Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Middle Readers Historical Novel Raises Big Issues. News 'n Notes.

Historical Novel and Hidden Treasure Explore Issues for Middle Readers

Review: Diana J. Noble. Evangelina Takes Flight. Houston: Piñata Books for Middle Readers, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-55885-848-0

Michael Sedano

It’s 1911. Evangelina de León, who’s spent her 14 years on a remote rancho somewhere in northern Mexico, is about to be uprooted by marauding Villistas, next stop Texas USA. As Diana J. Noble’s Evangelina Takes Flight opens, a young reader will deserve absorbing storytelling and anticipate a first-hand look at girls her age a century ago.

A girl back them on el rancho rises with the sun, hauls water, feeds chickens and gathers eggs. After breakfast she sorts beans, minds her younger siblings, reads and writes, thinks.

Evangelina finds her about-to-quinceañera sister beautiful and doesn’t realize she herself looks fifteen already and boys admire her looks. Soon, she’ll realize that, right now she likes how boys’ attention feels.

Los de León aren't the only displaced Mexicanos who move-in with relatives on the Mexican side of dusty little Seneca TX. Evangelina's familia already lost one home, now they’re being denied a home where they’ve landed. Fortunately, a single anglo stands against racism and effects la palomilla’s rescue.

Then there’s safeguarding the secret treasure, a profound measure of Evangelina’s character. The treasure becomes a sore point unintended by the author, but nonetheless salient. And it raises a dilemma of adult responsibility when reading with or buying for children. Leave them to delight in story; make her immune to pernicious sleights and the kid’ll be fine. Instead, explore ambiguity and sharpen her reading to understand and connect beyond the page.

Author Noble secretes Abuelo's treasure in her reader’s imagination. Abuelo, who goes into hiding, charges Evangelina to carry his deepest secret north. An early crisis--an urchin steals the hidden treasure--tests Evangelina. Her goodness rescues the treasure. In the novel’s dénouement the dirt-poor familia gives away the treasure.

See something, say something. That epistrophe has become a watchword in public safety circles. I apply the same principle to books for kids. When a book stumbles into cultural ambiguity, see something say something.

Abuelo’s treasure is a jewel-encrusted gold cross. Abuelo’s secret guilt grows from his theft of the cross from Comanches, for whom the object was a talisman. Los Comanches, 100 years earlier, took the cross from a caravan of Spaniard Mexicanos. In the end, Evangelina’s family feels sinful cashing in the cross for personal gain, so, because “the Comanches are long gone from northern Mexico,” the family gives the treasure to the Mexican church. And the church, or someone, cashes in, and maybe in years the old rancho will be rebuilt from the proceeds.

That “comanches are long gone” point needs discussion, and where that gold and jewels originated. Given the uneasy rapprochement from resentful Anglos in the book, and racism in non-fictional Texas burgs today, kids can use literature that addresses racism in their lives; kids need strategies that don’t hinge on deus ex machina.

The novel's themes of movement, immigration, pioneer settlers, assimilation, have less ambiguity in a young reader’s experiences. The reader may herself be an immigrant, and most certainly has FOB friends, and all have origin stories like the de León family. They got here.

The little girl with the burned arm who takes to stealing to survive is one refugee who will die soon. That part's not in the book. Gente like that little innocent never make it p’al otro lado. Nowadays, she might get to a clinic, nowadays she might wander the desert dehydrated, finding water bottles slashed empty by people named Frank Silver but who were born Francisco Rubén Silva, like in the novel.

Evangelina Takes Flight comes from Piñata Books, an imprint of Houston’s Arte Público Press. Distribution via a local bookseller will readily put a copy into your young reader’s hands. You can order publisher-direct at this link.

News & Notes

NHCC Coming Alive All Year

This week's highlights from the National Hispanic Cultural Center include movie night, the Dolores Huerta movie,Dolores. Free admission. And if things haven't changed since my most recent visit, parking's ample and free. Consult the NHCC's website for full calendar, here (link)

Exciting news from NHCC. I've seen no announcement yet, but Valerie Martinez has assumed the Directorship of History and Literary Programs at the NHCC. Under earlier leadership, History and Literary Programs sponsored a decade of National Latino Writers Conferences.

San Antonio
Free to Give Open Mic

Fred C. Dobbs and San Antonio's Gemini Ink (link) share the same problem, money and how to get some. Fred didn't end up so good, but Gemini Ink is having a marathon read aloud and you're invited. Click here for details.

Los Angeles Downtown
Classic Slam Time

Always a top event for spoken word poetry, the Get Lit competition brings regional high schools together for two days packed with original and classic poetry, performed aloud in a highly energized auditorium. Click here for details and tickets.

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