Book Club: Writings on a hidden America

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, “The Undocumented Americans," Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, “Children of the Land"
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of “The Undocumented Americans,” and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of “Children of the Land.”
(One World / HarperCollins)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

This month our community book club welcomes two authors of stories rarely told, showing us the day-to-day lives of immigrants living in the shadows in America.

Born in Ecuador, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio became one of the first “Dreamers” to graduate from Harvard University. (As a student, she also was part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.)

In “The Undocumented Americans,” Cornejo Villavicencio explains up front that she is not writing an inspirational book about fellow Dreamers “who already occupy outsize attention” in our national conversation.

Instead her focus is on 11 million invisible immigrants: “I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers, housekeepers, construction workers, dog walkers, delivery men, people who don’t inspire hashtags or T-shirts.”

Her book was a National Book Award finalist this year. On Dec. 15, Cornejo Villavicencio joins us for a conversation with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of “Children of the Land,” and Times editor Steve Padilla.

Hiding in plain sight

Like Cornejo Villavicencio, Castillo arrived in the United States as a child and later qualified for DACA status. In “Children of the Land,” he chronicles a life of constant anxiety as the child of immigrants who crossed the border from Mexico when he was 5. His family settled in Northern California.

“A clandestine existence means keeping window curtains and mouths closed, avoiding being noticed altogether,” Rigoberto González writes in his Times review. “Their fear of drawing attention is so great that when the teenage Castillo is struck by a car, he begs the EMTs for his immediate release. Later, as he recovers in the hospital, his mother declines to press charges to avoid becoming entangled with the law, but also because, as an unauthorized resident, she doesn’t think it’s her right.”

Castillo went on to complete a graduate degree in Michigan, published an award-winning book of poems and moved back to California to start a family.

González notes that Castillo’s personal account, detailing his family’s journey from Mexico and the legal challenges that followed, is not often seen in literature. In his review, he includes a shout out to earlier books by Reyna Grande, who relates her journey over the course of two compelling memoirs, “The Distance Between Us” and “A Dream Called Home.”


And he lauds “Children of the Land” as “an excellent addition to this small but necessary body of work, underscoring the fact that in each such immigrant there’s a unique story that deserves to be heard.”

Join us

This month’s book club meetup features a discussion with Cornejo Villavicencio and Castillo about their new books, the 2020 election and their writing lives. Join us at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 for this free event, which will be livestreamed on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Sign up at Eventbrite for a reminder and direct links. Signed copies of both authors’ books are available through Skylight Books.

What questions do you have for our guest authors? Please share them in advance by emailing us at

Octavia E. Butler’s worlds

During November, book club readers explored the legacy and prolific storytelling of science fiction legend Octavia E. Butler.

If you missed it, you can watch our virtual discussion featuring Lynell George, author of “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler,” and Times reporter Julia Wick. Watch it here.

Then step inside Butler’s world with this interactive map created by Aida Ylanan and Casey Miller.

Last month’s event also featured the book club’s first giveaway, thanks to a generous donation from Butler’s estate and her longtime literary agent Merrilee Heifetz. All 700 books have now been claimed.

If you’re just discovering Butler, check out Tracy Brown’s guide to Butler’s books, which have surged in popularity in recent months and are the subject of two upcoming TV series.

Journalist Lynell George, author of "A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky," and Times reporter Julia Wick
(Los Angeles Times)

Keep reading

The 11 best books on food. Cookbooks are about connection — written to share the love of a cuisine or celebrate ancestry or sometimes to eulogize broken bonds and safeguard history. They make great gifts too. Bill Addison shares this year’s best to add to your collection.


The 20 reads book people actually want this year. The Times’ annual gift guide includes this curated list of the most engaging, funniest and most urgent work of the year.

Festival on demand. The 25th annual Festival of Books featured 26 virtual events during October and November. Browse here to watch any book talks you missed.

“A Promised Land.” Former President Barack Obama’s new memoir is breaking records, selling a million copies and counting. Read Eli Stokols’ review in The Times. There’s also a “Promised Land” playlist.

The Latinx Files. The Times’ newest newsletter, written by Fidel Martinez, is dedicated to the Latinx experience and explores the diversity and complexity of Latinx communities. Read the latest edition, and sign up to get it in your inbox every week.

We Can Teach You That. This new virtual series offers skills classes taught by Times staffers and other experts. On Tuesday consumer columnist David Lazarus explained how to navigate healthcare and vital services during the pandemic. Earlier, editor Jessica Roy showed us new ways to connect with family and friends during the holidays. Both courses are free to watch here.

The best cookbooks for fall 2020.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)