Presented by Teri Lesesne, Rosemary Chance, and Janie Flores, and featuring amazing, award-winning authors Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Margarita Engle, this session explored the importance of books and authors that feature Latinos/Hispanics/Chicanos (there was a small discussion of labeling and its drawbacks) and their ability to allow Latino teens to see themselves in the literature made available to them.
Benjamin Sáenz spoke about the fact that he was firstly a poet and a writer for adults until he was asked by a publisher to consider writing for children and then young adults. And aren’t we glad he said yes. Mr. Sáenz read passages from his books Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood and Last Night I Sang to the Monster that related to the fact that adults so often fail to really see teens, and that teens in turn look to each other to be seen and understood. And on the subject of becoming an author, he shared his philosophy that “we become writers by discipline and desire” and that talent is not just a gift that some writers have, but something that they have to work for. His next book, coming out in 2012, is called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and will feature a gay, Latino romance set in the 1960s.
Margarita Engle spoke about her Cuban-American heritage and how that informs her passion as a botanist and as an author. She spoke about the sense of loss she felt at travel restrictions that were in place between the US and Cuba for 30+ years that prevented her from seeing her maternal extended family there. She also shared her reasons for writing novels in verse. Aside from being great reads for reluctant readers, or any teen who is looking for a quick read, poetry and metaphor is the language of Cuba. Engle shared that for a country that has lived under censorship in many iterations, and whose people have learned to express truth in indirect ways, poetry is a natural form of communication. Her next book, coming out March 2011, is Hurricane Dancers. It is historical fiction centered around Cuba again, and features the first Caribbean pirate.
The beauty in listening to both authors was hearing how their own identities play so strongly into the Latino characters that they create and the settings they choose, yet knowing the universal nature of the experiences their characters have. While Latinos will certainly, and wonderfully, see their lives reflected in these books, non-Latinos will as well.