Updated: Apr 27
By Amaris Castillo
At Our Lady of Angels School in The Bronx, the impending high school application process has been heavy on Steph’s mind. It seems like everyone at her Catholic middle school knows which school they're aiming for. So when Steph's art teacher, Ms. Santiago, tells her about a high school that specializes in the arts, the eighth-grader is instantly intrigued. Steph loves to doodle and thrives in art class.
But there’s one problem. Well, several. Steph's Dominican mother, who is strict and overprotective, doesn't trust public schools. Steph also knows that her mom won’t want her leaving their home in The Bronx for a school in Manhattan. And there’s the needling thought that one of her best friends thinks being an artist isn’t a practical career.
Driven by her growing desire to apply, Steph remains undeterred and comes up with a plan. How far will it go, and at what cost? There are also other tough questions that are ahead for her: How will she balance the expectations of her mom with what she truly wants? And where does art truly belong? Is it only found in elite spaces, or does art live in the BX, too?
Author-illustrator Stephanie Rodriguez brings readers an emotional rollercoaster of a story in her debut middle grade graphic novel, Doodles from the Boogie Down. Out on April 25 by Kokila Books, the semi-autobiographical book set in the early aughts is filled with personality, humor, and vivid color. Rodriguez also brings spot-on authenticity to the Dominican diasporic experience, shifting friendships, and issues like bullying and peer pressure.
One aspect of the story that may be particularly resonant to some readers is the complexities of the relationship between a first-generation child and her immigrant parent.
“The first-gen experience is like a delicate balance of wanting to do good by your parents, and what their expectations are of you,” Rodriguez told the Dominican Writers Association. “This book is based in the year 2000, so social media wasn’t there – but TV definitely was. So you’re influenced by watching American television and seeing kids your age doing things that you’re not allowed to do. Even your own classmates; some were allowed to walk home by themselves, or some were allowed to get on the train by themselves and go to Manhattan if they wanted to. I just wanted to show the differences in first-generation kids and their yearning to do more, yet feeling kind of stuck.”
Readers are quickly acquainted with the difficult dynamic between Steph and her single mom, who has a commanding presence and is quick to draw up restrictions on Steph. From the beginning of Doodles from the Boogie Down, Steph struggles to even express herself in front of her mom. And it's as if Ma is with Steph in spirit when Steph is walking home after school with her best friends, Ana and Tiff. Even though her mom isn't physically there, Steph frets when her friends want to take a detour to the bodega for snacks. A nervous Steph tells her friends that she is supposed to head straight home after school, but reluctantly tags along on the bodega trip. She soon cuts the trip short to rush home before Ma arrives from work.
Though the relationship between Steph and her mom is not the only focus of the book, it certainly is a big one. “We don’t always get along with our parents, so I wanted to show that it’s normal to not always get along or butt heads, and sometimes have those hard conversations,” Rodriguez said. “At first when writing the book, I wasn’t too sure how to handle that situation because, in real life, I couldn’t talk to my mom like that. I didn’t know how to.”
Rodriguez said the book is partly based on her life. The comic book artist and illustrator shares the same name as her main character, and they’re both from The Bronx. But the graphic novel is fiction. In real life, Rodriguez didn’t end up attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts – the school Steph desperately wants to apply to in Doodles from the Boogie Down. In her creator’s note, Rodriguez wrote that she herself faced many obstacles, including her mother’s disapproval and not knowing enough information about the high school application process. The artist also changed some aspects of Steph’s and Steph’s mom’s personalities for the story.
Another theme of the book worth noting is the idea that art can be found everywhere. In Doodles, Steph gets the impression that art only exists in Manhattan. "Just like Steph, I didn’t really step out of the Bronx too much. I didn’t experience museums and galleries like that at all, really," Rodriguez explained.
Growing up, Rodriguez said she had a love-hate relationship with where she came from. At times, she felt stuck there. She wondered why places outside of The Bronx seemed to have more amenities and things that Bronx residents didn't have. So Rodriguez was intentional in wanting to show that sentiment in her graphic novel – of Steph feeling that she has to leave home to access or experience certain things.
“As I grew up, I started to appreciate The Bronx and my neighborhood more,” she said. “I’m thinking about the photography that I saw, the art, and the graffiti that I grew up around. I was obsessed with these things…. So I really wanted to put that in the book, that you don't have to leave your neighborhood to access art and culture. You already have it there, but maybe it’s not hanging in a museum, you know?”
Doodles from the Boogie Down took Rodriguez several years to make. Her work has been featured in BuzzFeed, Remezcla and more, and she’s been self-publishing comics for a long time. Before the opportunity came to create Doodles, Rodriguez said she’d always wanted to take on a longer project. But at the time, she didn’t know she had it in her. Then in 2017, she had her work published in La Raza Anthology, a collection of comics, illustrations, short stories and poems edited by her friend, award-winning cartoonist and illustrator Kat Fajardo. It was through this anthology that Rodriguez said she met her editor, Joanna Cárdenas (executive editor of Kokila). They met in person. Rodriguez recalled telling the editor the true story of wanting to apply to LaGuardia but having the idea shut down by her mom. From their conversation came the idea of turning that story into a book.
In her creator’s note at the end of Doodles from the Boogie Down, Rodriguez said she wrote and illustrated this book to honor a childhood memory “and the big, complicated questions young people are asked to grapple with.”
With tenderness, humor and enormous heart, Rodriguez tackles those questions. And she takes readers on an unforgettable journey along the way.
About the Author-Illustrator: Stephanie Rodriguez is a Bronx-born comic book artist and illustrator. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2011 with a BFA in illustration. Stephanie creates illustrations and self-published comics depicting the highs and lows of everydaylife. Her work has been featured on BuzzFeed, Remezcla, VaynerMedia, and NPR. Doodles from the Boogie Down is her debut middle grade graphic novel.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her work at amariscastillo.com.