I came across the bones of my book Star in the Forest on the outskirts of a small town in southern Mexico. One day, a decade ago, I was taking my daily walk down a dirt road lined with shacks made of corrugated metal and plastic tarp and salvaged wood scraps. I strolled past smoldering piles of trash and leaped over trickles of raw sewage, giving wide berth to occasional packs of scrawny dogs.
You should know that Iloved these walks. Each one was an adventure. Curious kids would approach me, and soon their mothers and aunts and grandmothers would meander over and offer me a glass of warm Coke or a tortilla and beans. . . and new friendships were born.
On this particular day, I came across a family leading a burro by a frayed rope. They smiled at me, and in perfect American English, one of the children said, â€śHey, what are you doing all the way out here?â€ť
Surprised, I explained that Iâ€™d been working here as an English teacher, then asked where theyâ€™d learned to speak English so well. They chattered about their previous home in Chicago, where theyâ€™d spent most of their lives until their recent move back to rural Oaxaca. It felt surreal to be talking to such thoroughly Americankids at the side of a dirt road where chickens pecked at corn kernels hidden among old diapers and Sabrita wrappers.
Over my next two years living in Oaxaca, as I met more young peoplewhoâ€™d spent part of their childhoods in the U.S., I tried to understand how they might feel straddling two very different cultures. I jotted down thoughts and observations in my notebook, thinking they might come out in a story someday.
A few years later, in Colorado, I worked with an organization that assisted Mexican immigrant families with young children. I made home visits in trailer parks where many of the families lived, and there I met children on this side of the border who were also negotiating lives that bridged two worlds. I came to understand that despite the relative luxuries of their American homesâ€”indoor plumbing and solid wallsâ€”undocumented kids have lives brimming with uncertainty. Considered â€śillegal,â€ť they lack a home that gives them a sense of safety and belonging.
During my time working with these families, I wrote a short story about a girl in a Colorado trailer park who misses her indigenous community in Mexico, and finds comfort in her friendship with a neighbor girl and a stray dog. My notes and ideas from my time in Oaxaca helped me flesh out the girlâ€™s flashbacks. I kept tinkering with the story over the next few years, but, sensing that it was missing something, I always tucked it away again.
While writing my first novel, I worked as an English teacher for immigrants. Then, after the bookâ€™s publication, my author visits took me to schools with large Latino populations. During these years, I formed friendships with many undocumented parents and children who shared with me their fears, anxieties and personal stories. A number of immigrants I knew had close relatives who had been deported from the U.S., leaving the rest of their family behind. Others had been assaulted or kidnapped while attempting to cross the border. Often, after hearing about these experiences, I took out my trailer park story and wove in more layers, ideas and details. Yet the manuscript always ended up back in a drawer.
On trips back to visit southern Mexico, I sometimes visited the families of my new immigrant friends. I spent a week with a family in a Nahuatl village called Xono and bonded with my friendâ€™s adorable three-year-old boy. On the morning of my departure, he looked at me with huge, earnest eyes and begged in his small voice, â€śLaurita, por favor, no te vayas a Colorado.â€ť Please donâ€™t go to Colorado. As I gave him a teary hug goodbye, I realized that to him, Colorado was a black hole that swallowed his loved ones. Back home, I pulled out my story again, incorporating experiences from Xono, adding bits and pieces from both sides of the border. Still, the story didnâ€™t feel complete.
And then one day, I heard from a 12-year-old reader Iâ€™ll call Maria. She connected strongly with Clara, the narrator of my first novel, What the Moon Saw, who visits her grandparents in their Mixtec village in Oaxaca one summer. Like Clara, Maria lived in the U.S. and had relatives in an indigenous community in southern Mexico.
But unlike Clara, Maria was undocumented. Sheâ€™d come to live in her Colorado trailer park as a young child, after crossing the desert illegally. Her father had recently been deported to Mexico, and soon after, Maria began having problems at home and at school. After a particularly bad argument with her mom, she yelled, â€śI want to go to Mexico, like Clara did!â€ť
Her mother pointed out that Clara was born in the U.S., and could cross the border freely. Yet if Maria crossed the border, it would be too dangerous and costly to return. â€śI donâ€™t care!â€ť she shouted.
Then her mother told her that if she moved back to their village, she could no longer go to school; instead, sheâ€™d have to wash clothes by hand all day to earn her living.Understandably, this made Maria even angrier. . . and frustrated and sad.
Which made me angry, frustrated and sad. So I wrote about it in my notebook. And suddenly, everything Iâ€™d been trying to say in the trailer park story crystallized. I wrote about a girl in Mariaâ€™s situation, trying to find a sense of power and comfort in a desperate situation beyond her control. The novel that emerged had the framework of my original story, but now I felt there was something more, something that made the story pulse and breathe. After a decade and many journeys back and forth across the border, its heart had arrived.
Star in the Forest is Laura Resauâ€™s fourth novel for young people. Her other novels are The Indigo Notebook, Red Glass and What the Moon Saw, all published by Delacorte Press. You can read more about her books at http://www.LauraResau.com.
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2010 Fall
When her illegal-immigrant father is deported back to Mexico, eleven-year-old Zitlally withdraws. She slowly builds trust with outcast Crystal and with a pathetic chained-up dog that she names Star. This novel's topic, unusually gritty for its second- to fifth grade audience, springs from situations that illegal immigrants face daily. Resau gives her protagonist a lyrical voice and outlook. An author's note is included. Glos. Copyright 2010 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2010 #2
When her illegal-immigrant father is deported back to Mexico right after her eleventh birthday, Zitlally withdraws, losing the American friends she had tried so hard to cultivate. Left to herself, she finds a pathetic chained-up dog, names him Star (the meaning of her own name), and slowly builds trust with him. She also finds a new friend in Crystal, an outcast at school because of her poor hygiene and her habit of spinning outrageous stories. Zitlally decides to overlook her lies, and the two work together to find Star when he disappears, not just because they love the dog but also because they feel his fate is tied to that of Zitlally's father, kidnapped on his journey back into the United States. This novel features unusually gritty topics for its intended audience of second- to fifth graders, but they are ones that spring from the type of situations that illegal Mexican immigrants face daily. Resau gives her protagonist a lyrical voice and outlook, as when the two girls pretend they can eat sunshine, but the shy Zitlally also develops courage when she must communicate in both English and Spanish with lots of people while searching for Star. The story is appended with a folktale about a magical forest and animal spirits, followed by a Spanish glossary, a few words in Nahuatl (the ancient Aztec language), and an author's note about immigration. Resau's good intentions overwhelm the book, but for some readers these will be outweighed by some beautifully written passages and the appeal of the dog story. Copyright 2010 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2010 March #1
When her father is deported, Zitlally, a Mexican girl living in Colorado, feels that her home is breaking into pieces, like the fractions she is studying at school. Her grades start falling, she cannot tell her friends the truth, her mother is always on the phone and she and her sisters are left to their own devices. Zitlally spends the afternoons in a cemetery of old car parts behind her family's mobile home. She calls this junkyard a forest, and, like the forests described in her father's folktales, it is magical. Resau introduces preteens to the drama that thousands of children of immigrants face in the United States: the fear of their parents' deportation. But she also brings in important cultural aspects of the Nahua and the Mixtec communities, like their belief in animal totems, as manifest in Zitlally's spiritual link to the little dog that she names Star. Zitlally's first-person narration effectively re-creates the ingenuous voice of an 11-year-old, infused with concern for her family. A story of friendship that will speak to children of different cultures. Nahualt and Spanish glossaries. (Fiction. 7-10) Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2010 May/June
After Zitlally?s father is deported to Mexico, she loses interest in everything. Wandering in the ?forest? of rusted car parts behind their trailer park, she discovers an abandoned white dog with a black star-shaped mark on his neck and names him Star. She visits him every day and a bond grows. Her neighbor, Crystal, becomes involved, too. Just after Zitlally?s mother has put together enough money to send for her father and it seems as if the family will be reunited, he encounters even greater peril and Star goes missing. The girls believe that Papa?s fate is linked to Star?s, and they set out to find the dog. This is a mystical, sensitive tale which addresses the very real problems of illegal immigration. The author has included a thoughtful section on illegal immigration along with a Spanish glossary and pronunciation guide. A short folktale is added after the main story. Realistic fiction coupled with a good plot makes this a winner. Recommended. Rita Fontinha, Educational Reviewe , West Bridgewater, Massachusetts Â¬ 2010 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
School Library Journal Reviews 2010 February
Gr 4-6--Seeking solace in a "forest" of abandoned car parts after her father's deportation, fifth-grader Zitlally befriends a small dog chained to a rusty truck hood and names him Star. Remembering the tales her Nahuatl-speaking Pap told her, she begins to think of the dog as his "spirit animal." If she can rescue Star, perhaps her father will return safely from Mexico. With her trailer-park neighbor and new friend Crystal, she nurtures and trains the dog, searching for him when he disappears and rescuing him when an injury threatens his life. The magical thinking that worked in Mexico when she was young and frightened by a dog bite works again to reunite her family. Once again, Resau has woven details of immigrant life into a compelling story. The focus is on the developing friendships, both between Zitlally and her previously ignored neighbor, and between the fearful youngster and the dog. Conversations between the two girls are believable and the details of their lives convincing. The first-person narrative moves steadily as Zitlally loses and then gradually recovers her voice and gains confidence. Vignette illustrations introduce the chapters. A version of Zitlally's father's spirit animal story, a note about immigration, and glossaries of Spanish and Nahuatl words are appended. This is a well-told and deeply satisfying read.--Kathleen Isaacs, Children's Literature Specialist, Pasadena, MD[Page 122]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.