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Gary Soto: 1952—: Children's Author, Novelist, Poet

Depicted Central Valley In Poems

While still a student, Soto had begun publishing poetry in magazines and journals, and he started winning literary prizes as early as 1975. From the beginning, although he grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, he wrote mostly in English. Soto's first book of poetry, The Elements of San Joaquin, was published in 1977 and immediately attracted critical attention and praise; it differed in several respects from the bulk of Chicano poetry that had appeared up to that point. Soto presented poems depicting scenes and figures from the Central Valley of his youth. Although he did not shy away from representing the life of Mexican Americans as hard and hostile—his description of "men whose arms were bracelets of burns" was widely quoted—Soto avoided an explicitly political tone. His poetry was both personal and universal; some reviewers compared his imagery of the dusty, bleak Central Valley to the feeling conveyed by a classic poem of modern alienation, T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."

By 1985 Soto had published four books of poetry and contributed to several other volumes, and he ascended to the rank of associate professor in Berkeley's English and Chicano Studies departments that year. His poetry had always had a strong storytelling quality, and in the mid-1980s, he began writing prose stories and autobiographical vignettes. Two books of autobiographical writings, 1983's Small Faces and 1988's Lesser Evils, were collected in the 2000 volume The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy, along with new material. Soto wrote evocatively about such painful incidents of childhood as schoolyard ridicule over an article of clothing, and from these recollections it was a short step to writing material for readers in the child and young adult age groups.

Soto, according to Booklist, hoped "to start Chicanos reading," and indeed when he started out, the selection of books set among Mexican Americans and aimed at young readers was very sparse. One of his first efforts was Baseball in April and Other Stories, set among teenagers in neighborhoods much like those where Soto himself had grown up. "His stories are moving, yet humorous and entertaining," noted the New York Times. "The best are also quite subtle. Unsentimental yet bittersweet, they chronicle the responses of young people to the difficulties they encounter."

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II BiographyGary Soto: 1952—: Children's Author, Novelist, Poet Biography - Weak Student In High School, Depicted Central Valley In Poems, Wrote Picture Books For Children