We’re so thrilled to celebrate the release of Alda P. Dobbs’s middle-grade debut, Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. We have a great interview between Musas Alda P. Dobbs and Anika Fajardo, along with Alda's letter to the reader, but first a little about the book!
AF: Congratulations on your debut middle-grade novel, Alda!
AD: Thank you, Anika! I’m a big fan of your beautiful middle grade, What If A Fish, and it’s such an honor to be interviewed by you!
AF: Thank you so much. Can you tell us a bit about your book in your own words?
AD: Sure! It is 1913, and twelve-year-old Petra Luna's mama has died while the Revolution rages in Mexico. Before Petra’s papa is dragged away by soldiers, Petra vows that she will care for the family she has left―her abuelita, little sister Amelia, and baby brother Luisito―until they can be reunited. They flee north through the unforgiving desert as their town burns, searching for safe harbor in a world that offers none.
Each night when Petra closes her eyes, she holds her dreams close, especially her long-held desire to learn to read. Abuelita calls these barefoot dreams: "They're like us barefoot peasants and indios―they're not meant to go far." But Petra refuses to listen. Through battlefields and deserts, hunger and fear, Petra will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and lead them to a better life across the U.S. border―a life where her barefoot dreams can finally become reality.
AF: What inspired you to tell Petra's story?
Las Musas is celebrating the release of Karla Valenti’s debut middle grade novel Lotería, out this week!. In their starred review, School Library Journal describes the novel as, “A magical, philosophical tale rooted in Mexican lore that will hold readers from beginning to end with its verdant language and setting.”
Scroll on for a conversation between Musas NoNieqa Ramos and Karla Valenti!
NoNieqa Ramos: Karla, your novel is captivating, breathtaking, and unforgettable. I postponed reading the ending so I could emotionally prepare. How did you conceive of the idea for Lotería? How did you feel when it went to auction?
Karla Valenti: For almost a decade I had been brainstorming a story about a girl who doesn’t know she’s trapped in a game. I tested out a number of variations of this theme, but none of them seemed quite right. Then my father gave my kids a game of “Lotería” (similar to Bingo but with images on the cards instead of numbers).
Around this time we were also headed to Oaxaca City (Mexico) for my brother’s wedding. Oaxaca is a very special city, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by its enchanting colors and sounds, food and music, an ancient culture wedded with a contemporary lifestyle. It was the perfect brew to jump start the story.
As soon as I returned from my brother’s wedding, I wrote the book… but, my first agent didn’t like it. I had suffered so many rejections at that point that I was devastated. I began to doubt that the story actually had any merit or that I had any talent as a writer. Fortunately, one of my dear critique partners had enough faith in the book (and me) to talk me off the ledge.
She also reminded me that this business is highly subjective, which allowed me to see that my agent at the time (a kind and lovely person) was probably not the right business partner for me and the kind of storytelling I wanted to do. We decided to part ways and I used Lotería to pitch new agents. To my immense delight, I received four offers of representation and ended up signing with the wonderful Ammi-Joan Paquette (EMLA). Shortly after, the book went out on submission. I was blown away by the enthusiasm it received, and I still cannot believe it went to auction.
How did that feel? Exhilarating, of course. But also, validating. At that point, I had spent more than a decade writing, revising, learning, revising, building my writing community, revising, and being rejected (hundreds of times!). To have my debut novel go to auction (as a two-book deal) helped me understand how important those ten+ years of work had been.
NoNieqa: The characters Clara and her cousin Esteban are crafted so tenderly and lovingly. What were you influences in creating these characters and their powerful relationship?
Las Musas is celebrating the release of NoNieqa Ramos’s sophomore picture book Hair Story, illustrated by Keisha Morris!
Lorena Germán, cofounder of the groups #disrupttexts and Multicultural Classroom and author of The Anti-Racist Teacher: Reading Instruction Workbook and Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices, writes: “This gorgeous book is about more than hair. Hair becomes the vehicle for a conversation about identity, beauty standards, bias, relationships, self-love, and more. Ramos has created a picture book that touches upon identity as it is intertwined with other elements of life, all by celebrating hair types and styles.”
This is truth is carried in NoNieqa’s words and Keisha’s art. It’s a beautiful ode to Black and brown children, celebrating their hair and their identity and encouraging “young readers to embrace themselves just the way they are."-- Charlotte Offsay, author of The Big Beach Clean Up and How to Return a Monster. As Preciosa and Rudine embrace their natural hair, readers are invited to do the same.
For this blog post, Alexandra Alessandri interviews NoNieqa Ramos about her inspiration and process, but first, here’s a description of this stunning book:
With rhythmic, rhyming verse, this picture book follows two girls―one non-Black Puerto Rican, one Black―as they discover the stories their hair can tell.
Preciosa has hair that won’t stay straight, won’t be confined. Rudine’s hair resists rollers, flat irons, and rules. Together, the girls play hair salon! They take inspiration from their moms, their neighbors, their ancestors, and cultural icons. They discover that their hair holds roots of the past and threads of the future.
With rhythmic, rhyming verse and vibrant collage art, author NoNieqa Ramos and illustrator Keisha Morris follow two girls as they discover the stories hair can tell.
Alexandra: When I started reading, I was immediately reminded of Elizabeth Acevedo’s spoken word piece “Hair,” which I’ve used in my classes, and I loved seeing her included in the mural and back matter. It made me wonder what the story’s origins were. What inspired you to write Hair Story?
NoNieqa: There are several strands to my inspiration to write Hair Story. I envisioned the story to be a braid intertwining self-love, female friendship, community, cultural icons, and ancestry. As the two friends, Rudine and Preciosa grow and blossom from babies to young children, I imagined their relationship with their hair evolving.
In the beginning, both girls are celebrated by their grandmothers. Preciosa and Rudine are perfection. As their hair grows, so does the complexity of the story. Preciosa’s grandmother uses the fraught term “pelo malo” to describe Preciosa’s thick coarse hair. Rudine learns that maintaining smooth straight hair is a long and taxing process. But when they play with their hair on their own terms, they revel in their natural beauty and ancestral roots. Then they witness their mothers doing each other’s hair and begin to understand the healing and magic of self-care rituals. The hair story evolves as the girls comes to enlightenment about how complex and how beautiful it is to be a person-of-color.
Alexandra: Can you take us a little into your writing process and book journey? How did you go from idea to book? What did you feel was the hardest part? The easiest? How did it compare to writing Your Mama, which just released earlier this year, or Beauty Woke, which releases in 2022?
NoNieqa: I initially pitched Hair Story to my editor Carol Hinz as a spare picture book with phrases like “pelo flow” encapsulated in the illustrations, but she encouraged me to dig deeper. Developing the verse with Carol brought forth the narrative of friendship and love between the girls and between the moms.
The easiest parts were creating the clap back to the term “pelo malo” with “pelo grow” “pelo-city” and “how fro can you gro?”. The hardest part was writing the back matter. I had never done it before. I did enjoy the research, but I struggled with making each section thematically-relevant, engaging, accurate, and concise. I mean, it’s hard to do justice to icons like Sandra Cisneros in one paragraph!
What all three stories have in common is deep roots in family and community. Strong powerful female figures are central in all three as well. Your Mama was the quickest write of the three and pure joy. In Beauty Woke, I had the challenge of using Sleeping Beauty as a vehicle to talk about a child’s first confrontations with racism. My goal was to weave an anthem and a spell for healing into a narrative arc. Writing Hair Story was much like braiding a squirmy child’s hair. I had to work hard to make sure the part in the middle was even and precise in order for me to do justice to each girl’s story.
Alexandra: I love this! Both Your Mama and Hair Story are masterful, and I can’t wait for Beauty Woke!
In a recent blog post on SLJ, “What’s Your Hair Story? Guest Post by NoNieqa Ramos and Friends” you mention that Preciosa and Rudine’s names were inspired by “Marc Antony’s anthem to the beauty of Puerto Rico” and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop respectively, and I loved this. I did immediately think about Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop with Rudine’s name, but I didn’t make the connection with Preciosa. Can you tell us a little more about this decision? Did you know from the very beginning that these were going to be their names? Why are these two particularly important to you and what do you wish to convey about the characters with their names?
NoNieqa: Preciosa’s name is based on the song “Preciosa” composed by Rafael Hernandez, born in the town of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Singer Marc Antony’s rendition of “Preciosa” is often blasted in our house. The song Preciosa expresses feelings of love and connection to Puerto Rico. It is considered one of the unofficial National Anthems of Puerto Rico. The song includes a celebration of Puerto Ricans’ Spanish, African and Taíno roots.
I knew Preciosa’s name early in the writing process. I wanted to leave no doubt that despite any challenges Preciosa might experience such as antiquated and racist notions of what “good hair” is, Preciosa is precious, her cultural roots are beautiful, dark, and deep, and she loves being a Boricua. It took me longer to figure out Rudine’s name. When I realized that my entire story embodies Dr. Rudine Sim Bishop’s “windows and mirrors,” the answer became clear.
Alexandra: I’m such a huge fan of your poetry! You have some gorgeous imagery and language in Hair Story, like “baby’s crown/ lush, wild, beautiful brown” and “pointless/ like trying to straighten out/ the ocean,” and such wonderful rhythm and rhyme. I loved that, like Your Mama, this story is written in verse, and it begs to be read aloud. What made you choose verse to structure Hair Story? What was most challenging about this structure? What was the most freeing?
Such a huge compliment coming from you, Alexandra! We are great admirers of yours works FELIZ NEW YEAR, AVA GABRIELA! and ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL in our home. By writing verse in HAIR STORY, I felt I could capture the miracle, blessing, and exultation of these babies of color being born. I could embody voice even though neither girl speaks directly in the story. I thought verse could depict the complexity of the experience we have in our own skin, our bodies, and how we navigate the world. What was most challenging was using spare language to portray the challenges BIPOC people can experience with hair while making sure I centered joy. What was most freeing was the emotional current verse brings! I envision writing a novel-in-verse in my future.
Alexandra: Oh, I’d love to read more verse from you! And I loved the hair puns sprinkled in the illustrations, like “pelo-grow” and “How fro can you grow.” At what stage did you write these into the manuscript?
NoNieqa: I wrote them first before the verse! They were my response or clap back to the term “pelo malo.” I wanted kids to feel the energy and power emanating from their crowns when they heard those phrases.
Alexandra: And they’re placement in the illustrations is perfect. Speaking of the illustrator, Keisha Morris’ collage art is stunning. What were your first thoughts when you saw her work for Hair Story? Were there any surprises? What are your favorite pages or spreads?
NoNieqa: A reviewer commented that Keisha’s jovial color palette and joyful illustrations radiate happiness, and I couldn't agree more. A beautiful surprise were the pages in the beginning of the book before the story starts. The depiction of the girls and their mamas in the sky are mediations of love.
One of my favorite spreads are the pages I call “The Welcomings,” when the girls are born and celebrated by their grandmothers.
Alexandra: Those were some of my favorites, too. There’s so much love radiating in these pages. Can you share what’s next for you or what you’re working on now?
NoNieqa: I am still working on revising my young adult dystopian novel, and I’ll be announcing some new picture book projects in the upcoming months!!
Alexandra: Oh, I can’t wait to hear your news! Last question: If you could give an aspiring author one piece of advice, what would it be?
NoNieqa: The same I always give! My advice would be to work on investing in community with as much passion as your craft. Community is essential for professional growth and marketing, mental health, and social justice. Your community is your sounding board, your check yo self before you wreck yo self, your squad, your A Team.
Alexandra: This is such important advice, and one that I think often gets overlooked. Thank you so much for chatting with me about Hair Story, NoNieqa! I can’t wait for readers young and old to discover this beautiful and important story.
Buy Hair Story today!
Today, we're sharing an interview between Musas Ana Siqueira and Gloria Amescua, to celebrate Gloria's debut picture book, Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua. Scroll on to learn more about Gloria's inspiration, future writing plans, and more!
Ana: Gloria, thanks for allowing me to read your wonderful book. What an inspirational story about being proud of your culture and showing the same to the world! I also love the lively illustrations by Duncan Tonatiuh.
First of all, can you tell us what inspired you to write about Luz Jiménez?
Gloria: Thank you for loving our book, Ana. I was inspired when I happened upon a pamphlet about Luz Jiménez and realized I had never thought about the models in paintings and their lives. As I read about her, I was amazed by her life and knew I had to write about her. She was an intelligent and curious little Nahua girl, who wanted to become a teacher, and though she had many struggles throughout her life, she became a very important link between the indigenous people of Mexico and the rest of the world. She came to represent the dignity of the native people in Mexico through the famous 20thth artists who painted her and the Náhuatl language she helped preserve with scholars as it was fading, becoming a teacher after all.
I connected with Luz on a very personal level. When the Mexican government made school mandatory, the indigenous students were shamed about their native language and clothing. The same shaming of Spanish in the US and punishment for speaking Spanish in school affected how I grew up.
Ana: And I have a question about your author’s note, you wrote her name was Julia Jiménez, but she’s known as Luz Jiménez. Do you know the reason for that?
To celebrate the book birthday of Alexandra Alessandri's Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, we're sharing this delightful interview between Musas Alexandra Alessandri and Terry Catasús Jennings. Scroll on to learn more about this adorable picture book!
Terry: Alexandra, I have to tell you, this brought back so many memories. I was twelve when I first came to the United States. But I was just like Isabel—drowning in the strange words that surrounded me. Can you tell us about your book?
Alexandra: Aw, I’m so glad it resonated with you, though I’m sorry you experienced this, too. Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is about a little girl who’s starting school, but while she’s excited about it, she’s also really nervous because she doesn’t speak English, which sounds strange to her. Isabel is also artistic and processes everything through color, and it’s this trait that ultimately allows her to bridge the language divide.
Terry: Your Colombian identity is very present in your writing, whether it’s your poems or your picture books. How has your Colombian identity shaped your writing?
Alexandra: My Colombian identity is definitely a huge part of my writing. I was born and raised in the U.S. in a Spanish-only household and with parents who made it very clear to me that I was 100% Colombian. But growing up straddling both cultures comes with a lot of figuring out how to be both and questioning whether you’re Colombian or American enough. When my dad passed away in 2008, I felt this sudden void. I mean, my mom is blessedly still alive and I still have this connection to Colombia through her and her side, but the loss of my dad sparked this intimate desire to really know Colombia and where/how I fit into the equation. I think this led naturally to writing as a way of reflecting and understanding what it mean to be Colombian and American, and how different this experience is between my mom, myself and my son. This spilled over into my poetry and my children’s books.
Terry: The idea of Isabel and Her Colores reminds me of Wassili Kandinski. He connected his art to sound. What was the inspiration for Isabel and Her Colores? When/how was the idea born?
Today, two Musas are sharing a book birthday for their spectacular books, BELLA'S RECIPE FOR SUCCESS and EL CUCUY IS SCARED, TOO! Scroll on to hear from these two talented authors — Ana Siqueira + Donna Barba Higuera — and learn more about their books!
Donna Barba Higuera: Thank you for talking with me today! And huge felicidades on your debut book! In your book Bella’s Recipe for Success, Bella compares herself to her older brother and sister and how they seem to master things she can’t. Are you speaking from experience? Did you experience this as a child?
Ana Siqueira: Hmm… Great question. Well, my older sister was the perfect one. She would never make a mistake. My older brother was a genius who wrote songs and was talented like my mother. My younger sister was super cute and funny and she was the spoiled one, right? So I was the middle one - rebellious and with disabilities (ADHD and dyslexia). I guess I never realized, but Bella, who was inspired by my daughter who always wanted to be the best and perfect, is also me. Hahaha. I never thought of it.
DBH: Your book is being released in a year and a time where so many kids feel like their lives are out of their own control. I know this wasn’t planned, but do you hope your book’s message of trying and trying again until you master something will resonate with kids?
This week we are so excited to sit down with debut Musa Monica Gomez-Hira and discuss her debut novel. Before we get started, a little bit about Monica’s debut Once Upon a Quinceañera:
Eighteen-year-old Carmen Aguilar missed graduating from her Miami high school by that much--one credit short after she overreacted to a teacher destroying her dream of becoming a video editor. She's relieved when a summer internship gives her another chance at her diploma. But instead of pushing papers, Carmen, the queen of screw-ups, finds herself dressing up as a Disney princess for children's parties.
When her company is hired to perform at her spoiled cousin's extravagant quinceañera, everyone fears Carmen will sabotage it. Her cousin Ariana was the reason Carmen's own coming-of-age celebration was canceled three years earlier, and the families haven't spoken since. This quince is an olive branch, an attempt to bring the families back together. Making matters worse is Carmen's new dance partner: Mauro Reyes, her most regrettable ex. Absence may have made him hotter, but it didn't make her fonder.
Still, Carmen is determined to leave the past in the past, even if late-night chats with Mauro stir up old feelings. She's even getting along with Ariana. As the quinceañera approaches, along with the end of the summer, Carmen must break the spell of past resentments if she wants her own happily ever after.
Okay, Monica let’s get to it!
We are excited to share the cover of author Laurenne Sala & illustrator Zara González Hoang’s new picture book, Mi Casa Is My Home, out from Candlewick on Sept 7th. The book stars Lucía who leads readers through her cozy house, introducing them to her favorite spots and her big, loud, beautiful familia. It is a charming Spanglish celebration of family life.
Laurenne’s sweet story, written in the perfect mix of Spanish and English is paired with Zara’s bright colors and warm details like lively plants and jars of habichuelas, which make the story and the characters feel relatable and fun.
The celebration of home in this bilingual picture book feels like an abrazo from your most favorite people, your familia. Mi Casa is My Home is available for preorder HERE!
All righty! Here it is. The beautiful cover of Mi Casa Is My Home, here for the first time ever out in the world and on the Las Musas blog. Illustrated by Zara González Hoang and designed by Hayley Parker.
To celebrate the reveal of the book’s adorable cover, Laurenne and Zara asked each other a few questions about their experiences working on the book and about the bits of themselves they brought to it.
ZARA: What inspired you to write Mi Casa?
LAURENNE: Growing up, I never really thought about my house so much, but a few years ago, my mom put my childhood home up for sale, and I became an emotional mess! I couldn’t imagine handing over a place full of so many memories! It was the first home I ever knew. Living there 18 years, it had become one of my best friends. We knew everything about each other. Thinking of all those wonderful memories inspired a poem. And when I rewrote it again in my preferred language, Spanglish, it worked even better.
What was it about Mi Casa that made you want to sign on to illustrate it?
ZARA: Oh everything! I remember when I got the manuscript I was actually working at my local library, and I was taking a break and happened to check my email on my phone and there was your manuscript in my inbox. I read it and it was like I was reading a story about my own family – which makes sense, now that I know you a bit better since we share so many similarities in our families and our backgrounds! I absolutely adored the story and felt so incredibly lucky to have been asked to illustrate it, I knew as soon as I read it the first time that this was a story I wanted to illustrate.
What is it like to write a story and send it off without having any clue how it will be illustrated? And what was it like to see the artwork for Mi Casa for the first time?
Las Musas wishes a happy book birthday to Hilda Eunice Burgos for the release of her picture book debut The Cot in the Living Room!
Sometimes, what we want most isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the process of that discovery leads us to something better. In many ways, this is one of the themes in Hilda’s beautiful debut, but it’s more than that—it’s a story of family and community that shows that “beautifully captures the gifts we receive when we open our hearts to others.” (BookPage, starred review).
Alexandra Alessandri interviews Hilda about her inspiration and process, but first, here’s a description of this sweet book:
A young Dominican American girl in New York City moves from jealousy to empathy as her parents babysit children whose families work overnight shifts in this honest and warm picture book debut.
Night after night, a young girl watches her mami set up a cot in the living room for guests in their Washington Heights apartment, like Raquel (who's boring) and Edgardo (who gets crumbs everywhere). She resents that they get the entire living room with a view of the George Washington Bridge, while all she gets is a tiny bedroom with a view of her sister (who snores). Until one night when no one comes, and it's finally her chance! But as it turns out, sleeping on the cot in the living room isn't all she thought it would be.
With charming text by Hilda Eunice Burgos and whimsical illustrations by Gaby D'Alessandro, The Cot in the Living Room is a celebration of the ways a Dominican American community takes care of one another while showing young readers that sometimes the best way to be a better neighbor is by imagining how it feels to spend a night sleeping on someone else's pillow.
Alexandra Alessandri: I adored The Cot in the Living Room so much! It reminded me a lot of my own childhood, only in my case, I was sent to sleep in the sofa and our guests would take my room. I wasn’t too keen on that. I love the sense of community and how the young protagonist’s emotional arc shifts as she goes from jealousy to finally getting what she wants, and how that becomes the catalyst for her having empathy toward her recurring guests. It’s what allows her to grow and show empathy.
I’m always curious about the book’s origin story. How did The Cot in the Living Room come to be? Who or what inspired it?
Hilda Eunice Burgos: When I was a child, I had a stay-at-home mom who babysat a lot of neighborhood kids. Mostly the children came during the day, but a few had to stay overnight because of their parents’ work schedules. When I was very young, I resented them encroaching on my family’s space and time together. As I got a little older, I realized how lucky I was and how difficult it must be for these children to spend the night alone in a stranger’s home.
AA: I love that, and the sentiment definitely comes across here. The Cot in the Living Room is written in 1st person, and we don’t actually get the main character’s name. Can you tell us a little about that choice? Was this always the case or did this come through in revision?
Today we will be talking to Jackie Azua Kramer and Magdalena Mora about their upcoming book — I Wish You Knew — out May 25th!
Here’s a quick synopsis for I Wish You Knew/Ojala Supieras:
In I Wish You Knew a little girl’s father is deported. She wishes people knew how much she misses him and how it affects her at home and school. But with the help of her teacher, they start a sharing circle where she and her classmates share their challenges and by listening with compassion and kindness, together they all help each other.
Jackie, I read your arc and I love the story. It gave me goosebumps. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this story?
Jackie Azua Kramer: Thank you! I’m a big fan of Ted Talks and an educator shared how after feeling she was making little progress with her students, she asked them to complete the statement on a piece of paper, I wish my teacher knew... And she realized she couldn’t teach kids who felt sad, hungry, scared and angry. It started a movement #IWishMyTeacherKnew.
But the heart of Estrella’s story in I Wish You Knew was inspired by my father’s immigrant journey. The emotional cost he paid, and the courage it took, to leave his family and country to come to a new world with the hope of making a better life for himself like the father in I Wish You Knew.
Magdalena, I love your illustrations, especially the one where she is sitting on her Papi’s lap in a flower. What did you feel when you read this manuscript? Did you know right away you wanted to illustrate it?
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