A number of books by Latinos received notable attention this year, and as 2018 comes to a close it’s time to revisit those moments and recommend additional titles that are not to be missed.
First, some highlights: When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced last April, a surprising finalist for the award in fiction was Hernán Díaz’s "In the Distance", (Coffee House Press), an immigrant story featuring a Swedish protagonist. Díaz was born in Argentina, grew up in Stockholm, and has lived as an adult in London and New York.
A few months later, the National Book Foundation's long list for the prize in poetry included a bilingual edition of Puerto Rican writer Raquel Salas Rivera’s "Lo Terciario/The Tertiary" (Timeless, Infinite Light Press), and Chicano writer J. Michael Martínez’s Museum of the Americas (Penguin Books).
Though the National Book Foundation began recognizing books for children as contenders for an award in 1969, the Young People’s Literature category was not officially established until 1996. The inaugural winner was Chicano writer Víctor Martínez, whose book "Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida" (HarperCollins) is now considered a modern classic.
It took another 22 years before a second Latino-themed book took home the prize and that honor went to Dominican writer Elizabeth Acevedo’s dazzling debut "The Poet X" (HarperTeen), which is the must-read book of the year. Both of the young adult books take a piercing look at the complicated lives of teenagers who overcome temptations outside the home while dealing with family conflict inside of it.
Here are 10 more exceptional books that should not be overlooked in 2018:
1. Julián Castro,"An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream", Little, Brown.
With a bright future ahead of him, including rumors of a potential 2020 presidential run, Castro reassesses the path that led him to a successful career in politics. Inspired by the teachings of his Mexican grandmother and the fervent activism of his Chicana mother, Castro (and his twin brother Joaquín) worked just as hard to become a champion of working class and immigrant rights. Heavily anecdotal, this memoir offers personal insights into Castro’s values and ambitions.
2. Margarita Engle, "Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots", Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Based on the clash between Navy sailors and Mexican American youth whose distinct attire led to their mischaracterization as gang members in the infamous 1940s trial in LA, this novel in verse centers on three adolescent siblings who must contend with discriminatory laws and racial prejudice. The varied points of view (including those of sailors, reporters, and policemen) paint a startling portrait of a tense historical period.
3. Reyna Grande, "A Dream Called Home", Atria Books
This poignant and intensely personal sequel to Grande’s critically acclaimed memoir The Distance Between Us (2012) charts Grande’s college years and her early steps into the professional world. As she asserts her independence, problems from home still manage to unsettle her. Nonetheless, she perseveres, laboring to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer and finally finding true love. An inspiring story.
4. Ada Limón, "The Carrying", Milkweed Editions.
Introspective and attuned to the natural landscapes that amuse, surprise, and beguile her poet’s imagination, Limón elevates observation into moments of self-discovery. The language in her fifth book of poems, arguably her most emotionally complex, is generous with revelations about womanhood, and rich with startling imagery: “I am a hearth of spiders these days; a nest of trying.”
5. Isabel Quintero, "Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide", Harry N. Abrams.
This inventive biography of the visionary Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide includes a number of her iconic photographs and the stories behind them. Quintero narrates critical information and punctuates Zeke Peña’s graphic novel style panels with an imagined first-person testimony in Iturbide’s voice. The result is a personal history that’s as remarkable as any of the photographer’s portraits.
6. Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, "Ramírez-Figueroa", New Museum/Kunsthalle Lissabon.
Born in Guatemala City, Ramírez-Figueroa’s artistic vision considers the long-term effects of Guatemala’s drawn-out civil war on those who stayed and those who, like his family, had to leave. His unique blend of moving sculptures, video, and performance art create an impressive and unforgettable political theater. This publication is the first critical study of the young multimedia artist and rising star.
7. Julian Randall, "Refuse", University of Pittsburgh Press.
“I am Black and Dominican and Bisexual,” proclaims the impassioned speaker of this debut collection of poems that highlights the black-Latino experience. With admirable courage and honesty, Randall speaks to the violence of masculinity, the eroticism of sports culture, the struggles with depression and the dangers of moving through the city streets while inhabiting a black/queer body.
8. Ingrid Rojas Contreras, "Fruit of the Drunken Tree", Doubleday.
Though only four years apart, Chula Santiago and Petrona live in very distinct worlds. Chula’s is the safety of home and the affection of the new maid, Petrona, who at 13 becomes the eyes that reveal the ugly side of Bogotá in the age of drug lord Pablo Escobar. The alternating points of view mirror Columbia’s struggle to maintain its cultural beauty while contending with its new reality. Gorgeously written, it's a breathtaking novel.
9. Octavio Solis, "Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border", City Lights Books.
Best known for his groundbreaking work in theater, Solis takes readers back to the El Paso-Juárez borderlands of the 60s and 70s through a series of short prose nonfiction pieces that he calls retablos. Like devotional paintings, each micro-essay is poetic, rich with detail, and offers a spiritual connection to the land, people, and culture that taught him how to live, love, and survive the troubled times yet to come.
10. Duncan Tonatiuh, "Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight", Harry N. Abrams.
Tonatiuh’s trademark illustrations are indelibly inviting, even as the stories they depict offer glimpses into harsher realities. This fold-out picture book traces one man’s journey from border crosser to labor activist advocating for worker rights: “Papers or no papers, we have our dignity and we deserve to be treated fairly.” With its explicit political messages, this book is unique in the picture book canon.