Under the Radar: Cinco Puntos Press
James Bucky Carter, CJ Bott, and Ricki Ginsberg

 

Introduction

Bucky: When CJ Bott asked Ricki and me to be part of Under the Radar, I knew I wanted to accomplish two things. I wanted to eventually talk about some graphic novels, and I wanted to spotlight the small press publisher in my current home city. Herein, and with the help of my fellow UTR-ers, I am pleased to offer evidence of meeting the latter goal. Cinco Puntos press is an independent publisher of multicultural literature for all audiences. The press, located in downtown El Paso, welcomes student visitors to its location and often comes to the local university, The University of Texas at El Paso (where I am employed), to give students an insider’s look at publishing. Among their current young adult authors are Benjamin Alire Seanz, author of books like Last Night I Sang to the Monster, a staple in my YA courses, and Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood; Luis Alberto Urrea, who, along with Christopher Cardinale, crafted the magical graphic novel Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush, a story with appeal to children’s and young adult literature readers; and Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, whose The Smell of Old Lady Perfume  features a young girl dealing with the border issues of adolescence and adulthood and the literal border of El Paso, TX, and Ciudad Juarez, MX, which just happens to be near where Cinco Puntos is located as well.

In 2011, Cinco Puntos welcomes two new authors of young adult literature. Shirley Reva Vernick published The Blood Lie with the press, and J.L. Powers offers This Thing Called the Future.

Whenever I teach a course on Young Adult literature, I always share Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen’s criteria for what constitutes the best of the best of adolescent literature. I draw this information from the seventh edition of Literature for Today’s Young Adults.  Doing so allows us a frame to apply to each of the books we read. Below. CJ, Ricki, and I apply the criteria to the two titles mentioned above.

 

BloodLieThe Blood Lie by Sirley Keva Vernick

Jack Pool, the oldest son of Jewish Russian immigrants, turned sixteen on September 22, 1928. All he could think about was earning a day off of work, getting his license, travelling to Syracuse to study cello, and spending time with his crush, Emaline Durham. When Daisy, Emaline’s four-year-old sister, goes missing directly after being under Jack’s supervision, the people of Massena, New York, begin to worry. With the help of an anti-semitic hooch runner who needs the woods cleared of would-be-heroes so he can secure a delivery of booze, worry becomes fanatical hate, and Jack finds himself guilty before proven innocent, along with the other Jewish citizens of his small town. The Blood Lie is Shirley Reva Vernick’s meditation on hate as wildfire.

 

Characteristic 1: Written from the point of view of a young person

Bucky: The book is written in the third person and stays with it consistently. We’re certainly in Jack’s head most of the time, and we get insight into the thought processes of other kids and teens too, but The Blood Lie is driven mostly by dialogue and the narrator’s description.

Ricki: I agree that Jack’s voice is the most important narrative, as he is the protagonist. However, I found it interesting and enlightening to hear Emaline’s narrative as well, also told in the third person.

CJ: Hearing Jack’s young, hopeful, determined, anxious, but proud voice was very important to me when I read this book, but the other voices also added to my understanding of the time, the prejudices, and the boundaries Jack faced and would continue to face in his life.  However, it was the voice of the bigot, though it was needed, that created the conflict and, therefore, the story.

 

Characteristic 2: The young person or people in the story are able to take credit for their accomplishments.

Bucky: Jack is a skilled musician, and he hopes to escape Massena for a larger town. We have no reason to assume he won’t get what he’s looking for based on his talent, though he worries that society’s prejudices may follow him wherever he goes. Toward the end of the novel, he seems to have internalized some of the antisemitic sentiment of his neighbors and worries that no matter what he does in life, he may never be able to experience full credit in a positive sense because of his identity as a Jew. He does get credit for being a hero in an intriguingly subversive scene involving a rabbi who is grateful for his quick-thinking, but even then, his accomplishment can’t be named and celebrated directly or overtly.

 

Characteristic 3: The narrative is fast-paced.

Bucky: I would call this a novella, though it is being marketed as a novel. The pace is very quick and picks up speed as the story develops. Perhaps Vernick is using pace as a technique to illustrate how quickly misinformation spreads and the deleterious results it can have when a town’s majority population seems poised to need nothing more than a good excuse to hate its minority neighbors.

Ricki: I agree, Bucky. The narrative moves at a fast pace, which will certainly appeal to teens. It only took me about ten pages to become engrossed in Jack’s story. I was able to read the entire book in one sitting, and I didn’t want to put it down. I think the book will hook many readers.

CJ: The book is fast-paced in some places but comfortably slow in others, which gave me a break in the intensity. On my second read, I found so many things I had missed on the first read.

 

 

Characteristic 4: Includes a variety of genres and subjects

Bucky: I always apply this characteristic to a sample of YA Lit rather to any one title.

Ricki: Yes, this novella is most obviously a work of historical fiction. However, it can also be classified as a mystery, in my opinion. I loved the Author’s Note at the end, where the author tells a folktale.

 

Characteristic 5: Addresses diversity in some way

Bucky: While I get the impression that most of the town is Caucasian, there is religious diversity in that we have characters who identify as either Jewish or of any number of Christian denominations. Many of the residents are immigrants or first-generations Americans. Jack’s father emigrated from Russia. Rabbi Abram is from Lithuania. Several other European nations are mentioned as former homelands.

Ricki: In addition to the religious diversity, there is a great diversity with the ages of the key players. Some of the narrative voices of the story are: Jack (a teenage boy who is Jewish), his mother, Emaline (a teenage girl who is a Christian), and her mother. The differences in the ages of the characters influences their values and understanding of the world.

CJ: Do not forget Gus, hardly a religious man, who is so interested in saving his illegal shipment of booze that he stirs up a religious conflict that the town will probably never escape. Or the wonderful Rabbi Abrams who holds fast to his faith when being bitter would have been far too easy. This book, the town contain Christians, Jews, religiously uninvolved, old, young, and descendants from many countries, much like life.

 

Characteristic 6: The text is basically optimistic (coming of age; change; transformation;  silver lining; sense of becoming; glimpses of possibilities)

Bucky: The last scene with Emaline and Jack really plays with this notion of the silver lining. On the one hand, Jack will get to travel to Syracuse to audition for the music school there. On the other, no social progress seems to have been made in his town; the world isn’t a better place to live in. All of this is, of course, illustrated by an opportune puff of smoke and what can only transpire as the two are enveloped in its opaqueness.

Ricki: The text is optimistic in that Jack and Emaline both seem to learn and grow from the circumstances of the novel. They both display a strong maturity when they realize they cannot be together due to societal constraints. The advancement of the town did not give me a sense of optimism, but I think it would be wrong for the book to convey this message. The book is very realistic to the time period. I found Mrs. Pool’s ability to forgive to be incredibly admirable and very optimistic, and this gave me a sense of hope.

CJ: There is hope in the fact that Eva Pool and Jennie Durham long ago became friends respectful of the other’s spiritual beliefs and implanted that virtue in their children. Small steps are needed when reshaping the values history has implanted.

 

Characteristic 7: The text deals with emotions important to young people.

Bucky: The star-crossed romance between Jack and Emaline may strike many as frustrating. We get the feeling that even before the town’s recent embarrassment, there were social divisions regarding who could court whom. The two share a mutual attraction, but Emaline knows that some lines aren’t to be “crossed,” as is evident when Jack notices the crucifix around her neck at the exact time she tells him she wishes things could be different, but they’re not. The text also features a host of family dynamics and will, most likely, get kids thinking about how parenting styles have changed over the generations. Basic emotions like hate, love, anger, disappointment and forgiveness are apparent, but not specific to young people, of course. Still, I think The Blood Lie captures the attention easily and will give all readers plenty to consider.

Ricki: I think Bucky does a great job surveying a few of the numerous themes of this book. As a teacher, I can’t help but think about how this would fit into my classroom. I’ve already considered pairing it with Night by Elie Wiesel and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. My tenth grade curriculum focuses on tolerance, and I focus much of my class on genocide (current and past). This book shows how genocide begins–with hate. I appreciated that the love story isn’t the primary focus of the novel. It would be easy for me to use this book for students to make connections with their own lives. Teens always have to deal with rumors, and this book tells just how detrimental a rumor can be on a young person’s life.

CJ: The religious prejudices in this book can easily apply to current events around the world. Consider Darfur or Sudan; consider the harassment of Muslims in the our country, and how many Muslims, though loyal to the true essence of their faith, are treated like terrorists.  The book would also fit into a unit on bullying. Gus Poulos is a classic bully. History is littered with bullies.

 

 

cover5This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers

Khosi lives in South Africa and is proud of her Zulu culture. But the modern world is with her as well. She is surrounded by billboards about AIDs. One in every four people in her area have HIV, and she is dismayed by locals’ reactions to the disease. When her mother falls ill, she tries to avoid the whispers in church. After she believes her neighbor has set a curse on her family, she isn’t sure if she should follow modern or traditional beliefs. Should she become a healer or a nurse? And, how will she ever avoid the drunk man in town who is trying to attack her every time she walks alone?

 

Characteristic 1: Written from the point of view of a young person

Ricki: The novel is written from the first-person point-of-view of Khosi, a young girl who lives in South Africa. I found her to be a strong female, and readers will, likely, be very sympathetic toward her. I was rooting for her as she navigated the difficult circumstances that exist within this generation of young people in South Africa.

CJ: This truly is Khosi’s story; she is the only one who knows all parts of it. A secret keeper, she only shares those secrets with the reader.

Bucky: Khosi is a deep-thinking, reflective, mature girl who quickly establishes an intimate relationship with the reader. As CJ suggests, the reader gains a quick liking for and investment in her life. Powers does a great job at establishing a strong, unique voice from a lead character that one can’t help but admire.

 

Characteristic 2: The young person or people in the story are able to take credit for their accomplishments.

Bucky: Khosi must decide for herself how she will balance her ancestry and modernity. Certainly, as she completes an exquisitely-written vision quest/fever dream, she must take charge to decide her fate.

CJ: She can certainly take credit for her school accomplishments, but she must hide the part of her which connects with her ancestors, particularly her grandfather who died the day Khosi was born. Gogo, her grandmother, sees Khosi spiritual ways and knows the ancestors are guiding her, but Khosi must learn how to call them when she needs their help. Because of the environment, there seems to be many layers of secrecy in this book, and Khosi hides nearly as much from her mother as her mother hides from the family.

 

Characteristic 3: The narrative is fast-paced.

Bucky: The narrative has a good pace. It’s steady and has a rhythm but does not always move quickly. This is not a critique, though. Powers does such a great job of getting us into Khosi’s head and letting us feeling her uncertainties and worries and angst about self-defining decisions she must make and how she will react to the decisions of those close to her, that when the narrative is not quick, we understand why. But, when its time for action, the pace is swift and exciting. I have to say that Chapter 36, “Battle,” was one of the most enticingly intense scenes I have read in recent years.  So, while I won’t say the novel is fast-paced for 213 pages, I will say it is well-paced.

CJ: I agree, while it does some fast forward and a bit of slow motion, so much of the book is in Khosi’s mind or in scenes she can’t tell anyone about that the action ebbs and flows, but like the plot, the action comes through in so many layers.

 


Characteristic 4: Includes a variety of genres and subjects

Ricki: This novel is a realistic fiction. Teens in the United States will be able to learn about a new culture, as well, so it could fit in the genre of multicultural literature.

Bucky: I like that while it is realistic, there are so many elements of the spiritual and supernatural too. Readers might enjoy deciding for themselves if some of the more mystical elements can be explained by science or something else. Does everything have to have a logical explanation? Subjects or themes explored include sibling and family relationships; conflict between ancient cultural practices and contemporary society; puppy love; coming of age, and more. While the story is a bildungsroman, it bridges the space between literary realism, magical realism, and the more metaphysical “fever dream” element of many vision quests.

CJ: Well said, Bucky.

 

Characteristic 5: Addresses diversity in some way

Ricki: Absolutely. Many young adults are very sheltered from the lives of other young adults in different countries. I think the author aimed to teach, and she succeeded. This book will be incredibly enlightening to teenagers, many of whom don’t understand how HIV/AIDS has impacted their peers in Africa. Within the novel, there is diversity between characters, as well. Some members of society believe in traditional medicine, while others place their faith in more modern science. Khosi is torn between these two worlds.

Bucky: Agreed. HIV/AIDS gets swept under the rug a lot in the United States nowadays, and we don’t often think about how disease and globalization and modernization are all intertwined.There is some socioeconomic diversity apparent as well. Indeed, it is an economic impulse that provides for one of the more shocking revelations of the novel. Also, how many YA novels are there out there set in South Africa? Obviously more than I know about, but this one is such a detailed and artfully-crafted text that I felt like I was learning much about a nation  and its people. I was enthralled with the dynamics and tensions among cultural customs.  The glossary of Zulu words helped immensely and, just like Khosi’s narrative, offered a sense of “insider information.”

CJ: It saddens me to think so many people in our world are ignorant of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Forty-three years ago I lost my best friend to AIDS. It was such a secret because we had so little understanding of it then. In this country, we have more understanding now, but less awareness of the rest of the world.

There were many levels of diversity in this Powers book as there were in her book, The Confessional, also an incredibly structured, richly-drawn book filled with varied and wonderful characters.

This book would be a good cross-over in a class studying African history, world history, the AIDS crisis, or world religions.

 

Characteristic 6: The text is basically optimistic (coming of age; change; transformation;  silver lining; sense of becoming; glimpses of possibilities)

Ricki: Similar to The Blood Lie, I didn’t find the setting of the story to be very optimistic. My stomach turned as the drunk man tried to grope Khosi. My heart hurt for her as she was unsure of her mother’s diagnosis. However, Khosi’s strength is incredibly admirable, which gives me a sense of hope. She has strong family values and is passionate about helping her country. Therefore, for me, the book shows optimism in the face of tragedy. Khosi comes into her own as she navigates the waters of maturity, and she certainly develops and grows emotionally in her journey.

CJ: I would have trouble calling this book optimistic. It is real and gritty and worldly, and the fact that Khosi survives is the only sense of hope I found.

Bucky: Yes. In a nation that has been so defined by black and white, Khosi sees that most of life is lived in the middle ground. Good people have to make difficult choices that, if made public, might call into question their nature. Mysticism does mix with modernity, as some things have easy explanations while others do not. Khosi ends the text by looking ahead. She knows the past can’t be changed, even when aspects of it seems channeled through her. She recognizes the ambiguity of life as part of life. “There is only this thing called the future,” she says, with agency but knowledge that the known and unexplainable will always find ways to intersect.

 

Characteristic 7: The text deals with emotions important to young people.

Ricki: Khosi tackles issues that concern teens all around the world, including conflicts with family, doubts of religion, poor choices of friends, new relationships, and sickness of loved ones. The story is very honest in that Khosi isn’t always sure she is making the right choice, but she allows her heart to guide her. She is a great role model for young adults.

Bucky: Khosi’s adoration for Little Man is sweet and sincere. Many teens will be able to relate to the strong crush and attraction they share. Heck, it even made this old fogey remember the rush of intense feelings associated with young love. Khosi also has responsibilities that many will see reflected in their own lives. She has chores and helps take care of her little sister, for example, and she has to deal with her coming of age as she is taking care of family as well. While Khosi may not live in what many readers might think of as modern society, her life is every bit as hectic and complicated and full as many teens’ today. She might be fighting spirits and witches instead of balancing soccer and ballet, but Khosi has a very full plate and struggles to keep it all going smoothly.

CJ: There are so many ways this book can connect with young people and how the reader chooses to participate in The Thing Called the Future will ultimately reveal much more about the reader than this text that calls for discussion, sharing, savoring.

 

Final Thoughts

Bucky: While we hope you’ll read each of these texts and decide for yourself whether they constitute works among the best of the best of Young Adult literature, we found that both books met many of Donelson and Nilsen’s criteria points in intriguing, thought-provoking ways. Check out The Blood Lie and This Thing Called the Future, both 2011 releases from El Paso’s own Cinco Puntos Press, and be intrigued for yourself!