Today on the blog, we're celebrating Adriana Hernández Bergstrom's Abuelita and I Make Flan. Scroll on to read her interview with Musa Terry Catasus Jennings. First -- a little bit more about this special picture book:
Anita loves to bake with her abuela, especially when they are using her grandmother’s special recipes for Cuban desserts like flan!
Anita is making flan for Abuelo’s birthday, but when she accidentally breaks Abuelita’s treasured flan serving plate from Cuba, she struggles with what to do. Anita knows it’s right to tell the truth, but what if Abuelita gets upset? Worried that she has already ruined the day, Anita tries to be the best helper. After cooking the flan, they need a serving dish! Anita comes up with a wonderful solution.
Complete with a glossary of Spanish terms and a traditional recipe for flan, Abuelita and I Make Flan is a delicious celebration of food, culture, and family.
TERRY CATASÚS JENNINGS: Adriana, I am so happy to be your blog partner for your debut, Abuelita and I Make Flan. It’s a heart-felt story which reminded me so much of my own childhood. Thank you for writing this wonderful story. Is this a story that happened in your childhood? What do you want to tell us about it?
ADRIANA HERNÁNDEZ BERGSTROM: Hi Terry! The story is a mixture of real and imagined events. I really did break a wedding dish, but it belonged to my mother, not my abuelita. I really did (and still do!) make a LOT of flan, but it was with my great-aunt, Marta, and sometimes with my aunts or my mom. In real life, I did more crafts like sewing, crochet, and cake decorating with my grandma. I chose flan because it’s delicious and it reminds me of our big family get-togethers which I miss very much.
TERRY: You know, I was like you as well in some respects. I learned my cooking from my aunt Bertica. And I do believe that flan is the quintessential Cuban food. It holds so many memories. Why don’t you tell us about your journey to Abuelita and I Make Flan? You have been illustrating for a long time. Give us an idea of your path to publication and to this particular book.
ADRIANA: It was a long and winding road! I had a lot of familial expectations and pressure that made it seem like an impossible dream to be an author or illustrator as a career. After high school, my idea was to study illustration and be a children’s book illustrator, but nothing went according to plan. The first semester at the University of Miami, the U shuttered the illustration department and converted into ‘Multimedia’. I was on a full scholarship, so I decided to take advantage of my time there and learned printmaking and theatre production. That choice led to a bunch of other life ramifications…I ended up teaching, studying industrial design, working as a freelance graphic designer, living in Germany… until I finally came back to that dream around 2015.
TERRY:, Looking back on my own life, I know that my parents would have wanted me to have a real job, something that could put food on the table regularly. Being an author or an illustrator would have scared them to death. But let’s talk about food. I know through our conversations in Las Musas that Cuban food is very important to both of us. Is this an homage to Cuban food? Is it an homage to your grandmother?
ADRIANA: Yes and yes. I was inspired to capture a moment in time where it felt like everything was going wrong as a kid, but still able to find safety and love from my grandparents who accepted me as an imperfect child deserving of love. So in essence, yes, it’s an homage to my grandmother, my family, and the food that made us feel like we belonged.
TERRY: And that is what gives this book it’s wonderful heart. That lovely idea of “being accepted as an imperfect child deserving of love.” When did you get the idea of the plate? Without the plate, the story is a beautifully sweet story of love and grandparent/grandchild relationship. I would definitely buy and publish that story, if it was up to me, but maybe my agent would say, you don’t have an arc. The plate gives you an arc. It provides the tension in the book. And it provides an even happier ending. When did the plate come into the story?
ADRIANA: Right! And originally I did not have a plate breaking nor the shame of having messed up. I had lots of good feedback on early versions of FLAN, but sometimes the reviewer would say the stakes weren’t very high, it’s missing tension, or that the story was ‘flat’. The summer before I sold the book, I had a brainstorm and remembered when I broke my mom’s wedding plate and how awful I felt. But, I didn’t hide it, in fact, I told her right away. I won’t go into her reaction, but it felt like a symbol to me. I was now a ‘big kid’ and I wasn’t going to hide my mistakes. So, I tried it in FLAN and it worked. It provided the necessary missing tension to move the story along.
TERRY: Anita isn’t only learning to make flan, but she is learning about her heritage. To me, once they use the plate that she made for her grandparents as a new flan plate, she becomes part of that heritage. I think that is a beautiful image. Did you mean for that to be part of the takeaway or am I putting words in your mouth?
ADRIANA: That is exactly it! Anita is meant to be a part of the continuity of the family. Like the branches of the family tree before her, she is as valid a member of the family as those that came before. Because it doesn’t matter where we are, we are still family, still connected. We are not in the land of our ancestors anymore, but we create new traditions wherever we are.
TERRY: I love creating new traditions wherever we are. One really stand-out character for me was Abuelo. He does Judo!!! And his picture in the book is so cool. That particular photograph brings the reader in to know that this is a true story. Real people. It has so much more meaning. Do you want to share your thoughts about your grandfather and your relationship?
ADRIANA: I have a seed of a story that’s Abuelo and Anita that I hope I get to tell one day. The judo element is at the heart of something that was always so interesting to me about humanity. We all contain multitudes. We all have everyday stories and backstories, and the people we encounter every day live completely full lives independent of our own. As a kid, I was enthralled by this. I would get very lost in my mom’s high school yearbook and my grandparents’ albums wondering about the lives they lived before I ever knew them. My grandfather had a troubled childhood and sometime in the 1920’s, Japan sent ambassadors to Cuba to teach judo as a way of building friendships with other nations. It became an outlet for my grandfather who flourished under the guidance and discipline of a judo practice and meditation practice. He passed on the meditation practice but refused to teach me judo!
TERRY: Well, now, you’ve taught me a bit of our history that I never knew. Thank you! You have been shaped by not only Cuba and the United States, but you lived in Germany for a long time. Can you tell us what or whether that has added to your journey?
ADRIANA: Living in Germany, I gained a deeper understanding of what it means to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture as an adult. I understood to a tiny degree what it meant for my family to leave everything and move to another country with hope of a better future in your heart. I miss the safe feeling of everyday life in Germany and I miss my friends. I also learned a lot about how a country rebuilds after a great tragedy.
TERRY: I get that. And I have seen, just in travels, the amazing job that Germany has done of rebuilding. They are admirable. Now let’s talk about your relationship to your abuelita. Do your own children have an abuelita and an abuelito? What is their relationship and how does it compare to your own?
ADRIANA: I was raised by my grandparents. My mom worked nights for a while and so my mom would drop us off and we’d stay in after school care or Abuelita picked us up from school. We all lived in the same house for most of my childhood, and my mom was a single mom until I was 17. The grandkids have a really, really different relationship with their grandma.
TERRY: Tell me about the recipe for flan. In my family, my cousins and I, who are the top generation left of the Melendez women, have been known to have flan bake offs. When we get together for a weekend, we all make our flans using our different recipes and different ways. Was this recipe part of your family or is this something you perfected yourself? To be honest, I have never had a flan with cream cheese, although, I do know that cream cheese is something that my mother used on everything. I see that the recipe is five eggs, which is what I use, but I only use half a cup of sugar for the caramel. And you put it in the blender! Brilliant. You taught me something. I always beat it with a whisk, and I must admit, my texture isn’t optimal. Those are some of the differences in making flan.
ADRIANA: Ah! Yes! So, yes, there was a Rodriguez v Quesada rivalry for us. My Tía Ines and my great-aunt Marta would unofficially have bake-offs. Marta claimed to be the queen of flan, and pastries in general, but she’d use the dry method of making caramel and often it would be pretty bitter! So, as a little girl, I would refuse to eat her caramel sauce and ask for Tía Ines’s which was sweeter. Tía Ines added a splash of water to the sugar to prevent burning. And this led to some rivalry between the two because Ines would tell Marta that the kids all ate her flan. In the recipe included with the book, the addition of the cream cheese is to give beginners a high success rate with the flan. The queso crema acts as a binder, stabilizer and adds richness. My mom’s best friend Gisela would add it to be sure it would set. If you’re doing the classic flan de leche, then you can just omit the cream cheese. Also, if you’re getting lots of bubbles all up the sides of the custard, your heat might be too high! Low and slow is the best way to go!
TERRY: Thank you for that tip. I do make my caramel the dry way, but under very low heat. If it ever burns, I throw it out and start over. Now let’s talk about cooking. Cooking is important to both of us. I express my love through food. Whenever I don’t know what to do to help someone, I cook. I wonder whether you feel that way. Is this a personal thing, or is this a Cuban thing?
ADRIANA: Oh my goodness! Is it a Cuban thing? I don’t know, but I do the EXACT same thing. I jokingly call it ‘procrastibaking’ when I can’t figure out the solution to something and bake instead of ruminating. It’s one of the few activities that I can just focus on and make something while subconsciously processing something else!
TERRY: Let’s talk in more detail about your art. What would you want our readers to know about your process and what it means to you.
ADRIANA: My artwork is always evolving. I love capturing textures that are real and mixing them with digital media and back and forth (analog and digital). I think traditional media informs my digital work and vice versa.
TERRY: Can you tell us more about your other published work?
ADRIANA: I am so excited about my next book TUMBLE that comes out in 2023 published by Scholastic. It’s the first time I’ve worked on a nonfiction book!
TERRY: Abuelita could be any one of the many Cuban grandmothers I have known. She is perfect. I love her chancletas. Brava. Was she a composite or was she taken from real life? Abuelo?
ADRIANA: Aww thank you for saying so. The Abuelita character was drawn from a combination of several real-life people including my great aunt, Marta, and a mixture of both my grandmas (paternal and maternal). Abuelo is a mixture of my maternal grandfather and my late stepfather.
TERRY: What is in the future for you? Tell us about what you can tell and what you can’t tell. Is food involved?
ADRIANA: Hah! I’d love to illustrate more food books! I have one project I mentioned earlier, a nonfiction book TUMBLE (2023, Scholastic), and then I have another project that I can’t share yet which does have food and I cannot wait to talk about it!
TERRY: Adriana, it has been a pleasure interviewing you and I love your book. I love being with you in Las Musas. All the best to you, I’ll be here to cheer you on.
ADRIANA: Thanks, Terry! Thanks for a lovely interview. Wishing you the best – see you in Las Musas!
Buy Abuelita and I Make Flan today!
Adriana Hernández Bergstrom is a Cuban-American mixed-media illustrator and designer. A lifelong learner, she studied industrial design at RISD (‘08) and fine art & theatrical set design at the University of Miami, FL. She loves literacy and languages and speaks English, Spanish, and German. Adriana is represented by Wernick & Pratt literary agency. For all inquiries related to publishing please contact: info(at)wernickpratt(dot)com .
Terry Catasús Jennings is a Cuban-American writer who immigrated to the United States after her father was jailed in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s government. She was twelve at the time and knew no English. The Little House of Hope/La casita de esperanza is a semi-autobiographical story in which immigrants give each other a helping hand in a new country. Her goal in life is to lead us to embrace our common humanity, as well as sing the praises of Cuban food. Terry is represented by Natalie Lakosil of Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
Today Musa Tamika Burgess is talking to Jennifer Torres, the author of Lola Out Loud, a powerful and inspiring imagined story about real-life civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta that reminds us that even our biggest heroes started out small.
Her grandpa calls her “Lolita Siete Lenguas”—Little Lola, Seven Tongues, all fighting to be heard. Lola is trying not to make so much noise, but when she witnesses injustices in her own neighborhood, she knows she can’t keep quiet. Can Lola find a way to use her voice for change? ¡Sí, se puede!
Inspired by the real-life civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta, Lola Out Loud is a warm and rollicking picture book that reminds us that sometimes one strong voice is just what we need.
Tamika Burgess: Congratulations on the release of Lola Out Loud. It is such a well-written, beautiful story. You did an excellent job of displaying Lola’s voice and really set the foundation for the woman Dolores Huerta would become. How did writing Lola Out Loud differ from writing your other books?
Jennifer Torres: Thank you so much. This story is close to my heart, and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to tell it. Although it is not strictly biographical—the plot is inspired by Huerta’s childhood—this book involved much more research than others I’ve written. In addition to striving for authenticity when it came to the historical look, sound, and feeling of the character Lola’s home and community, it was important to me to enrich the story with details from the real Huerta’s childhood: that she loved to dance, for example, and that her grandfather nicknamed her “Siete Lenguas” because she talked so much. I learned as much about Huerta as I could in biographies, documentaries, and news articles from the 1960s up to today. And I loved getting to know her voice by reading and listening her speeches, letters, and interviews. The process left me even more inspired than when I started.
TB: Where did the idea for this book come from? Why was it important for you to write a story about young Dolores Huerta?
JT: There were a number of inspirations for this book. I lived for many years in Stockton, a city at the heart of California, in a region that isn’t what we typically imagine when we think about the Golden State, but that is nonetheless precious. It’s also where Dolores Huerta spent much of her childhood and where her activism began. For most of the time I lived in Stockton, I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering migrant education and spending time with farm workers who still face many of the injustices that Huerta and other leaders struggled (and continue struggling) against. I once had the privilege of interviewing her when she spoke at an elementary school named in her honor, and it struck me that the students listening—growing up in the neighborhoods where she grew up and where she would go on to organize—could one day have a similar impact in their communities and beyond. I think that’s where the seed for this story was first planted.
I was also inspired by my own family, which includes relatives who worked in fields and canneries. The communities they created and cared for helped them survive, and their belief in a better future made my life possible. I hope this story honors them.
Huerta has said that some of her earliest lessons in social justice came from her mother, Alicia, and the respect and compassion she offered to farmworkers who stayed at the hotel she ran in Stockton. I find that such a powerful and hopeful reminder that seemingly small acts of care for community can be the roots of powerful change. That’s why I wanted to focus on Huerta’s childhood.
TB: There are other picture books about Dolores Huerta. How does Lola Out Loud differ?
JT: There are some wonderful children’s books about Dolores Huerta, including Monica Brown’s Side by Side/Lado a lado and Dolores Huerta: Get to Know the Voice of Migrant Workers by Robert Liu-Trujllio, to name just two that I admire. And Aida Salazar has an upcoming middle grade historical fiction novel in verse, A Seed in the Sun, which features Huerta and is set during the 1965 protests for farmworkers’ rights. I’m really looking forward to it.
One of the ways Lola Out Loud is different is that it focuses on Huerta’s childhood, as we discussed previously. It also uses an imagined episode to illustrate the beginnings of her activism and what would become her voice.
TB: I love when Lola’s mom tells her, “When you see a problem, fix it.” And later, Lola uses that like her marching orders/ her call to action. There are many, but can you share one thing you want readers to take away from the story?
JT: Oh, thank you! I love that moment too, and love thinking about it as a call to action. Something else I hope the story does is acknowledge that it isn’t always easy to raise your voice. We doubt ourselves. We worry about making trouble. It’s okay to be afraid at first as long as, in the end, we find our courage and speak up. I hope young readers take away the idea that their voices, even now, are precious and powerful and meant to be heard.
TB: The illustrations are excellent. What role did you play? Was there anything you wanted to be included in the images? A specific way you wanted Lola or anyone/anything else to look?
JT: I’m so lucky to have been able to work with Sara Palacios on this book! Her gorgeous illustrations bring such warmth and heart to the story. While I shared some reference photos early on—mainly of Stockton in the 1930s and 40s—all credit goes to Sara and her vision and talent.
It was a hope of mine that the illustrations might reflect some of the diversity of the farmworkers’ movement in which people young and old, and from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds—including Mexican-Americans and Filipino-Americans—stood side-by-side. I think Sara did a beautiful job.
TB: You’ve written picture books, middle-grade books, and a chapter book series. Do you have a preference? How does your process differ when writing different genres?
JT: I love them all! When it comes to middle grade books, the opportunity to meet readers at a moment when their world is becoming bigger is such a special one. Chapter books, meanwhile, come with the joy of knowing your words will become some small part of children’s discovery of themselves as readers. And picture books bring the magic of shared reading and of words and images working together to tell a story.
Picture books have to convey so much in such a small space that, I think, when approaching one, I spend a lot more time asking myself, “Where is the heart of this story? What is this story really about?” before I start writing. That way every scene—maybe even every sentence—points toward that heart.
TB: You used to be a newspaper reporter. How has that experience helped you with your fiction writing?
JT: On the practical side, being a reporter made me very comfortable with writing as a collaborative process. I love being edited and am amazed at what can happen when ideas are shared and pulled apart and put back together.
Even more importantly, I think, journalism also helped me make a habit of curiosity and observation—wondering what if and why, watching for telling details, and listening for telling words. Working as a local journalist, I spent a lot of time writing about extraordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people. In many ways, that’s what I still do now.
TB: In what ways has your Mexican-American identity shaped your writing?
JT: I share this story often: that when I was in high school, my mom went to a bilingual educators’ conference and brought me home a copy of Chicana Falsa by the late Michele Serros. It was the first time I saw myself in a book and heard myself in an author’s voice. It changed everything I understood about who could be an author and whose stories could be told. Not long after, I wrote the piece that was my first to ever be published, a newspaper column about making tamales with my family. I don’t think that was a coincidence. Since then, I’ve continued to weave parts my identity and my experience—my heritage, my culture, the mix of English and Spanish I grew up hearing—into my books. They’re not autobiographical, but they’re true in another sense, and I hope they show young readers that their stories belong in books too.
TB: With your first picture book published in 2015, it’s safe to say you are pretty experienced in the fiction-writing world. What advice do you have to offer a writer just getting started?
JT: It’s a little strange to step back and know it’s been so long because I feel like I’m still learning so much! Some advice from my newspaper days that I still find very valuable is to save string. To have a place, a notebook or a computer file, where you hang on to those scraps of ideas, bits of inspiration, half-overheard conversations (that’s the string!) that catch your attention. I think it helps keep me open to possibilities and unexpected connections, and it’s a good place to come back to when I get stuck.
I’d also encourage writers to read a thread that author Emma Otheguy shared recently that really resonated with me. Her advice was to “Keep coming back.”
For as long as I’ve been an author, I’ve had a job outside of books and probably always will. Almost every word I’ve written has been in the couple of hours before my kids wake up and, if I’m not too tired, after they’ve gone to bed. My writing life might not look like I once thought it would or should, but what makes me a writer is the writing, and it all adds up to real books.
TB: What are you currently working on? What can we expect from you next?
JT: The fourth book in the Catalina Incognito chapter book series will be released in November, and I can’t wait to share it! Dreaming up persnickety Catalina’s magical sewing adventures has been such a bright spot over the past challenging years. Then, in February, The Win-Over, a sequel to The Do-Over, my pandemic-set, middle grade spin on The Parent Trap is due out from Scholastic. I’m currently working on a new series with Scholastic, Bad Princesses—about a pair of villains desperate to escape their school for royalty-in-training—and a couple of other projects I’m excited to share more about soon!
Purchase Lola Out Loud today!
Jennifer Torres is the author of Stef Soto, Taco Queen; Lola Out Loud; the Catalina Incognito series; The Do-Over; and many other books for young readers. She writes stories about home, friendship, and unexpected courage inspired by her Mexican-American heritage. Jennifer started her career as a newspaper reporter, and even though she writes fiction now, she hopes her stories still have some truth in them. She holds a doctorate in education and lives with her family in Southern California.
Tamika Burgess is a storyteller with over a decade of novel, TV/film, and personal essay writing experience. Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading the knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels. When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping and listening to a podcast. Tamika resides in sunny Southern California.
Today on the blog, we've got an interview between Musa Terry Catasus Jennings and Musa Rebecca Balcárcel, author of Shine On, Luz Véliz!
Have you ever been the best at something . . . only to lose it all?
“I wanted to hug the book when I finished. If you have ever believed in the power of second chances, Luz Véliz will light up your heart.” — Christina Soontornvat, Newbery Honor author
“[A]bsorbing and skillfully paced, laced with insight and warmth. Inspiring, smart, and beautifully written.”. — Starred Kirkus review
Terry Catasus Jennings: Hi Rebecca, I am so happy to be here with you talking about your newest book, Shine On Luz Véliz! I was able to read an early copy of this, and my hat is off to you. What a complex, layered story about a girl who, because of an accident, becomes, in her own words, a “bran muffin girl, instead of blueberry cinnamon.” Can you tell us about your story and what inspired you to write it?
Rebecca Balcárcel: Thanks, Terry! The spark for this book was meeting my real-life half-sister. We didn’t know about each other until adulthood, but when I started imagining what it would have been like to meet as kids, I knew I had to write about it! For Luz’s internal struggle, I turned to one of my own. As a kid, my parents praised me a lot and celebrated every accomplishment. This was mostly great, but at some point it occurred to me that maybe I was doing some things just for the kudos. I lost track of the inherent value in activities, and I lost track of my inherent value. This is exactly Luz’s problem. She’s so invested making her parents cheer that she forgets her worth as a person when she loses her soccer star status.
TCJ: I saw that. Her self-worth was tied to the cheers she got from her mom and dad, particularly her dad. And there are so many layers in the book, Rebecca. Let’s first take the layer of Luz’s accident. The loss that Luz feels is so well developed. When she is cleaning out the closet of her life and ridding it of all things soccer, with nothing to replace that love, the reader feels that angst. Readers understand that Luz’s identity is wrapped up in soccer and now she is lost. What was that idea based on? Did you ever have a moment like that?
RB: I did! I was a choir kid in school, and I sang at home with my parents and the guitar. I was chosen for a special group, and I did well at solo contests. I didn’t expect it to end, but it did. A particular choir director chose to embarrass me in class at a time when I was struggling emotionally already. I cried in front of everyone. The director made it clear that I wouldn’t be in her good graces anymore. I just couldn’t go back. I took up the flute and made a new home for myself in band. It turned out to be for the best, but I had to reinvent myself.
TCJ: Oh man. I was embarrassed by a choir teacher. That was in fifth grade for me. It was devastating! You’re right, I couldn’t go back to choir. And I see you really dug deep. Luz at one point says that she’s “basically okay, except she isn’t.” Her relationship to her father is so central to her identity. And her relationship to her father is primarily through soccer. Now she feels invisible. She feels like she has no worth. Then here he comes and brings a new sister for her — a person on whom he is showering all the attention he’s not showering on Luz. Tell us about how Luz feels about her dad.
RB: Luz is sad that she and her dad aren’t connecting the way they used to. Soccer gave them an automatic talk topic and an easy way to spend time together. With that gone, Luz isn’t sure what to offer. She thinks it’s on her to impress him. Worse, Dad is pulling away because he feels responsible for Luz’s injury. He doesn’t want to cause any new hurt, so he’s kind of ghosting her. Ironically, that hurts her. Until Luz calls him on it, her dad doesn’t even realize what he’s been doing. With his “new” daughter, it’s easier. He knows what to do -- show her around and make her feel welcome. With Luz, he’s a little lost until the end.
TCJ: Why don’t you tell us all about that new sister, Solana? What did you want to this new sister to do for Luz? On top of this girl coming, she is gregarious, even though she doesn’t know the language. It’s a very compelling situation in which Luz is placed. Tell us more.
RB: It was fun to write Solana because I admire her. She’s based on my real-life half-sister and also my immigrant cousins. Solana manages to move to a new place, please her new parents, adapt to a new school, and become a sister to Luz – all with a smile and a flare for making people happy. She’s pretty, too! Luz feels outshone, of course, and we eventually learn why Solana is trying especially hard. Luz learns a lot from Solana, the main thing being to appreciate people for who they are, including herself.
TCJ: An unsung hero in this story is the mother. She all of a sudden has to take in another woman’s daughter and sees everything that is going on with the family. Tell us how you came to this character.
RB: You’re so right! The mom is quietly, reliably making everything run smoothly, despite change and challenges. I guess this is most women I know! Especially, though, it’s a lot like my own mom. She has a big heart, but she isn’t one for self-pity. She faces things and gets to work solving the problem. She makes the best of things. Several times we opened our home to my father’s siblings and their families when they first arrived in the USA. Both my parents helped them start their life here, but mom was the paperwork do-er and the one to nail down the details, all with positivity and generosity. I try to be like her.
TCJ: So right. The moms are the ones who make things work. What a wonderful role model. I loved the character of Mr. Mac, who lives across the street. If you think of the hero’s journey, he is the mentor. He is the one who tells Luz the truth without varnish in a way that she can accept it. He guides her to accept what she has to accept. He does so much for Luz, yet, he has problems of his own, which his actions all the more admirable. What can you tell us about him?
RB: Yes, he really is that Gandalf-Dumbldore-Yoda mentor! My grandfather was the inspiration for Mr. Mac. Not only was he gently honest, funny, and wise, but his basement woodshop was magical. It was filled with saws, chisels, mallets, and hammers of different sizes, plus dowels, boards, blocks, and planks. The sense of creative possibilities and the smell of sawdust in the air never left me. Luz and Mr. Mac’s intergenerational friendship propelled this story for me. My grandfather’s knowing smile and his maker space in the basement provided continual touchstones. As you mention, though, the character Mr, Mac has his own challenges. He has an autistic grandson, and we learn that his hand tremors and occasional mood swings are caused by early-stage Parkinson’s. I took both of these situations from my own life: my dad had Parkinson’s, and I’m an au-some mom, with twin sons who are autistic.
TCJ: Rebecca, those two relationships come through so clearly, I knew there must be some very deep connections that helped you draw that character. There is one more layer, and that is her relationship with Skyler, her soccer buddy. Once Luz is no longer on the soccer team, Skyler becomes distant. Luz is jealous of the life that Skyler has because Skyler is still on the soccer team, she still has the same old friends. (All that Luz has lost due to her accident.) But there is a point in the book where Luz realizes that Skyler doesn’t have it all. That is one more opportunity for growth for Luz. Was that always part of the plan?
As I was writing the ending few chapters, I realized that I wanted to close the loop with Skyler. The girls separate, as you say, and I thought it would be cool to brings them back together after Luz grows into her new self. Luz wasn’t able to see Skyler clearly until after regaining some confidence. Then Luz can be a better friend. She can appreciate Skyler as a person, not only as a teammate who helped her win. This is when Luz finds out that Skyler doesn’t have a perfect life, and she’s now at a point where she can be empathetic. Luz is learning that people are deeper than they appear and that everyone is dealing with something.
TCJ: That is absolutely her growth pattern. She realizes that everyone is dealing with something. In the book Luz takes up computer coding, making robots. It is a drastic turn in her life. When you were a young wife and three months pregnant, you rode 1300 miles on a bicycle from Houston to Santa Fe. Your description about your move is you “climbed out of our former lives determined to see who we were.” Looking at Luz and her move to robotics made me think about that. Any connection?
I see what you mean! Yes, that bike trip was a real quest for identity, a literal journey that had a psychological goal. It’s scary to give up who you thought you were, but it’s also scary to look up and wonder if your life doesn’t match your true self. So, yes, Luz and I both made a drastic change. There’s a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called, “The Art of Losing.” Both Luz and I had to learn that losing makes space for something new. And neither of us knew what that “new” would look like. We had to let Life bring something, and we had to be open to it. You could also say, as Mr. Mac, does, that we had to build the new self deliberately – to select what we wanted to include in our lives and to select who we wanted to be there.
TCJ: You are very deliberate in your exposition of the gang problems which forced Solana to come to the United States. That also took courage. What can you tell us about that?
RB: For the storyline, I needed Solana to have a reason to leave Guatemala, but the two main reasons I made Solana’s mother a victim of gang violence are 1) real families are fleeing violence right now, and their appeals for asylum in the US have been handled in cruel ways 2) my own family was touched by violence when my aunt’s brother was shot for reasons and by people we’ll never know. While my book emphasizes the beauty of Guatemala and its people, I wanted to show these realities as well in hopes of raising readers’ awareness and empathy.
TCJ: It is a very difficult topic, but it helps Luz Veliz shine even more. You show very clearly the fear that many immigrants, even legal immigrants have of ICE. Another very courageous position. Thank you for doing that. Why was it important for you to broach that subject?
RB: Kids are living with this fear, and I didn’t want to ignore that. Lots of immigrant families have members with a variety of legal statuses — citizen, green card holder, legal resident, etc. Complications can arise that put a mother or grandfather or a cousin in jeopardy of being deported, even when trying to do things the legal way. Also, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers aren’t always treating people with dignity. And they make mistakes. I’ve heard of citizens running away during a raid just because they were afraid that they wouldn’t be believed, meaning a delay in being treated like the citizen they are. Kids with undocumented family members are suffering even more because they know their caregiver might be gone when they get home from school. It’s heartbreaking. I want to add that US policies in Central America have shaped that region’s economy and government. My mother served in Guatemala in the Peace Corps, but not every action by our country has been as positive in its consequences.
TCJ: Well, that’s something that all of have in common, “not every action by our country has been as positive in its consequences.” Cuban history is rife with that, as well, unfortunately. Let’s talk about book one vs. two. How different was writing Luz from writing The Other Half of Happy?
RB: So different! I wrote Happy over six years, with the leisure of creating something in isolation, just sharing with my critique group with no deadlines and no knowledge of the publishing industry. Happy started as a book of prose poems! When I got an agent, I turned it into a novel and revised a lot. When it sold, I still didn’t have a clear plot. I added the main plot in the last big rewrite. Can you believe it? With Luz, I knew I wanted to write a novel. I wrote a synopsis and an outline. The book sold with that and ten chapters. I wrote it in about nine months total (only five months after the contract was signed), doing the bulk of the drafting in spring 2020 during lock-down. A deadline from the publisher helped!
TCJ: And let’s end by talking about craft. You have written essays and poetry. Tell me about your writing journey.
RB: I trained as a poet, getting an MFA and having a small university press publish my first book, but I love all the genres. Non-fiction has the power of “this really happened!” plus a sense of one-on-one with the reader. Fiction gives me room to follow a character across time and meet all the people in their world. Poetry-writing created a rich soil for me, though, because it taught my ears music, and it gave me permission to play with figurative language. I set myself free in poetry in ways that would have been hard had I started in fiction. Now I can bring that experience to my novels. I hope it makes them interesting, sentence by sentence, as well as interesting at a story level. My goal is to harness all the powers of language to touch heads and hearts.
RB: I love those words, harnessing all the powers of language to touch heads and hearts. Thank you. Now, can you tell us what is in the future for you? What can you share with us?
TCJ: I'm excited to share that Inkyard Press will release Boundless, an anthology of short stories written about and by multi-racial/cultural authors, in summer 2023! I co-edited the collection with YA author, Ismée Williams, and also contributed a story. I hope the book will give multi-culturals representation and give everyone an insider's look at the experience. It's been an honor to work with the contributors, which include some of my idols like Jasmine Warga and Erin Entrada Kelly. I'm also drafting a new novel that uses magical realism and takes place in Guatemala!
TCJ: That sounds like an all-star cast. I am very excited to see that book that you co-edited with Ismée and which features Latina powerhouses. Wonderful. And I can’t wait to see what you do with magical realism in Guatemala. It was delightful to talk with you and I wish you the very best in the future.
Order Shine On, Luz Véliz today!
Bi-cultural Rebecca Balcárcel loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English. She is the author of SHINE ON, LUZ VÉLIZ! and THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, which was named a Pura Belpré Honor Book, an ALSC Notable Book, and the Best Middle Grade Book by Texas Institute of Letters. Her next book, a collection of short stories by multi-racial/multi-cultural authors, comes out in 2023. Rebecca is both a co-editor and a contributor.
Terry Catasús Jennings is a Cuban-American writer who immigrated to the United States after her father was jailed in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s government. She was twelve at the time and knew no English. The Little House of Hope/La casita de esperanza is a semi-autobiographical story in which immigrants give each other a helping hand in a new country. Her goal in life is to lead us to embrace our common humanity, as well as sing the praises of Cuban food. Terry is represented by Natalie Lakosil of Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
Today we are celebrating the book birthday of Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules, a rockin’ new picture book co-created by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Pat Zietlow Miller, with illustrations by Joe Cepeda. Before we jump in to an interview between e.E. and Musa Anika Denise, here’s a blurb about the book:
Anika Denise: It’s my pleasure to welcome e.E. Charlton-Trujillo to Las Musas Blog!
I was so excited to get a sneak peek at Lupe Lopez: Rockstar Rules! Lupe is a great character. I love how she really seems to know who she is—and she’s only in kindergarten! She's got confidence (and a little sass). Where did the inspiration for Lupe come from?
e.E. Charlton-Trujillo: Lupe Lopez’s origins are from the playbook of my rambunctious childhood growing up in small-town south Texas. Like Lupe, I strutted into kindergarten in mirrored sunglasses, but I had a metal KISS lunchbox, belt buckle, T-Shirt and necklace. Fully convinced I was destined to be the drummer for KISS. I remember being told, “Take off those sunglasses” by a teacher. I said, “Can’t do it. I’m a rock star.” As you might imagine, this didn’t go over well.
AD: So, you were not a rule follower growing up?
e.E.: Absolutely not! But, in time, I did learn the balance between my rock star aspirations and respecting the rules of school. And I genuinely believe it’s important for kids to be able to honor who they are and know the importance of co-existing in their community.
AD: What about Lupe’s music taste? Which bands/ songs would be on her playlist?
e.E.: Oooo. I’d say bands such as The Warning, Foo Fighters, and La Perla. Of course, the goddess Selena (because, you know, it’s Selena), Yoyoka, anything Nandi Bushell does, Hannah Ford-Welton and Olivia Rodrigo. Plus, Bomba Estereo’s Soy Yo video would be on regular repeat.
AD: Nice. Who doesn’t love a playlist with both Selena and the Foos?! This book was co-written by bestselling picture book author Pat Zietlow Miller. Can you talk a little bit about how the project came about and what your collaborative writing process was like?
e.E.: So, I wrote the original draft but hadn’t really studied the picture book form in a way that felt necessary. Because Pat and I had been friends for years and she was skilled at the craft, I asked her for a minimum of 20 picture books to read. Books where I could study structure, character, tonality, and overall approaches to narrative. She was surprised by how fast I checked them out the library, and the analysis I was willing to do. But it mattered to me.
As we talked about those picture books and then other ones, I felt we needed to write Lupe together. But neither of us had collaborated as writers before. Plus, could we collaborate and still be friends? And there was no question that Pat would be up to the task, but privately, I wondered if I could I hold up my end of the partnership.
We began passing the draft back and forth. Soon our collective strengths emerged. Our love of picture books and story buoyed our process. In the end, it has been one of the best creative partnerships of my life. And it has given me the opportunity to connect with a completely different level of reader which I’m so excited about!
AD: Sounds like an amazing experience. Do y’all have more co-authored projects planned?
e.E.: With Candlewick Press, we have Lupe Lopez: Reading Rock Star also illustrated by Joe Cepeda. At Viking Press, we have A Girl Can Build Anything, illustrated by Keisha Morris and a to-be-announced sequel also with Keisha as illustrator.
AD: Wow! How exciting! That’s great that you’ve teamed up again for a second Lupe book. Joe Cepeda’s illustrations are perfect for the story. How did you feel when you first saw his artwork?
e.E.: I had dreams of an iconic, confident, music-loving Latinx character that could rival someone such as Junie B. Jones but in picture book form. Joe has embodied Lupe with all of that and so much more. The illustrations are rich, textured, and culturally authentic. Paying homage to his mother’s image in Lupe, he’s created a girl that almost leaps from the page. It’s not hard to imagine her on television. With Netflix producing Ada Twist, Scientist and Silvergate Media producing Raul the Third’s ¡Vamos! Series, I’m hopeful that we can transition her story. Because Lupe Lopez has a lot of story in her. Just wait!
AD: A Lupe Lopez animated series would totally rock! Joe Cepeda’s illustrations are so fun and vibrant. How much input did you have into the illustration process? Are you someone who gives art notes?
e.E.: It’s really important to respect and honor what happens on both sides of the picture book process. Historically, artists work independently from the author(s) to visually elevate the narrative. Often creating something the author never may have envisioned. With that, if an art note can assist the illustrator toward a nuance that they might otherwise miss, then a note might be helpful.
AD: In what ways was the process of writing a picture book different from your novel-writing?
e.E.: Coming from a background in poetry and flash fiction, compression of language isn’t foreign to me. But writing middle grade and young adult novels kind of spoiled me because there’s the freedom of subplots, multiple character arcs, settings – movements in time. Picture book writing challenged me to make every word be a conscious decision in revision. To know what story I was telling and not stray. I would read the story aloud over and over. Listening for the musicality or lack thereof. There is no doubt in my mind that picture book writing has made me a stronger novelist and filmmaker.
AD: I love that. Okay, shifting gears… if Lupe Lopez could rock out with three other picture book characters, who would they be?
e.E.: This is such a hard question because there are many good picture books! But if I’m picking three (did I mention this is hard), I’d say: the community in Boogie, Boogie, Y’all written and illustrated by C. G. Esperanza, Millo who inspired Drum Dream Girl: How One Girls Courage Changed Music written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez and Aretha in RESPECT: Aretha Franklin The Queen of Soul written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison.
AD: The next question is for young readers. What would you say to kids who might not aspire to be in the spotlight?
e.E.: I’d say that there are so many ways to shine. In the classroom, during recess, after school. See, being a rock star isn’t always about being in the spotlight. Often, it’s about being comfortable with who you are. Whether a kid is outgoing or shy. Tall, not so tall, or somewhere in between. Whether they play music, watch Paw Patrol, finger paint, build Lego cities, snap photos, tell oral stories, the rock star component is in the celebration of that passion and all that makes up who they are. Lupe isn’t a rock star just because she wears sunglasses and is confident. What makes her a rock star is her willingness to listen, learn, and grow. May we all achieve that.
AD: Well said. Now, a question for writers. Do you have any advice for novelists who want to jump into picture books—or vice versa?
e.E.: Know the kind of picture book you’re writing. Is it lyrical, rhyme, character-based, or dialogue-driven? Is it nonfiction, realistic, or wildly whimsical? Knowing this creates structure. And if you’re new to the form: read. Here’s a quick starter list of books. And always remember. Books for the youngest readers ask us to change our perspective in such a special way. Celebrate that in your story if you can.
AD: That’s great advice. So, what's next? What are you currently working on?
e.E.: I’m currently writing a YA and a middle grade novel, co-authoring a YA mystery novel with a brilliant human, a duology with another brilliant human and a fifth picture book. It’s a lot, and with the state of the world, it’s hard somedays. Truly. But I keep thinking about all the hope that comes from writing for young people. With Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules rolling onto shelves and into kid’s hearts, I can’t wait to be in schools and libraries celebrating Lupe’s and their own stories!
AD: Last question. Did you ever become a rock star?
e.E.: Every time I speak or workshop with kids, that’s how I shine. So yeah, I guess, I did. Just not in the way I expected.
AD: You’re a rockstar, e.E. For kids and for other writers. Thank you for chatting with me!
Order Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules today!
Today, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo interviews S.A. about Treasure Tracks which is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Kirkus Reviews writes that Treasure Tracks is, “Lighthearted yet solid prose and quirky, delightful characters round out this swell tale of plucky fun under (and above) the sea.”
In Treasure Tracks, finding a long-lost treasure in the Florida Keys becomes the anchor for twelve-year-old Cuban and Puerto Rican American Fernando “Fin” Román in this under the sea and inside the heart family adventure.
e.E. Charlton-Trujillo: S.A., I have so many questions about Treasure Tracks. From Fin’s love of the ocean and his abuelo, to his relationship with his father, and of course, the race to find the treasure. But first, how does it feel to see your book come into publication?
S.A. Rodriguez: Thank you! It’s an amazing feeling. As you know, it’s no easy feat to get traditionally published, and perhaps even more challenging as a Latina creator. I have three sons, but this kind of feels like I’m bringing the fourth one into the world. I can’t wait for everyone to meet Fin! And of no coincidence, he has the same cultural background my sons' share—Cuban and Puerto Rican.
e.E.: From the first chapter, we are swept up into Fin’s thirst for adventure, love for Abuelo Kiki, and hint at the storms that are both outside and inside Fin’s world. Can you share more about juxtaposing the hurricane approaching the Florida Keys and the conflict between Fin and his father?
S.A.R: As a young teen, Fin is grappling to find his place in the world. He reveres Abuelo Kiki as a great adventurer and hero, and he can’t yet form a meaningful connection with his dad who he feels is the complete opposite. Indeed, there is turmoil and conflict brewing. Family drama and the anxiety it stirs up within us can overwhelm with the force of a hurricane, and it’s something many children contend with.
e.E.: You’ve created a nuanced excitement in Fin’s thrill-seeking character. Did your real-life experience as a certified diver spark Fin’s character and his passion for the sea and quest for treasure?
S.A.R: Absolutely! I am obsessed with the ocean and share an insatiable thirst for adventure. I grew up on an island surrounded by an endless sea and remember scouring the beach for treasure ever since I was a little girl. Diving offered a chance to explore the ocean from an intimate vantage point. There’s a sense of freedom and pure glee you get when you visit the underwater world. I hope this comes through in the story and encourages children to dive in, explore, and become stewards of the sea.
e.E.: While a thrilling story of adventure, Treasure Tracks explores the dynamics of three generations of Román men. What do you hope for young readers to glean from the human story of your book?
S.A.R: Beyond delivering an exciting adventure story, I wanted it to be full of heart. The interplay within the extended family, and often even a multigenerational home environment, is a central part of Latino culture. Back to your question, the answer is simple. I invite young readers to discover their true treasure. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to appreciate what’s worth more than gold to you.
e.E.: I love that! Digging “deeper to appreciate what’s worth more than gold” can resonate with young readers on so many levels. Can I ask you what was one of the most exciting parts in writing Treasure Tracks, and one of the most challenging?
S.A.R: Writing the action and dive scenes was the easy part. I wrote them in the Florida Keys and was living the inspiration. I think the most challenging part was diving into the heart of the story and delivering an emotional punch. I wrote most of the book during the quarantine period of the pandemic when I was trying to repress my anxiety to manage my household. Perhaps the writing helped me escape the hurricane of emotions building inside.
e.E.: If Treasure Tracks were to be adapted into a film, what would be the three things you’d absolutely need to see in the final movie.
S.A.R: This would certainly be a dream! I think beyond delivering exciting action scenes, the film would need to capture the undercurrents of the family dynamics and get to the heart of the story. From a cinematographic standpoint and because there are few movies filmed in the Florida Keys, it would be important to capture the natural and truly majestic beauty our underwater treasures offer, to share them with the world on the big screen. And finally, it would be important for me to ensure authentic Latino representation.
e.E.: Thank you so much for sharing all of this. I cannot wait for middle grade readers to explore the physical and emotional depths of Treasure Tracks. In the meantime, are you working on something new? Maybe something on land?
S.A.R: Thank you for diving in deep (no pun intended) with your questions! Hmm ... I’ve always got a few adventures cooking, and the ocean seems to be a common thread in all of them. However, I am working on another middle grade novel that is more land dominant. I’m happy to share this one is based in Puerto Rico!
e.E. I can’t wait (but I get that I have to for now)! Can you share where people can find you online?
S.A.R.: You can visit my site: sarodriguezbooks.com and check out the Discussion and Activity Guide for Treasure Tracks.
Buy Treasure Tracks today!
We are so excited to share the beautiful cover for María José Fitzgerald's debut novel, Turtles of the Midnight Moon, a heart-pounding eco-mystery with a hint of magic!
The story follows Barana and Abby as they learn to work together to catch the poachers who have been stealing the precious sea turtle eggs from their beach.
The cover was illustrated by Zeina Shareef, an incredibly talented Maldivian illustrator, and it was designed by the amazing Michelle Cunningham at Knopf Books for Young Readers. Zeina truly captured the friendship and moon magic in this cover, and if you read the book, you might find a few other symbols and hints as well!
Pre order Turtles of the Midnight Moon today!
Today, we're excited to host the cover reveal of Gato Guapo, an all-new picture book coming in 2023 from not one, but TWO Musas, Anika Aldamuy Denise and Zara González Hoang!
Here’s a blurb from HarperCollins about the book:
Find out what dapper feline Gato Guapo’s nine naughty gatitos are up to in this hilarious cumulative romp told in a lyrical blend of Spanish and English by Pura Belpré Honor-winning author Anika Aldamuy Denise and celebrated illustrator Zara Gonzalez Hoang!
Let’s countdown from nine (one for each gatito!) and reveal the cover:
Aw, what a handsome cat—and cover!
In Anika’s words. . .
“I could not have been more excited to pair up with Zara on this project! Her debut picture book, A New Kind of Wild, is one of my all-time favorites. When I saw the finished cover for Gato Guapo, I literally grabbed my laptop, jumped up from my chair, and ran to show my husband who is also an illustrator (and a big fan of Zara’s work!). Zara’s brought so much depth and humor to the spreads. It’s one of those books that invites multiple readings because every time you flip through, you discover something new and hilarious in the art. I also love that Zara illustrated Guapo as an orange tabby cat, because our family’s orange tabby, Charlie, was the inspiration for the book.
And yes, él es muuuy guapo.”
On-sale date: February 28, 2023
Preorder Gato Guapo
Add Gato Guapo to your Goodreads
Anika Aldamuy Denise is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction picture books. Her book Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré won a Pura Belpré Author Honor, an NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor, and the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award. Anika draws inspiration for her stories from her multicultural upbringing, family, and her cuddly orange tabby, Charlie—who will surely be impossible to live with once the book is released and he becomes a minor pet celebrity. You can follow Charlie on Instagram @TheGatoGuapo. And you can find Charlie’s human (Anika) online, too.
Zara González Hoang is an obsessive scribbler, daydreamer, and doodler. She grew up in a house full of stories, where imagination was encouraged and one could never be sure what was truth and what was fiction. In addition to illustrating Gato Guapo, she is the author and illustrator of A New Kind of Wild and the illustrator of Mi Casa is My Home. She lives outside of DC in a magical suburban forest with her Mad Man husband, human-shaped demons, curly coated corgi, and a jungle of plants.
IG & Twitter @zarprey
Today, we're celebrating Musa Terry Catasús Jenning's The Little House of Hope / La casita de esperanza. To turn a shabby little house into a welcoming home, all it takes is a big-hearted family eager to help others. . . and a little hope. La casita offers a home for those who don’t have anywhere to go. It’s a safe place in a new land, and Esperanza is always the first to welcome them. An inspiring, semi-autobiographical story of how immigrants can help each other find their footing in a new country, accompanied by the rich and vivid illustrations of award-winning artist Raúl Colón.
“It was a little house. Una casita . . .
This beautiful picture book is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and Kirkus Reviews describes it as reflecting “the stories of many a refugee family and humanizes a group of people often othered. In an age-appropriate way, it touches on the complicated reasons people leave their homes.”
Gloria Amescua: Terry, I’m so happy to be interviewing you about your latest book, which I know must be very close to your heart.
I’m always interested in author’s inspirations for their books. In your author’s note you mention that your family lived in a casita where three families lived together, twelve during the week and fourteen when your uncle’s sons came to stay with him. How much of the details or actions of your story about immigrant families living together came from your actual experience and what is additional?
Terry Jennings: Gloria, most of those details did come from my own experience, but you’re right, some things are changed to make a better story. When we came to the United States, we had nothing. My uncle’s family was already here, and they opened up their house to us. My aunt’s brother, his wife and baby lived in the garage, and, when we came, I bunked with my two cousins, Rita and Tilly and my parents and three-year old brother slept on the pullout couch. So, they were the ones that opened up their house to us, and we were all family who lived in that little house. To be honest, I don’t know where the furniture in their house came from, but when my family—Papi, Mami and my brother Tony rented our own home, we did have furniture from the church basement. Heck, we had pots and pans and dishes too. We couldn’t have made it without help. And absolutely, I decorated my room with collages. It’s something I continued to do, even in college.
G.A. We also had furniture, books, and more that our neighbors gave us. It’s wonderful when others see you have a need and give from their hearts. I also love collages and have made some as well, mainly to express what I care about and also for goal setting.
Did you originally have a Mexican immigrant family in the story or did you decide to widen the scope of where the immigrants came from?
T.J. The first few versions of the book had only family living in the house, but Neal Porter, my editor, and I felt that it was important that we show more than the Cuban immigrant experience, and I am so happy we did that. It allowed us to show, that regardless of where you come from, you are still human. You have the same hopes, dreams, and needs. And a little helping hand meeting those needs is what makes all the difference in the world.
G.A. I’m really happy you both made that decision. It enriches the experience of the story.
You also mention that part of the reason you wrote this story stems from anger, but also with pride. Will you explain how these feelings came about and why you decided this was one way to deal with it? Why was it important to you to write this book?
T.J. Wow. That was a hard day, but a positive day. A realtor friend told me he would never rent to “Mexicans.” They always lived four families to a house and trashed the property. I stewed and stewed over that comment. He knew I was Cuban. How could he say that? How blind was he to what those people were actually going through? At first, I was just thinking about “them” but at some point, the light bulb went off. Wait! My family was one of those families! We only lived three people to a house, but still. And we all eventually became citizens and we never trashed a house. It brought back so many memories. And I felt that I needed to write about it. You’re right, I had to deal with it. I had to get it off my chest. But, more importantly, I wanted to set the record straight. Most immigrants that come to the US do so because it’s a last resort. My father would have been killed if we had stayed in Cuba. That’s why his brother had come before him. Life had become impossible. And we would have lost all our freedoms, especially the one to think for ourselves, if we had continued to live under Castro. The more I think about it, in all my books, Esperanza, Dominguita, Pauli Murray, I strive to show that we are all human. I wish I could find a catchy phrase for that, but that’s what’s important to me. For persons to be seen for who they are, what contributions they have made, not where they came from or the color of their skin. I bet this resonates with you, I believe your Child of the Flower-Song People is very much in that vein. It is beautiful.
G.A. Thank you, Terry. The Little House of Hope really does resonate. I do think we’re both trying to show the humanity of all people, to have them be seen and respected.
Raúl Colon’s illustrations are so rich and textured. What do you think his illustrations add to the text? Is it as you imagined it? Did you get to work with any of your illustrators or separate from them?
T.J. Oh Gloria, when Neal Porter told me that Raúl was illustrating La Casita (we call it that whether it’s in Spanish or in English), I was overwhelmed. I already had one of his books--Good-bye, Havana, Hola, New York! I was actually using it as research for another book on Cuba. He had portrayed Cuba the way I remembered it, and it was good to have his book while I wrote my descriptions. I couldn’t have been happier. His illustrations are so true! I almost cried when I saw the picture of the father. He looked just like my papi. But I have to say, that Duncan Tonatiuh has a wonderful style himself. I loved what he did with Luz Jiménez.
G.A. I’m so glad Papi in the book resembles your father. I can’t imagine how wonderful that must be. I love Raúl’s work as well. I couldn’t be more thrilled that Duncan Tonatiuh illustrated our book because his unique style fit the text perfectly.
Now let’s talk about the equally lovely Spanish version of your book, La casita de esperanza, which is being published simultaneously. How did the decision to publish a Spanish version come about? I read that you translated the Spanish version. How did you feel about being able to do that?
T.J. Oh, gosh. I don’t know how the decision came about. One day, it seemed like I knew that it would be published in Spanish simultaneously. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare. But I was absolutely grateful when Neal proposed that I do the translation myself. You know, I’m not a very good Cuban, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, not in Miami. My Spanish is pretty atrocious. Still. I wanted to do that. Otherwise, it would be like giving away my baby to be raised by someone else. It was an amazing process. First, I did my translation and sent it to my cousin who grew up in Miami and is older, and her Spanish is impeccable. She said I was using many “Cubanisms,” like using guagua instead of autobus, and medias instead of calcetines. Neal agreed with me!!!! He provided me with a fairy god-translator, Eida del Risco, who made sure I didn’t make any mistakes. But then the best thing happened. Some of the Spanish phrases sounded better than the English text, so we changed the construction of the English text to match the Spanish. We changed some words, because the Spanish word lead me in a slightly different direction. You know what that means? To me, it means that both books are “practically perfect in every way.”
G.A. I totally agree with you. Both books are so beautiful! And it’s interesting to know that the translation process led you to changing some of the English.
Can you tell us how your processes for the Definitely Dominguita Series and Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights were different or similar to The Little House of Hope? Of course, since the Pauli Murray is a middle grade biography, it would be different, but did you find any similarities in the writing process itself among the series, the biography and the stand-alone picture book? What drew you to write these different types of books?
T.J. You’re right, it's pretty obvious to see what is different in all three, but let’s talk about what is similar, and that was in finding the heart of the story. Folks may think this is a stretch, but I believe that the heart of all the stories is hope. Esperanza (her name means hope) found hope in the United States. Dominguita, although it is cute fun book, it still is about hope. Dominguita finds hope in a new life with friends. And of course, Pauli Murray was responsible for giving hope to African Americans with her writings and with the laws she caused to be changed. She gave hope to women, who, because of her, got equal pay for equal work. So that’s what I think the similarity is. That we can have hope, but we can have hope because we all understand our common humanity and reach out in friendship to help others.
G.A. Hope is the essence of your books. Kids need to feel that hope. We all do. You had two books come out this year. Does your agent send out several books at once or one at a time? What is the average time for your books to be published? How do you handle having more than one book come out so close together?
T.J. This was a banner year, wasn’t it? One answer is yes, Natalie does send out whatever I have whenever it’s ready. You don’t know when they will be bought, so I bet she’s thinking might as well send them out. I have two out on submission right now. But the more complicated answer is that La Casita was bought before the other two. It took a year for Raul to be able to illustrate La Casita, so that made it come out later. Dominguita was bought three months after La Casita and that took about a year and a half to publish, I think. But then Pauli Murray was sold the following year and it wasn’t supposed to be released until the end of this year, late November. The editors at little bee books (lower case on purpose) decided to bring Pauli Murray up eleven months. So that’s why everything seems to have come at the same time. And the answer to how I handle having one book coming out so close together is that I slept very little and neglected my husband. Thank God for my wonderful husband who does everything that has to be done so I can write. I was writing the Pauli Murray book, (it was sold on proposal) while writing the last of the Dominguita books. It’s still daunting, now, having two books that are coming out so close to each other. I feel like I’m imposing on friends to do things like this blog (thank you). For ALA and NCTE, I’ll be representing two books, I’m still not sure how I feel about that. The thing is you have no control, so you might as well do the best you can. But take good notes on book one, so that you can carry it through.
G.A. I’m so impressed by how you’re handling everything. And thank you for the insight into the submission and publishing processes for your books. I really enjoyed this and your other books, Terry. Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
T.J. Lots in the mill. There are two picture books out on submission right now, and I am working on a novel in verse about the Cuban revolution (which I started in 2008) so I hope that will be ready soon along with another about Gabby Haley who is half Cuban, half American and her Abuela joins her family when they move to this quaint little northern town. Now Gabby finds herself being a lot more Cuban than she ever was and she’s not sure what to do with that. I hope those two go out on submission this summer. We’re close, thanks for asking.
G.A. What do you hope readers will take away after reading Little House of Hope?
T.J. I hope readers come to understand what a difficult decision it is to leave your country and become an immigrant in a new land. I hope they understand that no matter where we’re from, we are all the same. (Sorry to keep repeating that). Hope young readers understand that families not only leave their country but a way of life, and often family—I never saw my grandmother again. I hope they’ll offer a hand of friendship whenever they have the opportunity.
G.A. Thank you, Terry, for writing this book about the care and support immigrants show each other when they are new. Your book shows the helping hand and hope that sustains them as they become contributors to our country. You are so inspiring!
Order The Little House of Hope and La casita de esperanza today!
On September 11, 1961, Terry Catasús Jennings landed in the United States with her family after a short flight from Cuba. Their only possessions were $50 and one suitcase each. Her family, including her father, who had been jailed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, was now in a free country. On September 12, Terry found herself enrolled in seventh grade, drowning in a sea of English she didn’t understand. With time and help, the family thrived. Terry was a late bloomer in her writing career. The Definitely Dominguita series was named SLJ, Kirkus, and Parents Latina Best Books of 2021. Her biography in verse, Pauli Murray, The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist released in February. In The Little House of Hope, illustrated by Pura Belpré medalist Raúl Colón, Jennings portrays her immigrant experience, showing how a helping hand in a new land can make a life-saving difference for a family. She encourages us all to embrace our common humanity. She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband, and enjoys visiting with her five grandchildren, often encouraging them to bring their parents along. She is a member of SCBWI, Las Musas Latinx Collaborative and the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC.
Gloria Amescua (Ah MES qua) has been a writer since she was a child, writing poems and stories throughout her life. She loves books that reach a young person’s heart, head or funny bone and strives to do just that in her writing. Gloria’s debut picture book biography, CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books, 2021) was awarded a Pura Belpré Author Honor. It was listed as a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection, ALA Notable Books, SLJ’s Best Books 2021 and various other Best of Nonfiction/Informative lists for 2021/2022. Her book was also a 2022 SCBWI Golden Kite finalist for nonfiction text for Young Readers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published one of Gloria’s poems for their national 8th grade textbook literature series. Gloria is an educator, poet and children’s book writer. She believes in children, pets, and possibilities.
All of us at Las Musas want to wish a musical Happy Book Birthday to Cynthia Harmony on the release of her debut picture books Mi Ciudad Sings and Mi ciudad canta, which is a JLG gold standard selection!
Available as a hardcover, eBook, and audiobook, in both English and Spanish, Mi Ciudad Sings is a beautiful, lyrical story with gorgeous illustrations that is so lovely and vivid, it sings! Booklist writes: “Harmony’s sweet story line about human resilience is brought to vivid life by Martínez’s illustrations, which clearly mirror the movement of a tumultuous natural disaster, as well as the joy in recuperating after such an event.” And we agree!
Alexandra Alessandri interviews Cynthia Harmony on the release of her debut, but first, here’s a snapshot of the book:
After experiencing a devastating earthquake, the spirit of a charming and vibrant Mexican neighborhood might be shaken, but it cannot be broken.
Alexandra Alessandri: I love learning about story inspirations and how books got their origins. What was your inspiration for Mi Ciudad Sings and how did it blossom from that initial idea to the final version?
Cynthia Harmony: Thanks Alexandra, I’m so happy to have this opportunity to talk to you about Mi Ciudad Sings. This book is based on the real events of the aftermath of the earthquake that took place in 2017 in Mexico City. It was an inspirational moment of resilience and community coming together that I wanted to honor and celebrate. And it was also a chance to portray a minority group in a positive light, as an example of bravery, empathy, and kindness.
I’m so grateful for this book’s journey to all the people that contributed their talents. My critique partners, my first agent Natascha Morris that sold this book, my editor and her team, Teresa Martinez for her beautiful art, and my wonderful agent James McGowan who sold the Spanish version of this book.
AA: I love that; it truly takes a village to create a book! I also vividly remember both the 2017 and 1985 earthquakes, and I love how you took something tragic and wove in hope.
Can you take us a little bit into your process for writing this story? Do you have any fun or meaningful rituals? Where do you write?
CH: Four years ago around the time I wrote the first draft of this story, my kids were 6 and almost 4 years old. I just jumped on my computer when I made time, with no special writing rituals. We do have a daily reading routine though, which is a perfect opportunity to select mentor texts. The fun part about writing with small kids is that I get to read them my work. It’s especially helpful to see their reactions when something is not clear or confusing, which happens a lot in my early drafts! They also have great ideas for naming characters and being connected to their world is always helpful and fun.
AA: I felt the same way when my son was younger! In addition to writing picture books, you also write for the educational market. How does your process differ between the two? How are they similar? Do you plan or let the idea lead you by the seat of your pants?
CH: I’m a total panster, the only moments I outline are the work-for-hire educational early readers and chapter books which you need to turn in beforehand. It is helpful to have a guide for chapter beats when the format is longer. But for picture books, I approach the first draft like writing poetry. I let the idea sit for a while until I find the right tone and structure. Then I write freely and even if the middle is incomplete, I like figuring out the ending. That way I feel like the story has feet and I can plan, find the right mentor texts, and revise.
AA: It’s funny you mention poetry—there are so many similarities between writing poetry and picture books. In your text, there’s so much beautiful lyricism— from the musical onomatopoeia and alliteration—that the story truly sings! It will make a wonderful read aloud in homes, classrooms, and libraries. And the scenes from around the city are just so charming! How did you decide which places and sounds to include?
CH: Ah thank you, this was completely my goal since the title is Mi Ciudad Sings, I wanted readers to have that feeling and experience. All the unique sounds and places are still fresh in my mind from my memories living in the city and living through a big earthquake as a kid. After moving away, I used to go back to visit about once a year before the pandemic began. So this story comes directly from my personal experience, what I know and what I love. It’s really a love letter to my city and my community that I continue to cherish.
AA: I absolutely felt the love in Mi Ciudad Sings. Here’s a fun question: If you could be in Mexico City right now, where would you go? What would you eat? Who would you see?
CH: First stop is always my mom’s house, then drive a few blocks to eat tacos at La Condesa neighborhood. Food is OUTSTANDING, it’s my favorite in the entire world! Then catch up with friends and probably check out the new foodie places at La Roma neighborhood. Even my kids have their favorite restaurants and dishes that they’ve been missing this past couple of years. Then I would visit a few of the 150 museums, another of my favorite parts about the city since I worked in museums for many years. It’s been two and half years since I last visited, so I can think of so many things I want to do. Thinking about this made me so happy, thanks for asking!
AA: Oh, I love this! I’m ready to pack my bags and visit.! love that Mi Ciudad Sings will be published in both English and Spanish (as Mi ciudad canta)! As someone who’s bilingual but who hadn’t practiced writing in Spanish for a while, I know I struggled a bit with translating my own picture book (though I loved the challenge and experience, and I’m proud of how it came out!) What was the process of the translation like for you and how did it compare with writing the text in English? Did you originally write both texts and sell it that way?
CH: For picture books that go out on submission, I normally write the Spanish version simultaneously. And many times I go back to the English version to adjust a few things and make it tighter. I think this is the advantage in translating your own work. Since my writing is lyrical, it’s important to find the right words and sounds in each language. It’s not a separate process, but it complements each other.
This story however was originally bought in English only. Then James became my agent and I shared how important Spanish editions are for me. So he inquired (he’s pretty awesome) and eventually my editor shared the fantastic news of Mi Ciudad Canta also coming into the world, on the same date.
AA: I’m so happy it worked out! I’ve been noticing a hunger for bilingual stories like this, so I’m thrilled readers will get both editions. What are you most looking forward to with both books out in the world on June 14? And, what do you hope readers will take with them after reading Mi Ciudad Sings?
CH: I’ve worked for and with kids the majority of my career, so I’m excited to read these books with them and listen to their insights, questions, and comments in storytimes and school visits. Maybe because I’m a psychologist I’ve always felt like I’m the one learning when I’m around with kids, not the other way around. I can talk to them for hours and be marveled by their authenticity and wisdom in the way they experience the world. I can’t wait to hear their take and I hope this story brings them light and hope. An empowerment and certainty that we can move past challenges together by taking action.
AA: That is absolutely beautiful. I know kids are going to love Mi Ciudad Sings! Finally, can you tell us what we can expect from you next?
CH: My next picture book A FLICKER OF HOPE, published by Viking, comes out in 2023 in English and Spanish. It’s the parallel story of a girl waiting for her papá to come back home and the migration of monarch butterflies in the Mexican Reserve. I’m so proud of this story that sums up my view on our relationships with each other, as families, as countries, and with nature. It’s illustrated by the talented Devon Holzwarth, so I can already picture the beauty she’s creating as we speak!
AA: Congratulations—that sounds so beautiful! Thank you, Cynthia, for chatting with me about Mi Ciudad Sings. I’m looking forward to seeing it out in the world!
Preorder Mi Ciudad Sings and Mi ciudad canta!
Today, we're thrilled to share the cover of the adorable picture book, Plátanos Are Love, written by Musa Alyssa Reynoso-Morris and illustrated by Mariyah Rahman!
But first, let's learn a little bit more about the book:
A delicious picture book about the ways plantains shape Latinx culture, community, and family, told through a young girl’s experiences in the kitchen with her abuela.
Alyssa says, "I am so grateful to my editor Alex for her expertise and time in making this book the best it can be. I look forward to making our ancestors proud with it and I could not have done it without Alex.
I also want to thank Mariyah Rahman for bringing me to happy tears with her stunning illustrations. Upon learning that the Abuela on the page was depicted in the image of both Mariyah's and my grandmother, I knew this collaboration would be special. I feel so lucky for the privilege of working with Alex and Mariyah. I hope you all enjoy the book when it comes out."
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