Literacy Café: Tortilla Sun Redux

Last July, I discovered Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes.  (To read my review, click here.)  There truly was something magical about this book.  When I finished reading it, I just knew that I had to share it with my students.  As I read the book aloud to one of our fourth grade classes, I became excited about the connection the students were making to the characters in the story.  I then started giving copies way to teachers and parent volunteers who in turn became excited about the book.

Of course, one thing led to another and before you knew it, we were planning a Literacy Café.  Our Café first opened it's doors on Monday, November 1, 2010.  We welcomed 34 fourth graders into our Café.  We were well prepared and had many enthusiastic volunteers to assist us with the activities.

Our hosts led children through activities that pulled out key concepts in the book and allowed children to interact with those ideas at a different level.  Children used their senses while nibbling on apple empanadas to talk about sensory adjectives.  At another table, children played with the symbols in the story in order to create a visual representation of the book.  And at yet another table children wrote poems about the characters.  When they finished, each child received a homemade tortilla with butter and honey just like Izzy eats them.

However, we weren't through with Tortilla Sun or with Literacy Cafés.  We learned so much from that first experience and have since put on over a dozen more Cafés centered around different books.  When word got out about the success of Tortilla Sun, I had requests from other teachers to read the book aloud to their classes and to hold another Café.  While I read to the students, my Literacy Café partner Angie busily revised activities.  We discussed other ways to explore the themes.  Tweaked activities that didn't work as effectively and tried to add in some other ways to work with the concepts in the book.  This time we even added in a session of folklorico dancing.  And of course our bakery bought apple empanadas became homemade empanadas, and Angie perfected her tortilla making.  Nana would be proud.

What we also learned through the experience is that paying attention to details is critical.  When children arrive in the Café, we want them to be transported into the book.  A piñata hanging from the ceiling or black crepe paper hanging from the door or even the smell of tortillas warming help children feel more a part of the story.

Was this Café better than the first one?  Yes, and no!  Both were wonderful on their own.  Both inspired children and helped them see books in a new way.  And also both times we learned things that would help us make another Café even better.  Take a look at this short video to get a better feel for the whole event.

Here is Jennifer Cervantes reading from Tortilla Sun at an author event in Glendale, CA.  I had a blast meeting her and telling her how much I loved her book.

For more information about our Literacy Cafés, you can check out my blog post here.  To visit Jennifer Cervantes website, click here.

Book Review - Tortilla Sun

Author: Jennifer Cervantes

Publisher:  Chronicle Books (May 5, 2010)

Reading Level: Grades 4th to 8th

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

A tender, magical story about 12 year old Izzy Roybal who is sent to spend the summer in her nana’s New Mexico village where she is soon caught up in the foreign world of her own culture, from patron saints and soulful food to the curious and magical blessings Nana gives her tortillas. In Nana’s village she meets Mateo, the adventurous, treasure seeking thirteen year old boy who lives on the other side of the bolted door in Izzy’s bedroom and six year old Maggie who is raising her cat, Frida, as a dog and sees marshmallow ghosts float out windows. When the wind begins to whisper to Izzy, she is soon led on an adventure to learn about her father’s mysterious death, who she really is, and to connect the hidden pieces of her past.

Several months ago, I signed up to participate in The Story Siren's 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  I will add admit that Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes was a late addition to my list of Debut Authors.  However, I am so thrilled that I found this absolutely lovely book.

If you hang around me for any length of time, you will know that trying to find books that my students will relate to is a big concern of mine.  The majority of my students are from Hispanic backgrounds.  Many are Mexican American.  There are some but not enough stories that feature Latino characters.  I was barely a chapter into Tortilla Sun when I knew that this was a book that I not only wanted to share with my students but that I would use as a read aloud with my fifth graders.

By now you may be wondering, what is so special about Tortilla Sun? Cervantes has created a story filled with well-developed characters, a vibrant setting, and a message of loss, love, family, and hope (pull out your tissues when reading this - I sobbed for nearly the last 1/4 of the book).  Twelve year old Izzy never met her father who died before she was born.  Her mother and she have never settled into one house or an apartment for any extended time.  After moving into yet another new place, Izzy uncovers a box of things that belonged to her father including a baseball with the worn words "Because____ ____ magic".   Shortly after this discovery, Izzy's mother is called away on a research trip and sends Izzy off to spend the summer in New Mexico with her grandmother.  At first Izzy is unhappy with this decision but shortly after arriving she discovers that the summer may be a time where she can learn about who her father was and what are the missing words rubbed off from the baseball.  From her Nana, she discovers the magic of homemade tortillas, and learns that the past needs time to be revealed.  From 13 year old Matteo and 6 year old Maggie, she learns about friendship, adventure, and caring about others.  From the adults that surround her in this small village, she learns to embrace the magic around her and discovers who she is.  Cervantes also weaves together Spanish words and phrases along with wonderful references to food and activities that further embrace the Latino culture.

This coming of age story is beautifully and masterfully told.  Cervantes has hit her own home-run with this debut offering and I am eager to read any future books from her.

You can find out more about Jennifer Cervantes and her book at:

You can find Jennifer on Twitter @jencerv or on Facebook:!/jennifercervanteswriter?ref=ts

You can purchase a signed copy (while they last) of Tortilla Sun at Borders Glendale: