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Uncovered: Masks That Reveal Who We Are, a guest post by Matt Wallace

In another time I might have started this by asking if you, the reader, have ever worn a mask, perhaps for Halloween or to a masquerade-themed party. That is, of course, an irrelevant question. It’s even a laughable one at this point. We all wear masks now, some of us more stringently than others. Of course, for folks from certain cultures and countries, wearing a mask for public health reasons is nothing new or particularly shocking. It is, in fact, entirely commonplace for many. For others, masks have been and are a major adjustment. Some of us react more reasonably than others to this adjustment.

It didn’t really hit me that I have a novel coming out featuring a largely masked protagonist and the extra significance of that in the year 2021 until I sat down to compose this essay. I looked at the cover of my debut middle-grade novel, BUMP, and the face of the young girl smiling through the mask she wears, perfectly and joyously depicted by artist Kat Fajardo. I started thinking about what that character’s mask means, both to her and in a much larger sense.

It is a strange time to write about wearing masks, to say the least. However, it may also be the perfect time to examine and explore what masks mean to us, in different ways and different cultural contexts. We often use “wearing masks” as a metaphor for hiding one’s true self, either out of fear, insecurity, necessity, or even duplicity. These connotations give the very idea of masks, especially as an everyday fixture, an already negative foundation before we even get into the larger issues surrounding them today.

I was raised to view masks very differently. I was raised on professional wrestling, both the American style and the quintessentially Mexican style known as lucha libre. The enmascarado is the particular variety of Mexican wrestler, or luchador, who dons an often colorful mask, or máscara, as the central symbol and costume of their wrestling persona. These masks can draw a direct line and lineage back to the time of ancient Aztec warriors. They have been and are used to represent animal essences, gods, heroes, and heroines. Traditionally, the enmascarado not only wrestles in their mask, they live their entire public life inside that mask. It is inseparable from their identity. It even becomes the public identity of entire families and generations, often handed down from parent to child along with the corresponding ring name. To lose one’s mask is the ultimate disgrace.

In BUMP, the protagonist, MJ, is a young girl who is dealing with grief and feelings of total isolation. She’s lost her main connection to what she perceives as her identity, and what’s left of that sense of self is derided every day by bullies at school. She is given the máscara of a fallen luchador to wear as her own, along with their name. The mask gives her a new sense of identity. It does not replace who she is, but reinforces and gives her a new outlet for her self. It also inducts her into a community of like-minded individuals who become her new family. The mask and the persona it represents allows her to become more than she ever thought she could be.

Returning to the cover I mentioned, it was so important to all of us to depict MJ smiling as she flies through the air above the wrestling ring, to really see the joy she’s taking in what she’s doing and who she is and also who she is becoming. It was important to me for children of color, particularly little girls like my nieces, to see a character like that, to see themselves reflected in it. MJ’s mask doesn’t inhibit that, it amplifies it in a very special way. It’s a symbol of culture and heritage and belonging. It’s the garb of a warrior who is larger than life. It is equal parts superhero cape and flag.

More people could learn from that, especially at a time when masks are vital to public health, safety, and even survival. They could learn that a mask is not inherently a way to stifle or hide one’s identity, or restrict their freedom of expression and choice. In fact, choosing a mask can be a liberating experience. It can be opting into a culture of solidarity and celebration. It can enhance and clarify one’s own identity in a million different ways and with a million different individualistic shades. The right mask doesn’t cover up who you are, it announces it to the world.

Luchadores wear their masks proudly. Every day, they strive to be the kind of people who earn the masks they wear, because those masks are a symbol of what is best in all of them.

Meet the author

Matt Wallace is the Hugo–winning author of Rencor: Life in Grudge City, the Sin du Jour series, and Savage Legion. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler, unarmed combat, and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki. You can visit him at www.matt-wallace.com.

About Bump

A moving and triumphant middle grade contemporary debut from award-winning author Matt Wallace about a heroic young girl—who dreams of becoming a pro wrestler—learning to find courage and fight for what she loves. Perfect for fans of Kelly Yang, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds’ Track series!

MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.

There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.

But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?

ISBN-13: 9780063007987
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Bump by Matt Wallace

Publisher’s description

A moving and triumphant middle grade contemporary debut from award-winning author Matt Wallace about a heroic young girl—who dreams of becoming a pro wrestler—learning to find courage and fight for what she loves. Perfect for fans of Kelly Yang, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds’ Track series!

MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.

There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.

But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?

Amanda’s thoughts

A very long time ago, way back in the 1980s, I was a child who liked to watch professional wrestling. I liked the theater of it all, I liked the huge personalities with weird names (Hulk Hogan! Macho Man! Junkyard Dog! Rowdy Roddy Piper! Sgt. Slaughter!), and I liked watching it with my brother, my dad, and my uncle. I just now googled “professional wrestlers of the 80s” and seeing all of those photos of wrestlers totally threw me right back to being young and shouting at the tv over the moves, booing the “bad guys,” and being amazed that they could do such amazing moves. All of this is to say that I was a kid a loooong time ago, but reading about MJ and her love of wrestling reminded me of that childhood and that amazement.

12-year-old Mexican American MJ is a 6th grader in middle school. She doesn’t really have any friends and is frequently bullied by the meanest girl on her gymnastics team and her minions. MJ was bullied by her so much, in fact, that she didn’t go out for the team this year. All she really wants to do is hide out and watch Lucha Dominion, a pro-wrestling show, which helps connect her with her dad, who is, as she says, “gone.” Wrestling is there for her even if her dad isn’t. It’s a great stroke of luck that the new place she and her mom live in is right next door to Mr. Arellano, who runs a wrestling school (and whose niece is MJ’s favorite luchadora). MJ convinces her mom to let her start training at the school, where she not only finds that wrestling is just as fun as she’d expected it to be, but she’s finally making friends. When she begins wrestling as the masked Lightning Girl, MJ finds herself becoming a star of the weekly shows.

But it’s not all sunshine. There’s a nefarious state athletic commission inspector determined to shut down the school. And there’s some drama with a new friend. And then there’s the whole issue of how MJ is dealing with her father being “gone.”

While centered around wrestling, this is a very relatable story about belonging, friendship, family, and falling down and getting back up again. MJ is a great character who is brave, determined, and interesting. This will be a fun one to recommend for how unique it is while still having such relatable emotions and experiences.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063007987
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown

Publisher’s description

Comedian and performer Andy Kaufman’s resume was impressive—a popular role on the beloved sitcom Taxi, a high-profile stand-up career, and a surprisingly successful stint in professional wrestling. Although he was by all accounts a sensitive and thoughtful person, he’s ironically best remembered for his various contemptible personas, which were so committed and so convincing that all but his closest family and friends were completely taken in.

Why would someone so gentle-natured and sensitive build an entire career seeking the hatred of his audience? What drives a performer to solicit that reaction? With the same nuance and sympathy with which he approached Andre the Giant in his 2014 biography, graphic novelist Box Brown takes on the complex and often hilarious life of Andy Kaufman.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

is this guyLast May, Box Brown was at Teen Lit Con, an amazing event I am lucky enough to keep getting asked to speak at. My son, a huge fan of comics/graphic novels, and I went to Brown’s session, which was when I first heard about this book on Kaufman. I have been desperately waiting for it ever since. (Side note: If you haven’t read any of Brown’s books, you should fix that. His book on Andre the Giant was phenomenal.)

 

I had a pretty good working knowledge of Kaufman going into this. At 40, I was too young to witness any of Kaufman’s actual fame/antics, but I certainly grew up seeing lots of reruns of things with him and hearing about his personas and ways of messing with people (and, of course, wondering, like everyone else, if maybe he faked his death). Brown takes us back to Kaufman’s youth, showing his interest in Mighty Mouse, Elvis, and wrestling. Kaufman loved to imitate his heroes and always rooted for the bad guy. We see how he became a party entertainer at a young age, his interest in drumming, and his growing interest in subverting expectations and screwing with reality. Kaufman believed in being in character offstage as well, a move that helped him confuse the heck out of people who eventually could never tell if he was putting on an act or being serious. Much of the story is focused on Kaufman’s wrestling career, with Brown taking us through Kaufman arch-nemesis Jerry Lawler’s backstory, too. Throughout it all, we see Kaufman as not just a larger-than-life character who wrestled women and befuddled viewers, but as a sensitive guy into yoga and transcendental meditation. Kaufman, who blurred reality and enjoyed blowing people’s minds, loved playing the negative, hated characters. It was just more interesting to him.

 

Fans of the absurd will enjoy this book, whether they’ve heard of Kaufman or not. For an older audience, for anyone who looks at this and can immediately picture Kaufman lip-syncing to the Mighty Mouse theme, or Tony Clifton, or Latka Gravis, this look at Kaufman will be a real treat. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781626723160
Publisher: First Second
Publication date: 02/06/2018