Gary Soto: Storyteller from the Barrio

Gary Soto came from a hard background by anyone's reckoning. His young father died in an industrial accident when Gary was only five years old. His Mexican-American family was struggling and lived in a tough neighborhood--next to a junkyard and across from a pickle factory. All through school, he and his family worked at whatever jobs they could get, including picking fruits as migrant laborers.

His grades were never very good, and his family never encouraged reading. That just wasn't part of their culture, what Gary referred to as the culture of poverty. In high school, he had a D average and was better known for being popular with the girls. Other kids in his place might have gone to prison, but he went to college. He had finally developed a love for books after reading To Sir, with Love, a story about an inner-city teacher.Too Many Tamales

He went from Fresno City College, a community college, to California State University at Fresno. He first studied geography but then was inspired by the poetry he read to major in creative writing. His teacher, an accomplished poet named Philip Levine, influenced him with his poetry about working-class people. Gary earned his degree with high honors and went on to earn his masters in fine arts at the University of California's Irvine campus.

He taught for 15 years at the University of California at Berkley until retiring to write full time. Throughout his career, he has won many awards for his poetry and stories. One of his poetry books, A Tale of Sunlight, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He has written successfully for readers of all ages: adults, teens, and children. His writings have inspired another generation of Hispanic writers to show their talent and put the world they know into words.

Gary Soto succeeds in bringing readers into the warm kitchens, onto the dusty, dry baseball field, and the bully-ruled blacktop of his memories. His rhythms capture the sparse beauty and love of his Chicano childhood while never becoming too sweet to be real. Not every story has a conventional happy ending. Often the pains and small triumphs of his early life are laid bare for the reader to acknowledge in doses that are suitable for each audience.

Books for Young Readers from Gary Soto
Gary's stories of growing up surrounded by loving relations if not much money make unforgettable picture books. He has also created a swaggering feline character named Chato whose slinkster ways and crazy friends keep the action rolling.

Chato's Kitchen and Chato and the Party Animals
"Chato, a low-riding cat with six stripes, was slinking toward a sparrow when he heard the scrape of tiny feet coming from the yard next door." One cool cat from the barrio cooks up a surprise for his new mouse neighbors in this clever picture book. Party Animals finds Chato arranging a birthday party for his best friend, Novio Boy. He's got it all planned, from the cake with mouse-colored frosting to his buddy, the DJ Sharkie, to invites for all their friends—but, where's the guest of honor?

Chato and the Party Animals was an ALA Notable Children's book for Younger Readers in 2001. Its illustrations by Susan Guevara also won the Pura Belpre Award for "a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."

A flower girl's excited memories of a neighborhood happening are captured in the picture book, Snapshots from the Wedding. The illustrations for Snapshots from a Wedding also won the Pura Belpre Award in 1998.The Skirt

Can there ever be such a thing as Too Many Tamales? Maria and her cousins find out when her mother's engagement ring goes missing after an afternoon of tamale-making. Tamales takes place at Christmas and would be a fresh and lively addition to a holiday reading list.

The Old Man and His Door tells of an elderly man who raises "the plumpest of pigs" and "the hottest of hot chiles" but is not very good at listening to his wife. She asks him to bring el puerco (a pig) to the neighborhood barbecue, but he thinks she asks for la puerta (the door)! This is a funny picture book to share at storytime.

If the Shoe Fits has Rigo, the youngest brother of a big family, finally getting a new pair of shoes to wear. Too bad Angel spots the nickels in the loafers on the playground. "There ain't no style like that," he growls and demands the nickels from Rigo's shoes. This picture book has a sweet but not saccharine ending.

Neighborhood Odes gives younger audiences a sampling of Gary's magical storytelling rhythms that turn everyday experiences into poetry. The poems are sparse and fresh with the glee of early memories.

Chapter Books for Independent Readers
These three books focus on elementary school friends from a working-class Hispanic neighborhood:

The Skirt
Miata Ramirez needs her beautiful dancing skirt for Sunday, but she left it on the school bus Friday afternoon! She has to get it back before her parents find out that she has forgotten something yet again.

Off and Running
Miata is sure she will win the fifth-grade election until Alex, the class clown, runs against her with promises of ice cream every day and a longer recess!

The Pool Party
A rich girl invites Rudy, Alex's friend, to a pool party. He gets lots of advice about what to get for a present and how to act in front her family, but ultimately he decides to just be himself.

The Author on the Web:If the Shoe Fits!

Meet Gary Soto
A quick, fun biography and a recipe for Gary's favorite dish, frijoles!

The Official Gary Soto Website
See the FAQ section for an online interview.

For in-depth information on Gary Soto, CRRL library card holders may wish to use Literature Resource Center and Biography Resource Center, which are two of our many online databases. Click here for a list of all children's materials by this author that you can find at Central Rappahannock Regional Library.


Photo Credit: Luminarias II with Gary Soto