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?
HEB: Because the main character shares some of my own childhood feelings, I wrote the book in 1st person from the very beginning. I also wrote my two middle grade books in 1st person (although, obviously, those two characters do have names). I’m drawn to books with 1st person narrators because when I read them I feel close to the characters and I’m able to be part of the story. I want my readers to feel that way too.
AA: I also really loved Gaby D’Alessandro’s illustrations, and the fact that you both share Dominican heritage. From the quilted endpapers to the soft hues and expressive characters, the whimsical illustrations beautifully complemented your text.
HEB: How did you feel when you saw Gaby’s sketches and color illustrations for the first time? And, how did you feel when you found out a Dominican illustrator would be bringing your story to life?
When I first learned that Gaby would be illustrating my book, and I saw some of her work, I was excited and pleased because her style looked perfect for this story and because I thought that, as a fellow Dominican, she could add many authentic touches to the illustrations. I was right! Her first sketches were beyond what I would have imagined. Since the story takes place entirely inside one apartment—mostly in one room—I didn’t really know how the illustrations would look. Would it be boring to see the same setting on page after page? As it turns out, absolutely not! Gaby did a beautiful job creating varied illustrations that captured the characters’ thoughts and feelings. As the color illustrations were finalized, I felt so emotional to see my story really coming to life.
AA: Yes to all of that! You’re also the author of the middle grade novel Ana María Reyes Does NOT Live in a Castle (which, by the way, both my son and I read and loved!!) and the forthcoming Miosotis Flores Never Forgets. How different is your process when writing picture books compared to when you’re writing novels?
HEB: Thank you so much for your kind words about Ana María! I’m glad you and your son enjoyed it!
In terms of the writing process, I would say that the middle grade books are “easier” to get down on paper initially, but then take a lot longer to revise, while with this picture book, I wrote many more drafts before submitting it, and then the revision process was quicker. I think the reason for this difference is that when you’re writing a middle grade novel, you have a lot of words to work with so you just let them flow onto the page with that first draft. With a picture book, there’s a lot of rethinking your choice of words and coming up with exactly how to express the thoughts and feelings you want to get across as economically as possible.
AA: On that note, can you take us through your creation process with The Cot in the Living Room? What was your process? How did you go from idea to book? What did you feel was the hardest part? The easiest?
HEB: Actually, I was walking my dog one day when—for some reason I don’t remember now—I started to think about one of the kids my mom used to babysit. Then I remembered the ones who would spend the night and my ambivalent feelings about them. When I got home, I wrote out a rough draft. The first drafts focused on the main character and her feelings; I later turned to the other characters in order to develop them further. The hardest part was telling a heartfelt story about a number of characters with as few words as possible. Also, I’m not an illustrator and I don’t usually think in terms of pictures, so it was a bit of a challenge to determine where the illustrations could speak without words, and then to cut out those words. It was, however, a fun challenge. I also really enjoyed imagining the characters, bringing them to life through their dialogue, and collaborating with the editor and illustrator to create a well-rounded story.
AA: What do you hope your readers will take away after reading The Cot in the Living Room?
HEB: I hope that kids who share something in common with the characters—for example, bilingual, growing up in an apartment in a big city, and/or with parents or guardians who work the night shift—can see themselves and their lives reflected in these pages. Additionally, I would like all readers to see the beauty of a close-knit and helpful community, and the sacrifices that many working parents have to make in order to provide for their families.
AA: Can you share what’s next for you or what you’re working on now? And, if you could give an aspiring author one piece of advice, what would it be?
HEB: My second middle grade novel, Miosotis Flores Never Forgets, releases in October. I have started a few other projects, some middle grade and some picture books, but none are anywhere near finished. I plan to focus on (at least) one and complete it this year. One piece of advice I would give an aspiring author is to be patient. The publishing industry moves very slowly so just keep learning and keep writing, and don’t worry about the things you can’t control.
AA: Oh man, that’s so true! Patience is so important in this business and so hard to manage at times. Thank you, Hilda, for speaking with me about The Cot in the Living Room. I can't wait for readers do discover your sweet story!
Buy The Cot In the Living Room today!
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