Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Speaking Her Truth

Every child has something to say.  When they give voice to their beliefs, opinions and ideas, they wish to be heard.  Not only do they hope to have others listen to them, but they need them to do this with sincerity and respect.  It's difficult when you struggle with the courage to speak and then others ridicule your beliefs, opinions or ideas.

If you and your family are living in a country other than the place of your origin, it is an extra challenge and source of concern.  Stella Diaz Has Something to Say (Roaring Brook Press, January 16, 2018) written and illustrated by Angela Dominguez follows a third-grade student with her own special brand of brilliance waiting to shine.  She discovers others can be marvelously supportive in contrast to the outright unkindness of a few.

Chapter One
The smell of albondigas fills the house
when my brother, Nick, and I come home.
"Time for our weekly appointment," says Nick, walking in the direction of the kitchen.
I nod.  My mouth starts to water as I follow him toward the sound of sizzling food.

Their weekly appointment is a Friday homemade dinner with their mother cooking; working during the week makes it impossible for her to do this other than on Fridays.  There is also board game playing and dancing past their bedtime.  It's easy to understand this is a loving Mexican American family trio based on their warm conversations and enjoyable evening.  Nick is in eighth grade this year and hopeful of making the basketball team.  Another family member is Pancho, Stella's beta fish, swimming alone in his bowl in her bedroom.

On the following Monday Stella can hardly wait to meet the new third grade student expected to arrive.  Her best friend, Jenny, born in Chicago but whose family is from Vietnam, is not in her classroom this year making it lonelier for Stella. The new student is not the girl Stella hoped for but a boy named Stanley from Texas.  To Stella's total embarrassment as she sits back down in her chair after introducing herself in Spanish first and then English, her chair tips over, leaving her on her back with her feet sticking straight up in the air.  This is not the first impression she wanted to make.

As the weeks pass readers become further acquainted with Stella, Nick, her mother, Jenny, Stanley and the class bully, Jessica. Stella struggles with her shyness and to separate speaking Spanish and English. (She has been taking speech for three years.) She is thrilled with their year-end, long-term research assignment.  She is choosing to focus on marine life but she's worried about the speaking part of the presentation.

Further incidents with Jessica, a holiday visit from family still living in Mexico, a New Year's celebration, a spelling bee and the big project have Stella anxious one minute and relieved the next minute.  Will the support of family, friends and teachers come in time for this star to cast her true light?  You can't help but cheer as the story soars toward summer vacation and the freedom it brings.

With each chapter our affection for Stella and her family grows.  Angela Dominguez paints a clear and loving picture with her use of language of the day-to-day activities inside their home, the family routines and rituals.  The dialogue between Stella, her mother and brother, and Stella's thoughts convey the personalities of the characters.  The support offered to Stella by her mother and brother in several scenarios is wonderfully touching.  We come to understand the reality of Stella's challenge in being a child from one world and living in another world with the use of Spanish words throughout the story.  Angela's skill as a writer leaves no doubt in readers' minds as to the meaning of the Spanish words, adeptly weaving them into the story.  We also can't help but crave all the delicious ethnic foods mentioned.

At school we are shown the dynamics of the classroom through the behaviors of certain students, the teachers and school librarian.  We are painfully aware of Stella's shyness, especially when we know, as she does, she possess intelligence and the determination to succeed.  The descriptions of specific events help us to feel as though we are there with Stella.  Here are some of my marked passages.

Nick is pretty stellar most of the time, but he can still be an annoying older brother sometimes.  Nick knows it especially bothers me that he laughs when I mess up my words.  I can't help it.  Sometimes I mix up the way words or letters sound, and when I do I turn roja like a tomato.  That's because the letters sound a little different in English and Spanish.  I'm taking a class to help me, but I don't like that I have to take it, and I definitely don't like people making fun of me.

Hearing that makes me feel happy.  Even though we can all read really well, Ms. Bell reads aloud to us a little bit every day during storytime.  It's just one chapter, but it's like watching a play.  I close my eyes, remembering how Ms. Bell does all these great voices for all the characters.

When it's my turn, I stand up.  I feel myself turning roja.  I freeze.  I just read that some octopuses can paralyze their prey.  Maybe Stanley is part octopus.  Probably not.  He looks like a normal boy with freckles, blue eyes, and a cool monkey shirt.  I catch myself staring at him for a second.

Mom stands up.  She pulls me to the floor to dance with her and twirls me until I start giggling.  She finally stops twirling me, and everything keeps spinning for a second.  When I finally see straight, I notice that my whole family is giggling with me, too, even Nick.  I'm really happy that giggling and smiling is something that doesn't have to be translated.  You just know it when you see it.

For one reason or another there will be times all of us feel as though we don't belong.  This is why we form an immediate kinship with Stella Diaz Has Something to Say written and illustrated by Angela Dominguez.  Through Stella and her experiences our empathy for immigrants is highly enhanced.  This title reinforces the fact that above all else we are all human and in need of each other's support.

Angela Dominguez fills the pages of this book with her drawings in black and white, some small and others spanning an entire page.  They serve to highlight specific portions of the text.  At the close of this title an Author's Note and Acknowledgments will further endear you to the author.  I highly recommend this book for your professional and personal bookshelves.

To learn more about Angela Dominguez and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her Tumblr account.  She maintains a blog here and an Instagram account.  You can read an excerpt and view interior pages at the publisher's website.  Angela is interviewed about this book at Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb.

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