June 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Middle Grade Novels for Spanish-language and Latino Lit Collections | Libro por libro

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The true middle grade novel is an increasingly rare phenomenon. With a lot of attention going to young adult literature, it seems as though middle grade readers have become something of an afterthought with publishers, and sometimes even librarians. To address the gap, the focus of this month’s Libro por libro is on books for upper-elementary and middle school children.

The titles presented in this column are a diverse bunch. Many are written in Spanish, while a handful are English-language books that feature positive and authentic Latino characters. On the more traditional side, Diana López is proving to be a reliable U.S.-based Latina author for middle graders, and her works speak to Latino communities in our country. Many of the other books highlighted here, however, originated in Italy, Portugal, or the UK and have been translated into Spanish. These series books, whether they star a young detective, blood-sucking vampires, or super-smart twins, will surely be hits with young Spanish-language readers. Another common thread in most of these titles is the use of illustrations and creative design elements to hook the intended audience—something between graphic and prose novels, but not quite either. Young readers, however, will not care how they are classified—they’ll simply want to dig in and start reading.

cervantes, Jennifer. Tortilla Sun. 224p. Chronicle. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780811870153; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9781452131504.
Gr 3-7–Izzy goes to spend the summer with her Nana in a rural part of New Mexico. She carries with her a baseball with the words “because” and “magic” written on it. She wonders if those words were put there by her father, who died before she was born. During the summer, she discovers the truth about her dad, and the true story of her family. Full of magic and miracles fueled by the setting of the land of enchantment, this book is a neglected gem that deserves a much larger audience. Twelve-year-old Izzy is a character who will resonate with middle grade readers. Magical realism pervades the narrative, and like Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, this work reminds us how place informs culture, and how New Mexico, in particular, is a place where magic is possible. The book includes a tortilla recipe and a glossary of the Spanish words used throughout.

DURBIN, William. El Lector. 208p. Pineapple Pr. 2014. pap. $12.95. ISBN 978156166784.

Gr 5-8 –This is an English-language title and a serious piece of historical fiction about an episode in Florida history. Centered around the arrest of cigar workers in Ybor City in 1931, the story focuses on Bella, a 13-year-old girl who wants to be a Lector, a reader, just as her grandfather was. And what could be a more perfect job? You get to sit on a high platform and read novels and newspapers to the cigar workers. But her dream fades as she has to work rolling the cigars, rather than reading aloud. When the workers and the owners come into conflict, all bets are off. What is most notable about this book is its emphasis on needing to preserve history and heritage, and the indispensable role that reading aloud and storytelling plays in our lives. First published by Random House in 2006, the title was recently reissued by Pineapple Press.

IOSA, Marco. Noticias del bosque. tr. by Santiago Ruiz Velasco. illus. by Giovanni Nori. 80p. Ediciones B/Blok. 2013. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9786074805208.
Gr 2-5–Originally published in Italy, this is the story of Polly Pec, a sheep who is the new editor of everyone’s favorite newspaper, the Forest Echo. Problems arise when Polly has to work with Lobo, a wolf reporter. A lamb and a wolf are certainly not the most compatible companions, and children will love how the animals learn to report the forest news together. The book contains abundant, appealing illustrations in black and white. This is perfect for kids on the younger side of the middle grades.

Libro_ConfettiGirlLÓPEZ, Diana . Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. 2013. ISBN 9780316209960.
––––. Confetti Girl. 2009. ISBN 978157 5423906; ISBN 9780316209551.
ea vol: 352p. Little, Brown. Tr $17.
Gr 3-7 –López has written two very appealing middle grade novels in English about the Latina experience. In Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, Erica “Chia” Montenegro is dealing with a plethora of emotions as she prepares to enter eighth grade—including the fact that her mother has been diagnosed with cancer. She hopes to make things better for her mom by making a promise to God in a special miracle room in a church outside of San Antonio, TX where they live. López fills her books with delightful traditions, food, and family togetherness that defines Latino life, with references to things like migas, a favorite tortilla and egg dish. The title character in Confetti Girl is Apolonia “Lina” Flores. The confetti in the title comes from the traditional cascarones, which are hollow eggshells filled with—you guessed it—confetti. They are usually cracked on someone’s head, scattering the festive colored paper everywhere, and used for a number of different holidays and festive occasions. Lina is dealing with the death of her mother, and the accompanying retreat of her father into the world of books. Meanwhile, she has all of the typical middle grade problems of best friends, first boyfriend, and in her case, collecting socks.

MAGALHÃES, Álvaro . Operación espejo mío. Bk. 9. ISBN 9788415235675.
––––. Pilladme si podéis. Bk. 10. ISBN 9788415235682.
ea vol: tr. by Juanjo Bedullas. illus. by Carlos J. Campos. 112p. (Crónicas del Vampiro Valentín.) Pirueta. 2014. pap. $12.95
Gr 2-6–Originally published in Portuguese, this series features the adventures of the Vampire Valentín, who is one of five members of the Perestrelo family. They have been awakened from the sleep of death and now must make their way in the world as vampires. In Operación espejo mío (Operation My Mirror), the villains of the series, Milhombres and Madroño, attack the undead family using a mirror to find those who do not have a reflection, thus proving they are vampires. The smallest Perestrelo, known as Dientecilla, or “Little Teeth,” stumbles upon a long-held secret as well. Pilladme (Catch Me) deals with, among other things, a stuffed teddy bear named Puff who guards a secret that can save the world. These are extremely appealing books for younger middle grade readers—half-novel, half-graphic novel, with terrific design, copious word balloons, over-the-top bad guys, and just about everything else a kid could possibly want. Note that the Spanish translations of these books use the more formal vosotros form of address, most commonly found in Spain and some Latin American countries.

Libro_MariellaMystery-InvestigaPANKHURST, Kate . El caso del fantasmo del conejillo de indias. Bk. 1. ISBN 9788415235729.
––––. El enigma del cupcake. Bk. 2. ISBN 9788415235682.
ea vol: illus. by author. 176p. (Mariella Mystery Investiga.) Pirueta. 2014. pap. $11.95.
Gr 2-6 –This new series from British author Pankhurst has been published in English in the U.S. by Barrons, but is also available in Spanish. The “Mariella Mystery” books provide a more interactive experience for children, as the illustrations show pages from Mariella’s journal where she draws and records her observations. In these two installments, Mariella investigates a ghostly guinea pig as well as a cupcake. This series combines the visual appeal of Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (Abrams) and Stephan Pastis’s “Timmy Failure” (Candlewick) series, with the added fun of solving a whodunit.

PEIRCE, Lincoln. Nate el grande: ¡Hola! illus. by author. 224p. Andrews McMeel. 2014. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781449464431.
Gr 2-6– Latino kids love graphic novels and comics as much as anyone. This is a translated collection of the “Big Nate” comic strip. In this volume, Nate tries to find his lucky socks, attempts to teach his friend Francis how to get detention, and deals with the worst bully in school. His adventures will resonate with Latino readers, especially middle grade boys.

Libro_HistoriasdelosSenoresPESCETTI, Luis María. Historia de los señores Moc y Poc. illus. by O’Kif. 120p. Alfaguara Infantil. 2006. pap. OP. ISBN 9789870402138.
Gr 3-7 –This book contains short vignettes, all independent from one another, and some even completely in dialogue, but all about the relationship between Moc and Poc, two well-dressed gentlemen who ask a lot of questions and have been friends since they were children. In some of their discussions they try to figure out how certain natural phenomena, like earthquakes, originated. In other conversations they simply imagine the world differently. They also manage to make the author a character in the book, asking him questions directly. This is all very amusing, and kids will smile knowingly as they read along. A longtime favorite.

STEVENSON , Steve. La isla de los fantasmas. Bk. 10. ISBN 9788415235545.
––––. La reina azul. Bk. 9. ISBN 9788415235521.
ea vol: tr. by Julia Osuna Aguilar. illus. by Stefano Turconi. 80p. (La escuela de piratas.) Pirueta. 2013. pap. $12.95.
Gr 2-6– In this series, translated from the original Italian, a group of five kids, calling themselves the “Little Wolves of the Sea,” are studying to be expert buccaneers at Pirate School. In La isla de los fantasmas, the young pirates find themselves on a deserted island—supposedly uninhabited but for a strange disembodied voice. In La reina azul, they are taken prisoner aboard the Blue Queen and must rescue the director of their school. The design elements and cartoonlike illustrations will be a hit with school-aged kids who read in Spanish.

Libro_Templeton2WEINER, Ellis. Los Mellizos Templeton tienen una idea. tr. by Roser Ruiz. illus. by Jeremy Holmes. 230p. Ediciones B/Blok. 2013. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9788415579069.
Gr 3-7– This Spanish translation of the first installment of the new “Templeton Twins” series (Chronicle) is a delight. Twelve-year-old John Templeton is the practical one, while his twin Abigail is obsessed with theory. Their father is an inventor, and in this story all three of them are kidnapped by another set of twins who want to steal the secrets of the elder Templeton’s inventions. The entire design of this book—from illustrations to typeface to page numbers and full-page chapter headings—is not only distinctive but also perfect for the middle grade audience. This is an example of the many heavily illustrated titles for young readers that have become popular of late—books with a mix of text, images, and design, all integrated and equally important to the narrative. What hath Kinney and Brian Selznick wrought?

Activity Ideas

Middle grade books can be used in a library setting to inspire kids to be lifelong readers and fans of literature. Any of the books featured here can be showcased in a book club program. Many of these titles make wonderful read-alouds. In either case, tether the event to a fun craft or activity. For example, participants can make the tortilla recipe from Cervantes’s Tortilla Sun. Aspiring thespians can act out dialogues from Moc y Poc. Bring in a local graphic artist to help kids learn to draw comics like the ones in Nate el grande. Host a scavenger hunt at the library, inviting young sleuths to follow their own inner Mariella. Budding journalists can design and put together a newspaper modeled after the Forest Echo in Noticias del bosque. There are many, many possibilities. Let the mayhem ensue!

Tim Wadham (wadhambooks@gmail.com) is the director of the City of Puyallup Public Library in Washington state.

This article was published in School Library Journal's January 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Tim Wadham About Tim Wadham

Tim Wadham (wadhambooks@gmail.com) is a library administrator and the author of Wordplay for Kids (ALA Editions, 2015).



  1. Katie Stuart says:

    Thank you for this list. There is a great need for middle grade novels in English with positive depictions of Latino characters. A few years ago, I was teaching in Lawrence, MA in a school with a mostly Dominican population. I read my 6th graders When Tia Lola Came to Stay by Julia Alvarez and it was a hit–they loved the sprinkling of Spanish words (a few that they could explain the connotations to me a get a turn at being the experts. ) There has been at least one sequel to that book, but when I went looking for more at a similar reading level that I thought would interest them, there was not much to be found.

    • Shelley Diaz Shelley Diaz says:

      Thanks, Katie, for your comment. Some other titles with Dominican protagonists include Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas, On a Clear Day by Walter Dean Myers, The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph. Flowers in the Sky by Lynn Joseph is for slightly older readers, but also stars a Dominican protagonist.

      Shelley Diaz
      Senior Editor, SLJ Reviews

  2. Thankfully the middle school I work at has some great books, and our librarian compiled books that have latino characters or deal with the Hispanic culture. One of my favorites is Esperanza Rising, so much so that I bought a class set and it is a required reading in my Spanish class.
    On my website I have a collection of over 60 titles that students choose from to get an insight into the Hispanic culture. (http://spanishplans.org/2012/09/20/hispanic-heritage-post-2/)