Great stories are about the human situation first and any particular ethnic group second. The story collections and picture books created by Gary Soto are clearly set in Mexican-American communities, yet their universal themes speak to every adolescent. Soto, a Chicano ("That's what I am"), is quick to say that he feels a certain obligation to that ethnic group, but he's no cheerleader.
Born and raised in Fresno, California, Soto decided while in college that he would be a poet. He began writing poetry for adults and received much recognition for his work. In 1990, his first two books for juveniles, one of poetry and one of short stories, were published to wide acclaim, with Baseball in April and Other Stories, named as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Now 45, Soto's stream of creativity is still flourishing as he continues to write novels, plays, essays, and poetry for adults and young readers.
His newest title, Petty Crimes, is a collection of ten stories about kids in the middle-grade years who are dealing with contemporary issues on their own -- resisting bullies, petty thievery, a grandfather in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, a girl trying to buy back her dead mother's clothes.
"La Guera," the first story in the collection, begins with Priscilla in kindergarten, where all the children hold hands and sing of rainbows, unicorns, lakes, and sheep. But by sixth grade, Priscilla has become La Guera. She teases her hair, wears mascara, and steals constantly, especially candy and cake. Desperate to find a solution, her mother sends her for a summer visit with her aunt and two cousins, but it's too late for change. At the end of the story, we find La Guera back in the city in a vicious street fight with another girl.
Not a pretty story! Although touches of humor dot the landscape of several of these stories, most are depressing with occasional violent outbursts. When I asked Soto what he was trying to say in these harsh scenes, he replied, "Petty Crimes is about youth not using their minds or their bodies very well. And it is about the development of character." He went on to discuss a recent incident in California where a child tried to shoot his principal. Disturbingly, this type of violence in schools is becoming a nationwide trend.
A daily observer of the Mexican-American community, Soto wants to make clear that his stories are not based on actual events. "Although the experiences in my stories, poems, and novels may seem autobiographical, much of what I write is the stuff of imagination."
He writes in short sentences, using lots of dialogue and giving readers a vivid sense of reality with his deft use of imaginary detail. That detail includes several noticeable Soto trademarks. One of them is the frequent mention of food throughout the stories -- everything from pork rinds and animal crackers to Mars bars and barbecue potato chips.
"There may be something to that," Soto replied when I asked about all the food references, "but I don't do it on purpose. Someone else mentioned a lot of references to body shape. I think it's just that I see the images of what I write so clearly."
That may also be the reason Soto includes so many Spanish and Mexican words in his stories. He grew up in a blighted area of south Fresno, and "these are the pictures I take with me when I write. They stir the past, the memories that are so vivid." Soto has a big following of Mexican-American readers. "All the Chicanos read my books," he says. A number of Soto's books include glossaries to define the Spanish words and phrases he uses so naturally in all his writing, even in his picture books.
In Big, Bushy Mustache, Ricky doesn't like being told that he looks like his mother. When his teacher brings out the costumes for a class play about Cinco de Mayo, Ricky isn't interested in any of them until she holds up a mustache. He loves wearing it; it looks like his papa's. Against his teacher's instructions, Ricky takes the mustache home only to lose it on the way. None of his attempts at making another one works, and finally, in tears, he tells his father he has lost mi bigote. The next morning Papa has the perfect solution, and Ricky goes to school with a mustache in his pocket.
Another picture book by Soto, Snapshots from the Wedding, is told from a little girl's point of view. Maya was a flower girl in an elegant Hispanic family wedding, and her special memories of the event are depicted in Stephanie Garcia's terrific clay figure illustrations.
Soto's picture books are much happier than his middle-grade titles, but touches of humor lighten those as well. In "If the Shoe Fits," one of the stories in Petty Crimes, Manuel is preparing to go to his first boy/girl party. "He got dressed, splashing his face and throat with three different kinds of cologne. He brushed his teeth until they hurt and combed his hair four different ways" -- only to discover he had outgrown his dress shoes!
Soto's current passion seems to be writing plays. "It's not unusual for contemporary writers to try their hands at two or three different genres," he says almost apologetically. "I wish I could offer a brilliant thesis for my interest in so many forms, . . . but at the moment I'm still mulling over my intentions."