Gonzales stated “By being gender free, Call Me Tree provides for some a much needed break from the constant boy-girl assumptions and requirements. It can also provide a moment to pause and consider those assumptions, requirements and their impact.”

Tree FreeShe went on to describe how a strict gender binary in our society can have devastating effects on children who are developing their identity. “Gender nonconformity is one of the leading causes of bullying and can have long lasting, even tragic consequences. By beginning early and sharing age appropriate books that help kids see through gender assumptions, gender creative kids can relax and trust that they are perfectly natural and valuable.” Having a non-gender specific protagonist opens up the possibility that it’s ok not to know the gender of a child, and thus the book creates a safe space where people can be themselves and still fit in no matter what.

Apart from the progressive gender-neutral message, what I found to be most valuable about the book is that it can allow students to feel a simultaneous connection to nature and their community. This will hopefully lead readers to feel inspired to embrace their own individuality, while seeing commonalities between themselves and others at the same time.

Trees MayaI view the book as a good tool for multicultural teaching not simply for its bilingual format but because it supports positive lessons related to acceptance, equality, and diversity. That the text is in poetry form lends to the celebration of nature in a beautiful way, and allows it to be used in classroom activities that relate to poetry.

Here are some resources to assist in teaching with this book:

  • A note to readers in which the author explains why she chose to use a gender-neutral character, shares tips for when and how to use the book in an educational setting, and provides extra resources for teaching about gender.
  • An educator’s guide from Lee & Low Books that includes a book summary, background, focus questions, vocabulary, discussion questions, reader-response and other writing prompts, English Language Learner support, and interdisciplinary activities.

Images: Reprinted from Lee and Low Books and author/illustrator Maya Gonzales’ blog.