Gary Soto

b. 1952
Gary Soto

Gary Soto is known for a body of work that deals with the realities of growing up in Mexican-American communities; in poems, novels, short stories, plays and over a two dozen books for young people, Soto has recreated the world of the barrio, the urban, Spanish-speaking neighborhood where he was raised, bringing the sights, sounds and smells vividly to life within the pages of his books. Soto’s poetry and prose focus on everyday experiences while evoking the harsh forces that often shape life for Chicanos, including racism, poverty, and crime. In his writing, as Raymund Paredes noted in the Rocky Mountain Review, "Soto establishes his acute sense of ethnicity and, simultaneously, his belief that certain emotions, values, and experiences transcend ethnic boundaries and allegiances." Soto himself has said that “as a writer, my duty is not to make people perfect, particularly Mexican Americans. I’m not a cheerleader. I’m one who provides portraits of people in the rush of life.” Soto has received high praise for his poetry—his collections have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and he has received a Nation/Discovery Award and the Levinson Award from Poetry. However, Soto is perhaps best known and most beloved as a writer for children and young adults. Exploring universal themes like alienation, family life, and choices, Soto’s work for young and adolescent readers has been praised for its honest portrayal of communities too often relegated to the margins of American life. He has received many awards for his work as a children’s author, including awards from the National Education Association and the PEN Center. He is a recipient of the Tomas Rivera Prize.

Gary Soto was born in Fresno, California in 1952 to working-class parents who often struggled to find work. Soto worked in both the fields of San Joaquin and the factories of Fresno as a young man; though he did not excel in school, by the time he was an adolescent Soto admits to having discovered the work of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jules Verne, and Robert Frost. “In short,” he has said, “I was already thinking like a poet, already filling myself with literature.” Soto went on to college at Fresno City College and California State University-Fresno, where he earned a BA in English in 1974. While at Fresno, Soto studied with the poet Philip Levine whose sharp portrayals of working-class subject matter influenced Soto’s own poetry. Other influences from this period include Edward Field, James Wright, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Soto earned an MFA from the University of California-Irvine in 1974. His first book, The Elements of San Joaquin (1977), offers a grim portrait of Mexican-American life. His poems depict the violence of urban life, the exhausting labor of rural life, and the futility of trying to recapture the innocence of childhood. The book was awarded the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum and published in the Pitt Poetry Series.

Soto's skill with the figurative language of poetry has been noted by reviewers throughout his career. In Western American Literature Jerry Bradley praised the metaphors in The Elements of San Joaquin as "evocative, enlightening, and haunting." Soto’s second volume, The Tale of Sunlight (1978), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Soto’s work often springs from observation of daily life, portrayals of working-class characters, and memory. In the poems in Black Hair (1985) Soto focuses on his friends and family, conjuring the times he shared with his friends as an adolescent and more recent moments spent with his young daughter. Ellen Lesser, writing in Voice Literary Supplement, was charmed by Soto's poetic tone, "the quality of the voice, the immediate, human presence that breathes through the lines." The critic claimed that Soto's celebration of innocence and sentiment is shaded with knowledge of "the larger, often threatening world.” Soto’s poetry often deals with childhood reminiscences, and his later collections sometimes blur the line between “adult” and “juvenile” poetry. Collections like Neighborhood Odes (1992) and Canto Familiar/Familiar Song (1996) take on themes familiar to both: family, community, and place. A Fire in my Hands (2006) includes one of Soto’s most popular poems, “Oranges,” as well as a Q&A in which Soto discusses writing and the life of a poet.


Soto’s prose—including memoirs, short stories and novels—also engages themes that are central to his poetry. In collections like Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections (1985), Small Faces (1986), and Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets (1988) he uses vignettes drawn from his own childhood. In these deliberately small-scale recollections, as Paredes noted, "it is a measure of Soto's skill that he so effectively invigorates and sharpens our understanding of the commonplace." With these volumes Soto acquired a solid reputation as a prose writer as well as a poet; Living up the Street earned him an American Book award. Soto’s autobiography, A Summer Life (1990), extended his interest in memoir and vignette. Consisting of thirty-nine short essays, the pieces form a mosaic of Soto’s youth. During the early 1990s Soto turned his attentions towards writing for children and young adults. A first volume of short stories for young readers, Baseball in April, and Other Stories, was published in 1990. Like much of the work that followed, the eleven tales depict Mexican-American boys and girls as they enter adolescence in Hispanic California neighborhoods. In the New York Times Book Review, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria called the stories "sensitive and economical," then praised Soto: "Because he stays within the teenagers' universe...he manages to convey all the social change and stress without bathos or didacticism. In fact, his stories are moving, yet humorous and entertaining." Soto’s work for younger readers, including his poetry, has continued to be highly praised for its sensitivity and scope. Soto’s other works of fiction for young adults include the popular novel Buried Onions (1997) and its sequel The Afterlife (2003); among his many picture books for children are Chato’s Kitchen (1995) and My Little Car/Mi Carrito (2006). Soto’s work for children is also noted for its seamless integration of Spanish words into English text, making it particularly useful in increasingly mixed-language classrooms.


Soto's ability to tell a story, to recreate moments of his own past in a manner that transcends the boundaries of race or age, and to transport his reader to the world of his own childhood is felt within each of his written works. "Soto's remembrances are as sharply defined and appealing as bright new coins," wrote Alicia Fields in the Bloomsbury Review. "His language is spare and simple yet vivid." But it is his joyful outlook, strong enough to transcend the poverty of the barrio that makes his work so popular. As he told Hector Avalos Torres in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, writing "is my one talent. There are a lot of people who never discover what their talent is...I am very lucky to have found mine."

 

(Updated 2010)

Bibliography

POETRY:
  • The Level at Which the Sky Begins, University of California (Irvine, CA), 1976.
  • The Elements of San Joaquin, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1977.
  • The Tale of Sunlight, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1978.
  • (With Ernesto Trejo) Como arbustos de Niebla, Editorial Latitudes (Mexico City, Mexico), 1980.
  • Where Sparrows Work Hard, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1981.
  • Black Hair, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1985.
  • Who Will Know Us?, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1990.
  • Home Course in Religion, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1991.
  • Afternoon Memory, Lagniappe Press, 1994.
  • New and Selected Poems, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1995.
  • The Sparrows Move South: Early Poems, Bancroft Library Press, 1995.
  • (With John Digby) Super-Eight Movies: Poems, Lagniappe Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1996.
  • Junior College: Poems, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1997.
  • Shadow of the Plum: Poems, Cedar Hill Publications (San Diego, CA), 2002.
  • One Kind of Faith, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2003.
  • A Simple Plan, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2007
FICTION:
  • Local News (short stories), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1993.
  • Nickel and Dime, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 2000.
  • Poetry Lover, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 2001.
  • Amnesia in a Republican County (novel), University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 2003.
MEMOIR:
  • Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections, Strawberry Hill (San Francisco, CA), 1985.
  • Small Faces, Arté Público (Houston, TX), 1986.
  • Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets (memoirs and essays), Arté Público (Houston, TX), 1988.
  • A Summer Life (autobiography), University Presses of New England (Hanover, NH), 1990.
  • The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy: Recollections and Short Essays, Persea (New York, NY), 2000.
FOR YOUNG ADULT/CHILDREN:
  • (With Michael Peich) Heaven, Aralia Press, 1970.
  • Father Is a Pillow Tied to a Broom, (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.
  • The Cat's Meow, illustrated by wife, Carolyn Soto, Strawberry Hill (San Francisco, CA), 1987, reprinted Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
  •  A Fire in My Hands (poems), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1990, revised edition, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2006.
  • Baseball in April, and Other Stories, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1990.
  • Taking Sides, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.  
  • Pacific Crossing, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1992.
  • The Skirt, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Too Many Tamales (picture book), Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Neighborhood Odes, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1992.
  • The Pool Party (also see below), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Crazy Weekend, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Jesse, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.
  • Boys at Work, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Chato's Kitchen, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Summer on Wheels, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
  • (With Celina Hinojosa) The Mustache, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Canto Familiar/Familiar Song, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1995.
  • The Old Man and His Door, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Snapshots of the Wedding, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Tomando partido, Fondo de Cultura Economica (Mexico City, Mexico), 1996.
  • Off and Running, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Buried Onions, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1997.
  • Petty Crimes, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1998.
  • Big Bushy Mustache, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
  • Chato and the Party Animals, illustrated by Susan Guevara, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.
  • A Natural Man, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1999.
  • Jessie de la Cruz: Profile of a United Farm Worker, Persea (New York, NY), 2000.
  • (With Molly Fisk) 100 Parades, California Poets in the Schools, 2000.
  • If the Shoe Fits, illustrated by Terry Widener, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.
  • Fearless Fernie: Hanging out with Fernie and Me (poems), illustrated by Regan Dunnick, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.
  • Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone, illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2003.
  • The Afterlife (young-adult novel), Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2003.
  • Marisol, Pleasant Company (Middleton, WI), 2005.
  • Worlds Apart: Traveling with Fernie and Me (poems), illustrated by Greg Clarke, Putnam (New York, NY), 2005.
  • Help Wanted: Stories, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2005.
  • Chato Goes Cruisin', illustrated by Susan Guevara, Putnam (New York, NY), 2005.
  • My Little Car/Mi carrito, illustrated by Pam Paparone, Putnam (New York, NY), 2006.
  • Jesse (young-adult novel), Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2006.
  • Accidental Love (young-adult novel), Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2006.
  • A Fire in my Hands: Revised and Expanded Edition, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2006.
  • Mercy on These Teenage Chimps (young-adult novel), Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2007.
  • Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2009
PLAYS:
  • Novio Boy, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1997.
  • Nerdlandia (play), Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.
 
ANTHOLOGIES:
  • (Editor) California Childhood: Recollections and Stories of the Golden State, Creative Arts Book Company (Berkeley, CA), 1988.
  • (Editor) Pieces of the Heart: New Chicano Fiction, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1993.
  • (Editor) Everyday Seductions, Ploughshare Press (Sea Bright, NJ), 1995.
 
SHORT FILMS
  • The Bike, Gary Soto Productions, 1991.
  • The Pool Party, Gary Soto Productions, 1993.
  • Novio Boy (based on Soto's play), Gary Soto Productions, 1994.
Contributor of poems to Nation, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Ontario Review, and Poetry. Contributor to textbooks, including Scholastic Read XL, Grade 7, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.

Further Reading

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Bruce-Novoa, Juan, Chicano Poetry: A Response to Chaos, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1982.
  • Children's Literature Review, Volume 38, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 32, 1985, Volume 80, 1994.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 82: Chicano Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
  • Hispanic Literature Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

  • American Book Review, July-August, 1982.
  • Americas Review, spring, 1991, Hector Torres, review of A Summer Life, pp. 111-115.
  • Bloomsbury Review, January-February, 1987, Alicia Fields, "Small but Telling Moments," p. 10.
  • Booklist, April 1, 1992, Hazel Rochman, review of A Fire in My Hands, pp. 1437-1438; September 15, 1993, Hazel Rochman, review of Too Many Tamales, p. 151; June 1, 1995, review of Boys at Work, p. 1773; October 1, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Canto Familiar, p. 312; March 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Petty Crimes, p. 1245; October 1, 1999, Annie Ayres, review of Nerdlandia: A Play, p. 349; November 1, 1999, Karen Harris, review ofPacific Crossing, p. 549; February 15, 2000, James O'Laughlin, review of Nickel and Dime, p. 1085; August, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Chato and the Party Animals, p. 2150; November 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy: Recollections and Short Essays, p. 512; November 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Jessie de la Cruz: Profile of a United Farm Worker, p. 633; August, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The Afterlife, p. 1981; December 15, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone, p. 748; March 15, 2005, Hazel Rochman, review of Worlds Apart: Traveling with Fernie and Me, p. 129; May 1, 2005, Linda Perkins, review of Help Wanted, p. 1581, and Gillian Engberg, review of Chato Goes Cruisin', p. 1593; January 1, 2006, Gillian Engberg, review of Accidental Love, p. 86; March 1, 2006, Jennifer Mattson, review of My Little Car/Mi cerrito, p. 99; April 1, 2006, Hazel Rochman, review of A Fire in My Hands, p. 31.
  • Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1990, Roger Sutton, review of Baseball in April and Other Stories, p. 199.
  • Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1985, Tom D'Evelyn, review of Black Hair.
  • Denver Quarterly, summer, 1982.
  • Horn Book, March, 1992, review of A Fire in My Hands, p. 216; May, 1992, review of Neighborhood Odes, p. 352; November-December, 1992, Ellen Fader, review of Pacific Crossing, pp. 725-726; July-August, 2002, Nell D. Beram, review of If the Shoe Fits, p. 451, and Roger Sutton, review of Fearless Fernie: Hanging out with Fernie and Me, p. 480; November-December, 2003, Lauren Adams, review of The Afterlife, p. 755; May-June, 2005, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Help Wanted, p. 333, and Roger Sutton, review of Worlds Apart, p. 344; July-August, 2005, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Chato Goes Cruisin', p. 459.
  • Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, November, 2003, James Blasingame, review of The Afterlife, p. 269.
  • Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1993, review of Local News, p. 464; June 15, 1993, review of The Pool Party, p. 792; April 1, 1997, review of Buried Onions, p. 1229; March 1, 1998, review of Petty Crimes, p. 345; October 15, 2000, review of The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy, pp. 1469-1470; April 15, 2005, review of Chato Goes Cruisin', p. 482; May 1, 2005, review of Help Wanted, p. 547; December 15, 2005, review of Accidental Love, p. 1327; March 1, 2006, review of My Little Car, p. 240.
  • Kliatt, September, 2003, Michele Winship, review of The Afterlife, p. 13.
  • Library Journal, December, 1999, Harold Augenbraum, review of Nickel and Dime, p. 190.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 5, 1990, Ernesto Trejo, "Memories of a Fresno Boyhood," pp. 1, 9; August 15, 1993, Suzanne Curley, "A Better Place to Live," p. 8.
  • Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May, 2004, Michelle West, review of The Afterlife, p. 32.
  • Multicultural Review, June, 1993, Osbelia Juarez Rocha, review of Pacific Crossing, pp. 76, 78.
  • Nation, June 7, 1993, pp. 772-774.
  • NEA Today, November, 1992, p. 9.
  • New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1981, Alan Cheuse, "The Voices of Chicano," pp. 15, 36-37; August 20, 1990, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, "Growing up North of the Border," p. 45.
  • Parnassus, fall-winter, 1979, Peter Cooley, review of The Tale of Sunlight.
  • Poetry, March, 1980, Alan Williamson, "In a Middle Style," pp. 348-354; June, 1985.
  • Publishers Weekly, March 4, 1988, review of Lesser Evils, p. 102; March 23, 1992, review of Neighborhood Odes, p. 74; August 24, 1992, review of The Skirt, p. 80; April 12, 1993, review of Local News, p. 64; August 16, 1993, p. 103; January 31, 1994, review of Crazy Weekend, p. 90; February 6, 1995, review of Chato's Kitchen, pp. 84-85; January 20, 1997, review of Snapshots from the Wedding, p. 401; December 8, 1997, review of Off and Running, p. 74; April 26, 1999, Joanne M. Hammond, review of Pacific Crossing, p. 55; February 14, 2000, review of Nickel and Dime, p. 175; April 24, 2006, review of My Little Car, p. 60.
  • Revista Chicano-Riqueña, summer, 1983.
  • Rocky Mountain Review, Volume 41, numbers 1-2, 1987, Raymund Paredes, "Recent Chicano Fiction," pp. 126-128.
  • San Francisco Review of Books, summer, 1986, Geoffrey Dunn, review of Living up the Street, p. 11.
  • School Library Journal, November, 1991, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Taking Sides, p. 124; March, 1992, Barbara Chatton, review of A Fire in My Hands, p. 264; May, 1992, Renee Steinberg, review of Neighborhood Odes, p. 128; June, 1995, Rosie Peasley, review of Boys at Work, p. 113; July, 1995, review of Chato's Kitchen, p. 69; July, 2000, Ann Welton, review of Chato and the Party Animals, p. 88; November, 2003, Francisca Goldsmith, review of The Afterlife, p. 148; January, 2004, John Sigwald, review of Cesar Chavez, p. 123; March, 2005, Nina Lindsay, review of Worlds Apart, p. 234; May, 2005, Diane P. Tuccillo, review of Help Wanted: Stories, p. 139; June, 2005, Angela J. Reynolds, review of Chato Goes Cruisin', p. 128; July, 2005, Coop Renner, review of Taking Sides, p. 45; January, 2006, Miranda Doyle, review of Accidental Love, p. 143; June, 2006, Maria Otero-Boisvert, review of My Little Car, p. 145.
  • Voice Literary Supplement, September, 1985, Ellen Lesser, review of Black Hair.
  • Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1995, Maura Bresnahan, review of Summer on Wheels, pp. 27-28.
  • Western American Literature, spring, 1979, Jerry Bradley, review of The Elements of San Joaquin; May, 1989, Gerald Haslam, review of Lesser Evils, pp. 92-93.

OTHER

  • Official Gary Soto Home Page, http: // www.garysoto.com (October 15, 2006).*

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Poems By GARY SOTO

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

LIFE SPAN 1952–

Gary Soto

Biography

Gary Soto is known for a body of work that deals with the realities of growing up in Mexican-American communities; in poems, novels, short stories, plays and over a two dozen books for young people, Soto has recreated the world of the barrio, the urban, Spanish-speaking neighborhood where he was raised, bringing the sights, sounds and smells vividly to life within the pages of his books. Soto’s poetry and prose focus on everyday . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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