To be clear, I am talking about Selena Quintanilla Perez, the Tejano singer from Corpus Christi, TX. I grew up listening to Selena in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Missing My Baby was as mainstream in my world as Miss You Much. Como La Flor and Bidi Bidi Bom Bom pumped out of my boombox as much as Forever Your Girl and Vogue. My BFF and I imitated Slenas's dance moves as much as we imitated those of Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul or Madonna.

Selena was fatally shot by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her fan club on March 31, 1995. Every Texas Mexican knows where they were when they heard Selena was shot.

 

I was a freshman at University of Texas—Pan American in Edinburg. As I was sitting at the tutoring center studying for a Biology exam, one of the students who worked in the office ran into the study room and breathlessly told us the news. The Tejano station to which she was listening announced that Selena had been shot and killed. The rumor initially was that Selena had been killed by Pedro Astudillo’s wife. Pedro was part of Los Dinos, Selena’s band. We were all glued to the radio (see picture below if you are unfamiliar with this archaic machine) as the station doled out pieces of information. Before I left for class, the truth was revealed as the police reported that Saldivar had been the murderer.

I cried. I was heart broken. I never saw her perform live. My mother was working at Dillard’s in McAllen at that time, and her boss, Martin Gomez, had been a close friend of Selena’s. He had left Selena’s boutique, where he was her fashion designer, in Corpus because Saldivar created a toxic environment for everyone whom she perceived as a competitor for Selena’s attention.

Two years after her death, the movie Selena was released. I went to go watch it with my then boyfriend (now husband) and my parents. Even my very macho Mexican dad bawled his eyes out at the end. How can you not? Selena was a gorgeous, incredibly kind, successful, inspiring young woman who was planning on crossing over English-speaking audiences, and starting a family with her husband, Chris Perez. In addition to the loss her death brought to her family, friends, and Tejano fans, it also led to a loss for English-speaking American audiences who would not know the full extent of her talent, beauty, and grace.

Now, twenty years later, I still cannot talk about Selena without a huge lump forming in my throat. In honor of the twentieth anniversary of her death, I wanted to pay tribute to Selena by listing three important lessons I learned from her and the way she carried herself professionally.

1)    You can be sexy without losing your dignity, innocence, or self-worth. Selena dressed in revealing, tight clothing. Selena hand stitched sparkly beads on her bustiers. She exuded sex-appeal with her curves and flirty smile. In a world where we are still shaming women for expressing their sexuality, despite sending the mixed message that female pop stars are most successful when they sexualize their image to sell music, Selena broke those barriers and double standards light years ahead of her time. She wore sexy clothing without compromising her values and self-respect. She never came across as cheap or vulgar. She was a talented singer, dancer, and entertainer. The lyrics to her songs were clean, honest, sometimes funny, poetic, and empowering. I could watch her dance routines  alongside my parents and not feel embarrassed. Heck, I often danced like her (or tried very hard!) at family parties. She taught us sexy was a good thing!

Selena was body positive before “body positive” became a thing or buzzword. Selena knew she was beautiful, a beauty accentuated by her kindness and charm, and she was not afraid to show it. She was not afraid to wear sexy clothing, not just because she looked amazing in those outfits, but because she was confident and empowered as a young woman. With her dark hair, dark skin, and curves years before JLo or Sophia Vergara were a blip in the radar, Selena taught us that we did not need to look the prototypical American cover girl to be beautiful or sexy. She empowered Latinas everywhere to be love their bodies, no matter what shape and size.

 

2)    You can be a successful Latina without turning your back on your roots. Selena grew up in working class neighborhoods in Lake Jackson and Corpus Christi. There were times her family was even poor and struggled financially. When she became a Tejano star, and her boutique Selena Inc was thriving, I have read estimates that Selena’s estate was worth over five million dollars. Her Tejano albums broke record sales for the genre. She won a Grammy and many awards for her music. Despite the accolades and financial success, Selena never changed. This is something you hear from her family and friends. My mother’s co-workers who had known her very well confirmed that her kindness and generosity were not an act. She was the real deal. Even as her career was skyrocketing and she was on her way to cross over to the mainstream English-speaking audience, she never turned her back on her Latino fans.

3)    Families stick together. Selena’s father, Abraham, was her manager. Her sister Suzette played the drums for Los Dinos, the "back-up" band. Her brother, AB, played bass guitar and wrote most of the songs on her records. Her mother travelled with the band and helped Selena design her clothing. 

Unlike the parents of young stars who are too afraid to discipline their kids or turn down offers for fear of losing their meal ticket, Abraham did not compromise the Quintanilla beliefs and values. He turned down sponsorships from beer commercials. He made sure AB kept the lyrics of Selena’s songs clean and family-friendly.

This is not to say that life was always perfect. Selena was an independent young woman who did not always agree with her manager/father. Abraham was never happy with her choice of fashions for the stage, but she did not give in to his demands for her to stop wearing sexy clothing. She did not feel she was doing anything wrong (she wasn’t!), and she looked freaking awesome. Nevertheless, she never turned her back on her family, despite the disagreements. In 1992, she secretly married the lead guitarist of Los Dinos, Chris Perez. This was the biggest “scandal” to hit the family, but it was diffused when Abraham finally accepted Chris when he realized they loved each other very much. Her family toured together, worked together, played together, and even fought together. The Quintanilla family stuck together through the “scandal” with Selena’s secret marriage and Abraham’s over-protective attitude about her clothing. There were no lawsuits in this family!  

I was in tears while writing this post. I never met Selena and never got to see her perform live. I wish I had. I will pay tribute to her in my writing. My current work in progress features an homage to La Reina Selena. As a young woman, I needed to learn the lessons she taught us Latinas. Young girls need a Selena in their life to look up to.

What is your favorite Selena memory? Let me know in the comments. 

 

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Earlier today I came upon this well-written article on the myths of undocumented immigrants in the NYT (of all places!). Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) is a topic very close to my heart for many reasons that I will not go into here. I normally would have read this article, agreed with it, and moved on, but this time I felt compelled to share and comment on it. The reason is that the day before I read Adam Davidson's article, I finished reading The Secret Side of Empty by Maria Andreu. 

The cover for The Secret Side of Empty by Maria Andreu

The cover for The Secret Side of Empty by Maria Andreu

This book is a gorgeous YA novel about Monserrat Thalia (aka MT, sounds like "Empty", get it?), a young seemingly all-American high school senior who has a secret. She and her family are from Argentina and are undocumented immigrants. They are illegals. Mojados is the term I grew up hearing. We derogatorily refer to the Mexicans and other Latinos who cross the Rio Grande to get to this country as mojados or wet-backs, but the people who crossed a whole ocean to get here from Europe are considered the backbone that makes America great. No double-standard there!

I will go on record by stating that clearly I have a very liberal political view on immigration. I also agree  with Davidson's article. I don't want to start a whole debate about CIR. All I want to do is conduct a very simple, quasi-social, literary experiment. It is a very biased, self-selecting, non-blind, non-placebo-controlled experiment, so forgive me if you are science-y. 

First, ask yourself where you stand on CIR. Are you for or against it? Are you a "the more the merrier" type of person or do you prefer the "stay away" perspective. 

Second, read The Secret Side of Empty. Find it at your local library or bookstore. Read it with an open mind. 

Third, ask yourself where you stand on CIR after reading the book. Are you for or against it? Are you a "the more the merrier" type of person or do you prefer the "stay away" perspective. 

Fourth, let me know if your perspective on CIR changed after reading Empty. No matter what your outcome, I would be very interested to hear what you thought. You can email me or use my contact page.

Fifth, and this is where it gets good, recommend a work of fiction for me to read that challenges my world view. If you know me from Twitter or IRL, you know that I am a first-generation Mexican-American feminist, a vegetarian, pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, and tend to lean quite to the left. I am a pro-vaccine pediatrician too. I love to read banned books. I challenge you to challenge me to read something that deviates from my value system. Challenge me to read something that makes me uncomfortable....as long as it is a work of fiction. If I get a reasonable response, I will post the collective response of the readers of Empty and the outcome of my challenging book reads on this blog.

Why am I curious about this? There is evidence to show that reading books about diverse experiences (and Harry Potter!) makes us more empathetic. I am curious if reading about a topic that people tend to have polarizing viewpoints has an impact on the reader's perspective. I know this is not a scientific survey at all, but I think it should be fun and interesting. I bet people are more moved by what they read in a work of fiction than a news article. 

I hope all of you choose to participate!

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
CategoriesReading/Books

Most of the time, I am very happy in the Book world. I am happy with an author I like gets a new book deal or sells the movie rights to their book. I am happy when an author I know is invited on a panel at a book conference. I am happy when authors I love get prestigious awards. I am happy when an author friend has an article posted in a national media outlet.

But there are a few things that happen in the bookish world that make me angry enough to bring out the "Valley" (as in Rio Grande, not southern California) in me, such as Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) verbally assaulting Jackie Woodson with a racist joke at the time she received the National Book Award or Jonathan Franzen insulting Jennifer Weiner's writing (and YA literature) though he has never read any of her books, and book banning

Recently, the stunning award-winning, middle-grade novel, Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, (along with One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia) has been challenged by parents in a public North Carolina school. This  news is a bit "old" as it happened last week, nevertheless I wanted to write about it because it is important, especially in light of the immigration issues affecting our country. I have not read Crazy Summer, though you can bet that it is now on my To Be Read list, so I will focus on Esperanza, particularly because this book is dear to my heart. Bustle wrote an article clarifying the details recently and you can also follow the details on the Stop Common Core website. Basically, the book was part of an enrichment activity for fourth graders, and  a newsletter was sent home to the parents explaining the activity and listing the books.


Esperanza Rising follows the titular main character as she is forced to flee from her privileged life as part of the land-owner class in Mexico to southern California during the Great Depression era to work in the agricultural fields. There, she faces racism, poverty, and loss, but also finds the true meaning of love, family, and standing up for what is right. As most middle grade books, the ending is uplifting and hopeful. 

These are the many reasons I am bothered by the parents challenging this book, beginning with the fact that the parents took their concerns to Civitas, a conservative organization that hosts the blog "Stop Common Core" instead of bringing up their concerns with the teachers or school administration. One of the first rule of conflict resolution I teach my children (and when I was working as an academic pediatric hospitalist, my residents, medical students, junior faculty), is that when you have a problem with someone, address it with them directly before involving a third party. That is Being a Grown-Up 101. The other irritating features of this case are:

1) The parents via Civitas claim that Esperanza Rising is not age-appropriate. The publisher, Scholastic, lists the book as appropriate for ages 8 and up. I read this book to my children about one year ago, when Tristan was 7 and Kara was 12. They both loved it. Kara and Tristan loved the book. After we read it, we also had great, age-appropriate discussions about racism, immigration, class in the United States, and courage in the face of adversity.

So let's be honest for a moment and call their claim a total lie. The parents are not concerned about whether or not the book is age-appropriate. They are concerned that their children will be exposed to ideas that (quoted from the Stop Common Core website) "do not reflect the values and standards the surrounding community." In other words, Esperanza does not jive with the idyllic life in Wake County and the parents are using the "age-appropriate" argument as a smokescreen. 

Apparently, the concerned parents of Wake County in North Carolina do not want their impressionable fourth graders (ages 9-10 for the most part), exposed to the "ethnic class struggles" and books that talk about the US deporting US citizens. Civitas, the conservative organization fighting the fight for the NC parents, has several blog posts on their website about the controversy. Reading through the posts, I feel like I am reading something out of the 1950s:

"Did you know 4th graders read US Citizens can be deported? Children also read negative views of wealthy people, negative views of immigration officials, pro union views, income inequality, broken families, and other mature immigration matters. These children are young and impressionable; they are being introduced to topics that I suspect many parents feel are inappropriate for this age group."

Heaven forbid that children learn that there is poverty and injustice in the United States. The "repatriation" that happened during the Great Depression was a fact and Mexican-American citizens and documented residents were sent "back" to Mexico simply because they looked Mexican. 

Based on the Civitas' website rhetoric, the concern is that they don't want fourth graders to be aware of the plight of Mexican immigrants and their terrible treatment before Cesar Chavez took on the fight on their behalf. The Wake County kids may actually start feeling empathy towards this marginalized group. We certainly cannot have that happen! 

I would totally sympathize with the NC parents if their concerns about the "age-appropriateness" of Esperanza Rising stemmed from content related to sexuality or graphic violence. But it is not. The parents just don't want their children to learn about social issues that are foreign to Wake County. They might learn something that expands their world view and that is a bad thing! I also think these parents and Civitas are underestimating fourth graders if they think children this age have never noticed that there are broken families and inequality in the world. Children are not stupid. Are we to believe that there are no single-parent homes in Wake County? Is everyone the exact same socio-economic class? Am I to believe none of these children have heard the news about Obama's immigration executive order last November and the subsequent decision of a Texas judge to block it? Immigration reform is a very important topic right now and Esperanza provides a great way for parents to begin dialogue with their kids about their views on the issue.

As a mother and a pediatrician and children's book writer, I think this age group is perfect to begin dialogues about injustice, cultural differences, and class inequality. If not, children will grow up with such a narrow world view that will be difficult to expand later on. 

Books like The Great Gilly Hopkins and Where the Red Fern Grows are in the same age category as Esperanza. I read these books in fifth grade growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. I read Red Fern to my kids when they were in kinder and fifth grade. Both books beautifully deal with the universality of loss, racism, broken families (Gilly), poverty, death (Fern), and class inequality. For my childhood self, white people growing up in the South or northern US were as foreign to me as Martians. I honestly believe reading books like this made me a more empathetic person. The fact Wake County parents want to rob their children of the experience of reading about a Mexican main character who is the hero in the story angers me. They claim the issues in the book are not age appropriate for fourth graders but I bet they would have no problem with Gilly or Red Fern.

2) Civitas is criticizing the school for not providing an "opt-out" choice in participating in the enrichment assignment. The demand for "opt-out" causes the hairs to raise in the back of my neck. First of all, by doing so, the school is unnecessarily putting parents on high alert about the content of a book. Furthermore, this also undermines the literary and historical importance of the book's content. In other words, before the kids read the book, the school is telling parents that they may feel uncomfortable with the topics, themes, or characters featured in the book. And guess which books are going to get the "opt-out" sticker? Books like Esperanza Rising, One Crazy Summer, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and other books about marginalized groups by authors who are members of a marginalized group. 

Would Civitas expect the school to send an "opt-out" form to parents when children at school read The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Book Thief, or Where the Red Fern Grows? For the record, these are some of my favorite books, but the fact is that book challenging tends to target authors of color. I completely agree that parents should know what their children are reading in and out of the classroom. I totally agree that providing a reading list to parents is appropriate. But to provide "opt-out", especially for only "certain" books, is a cultural disaster waiting to happen. 

To end my rant, I encourage all of you to read Esperanza Rising for yourself or with your children. Don't be afraid of the issues. Tristan was in first grade when we read the book together and his ears did not fall off. 

What do you think about the Wake County book controversy? Let me know in the comments!

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We are halfway through our year-long trip around the world with our two children in tow. We have had some wonderful times and some not so wonderful times. Over the holidays, I was feeling very sad and lonely. I missed my family and our loud, crazy, coffee-fueled, wine-filled Thanksgiving. I missed having lunch with my girl friends. Even though I am traveling with Chris and the kids, I missed interaction with other people. And sometimes we get on each other's nerves since we are together in very close proximity all day every day.

A few weeks ago I was really irritated with traveling and constantly looking for an appropriate place to stay that was within our budget and figuring out where to get groceries at each different town we visit. At the same time, I was dreading going back to "real life" because that means getting an actual job, and I haven't had one of those in almost two years, and I don't want to give up my nights and weekends and holidays with my kids. Then I put on my big girl panties and told myself I was fortunate to have a roof over my head every night and money to buy food to feed my family and a professional degree that would allow me to find a job without much difficulty. So Chris and I have both started the job search process, and we are trying not to let that get us out of the "nomadic" spirit. Here is a recap of the places we have been in the last few months:

The last RTW round-up I did was in October, and we were in Iguazu, Falls, Argentina. I loved Argentina. It was my favorite South American country, and I left there wanting to go back. While I loved Uruguay, Peru and Bolivia, I felt I had seen all I had set out to see there. In Argentina, there was so much we did not get to do, and we all want to go back to Bariloche, the chocolate capital of South America. This was one of my favorite stops! When Chris started his job search at international schools, I asked him to investigate if there were any available posts in Bariloche. I could totally see myself living in Argentina. 

 

When we were in Ushuaia, Argentina, we got really crazy and booked a last minute trip to Antarctica. The best way to see the frozen continent is to casually walk into a travel agency in Ushuaia and see if they have any empty cabins in the cruise ships leaving over the next few days. Chris and Kara loved Antarctica more than I did. Tristan and I loved it too, but we preferred to see it from the warmth of the ship lounge. We did manage to make a few landings, but they were short. We all got seasick crossing through the Drake Passage on the way to and on the way back. We actually handled it a bit better on the way back even though we sailed through a hurricane-strength storm for almost 48 hours.

Chile was a little disappointing after Argentina. We went to a small town called Pucon, where we visited some of the best hot springs ever. Nevertheless, the house we rented was freezing cold and had no heating and no wifi even though both of these were advertised. We learned to confirm amenities even though they are listed on Air BnB after this. Then we went to Valparaiso which I had been really excited about because I had just finished reading I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin and I loved the movie Il Postino (an Italian film about Pablo Neruda's postman while the poet is exiled in Italy). I felt let down because Valparaiso was a very dirty city, and it is difficult to navigate on foot. The people were very nice, but I had clearly romanticized the town and it did not live up to my impossible expectations. 

 

We spent a few days in Easter Island, which was a lovely experience. The downside was that Kara and I got a flu-like respiratory illness while we were here, but we still managed to have a nice time. The island is clean and breezy and the food is great though expensive even for Chile standards. Around this time is when my mood took a turn downward. After Easter Island, we went to the island of Moorea, French Polynesia. The weather was not cooperative in FP. We only had a couple days of sun. We spent the first half of our week in a house on the opposite end of the tourist area and the second half in a nice resort in an overwater bungalow (thank goodness for last minute deals again!). Well, we were bitten by mosquitos in the first house and Kara and I got dengue fever a few days after arriving. I highly recommend against getting dengue fever. We had headaches, agonizing bone pain, fever, fatigue, and weakness. We were bed-ridden for about two days. Kara was lagging about a day or so behind me, so she had to travel to New Zealand while ill. I am not usually a low-mood person, so I am wondering if the dengue fever precipitated the dark mood I experienced afterwards. Depression is listed as a symptom. That virus messes with your brain!

 

We spent three weeks in New Zealand. Kara and I were already on the mend though we were not feeling completely recovered. Chris was happy to be in an English-speaking country, and I was happy to be in Middle-Earth. We rented a car in New Zealand, and I highly recommend this as the way to travel down there. In South Island, we spent a few days in Queenstown, which we loved. We watched the third Hobbit movie down there, and we went to a place called the Fear Factory, which is a haunted house and really scary. We took a cruise through Milford Sound which was very beautiful and also went on a dolphin cruise when we were in Dunedin. While in the town of Greymouth, exactly two weeks after the dengue, I developed a rash, horrible joint-pain, abdominal pain, lip-swelling, and weakness. I of course started googling the crap out of my symptoms because I was terrified this had something to do with the dengue. After much self-diagnosing research, I think I had Henoch Schonlein Purpura (HSP), which is an immune-mediated reaction, usually to a virus. As a pediatrician, I have seen HSP many times before in children, so I was caught off-guard by my age. Whether it was HSP or not, it definitely was some kind of immune-complex mediated reaction to the dengue virus. So the dengue did rear its ugly head. 

 

The highlight of our trip to New Zealand was renting a house on four acres near Rotoroa. From there, we took a few day trips including one to the Hobbiton movie set. The kids had a blast at the Rotoroa house, especially since Tristan for once had room to run around. By the time we went to visit the Hobbiton movie set, my joints did not hurt as much and I was actually able to enjoy the experience. 

 

We left New Zealand and flew to Bangkok, Thailand, where we spent two weeks. We did some fun stuff like take the kids to KidZania and take cooking classes. We also got back into the swing of homeschooling which we did not do while we were in Tahiti and New Zealand. I started the job search process in Bangkok and was feeling really depressed about it. I desperately wanted to back "home" (USA), but I did not want to go back to work outside the home. My outlook changed while in Cambodia. 

After our two weeks in Thailand, we went to Siem Reap, Cambodia. This country has carved itself into a special niche in my heart. I was uplifted to see the strong entrepreneurial, self-less, and welcoming spirit of a people that just two generations ago were affected by one of the worst genocides in the history of humankind. The temples of Angkor were beautiful and an insight into the history of Cambodia. Our hosts in our home stay in Siem Reap and the young man that drove us around in his tuk tuk were kind, helpful, and patient with us. We also visited the War Museum and I left horrified yet humbled and inspired by what I saw and learned there.

 

We also spent a few days in Phnom Penh, where we rented an apartment from a Cambodian multi-lingual engineer. He and his wife also owned a restaurant in Phnom Penh which was delicious. The apartment was away from the tourist area. The first night, we went to a local hot pot restaurant around the corner from our apartment. At first, we did not know what it was. We just saw an assortment of meats (brains, squid, and other stuff) and vegetables on skewers at a table in front of the restaurant. With a lot of pointing, big hand movements, and speaking slowly, we finally figured out that you had to pick the meats/vegetables from the table, put them on a tray, take them to your table, and cook them in the hot pot. I think we provided entertainment for the locals. We did not know that you had to take the meats/vegetables off the skewers first. I think I ate a pork rind that I thought was a rice cake. Then we had a hard time taking the noodles out of the pot. Kara dropped some of the hot water on herself and dropped her bowl in the hot pot! A sweet old lady at the table next to ours came over and taught us how to do it after that.

When we told our landlord about our dining experience the next day, he gave us a look as if we were crazy and then politely said we should avoid eating at those restaurants because we could get sick. "They are not clean," he said. We did not get sick. In fact, we have not had any food-related illness this trip at all. We have had altitude sickness, flu, dengue, and bizarre immunological reactions, but no gastroenteritis! 

The highlight of our visit in Phnom Penh was the trip to the Killing Fields. What an emotional experience! The site is a memorial to the millions of victims of the genocides perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot's regime. Pol Pot and Hitler could have been drinking buddies. 

 

I was impressed by the number of restaurants and organizations developed in Cambodia to help the people. In Siem Reap, we ate at a restaurant called Manrum, which serves as a training restaurant for marginalized youth. Here, we learned about Child Safe, and its effort to keep children in Siem Reap safe from abuse and trafficking. In Phnom Penh, we ate at a restaurant called Daughters of Cambodia Sugar and Spice, which served as a training restaurant for women escaping the horrors of the sex industry.

My mood improved after our stay in Cambodia. I don't know if it was the after-effects of the dengue lifting or resetting my perspective after everything I saw in Cambodia. I am in a better place emotionally. I am enjoying the traveling for the incredible experience that it is. I am looking for a job with enthusiasm. I will make wiser choices about my work-life balance. I will continue writing stories. 

Right now, we are in Vietnam. After spending a few days in Saigon and the Mekong Delta, we rented a beautiful villa in foodie-paradise, Hoi An, for the bargain price of $50 per night! I enjoyed the slower pace of Hoi An after the bustle of Phnom Penh and Saigon. After Hoi An, we spent a few nights in Hue (at another wonderful homestay with a local family), and we are currently in Hanoi. 

You can follow our adventures at the Thomson Family Adventure Blog. We provide them with a weekly article about our round the world trip. 

I am writing as we travel and we are homeschooling the kids. If you have any questions about our trip or any suggestions for a round the world trip, let me know in the comments section!

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Posted
AuthorNoemi Gamel
CategoriesWalkabout Fun

No matter where you are in the world, if you enter a bookstore, or even look in the window of a bookstore, you will find these books prominently displayed: Harry Potter series, John Green's books, Wimpy Kid series, Rick Riordan's books, and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth.

Just take a look at some of these displays I curated over the last few months of travel

This one is from the airport in Auckland, New Zealand. Harry Potter series and John Green books were to the right with faces out. 

This one is from the airport in Auckland, New Zealand. Harry Potter series and John Green books were to the right with faces out. 

These are all great books by talented authors. You will be hard pressed to find a bigger Potterhead than me. My blood runs blue for Ravenclaw. I finally got over my literary snobbery and read The Fault in Our Stars a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it except for the make out scene at the Anne Frank House which I found highly inappropriate. I plan to read the rest of John Green's books over the next year. I read Divergent before the hype of the movie, and I just finished reading it to my kids as part of our family bedtime reading. They loved it, and I appreciated it much more the second time around when I was not comparing it to The Hunger Games. I am planning on reading the rest of the series with them. 

But here is the thorn on my side: I have recently read other books that are as good if not better than these prominently displayed books. Some of my favorites are Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero; Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; and the literary masterpiece that is Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. 

The million dollar question is: Why are these great books not prominently displayed all over the world? 

I can see the eye-rolling now. Of course, your fave books are not displayed like the others because they did not sell as many copies. They are not as commercial. But I don't think these answers are the key to this question. It's the proverbial chicken and the egg. Did the commercial books sell well because they received a hefty marketing push and exposure, or did they receive a hefty marketing push and exposure because they were popular?

As someone who pays attention to the publishing industry, I also cannot help but notice that the books that receive the most face time are by white authors. The fabulous people at Book Riot recently put together an insightful and informative interview about this very subject. 

One of the myths propagated by the opponents of diversity in literature is that readers want to read stories they can relate to. The implication of course, is that white readers will not be able to relate to a story about a Mexican-American girl growing up in southern California (Gabi), or a Mexican-American boy living in El Paso and struggling with his sexual identity (Aristotle and Dante), or a Native teenager from a reservation (Part-Time Indian), or a young Black girl growing up in the South and New York (Brown Girl).

Of course that is completely false. After all, if readers from Argentina, Bolivia, South East Asia, and New Zealand can relate to a cancer survivor growing up in Indiana (Stars), a boy wizard from Great Britain (Harry Potter), a teenage girl living in post-apocalyptic Chicago (Divergent), and an American passive-aggressive school boy (Wimpy Kid), I bet they would find Gabi et al's stories just as engaging. The same applies to white American readers.  The #WeNeedDiverseBooks organization has been tirelessly working to advocate for diversity in children's literature. One of the way book sellers and publishers can do their part is by prominently displaying these books so that potential buyers can see them. 

The American Library Association recently announced the winners of many prestigious awards in children's literature and I was thrilled to see that Gabi and Brown Girl were among the books recognized. I would be even happier if I started seeing these highly decorated books at the airport bookstores or facing out the window of books stores as I travel the world...or even once I return home to the USA. 

In the meantime, as I continue on the second half of our round the world trip, I will continue to take pictures of the books that receive the most face time in bookstores in foreign countries. What is my point in doing so? I am not making a grand statement. I just want to show what books are prominently displayed all over the world, and maybe get you thinking about your reading list and ways to diversify it. Check out these suggestions by Book Riot to get you started. 

How will you diversify your reading list?

 

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The Guardian recently encouraged readers to submit tribute to their favorite library in the form of a love letter. The Guardian also published an interview with rock star author Neil Gaiman where he professes his love for libraries and the impact these places had on him as a child. In response to the Guardian’s prompting, I have written my own quasi-love letter to the libraries of my childhood. It may not sound like a love letter, as I am not big on romance, but it comes from my heart.

When I look back on my history with libraries, there are four that come to mind: the McAllen Public Library, the school library at Brown Junior High, the school library at South Texas High School for Health Professions, and the library at the University of Texas-Pan American. I had very different relationships with all four of these libraries, but all had an important impact in who I am today.

I grew up in the 1980’s along the Texas-Mexico border in Hidalgo County, one of the poorest areas of the US. We had no cable, no video games (anyone remember Atari?), no vacations to Disneyland, no dance classes, and no computer, but we had a library. By no means was I starving and I always had a roof over my head, but poverty in the US is a subjective condition. I could not go to the mall and spend money on clothes or corndogs, but I could go to the library and pick out books for free. This was a time before a good bookstore came to McAllen, but even if there had been one we would not have had the money to go to buy books in there anyway.

My mother would take my sisters and me to the McAllen Public Library a few times per month to pick out books. I would immediately make a beeline for the juvenile section, shamelessly judge a book by its cover, and sit in a corner reading voraciously. I read everything from biographies of American presidents to picture books to all of Beverly Cleary’s works. I still remember the smell of the pages, the coolness of the air conditioning as I walked in (we had no AC at home), and the imperial silence inside the building. I did not feel bad that I had no money like I did at the mall or the movie theatre or the Diary Queen, because I did not need money to enjoy the library. The McAllen Public Library provided me a safe space of knowledge and dignity. It cultivated a love of the equalizing power of books in my young and impressionable mind. There was nothing between me and the books filled with new worlds waiting to be explored. I am forever grateful.

 If the McAllen Public Library planted the seed for my love of books, the Brown Junior High School library watered and nurtured it so it grew into a huge tree with many branches and firm roots. I discovered some of my favorite authors here, including John Steinbeck, Lois Duncan, Richard Peck, and Paul Zindel. I also learned to diversify my literary tastes in this library. I could read East of Eden or The Chocolate War and then plunge into a Sweet Valley High book. The library was located in the center of the school in a lower level surrounded by glass walls, so that you could look down into it from the main halls. The library was the heart center of the school, creating an architectural metaphor that impacted the way I felt about literature for the rest of my life.

In addition to providing me with a wealth of books for entertainment and school-related research, the library at my high school was my happy place. I was a nerd. I was not popular. When I wanted to escape the complex social dynamics of high school, I escaped to the library to read a book. It was OK to sit alone in the library, unlike the cafeteria or the student lounge. I also discovered the library was a safe place to test boundaries. I read VC Andrews and other forbidden gems here.

My relationship with my library in college was strictly business. I spent hours studying for exams or working on research for my classes. This was in the mid-90’s when “research” at that level was transitioning from photocopying articles in the archives to online-based searches. I still enjoyed the coolness, the smell, and that refined aura that the library emitted, but I was not as easy to impress by then. I was reading a lot of Patricia Cornwell or anything with the Oprah stamp of approval during that time, as well as Mexican literature as part of my desire to stick to my roots, but by then I would go to bookstores and purchase the books instead of borrowing them from the library. Books became a status symbol for me, so I abandoned the library for the bookstore in my early adulthood.

Within the last three years, I returned to libraries, particularly the Cody Branch Library in San Antonio and the Monteverde Friends Library in Costa Rica, to impart the same love for the institution to my children. I felt like the wayward prodigal daughter returning home. And you know what? The library did not judge me. It welcomed me back with open arms.

What would you say to your favorite library? Let me know in the comments!

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
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I recently blogged about my love for reading and writing middle-grade fiction, so I thought it was time to give YA literature some attention. Epic Reads recently posted an info graphic on the most popular historical YA fiction, and I wanted to share with you. You can go to the Epic Reads website for the full article. 

Disclosure: Epic Reads encouraged readers to share their infographic with others using multiple media outlets. 

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
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When I was growing up, my favorite book was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. At first glance, that declaration seems simple enough, until you dig a little deeper into the vast differences between Billy, the main character, and me. 

Billy was a white boy (with a part Cherokee mother) growing up in the Ozark Mountains somewhere in Missouri. I was a Mexican girl growing up in a small city along the Texas-Mexico border. For all practical purposes, Billy and I were from two different planets. At the time I read the book for the first time in fifth grade, I had never eaten salt pork or cornbread; I'd never hunted a "coon"; and I'd never seen mountains. I lived in the flattest piece of land in the US, the Rio Grande Valley, in one of its poorest counties.

As a kid, the gaping gender, ethnic, and geographical differences between Billy and me did not matter to me. I understood Billy. The book touched my heart because I saw so much of myself in Billy's story. I loved my dogs and had experienced the pain of losing a beloved pet. I respected the land where I was growing up. I had a close knit relationship with my family. I believed in legends, magic, and the power of love. 

Can you imagine if a teacher or librarian had discouraged me, the daughter of Mexican immigrants growing up in a barrio, from reading Red Fern because he or she thought I would not be able to relate to Billy, a character from a background so different from mine? I would have missed out on one of the greatest children's books ever written. I read Red Fern with my kids recently, and they loved the book. We laughed and cried along with Billy. My daughter is a strict vegetarian, and she did not even blink at all the hunting in the story. All that mattered to her was being able to experience the love between Billy and his dogs. 

I recently read Guadalupe Garcia McCall's beautiful retelling of The Odyssey, Summer of the Mariposas. If you have not read this YA magical realism novel featuring five Mexican-American sisters living along the Texas-Mexico border, please do so. The prose is striking, the pacing is perfect, and the blending of Aztec and Mexican culture into the story is done seamlessly. I could relate to Odilia, the main character, because she was essentially  me. When I finished this brilliant book, I could not help but wonder if there was a young boy in the Ozarks reading this book and relating to its themes of sibling bond and rivalry, forgiveness and redemption, and emerging emotionally intact after parent's divorce with the determination for a fresh start. It would be such a shame if a teacher, librarian, or other adult discouraged a boy or a child of an ethnicity other than Mexican, or someone who does not live along the Texas-Mexico border, from reading Mariposas for concern that they would not be able to relate to these characters. 

Following the advice of write what you know, I write books where my main character is usually a young Mexican-American girl, like the sisters in Summer of the Mariposas. My protagonist usually speaks Spanish as well as English. She eats beans, tortillas, and chilaquiles. She loves. She hurts. She fails. She has flaws. She dreams. She makes mistakes. She redeems. She has thoughts and experiences that any one can understand, regardless of their gender, orientation, race, or geographical location. #WeNeedDiverseBooks to show readers that deep down inside, we are not that different after all. 

Readers, do not be afraid to read books whose characters look, think, or act different that you do. Parents, librarians, and teachers: take the time to put books with diverse characters in the hands of the children in your charge. Don't discourage them when they do pick up a diverse book for themselves. If you work in a library or bookstore, display these books prominently and with pride so kids have easy access to them. For great lists of diverse books or more information about #WeNeedDiverseBooks, visit their website

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I wanted to use this blog post to recap our round the world trip. Since embarking on this crazy adventure on July 5th, we have been to Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, and we are currently in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. Iguazu Falls are arguably the most formidable waterfalls in the world, with some travelers ranking them higher than Niagra or Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe/Zambia). I have never been to Niagra, but I have been to Victoria Falls, and I agree. 

We have had some crazy adventures on this trip, most of them involving buses:

On our way to Cusco, Peru the kids got altitude sickness in the middle of the 18+ hour bus ride. Imagine having two kids throwing up at 3 am on the bus on a narrow, windy mountain road so it cannot pull over without risking falling down the mountainside! We now affectionately refer to this bus ride as the "bus ride from hell."

On the 8-hour bus ride from Uyuni to Sucre, Bolivia, we stopped at a small building so people could by a bowl of soup to eat. I asked where the toilets were, and I was directed to an open field behind the building where the llamas were grazing. That's right! Just squat and go in the tallest bush you can find. It helps to have a sense of humor when you are traveling in Bolivia! 

In Montevideo, Uruguay, I was hang-drying our laundry in the balcony of our 7th-floor apartment on a gusty day. Unfortunately, one of my underwear was blown off the balcony. A few days later, as we were headed out to dinner, Chris noticed a black pair of undies on a table in the lobby of the apartment building. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were my underwear that had blown off the balcony! I guess they had fallen into the balcony of an apartment below and the person there left them in the lobby figuring they belonged to someone else in the building. The kids were literally on the floor laughing at the "underwear that came back."

You can follow our adventures at the Thomson Family Adventure Blog. We provide them with a weekly article about our round the world trip. 

I am writing as we travel and we are homeschooling the kids. If you have any questions about our trip or any suggestions for a round the world trip, let me know in the comments section!

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
CategoriesWalkabout Fun

The Third Floor Friend

Five children sat in the playroom of the hospital. One boy, about the age of twelve, was engrossed in a video game. A girl a little younger than him played a card game by herself. One child, about the age of three, attempted to build a tower out of blocks. The last one, about the age of four, the one with the saddest eyes, sat in a corner with a book in his hands.

The clock on the wall signaled 9:15 pm. The boy with the saddest eyes looked up at the girl playing cards. He walked over to her and watched. He left the book on the table.

“You want to play?” she asked. She looked kind and sweet. The boy gave her the saddest smile.

“Come with me to the third floor. I left my toy,” he said.

“What were you doing on the third floor? It’s not in use,” she asked.

“I heard no one uses it because its haunted,” the older boy suddenly stopped playing video games to address the other children.

“I don’t think so,” said the girl.

“Mom and dad wont be here for a while, until the MRI is done. Let’s at least do something fun,” he said.

“We are having fun here, why would be go to another floor?” the girl asked rationally.

“I just want to check if this floor is really haunted. Who wants to be brave and go with me?”

The girl stood up. She picked up the younger girl who was playing blocks one off the floor and said, “You are coming with us, Alissa. What about this little boy? Is he going too?”

The boy with the saddest eyes looked hopeful.

“He looks like he wants to,” said the older boy.

“Shouldn’t you ask his parents first? You don’t know who he is?” said the girl.

“Where are your parents little guy?” the older boy asked.

The boy with the sad eyes shook his head.

“He probably has a sibling getting a procedure too,” said the older girl.

All five children held hands. They walked out of the playroom.

They walked down the stairs down to the third floor. The boy opened the stairwell door with an ominous creek. The hallway was dark.

The children stood in the corridor long enough for their eyes to adjust to the darkness. He led her down the hallway with ease until they arrived at the deserted nurses station. The moonlight flooded the station through a large bay window in front of it. The hair on the back of the children’s necks stood on end.

The boy with the saddest eyes turned to the other children. His eyes did not look so sad anymore. They also looked brighter, much brighter than normal human eyes. The brightness filled his whole body as he floated halfway up to the ceiling.

“Aaah!” the children screamed in unison. The oldest girl picked up Alissa in her arms. They ran down the darkened hallway.

“Don’t go away. Stay with me. Keep me company. I do hate to be alone…” they heard the little boy wail with the saddest voice.

They all arrived back at the playroom terrified but in one piece. No one believed them of course. No one remembered seeing a little boy with the saddest eyes. All children in a hospital playroom had sad eyes even when they laughed and smiled.

Yet no one could explain how the small hand print burnt onto the book the boy was holding got there.

Do you have a scary story to share during the month of October? Send them to me through my contact page, and you may see it posted on this month’s blog. You will get full credit, but the story must be 100% yours and original. Happy Halloween!

 

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
CategoriesMy Books

September 21-27th marks the #BannedBooksWeek, an annual event that brings all members of the book community to celebrate the freedom to read. To honor the scores of challenged books of our time, I read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian earlier in the week and am currently reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I wanted to pick a contemporary book as well as a classic to celebrate the freedom to read and I had those books on my e-reader for a while. 

Here is a list of my favorite banned books. I read many of these in high school and college. I read a couple of them (To Kill A Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) in middle school. I read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in fifth grade! I have re-read some of these beautiful works of art as an adult, but not all of them. I very likely will when my children read them as part of their curriculum. Here is a FULL LIST by the American Library Association of the most frequently challenged books over the last few years. 

These books are amongst my favorites because they all have important lessons to teach us. I am horrified that there are tweens and teens out there who will not experience the beauty of these literary masterpieces because some overzealous helicopter parent or a cowardly school board bureaucrat challenges the book as "inappropriate" or "unsuitable" for children. When these books are banned or challenged, children's education suffers. They also learn not to ask questions that may cause incendiary reactions from their parents. Think about that as you go through this list. 

1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I first read the tale of Offred and her fellow concubine slaves by the queen of post-apocalyptic dystopia when I was in college. I was an idealistic, Mexican-American, dewy-eyed, pre-med beneficiary of the feminist and Chicano activists who fought for my right to sit in a university classroom. But those bra-burning and lettuce-throwing scenes seemed so long ago. They may as well have happened on another planet as far as I was concerned. Until I read about Offred. All of a sudden, regulated misogyny and ethnic genocide were no longer scary stories of the past. They were possibilities in the future. Fast forward more than two decades, and Atwood's book seems prophetic. We are living in a world where government continues to regulate women's bodies. Young girls are still sold into marriage. We built a damn wall to keep my Mexican brothers out of my country. 

Lesson Learned: Never let your guard down. All of us that are members of marginalized groups should take full advantage of the rights afforded to us that were not available many years ago. Nevertheless, we should not become complacent. They can be taken away if we do not continue to advocate for equality for all and stay vigilant. 

2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I just finished reading this book over the weekend. Alexie's voice rings authentic, raw, honest, and funny. He draws humorous cartoons to show his heart-ache about the plight of his fellow Indians on the "rez". While so many writers romanticize the poverty of Native Americans living in reservations, Alexie paints a poignant, painful, but realistic picture of the harsh truth. This book is supposedly banned because of "offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence". OK, Junior, the main character and his friends use profanity. They are high-school students, of course they do. As far as the violence, Junior is beaten several times and a few of his loved ones die violent deaths, but he does not use gory detail. These passages are not superfluous. Their purpose is to give us a glimpse into life on Junior's reservation and the impact of alcoholism on Native American's impoverished quality of life. These scenes add to the authenticity of the Alexie's voice. As far as sexuality, there is absolutely no sex in this book. Junior mentions he likes to masturbate (this takes less than one brief paragraph and is not graphic) and he wants to have sex with his girlfriend, but he never does. So I am baffled that this book is labeled "sexually explicit". Despite the content, this book does not feel like an "issue" book. The ending is uplifting and hopeful. 

Lesson Learned: This book gives us an accurate portrait of the cycle of poverty and alcoholism plaguing Indians living in reservations but gives us a glimmer of hope that the cycle can be broken. As a Mexican-American who grew up in the barrios of Hidalgo County, one of the poorest counties in the US, I related to the main character's fears and desires. This book transcends ethnic barriers to provide hope to all who read it. 

3. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

This was the first "dirty" book I ever read. As a fifth grader, I thought it was dirty because it talked about menstruation and breast development and kissing boys (or the possibility of kissing boys!). I actually have a funny story about Margaret, just bear with me. 

Kara, my thirteen year-old daughter, is a voracious reader. She is also fiercely independent and will not read anything I tell her to read. She read the first three Harry Potter books because I literally forced her, but she spouted nothing but contempt for all of them. I finally gave up and told her she did not need to read the series anymore. One day last year, we were at the Quaker library when we were living in Monteverde, a small town in Costa Rica. I pulled Margaret from the shelves and handed it to Kara, then twelve, to read it. She said, "No, thanks. I will pick something to read myself."

At that point, Matthew, Kara's young, long-haired, tattooed English teacher walked into the library. We lived in a tiny town after all. He saw Margaret on the table and said, "I remember that book. It was very controversial." We both started talking about the issues that made Margaret controversial, including religion, puberty, and bullying. When Matthew left, Kara picked up the book and said she would read it. She finished in less than 48 hours. 

That event marked an important turning point in my relationship with Kara. She finally took book recommendations from me. After that she read other Judy Blume and Lois Lowry books on my advice! We are now reading the Harry Potter series together as a family and she freely admits she is enjoying them! 

On a serious note, Margaret also generated important mother-daughter discussions for us. I am forever grateful to Judy Blume. 

Lesson Learned: Everyone develops at a different pace. Your body's appearance does not define you. What matters is that you are a kind, honest, and generous person. 

4. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Between eighth and tenth grade, I read most of John Steinbeck's books. I loved his writing. Of Mice and Men was one of the last ones I read. While it is not in the caliber of the epic East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath, it is still a well-written, poignant story of friendship and making hard choices. I am baffled as to why this book is banned. 

Lesson Learned: Friendships take different forms. Mercy takes different forms. 

5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Yes, this book does depict rape, violent misogyny, and child abuse in gritty form. It is also one of the most important, life-changing books written in American literature. Walker's writing is lyrical and gritty. I read this book in high school. I was shocked, but I also learned for the first time about the harsh realities of life as a woman of color. Growing up in the barrio was not easy, but I was also sheltered. I thought everyone lived like us. Poverty is a psychological state. When everyone around you is poor, you don't feel too bad about it. The few white kids I knew that were not from the barrio lived in a fairy tale planet for all I knew. My ideas about what it meant to be a woman of color living in poverty changed when I read The Color Purple. I realized that abuse and violence were a harsh reality from which I had been very fortunately shielded. I am not suggesting that fifth graders read this book, but I certainly think it belongs in a high school course on American literature. 

Lesson Learned: This book marked Walker's rallying cry to unify all women in the feminist movement. She shed light on the plight of women of color who were not simply fighting for the right to vote, but also fighting for the right to live. 

6. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

I grew up in South Texas, about six miles from the Texas-Mexico border. All my neighbors and classmates were Mexican, mostly children of recent immigrants. Everyone spoke Spanish. Everyone was just as poor as we were. My second grade teacher was a white woman from Iowa, but other than that I did not know other white people until I was bussed across town to the GT program in fifth grade. There was a black teacher in my elementary school, but I was not in his classroom. I never spoke to him. I did not meet a black person until my freshman year in high school. I read Thunder when I was in seventh grade. This was my first glimpse into the post-Civil War life for African Americans. Reading this book in the 1980's was unnerving. The events in the book, such as lynchings, took place a mere 50 years earlier. Even as I kid, I was jarred by the concept of Jim Crow laws and inequality. Recent data has suggested that children who read fiction are more empathetic and tolerant. I have Taylor's Thunder to thank for introducing me to a world so foreign to me as a Mexican girl from the barrio. Books like these were where I first met people different from me.

Lesson Learned: This book taught me to feel compassion and empathy for people who were different than me. 

7. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I feel a little piece of my soul dies every time I see this literary classic on a banned book list. I actually tried reading this book with my children a few years ago, but the language was too advanced for my then six year-old son. I decided to wait until he was a little older. While reading Mockingbird in eighth grade taught me many of the lessons that Thunder did, as a Mexican girl growing up with very little exposure to white or black people, Mockingbird also filled me with hope. Atticus was my hero. He was white and he defended Tom Robinson despite the danger to himself and his family. I deeply appreciated Thunder because the black characters fight for themselves, but Mockingbird gave me faith in the indomitable spirit of human kindness because of the racial heroism that Atticus displays. 

Lesson Learned: This book taught me not only to feel compassion and empathy for people who were different than me, but to be courageous enough to do something about it. 

8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 

I read this book as an adult as part of the book club to which I belonged during my pediatrics residency in Salt Lake City. I have since then read all of Hosseini's books. He follows the same formula with some elements of coincidence that almost border on magical realism which does get a little repetitive, but his character development and prose is flawless. I loved The Kite Runner. I loved it so much that I spent $60 on a Spanish version for my father. I was so compelled for him to read this magnificent father-son love story. He loved it. My dad is difficult to please. He could not finish Game of Thrones and Harry Potter when I gave him the Spanish versions of those books. He devoured Cometas en el Cielo (aka The Kite Runner), and we still have amazing conversations about this book. 

Lesson Learned: This book teaches us about the hard road to redemption after betraying your best friend in the backdrop of Afghan history. It also paints a beautiful portrait of the love between a father and son. 

9. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

I read this book in college at the behest of my roommate who was reading it as part of her Mexican-American studies class. I read it again as an adult within the last two years. This book is a literary masterpiece. The story centers around Tony, a Chicano boy growing up in New Mexico who is being groomed to be a priest by Ultima, a curandera or "shaman healer". Yes there are a few sexual references which I do not recall being particularly graphic and there is profanity. These do not detract from the beauty of Anaya's prose and add to the authenticity of the novel. 

Lesson Learned: As a Mexican-American person, reading this book marked a defining moment in my life. I learned that my culture is beautiful and worthy of sharing. I learned to never, ever, forget where I came from. I think this is a lesson essential for all young people to learn. 

10. Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

I am a Potterhead. I would not be a middle grade fantasy author if it were not for this series. Sadly, the Harry Potter series has found itself under fire because of references to dark magic and the absurd accusation of "occult/Satanism", and violence. I have to wonder if the people who challenge these books have actually read them. Harry spends seven books fighting dark magic. There is not one single reference to Satanism or the occult. I feel pity for any child who does not read these books as a result of book banning. It is an utter tragedy. 

Lessons Learned:

Courage and friendship will never fail you.

Love is more powerful than hate. 

Prejudice is hurtful and based on fear. 

Listen carefully, because things are not always what they seem. 

Adults can make mistakes too.

Courage takes many forms. 

Stay true to yourself in the face of adversity. 

Do not be afraid to advocate for those who are different than you. 

Fight against inequality, even if it does not target you. 

 

I hope you enjoy this list and are encouraged to read these books if you have not done so already. Celebrate your freedom to read during #BannedBooksWeek by reading a challenged book. What are your favorite banned books? Let me know in the comments below. 

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The Iris of Issoria will be available October 7th, 2014. Subscribe to my email list or follow me on Twitter for more updates, teasers, excerpts, promotions, and cool facts about Iris. 

 

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September 21 to 27th marks #BannedBooksWeek, an annual event that brings together all members of the book community to celebrate the freedom to read. I recently wrote a blog post discussing the impact of book banning on a parent's relationship with their children. Later this week, I will post a list of my favorite frequently challenged books on my blog. 

In the meantime, I wanted to share an insightful blog post written by writer Malinda Lo where she analyzes the most frequently challenged books. Her findings are sadly, not surprising. Books by writers of color and books featuring racial and LGBT issues are more likely to be banned than their non-diverse counterparts. The raw data is disheartening. Click here to read Malinda's article in its entirety at the Diversity in YA website. 

I am also celebrating the freedom to read by reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Aldous Huxley's classic Brave New World. I have had both on my e-reader for a few months, so I am excited to finally get a crack at these highly-acclaimed and frequently challenged books. I urge you to read a banned book this week! 

What will you do to celebrate your freedom to read for #BannedBooksWeek? Let me know in the comments below.

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
CategoriesReading/Books

In a previous post, I talked about why I write feminist children's stories. I did not consciously set out to weave feminism into The Iris of Issoria when I first started writing it nine years ago. The theme seeped into the fabric of the story because writers construct their characters, setting, and plot lines in their own image. I am a feminist, therefore I write feminist stories. Here are five ways the characters in Iris are feminists: 

1. Women are rulers and military leaders. Gracielle is the leader of Vorelle's army. Queen Ebanaysha rules the Dryads with as much power as the King. Asherali is a fighter and a scout. The glass ceiling is not an obstacle in this matriarchal society. 

2. Their identify is derived from their own achievements, not their relationships. While it is clear marriage occurs in NoArah, marital status is not a focal point with the characters. Their focus is their role in the quest for the salvation of their world. 

3. The male characters are not intimidated by females in authority. Janus, a strong male character, has no qualms about following the leadership of Gracielle and Vorelle. King Sequoious treats Queen Ebanaysha like an equal partner in their rule of Draasil. The male characters are feminists. 

4. Anika chooses to be a warrior, defying the traditions of her ancestors. Anika, the main character, is a twelve-year old girl with no fighting experience. Early on we learn that she will fight any way she can to save her mother and later she asks to be trained as a warrior when she expresses to develop a role in the quest. 

5. Strength of the spirit and mind is celebrated as much as strength of the mind. Asherali tells Anika that size and physical strength are not always an indication of a person's strength of character. All roles in the quest are respected. 

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The Iris of Issoria will be available October 7th, 2014. Subscribe to my email list or follow me on Twitter for more updates, teasers, excerpts, promotions, and cool facts about Iris. 

 

 

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
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While I am on a year-long walkabout with my husband and two children, we are homeschooling. As fun as it sounds, the perpetually close quarters can be stressful sometimes. After surviving the first few weeks of homeschool (or road school!), I have learned some important lessons about myself, my children, parenting, and teaching. 

1. Parents are harder on their kids than their teachers would be. No one is as invested in your child's academic success as their parents. I have high expectations for my children. I want them to shine and succeed in life. I also don't have thirty other kids demanding my attention. All my focus is on my kids and I can tailor our homeschool curriculum to meet their needs. We are essentially completing a math curriculum one grade above their level for the year. I push them because I think highly of my kids. I push them because I love them. 

2. Kids get stressed when their parent/teacher not prepared. On the first day of homeschooling, Kara's Pre-Algebra exercise was on number sets. After reading the introduction, I was lost. I could not explain the material clearly to her, but I still wanted her to complete it. We also had trouble downloading the videos from Khan Academy that discussed sets because our Wi-Fi in Bolivia is so slow. Eventually, Kara and I worked through the problems together and finally understood the lesson, but by then she was in tears. She was not crying because the material was too difficult, she cried out of frustration because her teacher (me!!) was not prepared. I learned an important lesson that day: Homeschooling requires a lot of work beforehand. I handed off Kara's pre-algebra education to Chris so that I could focus on Tristan's Signapore Math and he could focus on pre-algebra. OK, I also did it because my daughter and I are too much alike. This seemed like a good way to avoid matricide. Chris works through the pre-algebra lesson the night before Kara does it & uses the Kahn Academy application which seems to download the videos more easily. I also look over Tristan's math, spelling, and reading comprehension exercises before he does them. Preparation is key to successful homeschooling. 

3. Children don't want their parents to see them struggle. Tristan has a natural affinity for math, but reading is not easy for him. He struggled with agony during a reading comprehension activity on timelines and that ended with tears too (his, not mine). He was so used to being praised for math that struggling through a reading lesson in front of me was unnerving for him. I gave him lots of hugs and told him that I was prouder of him for working hard through the reading than for getting a 100% on his math. Struggling through a problem makes kids smarter, even though it is uncomfortable. 

4. Homeschooling is a privilege. When my kids were in private school, I knew very little about what they were learning. It wasn't that I did not care, but I was bogged down with working full-time and trying to feed them that I did not take the time to find out. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be the parent and teacher this year because I am aware of their knowledge strengths and gaps. We can talk about what they are learning and reinforce attitudes, knowledge, and skills during day to day activities. I realize there are parents who homeschool for the wrong reasons or do it haphazardly. Honestly, we sometimes fall into those categories, but I will always cherish this year. I am learning more from my children than they are learning from me. That is a privilige! 

5. Teachable moments are found everywhere. While traveling through the Uturuncu and Licancabur volcanic areas in Uyuni, Tristan asked why volcanoes form. Chris and I launched into what we could remember from our fourth grade geology lessons. Luckily, our knowledgeable guide was also able to join in teaching the lesson in the context of the local geothermal history. While in Cusco, Peru, which is the birthplace of the Inca nation, we read about the history of the nine Inca kings. You do not need a classroom or a dry erase board to teach your children new things. We have been able to teach them while riding on a bus, visiting a museum, or simply walking through a park. That is the best type of learning there is. 

If you are homeschooling, what lessons have you learned in the process? If you have any recommendations, resources, or suggestions to make this a positive learning experience, let me know!

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
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This summer has been a whirlwind adventure! We left Costa Rica with sad faces and some tears in June, visited family in the USA for one month, and then embarked on our year-long round the world trip in July. Amidst all that craziness, I have been getting ready to publish my MG Lit novel, The Iris of Issoria, and started writing its sequel, Dragonfire. 

I wanted to share two important pieces of information with all of you. 

1. You can now sign up to my email list by clicking here. When you join my email list, you will receive a free PDF of a proof copy of The Iris of Issoria before it goes through its final proof read. I am excited to see the differences between both versions after incorporating the feedback from beta readers and the final round of proofreading. As a member of my community, you will be the first to learn about upcoming books, special offers, giveaways, and other goodies. I promise to respect your privacy and not spam your inbox. I will never sell your email address to a third party. 

2. I have pushed back the publication date for Iris. The book will now be available on October 7th instead of September 23rd. I will need a little more time than expected to polish the final draft. This was a difficult decision to make, but I would rather put the book on the market later and present a high quality product, than rush something that will not make me completely proud. 

I gotta go write! We leave to the Amazon jungle on Tuesday. We will be staying at "ecolodges" which usually translates to no electricity, no hot water, and no Wi-Fi. I want to get as much writing done during our final days in Sucre, Bolivia, where all of those luxuries are available daily. 

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The Iris of Issoria will be available October 7th, 2014. Subscribe to my email list or follow me on Twitter for more updates, teasers, excerpts, promotions, and cool facts about Iris. 

Our favorite place on our RTW trip so far is Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Here we are with our guide and driver. 

Our favorite place on our RTW trip so far is Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Here we are with our guide and driver. 



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AuthorNoemi Gamel
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Over the summer, I came across this tweet that resonated deeply with me. As a writer of children's fiction, I am often asked if there is a difference between Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) literature. Besides the technical distinction in the age of the protagonists in both categories, I thought the quote below described it beautifully. 

Even if you are not an active part of the children's writer community, you have probably heard that YA literature has taken the country by storm. The success of recent YA-based books-turned-to-films such as The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and If I Stay indicates that currently, YA rules the world. 

I do love YA literature. I read a lot of it. I recently finished reading Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead. I highlighted the living daylights out of that book on my e-reader. My enjoyment of YA lit does not extinguish the fact that my first love was MG lit. 

Judy Blume, Wilson Rawls, and Beverly Cleary were my first literary heroes. I know Judy Blume also writes YA, but it was her MG fiction, including the masterpiece that is Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret which sealed the deal for my life-long bibliophilia.

Given my love for MG lit, it is no surprise that my books fall under the MG category. I will be so bold as to say that my books can be enjoyed by children, teens, and adults of all ages. However, The Iris of Issoria falls under MG lit because the protagonist is twelve-years old. I honestly think I set out to write it as a YA book, but in the end, I returned to my first love. Here are the reasons why I think MG lit totally rocks and why I am proud to contribute to its body of literature. I hope these features also serve as motivators for you to read MG lit, no matter what your age. 

1. Ingrain a love for reading early in life. Just as the eating and sleeping habits that a child develops early in life are taken into adulthood, reading and literacy habits do too. One of the reasons I had my children in Montessori school before leaving the US was precisely because the curriculum encourages independent learning early on and much of it is done by reading. I want to write books that spark a love of reading to younger children. If they do not love books by the time they get to high school, maybe even middle school, I fear that igniting that spark may be an uphill battle. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a policy statement on promoting literacy in office-based primary care practices. When I was training as a pediatrics resident many years ago, we did give out books and encourage reading during well-child check-ups. I am glad that the AAP finally wrote a policy statement validating what most pediatricians (and parents!) already knew: There are many benefits to encouraging young children to read!

2. Celebrate childhood. I think one of the reasons YA literature is so popular is because that mystical time between childhood and adulthood known as adolescence is laced with a series of "firsts": first kiss, first date, first love, first heartbreak, first time you got into a major fight with your parents...As humans we tend to be nostalgic, therefore it is no surprise that even as adults we enjoy books (and movies!) that center around such a dynamic & transitional life stage. While that is all well and good, I prefer to write about the prime of childhood that is filled with the comforts of the familiar. I love the life stage before the hormones kick in and when children still have an optimistic view of the world and the people around them. The friendships during this age are deep, innocent, and free of prejudice. When I was practicing as a pediatrician, my favorite patients were those between the ages of 8 and 11 or 12. I love this age group. They are old enough that you can have an insightful conversation with them but not too old that they think adults are stupid. Here are some of my favorite middle-grade reads that celebrate childhood: 

Ramona Forever

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Junie B. Jones 

Charlotte's Web

3. Empower children to confront their external fears. Kate DiCamillo (the current goddess of middle grade), Roald Dahl, and Beverly Cleary have taught me one thing: Kids kick ass! As a child, reading many of the classic MG lit books  empowered me. I could defeat the dragon! I could beat the evil step-mother or other mean relatives! I could save the prince or princess! The hope, of course, is that when faced with their everyday fears, the empowering lessons children learn from MG lit will help them face the daunting homework assignment or peer pressure. The list of MG books that depict a young person overcoming their biggest fears, saving the day, or completing the dangerous quest is long indeed. That is MG lit's purpose! I wrote The Iris of Issoria to teach my teen and tween readers that they are stronger than their fears and that strength does not only refer to a physical quality. Strength of the spirit and mind is more impressive than strength of the body. These are other books that illustrate to their young readers that children are strong and powerful: 

Esperanza Rising

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

The Tale of Despereaux 

James and the Giant Peach  

The Hobbit 

Matilda 

Coraline

4. Prepare children to battle internal demons. As the quote above delineates, YA owns the characters with internal struggles of the mind. MG lit, however, paves the way by presenting situations of internal conflict that may not be as treacherous as those found in YA lit. For example, in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, our protagonist worries about her relationship with God and whether or not her body is developing appropriately. In Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal faces her father's depression and a neighbor's alcoholism, therefore learns that adults have internal struggles that are as scary as bullies and monsters. 

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

Because of Winn-Dixie

5. Inspire families to read together. The first recommendation in the AAP policy statement on literacy is that pediatricians in a primary care setting should: 

[Advise] all parents that reading aloud with their young children can enrich parent-child interactions and relationships, which enhances their childrens social-emotional de- velopment while building brain cir- cuits to prepare children to learn language and early literacy skills. 

MG lit as a category provides many books that parents can read to their children. YA often does not meet this criteria if your children are of varied ages. While I love My Darling, My Hamburger, and it is on my thirteen year-old daughter's To Be Read list, I do not want to read it to my seven-year old son. I want families to read my books together. I hope that when they do, they engage in conversations about the challenges of family loyalty, the value of sacrifice, and what it means to be courageous. My children and I read together every night. While all of the books mentioned in this blog are wonderful family reads, these are some of the books I have most enjoyed reading with my children because they made us either laugh or cry a lot.

Where The Red Fern Grows

Old Yeller

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Skinnybones

What are your favorite MG lit books? Let me know in the comments section. 

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The Iris of Issoria will be available September 23, 2014. Subscribe to my email list or follow me on Twitter for more updates, teasers, excerpts, promotions, and cool facts about Iris. 


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In the recent weeks, book banning or censorship has been brought to the center stage in the children's author community. First, John Green's books (not The Fault In Our Stars, so fear not!) have been the target of parental disapproval on the grounds of mature sexual content. More recently, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth was banned as part of the summer reading list in Delaware on the grounds of profanity. The truth soon unraveled when a local news station reported that other books on the list also contained foul language and the real reason that Miseducation was challenged was because the main character is a lesbian.

What was the Delaware School District's solution to this unsavory topic? Abolish the summer reading list all together. You have to admire the courageous decision-making skills of the bureaucrats in elected posts. 😡

While it is completely a parent's prerogative to determine what their children should read within the confines of their own homes, I think it is blatantly wrong to impose those restrictions on other people's children and demand book censorship. As a children's book author, pediatrician, parent, and voracious reader I have many reasons to oppose book censorship. In truth, I feel pity for the children of the parents who lead the book banning wars. Children learn from the behaviors we model much more than by what we tell them. Here is what parents teach their children when they advocate to ban a book:

1.  Don't ask me about sexuality, profanity, drugs, racism, religion, or violence. These topics are taboo. 

According to Judy Blume's anti-censorship toolkit, the most common objections against banned books are sex, profanity, violence, and religion. Books with LGBTQ themes are more likely to be banned than those featuring straight relationships. The frequent challenge of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian also shows that racism and religious themes that don't feature the mainstream viewpoint are also likely to be placed under fire. 

I think that parents who are at the forefront of book censorship are missing out on teachable with their children. They are creating road blocks to important discussions with their tween or teen. When a teen or tween encounters words or concepts with which they are not familiar in a book, this creates a splendid platform for discussion. As as pediatrician, when I am trying to figure out if a teenage patient uses drugs, I first ask about their friends. It gives the teen a chance to talk about the topic without direct confrontation and gives them a chance to gauge me. The same can be applied to books that discuss sensitive topics. If the teen or tween can discuss these issues with the parents in the context of a fictional character, they learn that it is safe to discuss these issues when they hit close to home.

If a parent throws a hissy fit when a fictional character in a book is questioning their sexuality, has a friend experimenting with drugs, or is confused about religion, guess how comfortable their teen or tween will feel about broaching these subjects with mom or dad when it's personal? Allowing your child to read books that feature viewpoints different than yours opens a gateway for discussion on your own family's values and morals. When my daughter, Kara, read Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? at age twelve, we engaged in thoughtful conversations about religion, being yourself, and respecting our bodies. 

While I do not encourage parents to act as their child's "friend", it is important to create a safe space where the child feels comfortable discussing the topics that are the most common reasons for book censorship at home. Otherwise, they will look to Google, their friends, or the street to find the answers they seek. 

2.  I do not think you are an intelligent person capable of forming your own thoughts and controlling your actions. 

Browsing through the ALA's list of Most Frequently Challenging Books is amusing, enraging, and sometimes baffling. Captain Underpants has topped the list for the last couple of years for reasons that I cannot possibly fathom. The official reasons are "offensive language, unsuited for age group, and violence" but I don't believe it for a second. My seven year-old son, Tristan, is what I euphemistically call a "reluctant reader". I even blogged about it once. Captain Underpants saved me from throwing myself off the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio because that seemed like a more pleasant option than begging my son to read one more page of any other book. When we discovered this series, Tristan actually read for pure pleasure. Once we added comic books into the mix, we are all golden, safe from certain death. 

I am perplexed by other books on the list. Bless Me, Ultima has absolutely nothing to do with Satanism or the occult. The titular woman is the main character's spiritual mentor. She is a "curandera" in traditional Mexican culture and is grooming the main character to be a priest. Ultima, or La Grande, is a beloved, highly-regarded healer in the community who blends the rich indigenous traditions with Catholicism. This is very common in Latin America. If you visit Peru or Bolivia, you will see the seamless marriage of the Catholic religion and Inca traditions. It may not be what the mainstream, Christian, American religions look like, but that does not make them Satanic. Furthermore, a child who reads this book is not going to be swayed into Satanism. 

By waging war against books with values, beliefs, philosophies, and traditions that differ from ours we are teaching our children that we think they are mindless morons. We are telling them that they are too stupid and fragile to be exposed to points of view that differ from ours. I almost want to cry at the thought of the children who will not read the stunning pieces of literature that are Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and To Kill a Mockingbird because someone thinks they incite violence and racism. Someone did not really read these books.

Will I forbid Tristan from reading Captain Underpants because I fear he will want to walk around in his underwear? Will I forbid my children from reading the magical masterpiece that is Harry Potter because it is a gateway to Satanism? Of course not. 

I promise you that your teen and tween will not want to go out and have sex if they read The Chocolate War (another brilliant read). Instead, this and other books that feature teen sexuality can serve as a platform to discuss the sexual morals you want to teach your children. Believe me, it is easier to talk about these sensitive topics in the context of applying to someone else first. When your child later faces these issues more directly, she or he will remember your lessons and expectations, not those of Robert Cormier, but only if you have had frank discussions. 

I recently asked Kara what she would do if I demanded that her school remove a book from the shelves. She looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes and said, "I would do everything in my power to read that book behind your back." Sigh.

Hopefully your children do not have a blatantly rebellious, albeit honest, streak like mine do. The point is that children are not stupid. As in the Miseducation case, soon after the book was challenged, the sales increased. Curiosity will prevail, and they will be more likely to read something that is forbidden. 

I realize there are some books that are completely inappropriate for children. I have clearly told my daughter she cannot read the Game of Thrones series (which appropriately is not marketed to teens/tweens) until she is much older because of the graphic sex and violence. But I am not going to threaten George R. R. Martin....primarily because I want him to finish the series already! I am not going to demand the book be removed from the shelves. It is my own responsibility to determine what my children should read or not. Honesty and communication with our children go a long way here.

3.  Independent thought is dangerous and must be governed. 

Parents who wage war against book teach their children that independent thinking is dangerous and forbidden, and therefore they must establish themselves as the thought police for the masses. They are telling their kids that someone else must determine for the greater population what ideas, words, values, and philosophies are appropriate. The ones deemed inappropriate must be abolished or sanitized. 

In this case, I am not talking about the parent who tells their child not to read a certain book, but the parents who take their issue to school boards and book stores. It is one thing to have a discussion with a child about morals and belief systems, and another to impose such models on others. 

Are these the lessons you would want your child to learn from you as a parent? Book banning hurts our society as a whole. Parents who wage war against books hurt their relationship with their children. As a parent, teacher, or librarian, speak up when you see this practice occurring in your community. Visit Judy Blume's website for more information and support. 

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The Iris of Issoria will be available September 23, 2014. Subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter for more updates, teasers, excerpts, promotions, and cool facts about Iris. 

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AuthorNoemi Gamel
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