The strength of Gary Soto’s work is that these stories could be written about young people of any culture. Equally so, another strength of these stories is that they are written with names and characteristics of Hispanic youth and culture. All young people must have literary heroes if they are to believe that literature can speak to them. These stories are particularly important for Hispanic youth because there are so few pieces of literature for them and because the tales are so well written. Fresh imagery abounds in the text; comparisons are made that are easily accessible to and enjoyable for younger readers. Soto deftly weaves Spanish words, phrases, and expressions into the text (and provides a list of these with their translations in the back of the book) so that both language and culture come through in an authentic, realistic way.
The themes of first love, sports, dreams, coming-of-age, and family are central to these stories and to adolescence itself. Consequently, middle-school readers will find their thoughts and feelings validated on these pages. “Broken Chain,” “Seventh Grade,” and “Mother and Daughter” all address the complexities and confusion of first love. “Baseball in April,” “The Karate Kid,” and “The Marble Champ” address willed prowess in various athletic endeavors and how success nurtures self-esteem. The power of dreams is central to “Two Dreamers” and “The No-Guitar Blues,” while “Barbie,” “La Bamba,” and “Growing Up” reveal the difficulties of coming-of-age. Sometimes strained but important relationships among family members are featured in these stories as well, evidence of the realities of maturation.
Gary Soto is of critical importance to children’s and young adult literature because, with Baseball in April and Other Stories in 1990, he became the first Mexican American author to have a children’s book released by a mainstream publishing company. A Fire in My Hands, Soto’s book of poetry for children, was also published that year, and two more poetry collections soon followed: Neighborhood Odes (1992) and Canto Familiar (1995). It is not surprising that poetry would be included in his introductory year to children’s literature, since most of Soto’s earlier works consisted of poetry for adults.
Another collection of short fiction by Soto that is appropriate for this age group is Local News (1993). Some of his novels that middle-school students might enjoy are Taking Sides (1991), a story of loyalties both on and off the basketball court; Pacific Crossing (1992), a story of martial arts and a summer in Japan; The Pool Party (1993), a young boy’s reconciliation with his identity as a Mexican American in Southern California; Crazy Weekend (1994), a hilarious “cops and robbers” kind of adventure; and Jesse (1994), a realistic look at the potential of Mexican American youth. Soto’s collections of autobiographical essays include Living up the Street (1985), Small Faces (1986), and A Summer Life (1990).
Soto’s strength as a writer is exhibited in the variety of genres and audiences that he has addressed. Younger students might enjoy his short novel The Skirt (1992), the tale of a girl named Miata who loses the special skirt that she needs for the folklorico, or his picture books Too Many Tamales (1993), a Christmas Eve story involving a missing wedding ring and “too many tamales,” and Chato’s Kitchen (1995), in which a cat attempts to rid his barrio of little mice and ends up having them for dinner as guests instead of as the main course.