9 new books for kids this fall, including exciting reads from Texas authors
'Cuba in My Pocket' author Adrianna Cuevas draws on dad's life for new book
Adrianna Cuevas’ latest novel for young people takes place in the 1960s. Its seeds were planted then, too.
The author, who lives outside Austin, is a first-generation Cuban American whose father came alone to Miami as a teenager after Castro’s rise to power. She’d always known that her grandparents sent him to the United States, but she didn’t know many details. As she mulled ideas for the book that would follow her Pura Belpré-honored debut, “The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez,” she realized it was time to dig deeper.
Part of it was the inherent drama that would be ideal for a story aimed at children aged 8 to 12. An even bigger part, Cuevas explained in a phone interview, was her realization that the time to hear this family history was drawing short.
“I knew I didn't want to miss out on the chance to find out what it was really like for him to come to the U.S.,” she said. “It was something I knew about, but it wasn’t really something that was discussed. It wasn't dinner-table conversation. While I had heard little bits and pieces here and there, I had never really gotten the whole story, or an opportunity to really ask him what things were like.”
Cuevas used her father’s experiences as a springboard for “Cuba in My Pocket” (Farrar Straus Giroux BYR, $16.99). She launches the book with a virtual event at 6 p.m. Sept. 21 at BookPeople, in conversation with Ellen Oh, author of “Finding Junie Kim” and the co-founder of We Need Diverse Books. Registration is free, and signed and personalized books are for sale.
“Cuba In My Pocket” centers on 12-year-old Cumba, whose parents send him to live in Miami to avoid being drafted into Young Rebel training that the new Castro-led government runs. With an altered passport and in a strange country with limited knowledge of the language, Cumba learns to navigate his new life, while still holding on to hope that the rest of his family will join him in a few months as promised.
Heading to school is a particular challenge, with its swirling sounds of unfamiliar words and customs: “School is a hurricane of noise,” Cumba writes to his little brother, Pepito. “Remember when that storm came through when you were little and the branches of the banyan tree banged on the windows all night? We couldn’t sleep. That’s school. It’s all banging, all noise. I watch everyone’s move, to see what they’re doing and guess if that’s what I should be doing, too.”
Cuevas, a former ESL teacher, was acutely aware of what her former students experienced, as well as her father’s crystalline memories.
"Of all of the things that my dad told me about his experience, I could tell that his experience in school must have been what stuck with him the most,” she said. “He was 72 when he was telling me all this stuff about when he was 15, and that was the most vivid information he gave me. He remembers the teacher who mispronounced his name, he remembered the teacher who basically ignored him. He remembered the teachers at the next school who acknowledged and helped him as much as they could.
“As a middle-grade author, our books are used so much in classrooms, and the gatekeepers of our books are the teachers and librarians. I almost wanted to include those scenes to speak to teachers ... so they can see what it's like for some of their students in their classrooms.”
Cuevas still loves school settings. She’s offering free 30-minute virtual classroom visits this school year, booked through her website. And she’s conscious that though “Cuba In My Pocket” has its roots in history, its lessons are still relevant.
“When I was writing the book, the news was dominated by undocumented minors coming across the U.S.-Mexican border,” she said. “While this is my personal story and this is a family story, this is nothing new in terms of the history of the United States. We didn't have this influx of Cuban immigrants and then it ended. Always, because of world politics and humanity, this is something that happens. These are the choices that parents have to make to keep their children safe.”
More books for kids out in September
September kicks off the busy fall books season. Here’s a quick look at notable new titles out this month, including many with Texas ties.
“Fast Pitch” (Crown BYR, $17.99): “Dear Martin” author Nic Stone reinvents “The Sandlot” with a team of Black middle school girls ready to shine — and win — at competition. Family secrets, though, threaten to splinter catcher and team captain Shenice Lockwood’s focus. Stone’s story of grappling with history on different levels also highlights the bond between Shenice and her teammates in this fast-paced coming-of-age story. Out now.
“I Survived: The Galveston Hurricane, 1900” (Scholastic, $5.99): Lauren Tarshis’ blockbuster historical-fiction series for elementary schoolers depicts key events from a child’s perspective, including Pearl Harbor and the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Her newest installment examines the turn-of-the-century hurricane that remains one of the U.S.’s deadliest disasters, a storm that shifted population growth in Texas and underscores the importance of accurate climate science. She launches the book virtually at 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at BookPeople, with “Ground Zero” author Alan Gratz. A book purchase from BookPeople is required for event entry.
“Hello (From Here)” (Dial Books, $18.99): Austin author Chandler Baker (“The Husbands”) returns to her young-adult roots with this novel, co-written with “The Feros” author Wesley King. Maxine and Jonah meet in a California grocery store just before pandemic-related lockdowns happen. The 17-year-olds’ courtship happens via FaceTime and distanced hangouts, but the struggles of connection, identity, class and mental health will be just as familiar to teen readers. Publishes Sept. 7.
“Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero” (Quill Tree Books, $16.99): Houston’s Saadia Faruqi (the “Yasmin” series) sets her new middle-grade novel in small-town Texas, where Yusuf would love to focus only on the upcoming regional robotics competition that he’s finally old enough to enter. But the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is drawing near, and he’s already dealing with Islamophobic sentiment from his classmates and neighbors. Publishes Sept. 7.
“Once Upon A Camel” (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $17.99): Newbery honoree and National Book Award finalist Kathi Appelt spins tale after tale from the Texas desert in this sensory delight of a novel for 8- to 12-year-olds. Wise old camel Zada keeps two young kestrels calm in a dust storm by sharing stories as the trio shelters in a cave. Illustrations from Caldecott winner Eric Rohmann accent Appelt’s rhythmic, soothing words. Publishes Sept. 7.
“My Two Border Towns” (Kokila, $17.99): David Bowles makes his picture-book debut with this look at a young boy’s life astride two countries, gorgeously illustrated by Erika Meza. Bowles is a prolific author (the multiple award-winning “They Call Me Güero”), professor, lifelong resident of the Rio Grande Valley and co-founder of Dignidad Literaria, a movement devoted to increasing Latinx (Bowles’ and the group’s preferred term) representation in publishing. This sweet tale, available in English and Spanish editions, spotlights a father and son’s time across the border, from visits to Tío Mateo and the paletero to dropping off supplies for those seeking asylum. Bowles and Meza launch the book virtually at BookPeople at 6 p.m. Sept. 14. The event is free, but books are for sale. A free teacher guide also is available for download via the publisher.
“The Other Talk: Reckoning With Our White Privilege” (Atheneum/Caitlin Dlouhy, $18.99): This accessible, chatty volume comes from Brendan Kiely, the white author who paired with National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds more than a decade ago on “All American Boys.” The two had long discussed how Black parents talk with their children about how to stay safe in a world that treats them differently. Targeted to middle- and high-schoolers and with a foreword from Reynolds, “The Other Talk” provides a framework for white families to start their own conversations about allyship. Publishes Sept. 21.
“Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine” (Chronicle Books, $17.99): This is the second title in Austin author K.A. Holt’s “Kids Under the Stairs” series, aimed at readers aged 10 to 14. Ben Y is tired of everyone calling her Benita, confused by her family’s ever-shifting response to her older brother’s death and downright irritated by her principal’s devotion to dress codes. Holt’s previous novels in verse include “Rhyme Schemer,” “House Arrest” and “Redwood and Ponytail.” The format makes these books more appealing to readers who might resist a page full of prose, and her stories are sophisticated and character-driven. Publishes Sept. 28.