RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And today our series Two Languages, Many Voices focuses on very young Latinas, girls who are likely to be reading the novels of Malin Alegria. Alegria's characters find themselves coping with everything from a really bad Quinceanera, that all-important 15th birthday party, to illegal immigration. The characters in Alegria's novels must navigate two cultures, as do many of her readers. Nishat Kurwa of Turnstyle News reports.
NISHAT KURWA, BYLINE: At schools in small Texas border towns like McAllen and Pharr, Malin Alegria gets a rock star's welcome, an uncommon experience for an author who's not, say, J.K. Rowling. She's greeted by handmade posters and her name on the school marquees. All this grassroots love hasn't wavered in the years since the release of her first novel, "Estrella's Quinceanera."
MALIN ALEGRIA: You can call yourself anything you want, Americana, Chicana, Latina, whatever. Your roots don't change. It's our blood. I tried to keep from rolling my eyes. You see, I think I've heard this speech a million times before. Can't we just compromise?
KURWA: That's from a video Alegria made. In Latino-majority regions around the U.S., she reads before auditoriums packed with teens.
ALEGRIA: I would dress up in the quinceanera dress. I would act out the characters, and make it come alive for audiences. So I got a reputation among librarians and teachers that I was a good performer, and I was really good at connecting with kids.
KURWA: Nora Galvan is the library coordinator for a South Texas district that's about 98 percent Latino. She says most of her students are bilingual and hungry for stories like Alegria's.
NORA GALVAN: The way she writes is the way we speak in this area. We do Spanglish all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GALVAN: I mean, every other word is Spanish-English, Spanish-English.
KURWA: Some of Alegria's chapters open with glossaries. With a wink, they introduce words and phrases that are common to bilingual kids, like Amanda Cevallos, a 13-year-old fan in the San Francisco Bay Area.
AMANDA CEVALLOS: Like, chola.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CEVALLOS: The definition was, like, big hair and, like, hoop earrings and stuff, which is kind of true. I just never find that in a book. So it's pretty cool.
ALEGRIA: It's really beautiful to see the kids get excited about your work.
KURWA: And Alegria says she gets plenty of letters from parents, too.
ALEGRIA: This was the first book my daughter read, or this is the first book that my daughter and I can read together and talk about the issues that are in the book. And those, you know, it's just like I could die right now and be happy.
KURWA: For some of the isolated communities that Alegria visits - say, in North Carolina or Illinois - Latino role models aren't so easy to come by. When she was a teenager herself, there were few Estrellas on the teen fiction shelf. The characters that reigned supreme for girls back then were the alpha blondes of the fiction series "Sweet Valley High."
ALEGRIA: I really believed that that is what American life is like, having blonde hair, having a twin sister, having a cute boyfriend with a red convertible, and thinking to myself that I needed to have this experience to be an American.
KURWA: Alegria says as a kid growing up in the diverse San Francisco of the 1980s, her parents soaked her in indigenous culture. But junior high did a number on all that Raza pride.
ALEGRIA: I was embarrassed of living in the Mission District, and I used to lie about where I lived, growing up feeling too dark for the boys to like, or my clothes were not new enough. So all of these insecurities are what I use in my writing now to educate and also affirm for young kids that it's okay to shop at the flea market, have parents who are working-class, and to be dark-skinned and still love yourself.
KURWA: Now, Alegria will have a shot at rewriting the American experience for teens. Scholastic Books, the biggest publisher in young adult fiction, has commissioned her to write a new, four-book series. In fact, she says, it's pretty similar to "Sweet Valley High"...
ALEGRIA: But with brown kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KURWA: The first book in Malin Alegria's new series is expected to come out next spring. For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa.
MONTAGNE: Nishat Kurwa is a reporter for turnstylenews.com, a project of Youth Radio.
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