All ages wel­come Juan Felipe Her­rera


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jen­nifer Levin

I told my story through that book [ The Up­side Down Boy], fig­ur­ing it was a good story to tell to chil­dren who are hav­ing dif­fi­cult times, es­pe­cially im­mi­grant chil­dren. I want to choose a sub­ject that the kids can re­late to and that their par­ents can re­late to.

Juan Felipe Her­rera, poet lau­re­ate of t he United States for 2015 to 2016, writes books for chil­dren and young adults be­cause, he told Pasatiempo, “the writer of the 21st cen­tury writes to many au­di­ences and all ages.”

In his nu­mer­ous col­lec­tions of po­etry, which in­clude 2008’s Half of t he World i n Light: New and Se­lected Po­ems and 2013’s Sene­gal Taxi, he of­ten t akes a frag­men­tary, col­lage ap­proach, lay­er­ing im­ages with di­a­logue and stream-of- con­scious­ness as­so­ci­a­tions to con­vey the im­mi­grant and border­lands ex­pe­ri­ence in the United States. His books for younger read­ers have t he same ba­sic st yle and sub­ject mat­ter — even 2003’s Su­per Cilantro Girl, about a lit­tle girl-turned- su­per­hero who res­cues her mother f rom de­ten­tion at t he bor­der. That story and oth­ers, in­clud­ing 1995’s Call­ing the Doves and Grandma & Me at the Flea (2002), are writ­ten in English and Span­ish.

Her­rera, the first Latino U. S. poet lau­re­ate, is on t he f ac­ulty at t he Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side. He was born in Cal­i­for­nia, the son of mi­grant farm work­ers who even­tu­ally moved to the city of Los An­ge­les so Her­rera could at­tend school. He chron­i­cled the con­fu­sion of start­ing school with­out know­ing much English in The Up­side Down Boy (2000). “I was com­ing f rom a small, Span­ish- speak­ing fam­ily that lived on ran­chos at the out­skirts of town, on the moun­tain­tops,” he said. “My father was born in 1882. He learned a lot, but he never went to school. He came to the north coun­try, to the United States, when he was fif­teen. He be­came a cow­boy, a ranch hand. Ev­ery­thing you can imag­ine that in­volves hard la­bor, he did it. I told my story through that book, fig­ur­ing it was a good story to tell to chil­dren who are hav­ing dif­fi­cult times, es­pe­cially im­mi­grant chil­dren. I want to choose a sub­ject that the kids can re­late to and that their par­ents can re­late to.”

He tells an­other chap­ter of t hat st or y in 2005’s Down­town Boy, which is set in the 1950s and meant for slightly older read­ers. Juanito is the per­pet­ual new kid in school, a fifth- grader at the mercy of his street­wise cousins and his father’s f re­quent ab­sences. Down­town Boy i s writ­ten in bouncy free verse, which makes it a quick read be­cause char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment takes a back seat to the for­ward mo­tion of the plot. An even more ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proach to young adult lit­er­a­ture is ev­i­dent in books for teens, such as CrashBoomLove (1999), Skate Fate (2011), and Cin­na­mon Girl: Let­ters Found In­side a Ce­real Box (2005), all of which are writ­ten in f ree verse. Skate Fate, about a gen­der-fluid for­mer skate­boarder in foster care who lost the use of his legs but de­cided to make po­etry out of ev­ery ex­pe­ri­ence, can be dif­fi­cult to fol­low. Her­rera said that when he wrote Skate Fate, he wasn’t fa­mil­iar with the struc­ture that such a book should have. “Some­times I have an idea, there’s a story I want to write, but in my early novel sin verse, I was just guess­ing. It’s OK. I still like those books.” In­cluded in this self- dep­re­cat­ing as­sess­ment of his own work was Cin­na­mon Girl, in which a teenager copes in the af­ter­math of 9/11 by gath­er­ing dust from New York City’s Lower East Side and re­turn­ing it to Ground Zero.

Her­rera’s books fea­ture con­tem­po­rary Latino and Latina char­ac­ters who speak Span­ish to their friends and loved ones. Such books can be dif­fi­cult to find in a pub­lish­ing world that tends to pri­or­i­tize sto­ries about white chil­dren and where di­ver­sity is of­ten lim­ited to his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Her­rera’s books also of­fer read­ers an al­ter­na­tive path to ap­pre­ci­a­tion for lan­guage and sto­ry­telling that di­verges from the lim­ited way lit­er­a­ture is taught to school­child­ren in the United States — cur­ric­ula that does not al­ways in­clude po­etry and prose by con­tem­po­rary writ­ers of color. In some states, such as Ari­zona, books that em­pha­size eth­nic con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can cul­ture and his­tory risk be­ing banned in schools, which makes the con­tin­ued pub­li­ca­tion and pro­mo­tion of such books cru­cial to the fu­ture of chil­dren’s read­ing. In 2014, Her­rera au­thored Por­traits of His­panic Amer­i­can He­roes, il­lus­trated by Raúl Colón. The book high­lights note­wor­thy His­panic and Latin Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing la­bor lead­ers César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, mu­si­cian Joan Baez, No­bel Prize win­ner Luis Al­varez, ac­tress Rita Moreno, and Supreme Court Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor. “It’s not what I write usu­ally, so I had to switch gears. There’s no non­fic­tion in verse,” he said.

Her­rera de­scribed the en­tries in the book as more than just su­per­fi­cial bios that touch on fame. Though the book is writ­ten for chil­dren, he made sure the back­ground in­for­ma­tion — about each per­son’s in­ner drive and path to suc­cess — did his sub­jects jus­tice. The pro­ject re­quired co­pi­ous re­search. “You would think that af­ter all th­ese years, there would be lengthy books and bi­ogra­phies about Lati­nos and Lati­nas that have lived in the United States, but that isn’t the case. I had to pull in a lot of sources to fill in the pic­tures of the he­roes.”

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