A huge Las Musas happy book birthday to Vanessa L. Torres on the release of her debut Young Adult novel, The Turning Pointe! Hilda Eunice Burgos interviews Vanessa L. Torres, but first, here is a little bit about this wonderful book, which Kirkus Reviews called “A powerful story of overcoming expectations with a hopeful ending.”
A bold and emotionally gripping novel about a teenage Latinx girl finding freedom through dance and breaking expectations in 1980s Minnesota.
When sixteen-year-old Rosa Dominguez pirouettes, she is poetry in pointe shoes. And as the daughter of a tyrant ballet Master, Rosa seems destined to become the star principal dancer of her studio. But Rosa would do anything for one hour in the dance studio upstairs where Prince, the Purple One himself, is in the house.
After her father announces their upcoming auditions for a concert with Prince, Rosa is more determined than ever to succeed. Then Nikki--the cross-dressing, funky boy who works in the dance shop--leaps into her life. Weighed down by family expectations, Rosa is at a crossroads, desperate to escape so she can show everyone what she can do when freed of her pointe shoes. Now is her chance to break away from a life in tulle, grooving to that unmistakable Minneapolis sound reverberating through every bone in her body.
Hilda Eunice Burgos: Congratulations on the release of your beautiful debut book! Could you tell us what inspired you to write this story?
Vanessa L. Torres: I could easily say, my love for Prince and his music. And yes, that would be totally true. I’ve been “Prince-obsessed” like my main character, Rosa, since I was twelve years old. After Prince died, I couldn’t stop thinking about my time as a dancer at The Minnesota Dance Theatre. It was 1983, and word traveled fast around the studio that Prince was taking dance classes under our roof.
I found every opportunity I could to sneak upstairs and watch him perfect his pirouettes. So, yeah, those memories were the initial spark for the book. I grew up in Minneapolis, as one of the few inner-city kids dancing on financial assistance for MDT’s Children’s Performing Arts Division. I came of age in downtown Minneapolis. I hung out in places I probably shouldn’t have been hanging out in. So many of those places, people, and experiences made it into the book. But moreover, as I wrote, the story also became about my own identity, and how growing up, I never felt like I fit in any one space. I am from a wonderful, close, Mexican American family—one that did not pass down speaking Spanish to the younger generations. For my grandparents, it was about assimilation and being protective of their children, knowing the obstacles being mixed race often brings.
I never really feel I belong anywhere, one hundred percent of the time. I could not have written Rosa’s story about her finding forgiveness and self-love, without including my own struggles.
Hilda: Yes, I agree that our best stories come out when we dig deep into ourselves. And when we really know what we’re talking about, as you obviously did when you wrote the ballet studio scenes in your book. Are you a trained ballerina?
Vanessa: Yes! As I mentioned above, I am a former dancer. And my sister is a retired professional ballet dancer. I leaned on her a lot for the dance scenes because I don’t take class nearly as often as I used to.
And I also loved streaming classes from professional ballet companies while I was writing TTP. A lot of companies go live with their classes, and anyone can observe, or follow along. Sometimes, I’d have a tab open to stream The Royal Ballet and play it behind my working document. Just the sounds of the ballet class pulled me in and were super helpful while writing the complex ballet scenes.
Hilda: That’s a great idea! We can find a lot on the internet to inspire us and to help with research as well. I love how you bring back the 1980s in this book. Why was it important to set the story in the 1980s and not in the present? What was it like to write about a real place during a time in the (not too distant) past? Do you have a really good memory or did you have to do some research?
Vanessa: I love this question! Several years ago, when I was new to writing novels, I attended a writer’s conference. There was a session about finding your voice. And something the presenter said has stuck with me until this day.
She said, write the story only you could write. Your experiences are unique. There isn’t another person on this earth who can tell your story the way you do. Once you tap into that, you’ve found your voice, and your book.
Once I discovered this within myself, I had my muse for The Turning Pointe. Aside from the fact that my book centers around a real event in music history, the Prince concert at a club called First Avenue, where he first played songs from his iconic album, Purple Rain, I also wrote about the 80s because they were totally rad! And yes, I did have to do some research. It was important to me to get the details right. I wanted the inner-city neighborhood in the book to become a character. All of the shops, bars and clubs in the scenes were real establishments at one time.
So much has changed since then. But there are some things that haven’t changed at all. I really wanted this to resonate with my young readers.
Hilda: Yes, the neighborhood definitely felt like an integral part of the book, and so did Prince. Why was it important for you to include him in this story?
Vanessa: It was impossible to grow up in Minnesota and not know who Prince was. I can’t think about my childhood without him being part of my memories. I wanted to capture what it feels like when you hear that perfect song–the one that makes you roll down your car windows and belt it out until you forget about everything else going on around you. Coming of age, Prince was that for me. He still is.
Hilda: I absolutely get that! His songs are true classics. I noticed that you used your knowledge as a firefighter/paramedic to write some compellingly realistic scenes in the book. In what other ways did your personal experiences help you create this story?
Vanessa: Thank you! Well, I was an avid bus rider. And in my book, so is my main character, Rosa. Sometimes, her bus rides were her only refuge. It’s funny, but I didn’t realize how much using public transportation as a kid would come back to give me such awesome material. My mother didn’t drive and my father worked nights, so I started taking the bus alone at an early age. I’d come home from school, grab my dance bag, shove some food in my face and hop on the bus to go downtown. I think I was eleven when this became the norm. I had two younger sisters and my mother worked, so it was my only option. I knew all the drivers and most of the regular riders. They all looked out for me and sometimes, even brought me little treats and crafts. It was tough during the Minnesota winters, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
Hilda: That sounds like a nice memory! I grew up in New York City and my parents didn’t own a car, so I can definitely relate to this. As a debut author, is there anything you learned during your publication journey that surprised you? Is there one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring writer?
Vanessa: I am continually blown away by the support from my fellow authors. Writers who don’t even know me personally are cheering me on, and this is so wild! Sometimes it really feels like a found family. When you’re in the query trenches, things can get lonely and frustrating. It can feel as though everyone around you is receiving good news, and it’ll never happen for you. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find your people. Join a critique group. Attend a conference. This is how I connected with my invaluable critique partners. We lift each other up when the going gets tough. Yes, you are the one writing your book, but you don’t have to go through the rest alone.
Hilda: Great advice. I so enjoyed The Turning Pointe and I can’t wait to read more books by you! Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
Vanessa: I have about a thousand potential projects crammed inside my brain. It’s a shame there are only so many hours in the day! Right now, I am working on another young adult book for Knopf, my publisher. I am very excited about it. I can’t say too much, but I will give a hint that it is inspired by my other career, a firefighter/paramedic. It has been quite emotional to draft, but also so much fun!
And when I have moments away from novel writing, I write picture books. I love the challenge of telling a complete story in so few words. Maybe someday, I’ll see my name on a jacket for something like that.
Hilda: I’m sure you will, and I look forward to reading those picture books! Thank you for speaking with me today, Vanessa, and congratulations on your book debut!
Purchase The Turning Pointe today!
Today on the blog, Musa Jonny Garza Villa interviews Angela Velez about her debut novel, Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity! Scroll on to learn more about her book!
Overachiever Luz "Lulu" Zavala has straight As, perfect attendance, and a solid ten-year plan. First up: nail her interview for a dream internship at Stanford, the last stop on her school's cross-country college road trip. The only flaw in her plan is Clara, her oldest sister, who went off to college and sparked a massive fight with their overprotective Peruvian mom, who is now convinced that out-of-state-college will destroy their family. If Lulu can't fix whatever went wrong between them, the whole trip--and her future--will be a waste.
Middle sister Milagro wants nothing to do with college or a nerdy class field trip. Then a spot opens up on the trip just as her own spring break plans (Operation Don't Die a Virgin) are thwarted, and she hops on the bus with her glittery lipsticks, more concerned about getting back at her ex than she is about schools or any family drama. But the trip opens her eyes about possibilities she'd never imagined for herself. Maybe she is more than the boy-crazy girl everyone seems to think she is.
On a journey from Baltimore all the way to San Francisco, Lulu and Milagro will become begrudging partners as they unpack weighty family expectations, uncover Clara's secrets, and maybe even discover the true meaning of sisterhood.
Jonny Garza Villa: I have to start off by telling everyone that this book is so good, Angela! And when I say that Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity is honestly one of my favorite young adult contemporary novels that I have ever had the pleasure of reading, I am not hyperbolizing one bit. With that said, I think I'd like to begin with talking about your inspiration. Where did the idea for Lulu's and Milagro's journeys come from?
Angela Velez: Jonny!!!! This means so much coming from you!!!!!!!! Oh my god!!! I still think about the opening pages of Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun and how perfect and voice-y and FUN they are!!!
So much of Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity was inspired by my own anxieties around college and thinking about The Future -- so scary! Like Lulu, I had a dream college and very, very big dreams (in my case, becoming an author), but I was afraid to say them out loud, let alone actually act on them, because I didn't know anyone who had ever done those things.
Once I got into my dream school and made it to campus, I remember feeling so in over my head and wildly behind my classmates, who had gone to prep schools and had won awards for all these amazing competitions I didn't even know existed! So much of Milagro's journey is inspired by those first few months of insecurity, before learning I belonged on campus as much as anyone else did.
Since my high school and college days, I've realized how quickly fear can turn into loneliness, because you're afraid of exposing your most vulnerable feelings with people, and I wanted both Milagro and Lulu to realize they were stronger together, because they could cheer each other on.
JGV: Thinking on each sister individually for a second, Lulu is this level-headed sister who's also so tightly wound. Her goal-oriented character arc is pretty clear from the get go, and I feel like those of us who know what it is to carry the hopes and dreams of our parents, who know the mental health implications of being labeled "gifted and talented" as a child, who grow up having never done anything wrong in our whole life can really connect with her.
What was the thought behind Lulu's conception and her character, especially as the youngest of the sisters, being the one to have it so much more together than Milagro?
AV: As the youngest daughter and a first gen teen, Lulu is always aware that when her sisters leave for college, it's just going to be her and her mom. There can be much pressure as the daughter of immigrants -- you're told, 'we sacrificed so much so you can make a better life for yourself' -- and you're also reminded of how important family is, and how your decisions should take family into account. In Lulu's mind, if she's going to leave her mom all alone, it needs to be for a REALLY good reason, like saving the world or getting into a wildly exclusive program.
And even though these goals are her passion, that pressure to be better than GREAT creates a tunnel vision for her, one that's reinforced by the adults around her -- to the point when she closes herself off from friendship and even romance. And I really wanted to show readers that you there's a way out of that high pressure situation, and you don't have to silo different facets of your personality -- and in fact, it ultimately benefits you to have more than one outlet for your interests!
JGV: With Milagro, we have the chaotic, whimsical, but also severely underestimated sibling. Her character arc feels very fitting as to who she is: sort of falling into these sometimes incredibly messy and other times just as beautiful moments that allow this self-reflection and realizing she's so much greater than anyone has ever let her believe she is. What do you hope to leave readers with --especially young Peruana and Latina readers -- as it pertains to Milagro's story?
AV: I wanted readers to know that they are more than the labels their family or teachers place on them, and that only you know the wild depths of your true potential!!! I think it's very hard for people to celebrate intangible qualities -- there's no room on a resume to write 'Great Friend," or fancy awards given for 'Always Stands Up For Herself' -- but those are absolutely things worth celebrating! And I wanted to show that it's okay to not have a plan and be figuring things out as you go along, as long as you let yourself be open to new possibilities.
JGV: I feel like in my teenage years, I was definitely closer to a Lulu, but, the minute I moved away to college I immediately turned into a Milagro. Is there a sister that you feel more connected to?
AV: I don't know if I can pick a favorite!!! Lulu is hands down what I was like as a teen -- I had the dream school, I was convinced if I did enough research, I could do anything, and I was also deathly afraid of messing up. There are elements of Milagro that definitely come from my real life -- especially her frenetic energy and curiosity around sex! -- but her confidence, style, and savviness was definitely aspirational teen Angela. I think I feel closest to Milagro's journey of self-love, because it's the one that I think is so, so important, whether or not you have a romantic partner!
JGV: When it comes to the difference between liking and loving a book, for me, it's all about voice. And I think this is something you've done perfectly. You've written a dual POV story, centering these two very different sisters, and the way both of them are equally loveable and I felt so in tune with who they are as individuals is truly iconic of you. What was your process with finding Lulu's and Milagro's voice and figuring out what they think of and how they respond to their world?
AV: GAH!!! This is so nice to read and I'm grinning SO big!!!! For each sister, I really had to think about what they wanted in each chapter, and what their strategy would be to get it. For Milagro, it usually involved roping someone in and breaking as many rules as possible, while Lulu was more likely to do extreme research and go it alone.
Sometimes I'd still get stuck, so I'd try to do something each character might do -- play a pump-up song for Milagro, or really nerd out over a tiny detail (lots of wikipedia spirals) for Lulu. Both of those really helped get me in the right mindset for each sister.
JGV: My favorite trope with young adult novels is the coming-of-age trope. This frame of time we focus on within the character's life where they both feel as grown up as they've ever felt but also going through obstacles that continually remind them how little they have actually figured out and how young they still are. And, as it pertains to Lulu and Milagro (and even their oldest sister, Clara), I think this really is one of the best coming-of-age stories I've read in a long time. What has your own emotional journey been like writing this story centering very brown, first generation girls with very different --- but intertwined -- journeys and different mindsets?
AV: With this book, I really wanted to show all the emotions that latinx girls -- especially the first gen ones -- go through as they try to "make it" in a country that's totally foreign to their parents. For me, so much of my Latinx identity is tied up in being Catholic -- my parents are very religious, and I went to Catholic school for 14 years. For a long time, Catholic Mass was the only place I could hear Spanish spoken by someone who wasn't related to me, but it was also was the source of a great deal of turmoil with the messaging around sexuality, gender, and how relationships should work.
I wanted this story to show Milagro, Lulu, and Clara poking holes in that religious messaging -- particularly the idea that women can't own their sexuality, or that they need to be protected from men, or that they can only be "good" or "bad" with no shades of gray. And I wanted to show that this messaging harms all people -- including the "good girls," because it instills a real fear of failure! Being able to write (* spoiler alert! *) happy endings for these three girls has really been healing and joyful, and then hearing from readers that this speaks to them and their experiences has really magnified the joy. I feel so lucky!
JGV: Can we talk for a minute about college? Both of our debut novels really get into figuring out where our characters want to be at post-high school (or maybe being fine having no idea), on applications, on finances and paying for college, on their families' opinions of where they want to be. And I think the biggest difference is while my main character's thoughts behind it all center on where he wants to be when he grows up, Lulu and Milagros seem to be more what do I want to be when I grow up and, more so, how do I get there?
You mention your own work in higher education helping you mold their journeys, but was your own high school-into-university years of life also an inspiration for how your characters interacted with their futures?
AV: Yes, absolutely! I was so lucky that my family was extremely supportive and encouraging of my college dreams, but it also meant that we were all figuring it out together. There was no traditional road map for me to follow in the US and no generational knowledge about US higher ed. I also was VERY aware of my dream schools' diversity stats, and how impossible it felt that I could somehow be part of that small percentage. This was compounded by seeing classmates visiting their parents' alma maters and so easily rattling off the schools they would attend. I just remember that time being so anxiety-filled and like I was somehow behind everyone, and I wanted to show that this is a common feeling!
JGV: Are there any lessons or reflections you've had so far as you hit this huge point in your debut year you'd like to share with everyone reading?
AV: This whole experience has really magnified how grateful I am for people doing book work in the world! The reception that I've gotten from librarians all over the country has been thrilling, the way Las Musas has been SO supportive, the bloggers and bookstagrammers taking gorgeous photos and hyping up these sisters -- I'm so, so full of gratitude for the support. It really does take a village to get books in the hands of teens, and I feel very luck with the people in my little book village!
JGV: And, to close out this conversation, I'm sure you've gotten this question so many times, but I'd love to hear whatever you can tell us about what's next for you!
AV: Oh gosh, I'm still VERY much in the messy drafting stage, but I'm working on a book that delves into the visual art world, and how all you need to "be an artist' is to create -- which is something I very much believe in!
Purchase Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity today!
Angela Velez grew up in Baltimore, under the watchful eye of her Peruvian immigrant parents. She has a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. Angela lives in Pittsburgh, with her piles of books, three plastic flamingos, and one wobbly disco ball. Lulu and Milagro's Search for Clarity is her first novel.
Jonny Garza Villa is a product of the Great State of Texas, raised along the Gulf Coast and a decade-long resident of the Alamo City. They are an author of contemporary YA, writing stories that incorporate their own identities as a queer Chicanx and have been known to be equal parts emotional, chaotic, and joyful. Jonny's short story, "Constellations in an Electric Sky," appears in inQluded web magazine's JOY issue, and their debut YA novel, FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES FROM THE SUN, is set to release in summer 2021.
Today on the blog, Musa Nonieqa Ramos is interviewing Musa Terry Catasús about her newest book, Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist. Scroll on to learn more about this incredible project!
NoNieqa Ramos: Terry, I’m so honored to speak with you about Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist, a book for upper elementary, middle, and high school students that needs to be in every social studies curriculum across the country. This work is both a primer and a bible on the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race in America.
From the publisher Yellow Jacket books:
“Pauli Murray was a thorn in the side of white America demanding justice and equal treatment for all. She was a queer civil rights and women's rights activist before any movement advocated for either--the brilliant mind that, in 1944, conceptualized the arguments that would win Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; and in 1964, the arguments that won women equality in the workplace.
Throughout her life, she fought for the oppressed, not only through changing laws, but by using her powerful prose to influence those who could affect change. She lived by her convictions and challenged authority to demand fairness and justice regardless of the personal consequences. Without seeking acknowledgment, glory, or financial gain for what she did, Pauli Murray fought in the trenches for many of the rights we take for granted. Her goal was human rights and the dignity of life for all.”
NoNieqa Ramos: You coauthored this work with Rosita Stevens-Holsey, one of Pauli Murray’s nieces, the daughter of her youngest sister, Rosetta Murray Stevens. Can you describe the emotional experience of working with her on this important endeavor to advance Murray’s historical legacy?
Terry Catasús Jennings: NoNi, thank you so much for reading Pauli! The honor is mine that you are working with me to bring the biography of this transformational human being to young readers. And it really was a very emotional experience for me to finally find a member of Pauli’s family, and Rosita Stevens-Holsey is a superstar. From Rosita I heard the actual family stories. She talked to her cousins and I listened on the other side of the line. It was magical. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to make sure it was really happening.
You know, I actually stalked Rosita in a manner of speaking. I had tried to get in touch with Pauli’s family for a long time and tried many avenues until one day I received an announcement of a play about Pauli Murray being presented at Howard University in Washington, DC. That is just about half an hour from our home. I just figured that I could meet someone who could give me a name of someone who could give me another name and perhaps I could get to Pauli’s family. I never dreamt that I would meet her niece. When I saw a section cordoned off for the Pauli Murray family I waited until the section was pretty full and then I introduced myself. Brazen as you please. And I was so lucky that Rosita was the one who answered me. She was an elementary school teacher, and she was already on a mission to make Pauli Murray known to the world. It was an answer to my prayer. That weekend we met at her house and the rest, as they say, is history.
NR: What advice do you have for authors who would like to collaborate on a project?
TCJ: One important thing, to me, is communication. It goes without saying, but communication is the key. The other thing is humility, being open to everything. I hope that I have done that. Rosita and I share the same agent, and the only thing I wish we’d done differently is to give Rosita even more of a primer on the publishing process. As writers, we’ve been working so long before getting published (at least I had) and we know what’s coming, and we’ve learned to lower our expectations. This is such a hard business, and for a newcomer it can be difficult to match expectations to the reality. But on the other hand, I am sorry, because sometimes by being too pragmatic, I might have interfered with Rosita’s enjoyment of the moment. I always had to catch myself.
NR: Lawyer, activist, scholar, poet and priest, Pauli Murray led a trailblazing life that altered the course of history, yet they are not well-known. Why is it especially important that children know Pauli Murray’s story?
TCJ: Pauli Murray is a model of dogged perseverance. They overcame obstacles that would have stopped anyone else. They had a complete disregard for glory or self-aggrandizement.
They could see wrong with uncommon clarity because they lived at the intersection of race and gender. They were discriminated against on both counts. And they made it their mission in life to change the conditions that made that discrimination possible. At first, they tried doing social work, but eventually they became a lawyer, because only through knowing the laws, they could change them. It’s important that young readers know Pauli Murray’s story because they are a model of tenacity and generosity. They gave their life to the betterment of others.
You know, NoNi, Pauli Murray wrote letters to everybody. From President Roosevelt on down. Through this writing, they met Eleanor Roosevelt and became great friends with the First Lady. Pauli was never afraid to talk truth to power. Even in the 1930s. Can you believe that? A young, Black, queer, woman writing the First Lady and telling her that she was disappointed in Eleanor’s behavior. And Eleanor listened!!! But also it is important that young readers know of Pauli so that they can learn what it took to achieve the rights we now enjoy, to understand how fragile those rights are and how hard we must fight to protect them. Unfortunately, we are still having to protect those rights.
NR: In the acknowledgements of your book you state you “found Pauli Murray during my research for The Women’s Liberation Movement: 1960–1990.” You and Rosita Stevens-Holsey wrote a comprehensive and compelling text for children. Can you discuss your research process? What were your most surprising discoveries?
TCJ: Oh, NoNi. You are so kind. I tried to make it comprehensive. I think Pauli Murray herself made it compelling. In one respect, researching Pauli Murray’s life was easy. They were a writer. They wrote their autobiography, and they wrote a book titled Proud Shoes which was a history not only of their family, but of the African American experience. You know, Alex Haley used it as a model for his book Roots. On the other hand, I had to place Pauli in the context of their times, so I had to learn about the depression, and the civil rights movement, about Eleanor Roosevelt, about Caroline Ware—one of Pauli’s good friends. I had to immerse myself in Jim Crow, poll taxes and gender and other forms of discrimination. Pauli worked trying to save a Black sharecropper’s life, I became fluent in that case. I was lucky that I had already done a lot of research for my women’s movement book but still, I had to refresh my knowledge.
You know what was really cool? Using my own book in my bibliography! There were times that I had to corroborate what Pauli had written in their autobiography. Reading between the lines, I could tell that they were gay. I could tell that they had a very deep relationship with two women, Peg Holmes as a young woman, and Renee Barlow once they were older. Yet, they never refer to the depth of the relationship in their autobiography. Of course, back then, it was against the law to be gay, Pauli would have lost everything if they owned up to the fact. I suspected, but it wasn’t until I read her correspondence that I was sure. And NoNi, talk about something emotional! I went to Boston to the Radcliffe Archives and read their correspondence. I put my hands on papers that they held. I saw the sweet letters that they wrote to Renee Barlow. I saw the letter that they wrote to the warden when they were jailed for not sitting on the back of the bus. I believe that was the highlight of my research. It was as if I had met them.
The most surprising discovery, other than her letters to Renee was a letter that they wrote to their doctor, in preparation for an appendectomy. Pauli said they were a man trapped in a woman’s body. They asked the doctor to check and see if they had male organs “secreted” in the abdomen. They also sought, without success, hormone therapies to change their sex.
NR: What is your advice for writers in the organization process of research? What are some tips for authors to make complex information accessible for young readers?
TCJ: I am a big outliner. I think it comes from having done a lot of work for hire. Work for hire editors always require that you write a good, comprehensive outline. So I developed an outline as I read the more general books and their autobiography. First, I set up a document where I keep all my notes by source. So for each source (numbered) I have either my highlighted notes or the whole text—say if it’s from an internet article. Then I migrate those notes into the topics of the outline (still keeping the numbers). As the notes grow, the outline becomes finer, more detailed. Once I think I have a really, really, good foundation, I begin the writing. But there is always something that doesn’t make sense, or two sources that contradict each other, or something that needs further research. That’s my downfall. Because by that point I’m not all that disciplined and my notes get more sketchy. I just put what I need in the text. Other than that, I mostly need to credit my work for hire training served me well in my organization.
Making complex information accessible for young readers comes easily to me. Again, I have written educational text from kindergarten through high school and I have learned to write to those age groups. But it’s more than that. To learn anything, I’ve always had to parse it down so that I could understand it, you know? I had to find a way to explain it to myself. Turns out my threshold of understanding is very similar to my young readers’. Some would say that is a shortcoming, but it has served me well in writing for kids.
NBJ: What are some ways educators can use Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist, in the classroom?
TCJ: Well…they can look at my website, http://www.terrycjennings.com/Books---Pauli-Murray.html#anchor_67 and they can find all sorts of activities for the classroom. The activities are in two groups, classroom activities are quick and easy activities, perhaps more suitable to younger students. Then the teacher’s guide provides food for thought for older students. What I tried to do in those activities was to place Pauli in the context of her time and then invite the teachers to chat with their students to bring those situations to the present time and discuss how they would react. Rosita and I put together an album of Pauli’s photographs so that the students can better get to know her. There are many contemporaneous documents that teachers and students can use to get an idea of the times. It’s a treasure trove about Pauli, Civil Rights and women’s rights, but I hope that it will get even better soon.
NR: Share with us some of your upcoming projects!
TCJ: Oh, I’m delighted to share my upcoming projects with you and our readers. I have a picture book coming out on May 17th. The name of the book is The Little House of Hope/La Casita de Esperanza. It’s about an immigrant family who opens their home to other immigrants to give them a leg up to get jobs, get their papers, save a little money before they go out on their own.
Rosita and I just finished working on a Pauli Murray picture book which begins with their need for fairness as a youngster and ends as they harness the power of the Fourteenth Amendment—equal protection of the laws—to figure out how to dismantle Jim Crow and obtain the most consequential law for women’s rights of all time.
I am also working on a novel in verse about a girl in Cuba during the first four months of the Cuban revolution. I’ve written and re-written that story several times, but I’m hoping that now the verse will bring it the emotional impact that it was needing. You know, I’m afraid that I dealt with it more as it “just the facts” book rather than a moving story which is what it should be. I’m really enjoying the verse version, and I am really working hard on my free verse.
NR: Mil gracias, Terry for co-authoring this extraordinary work, giving Pauli Murray their historical due, and reclaiming history on behalf of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA community!
TCJ: NoNi, como siempre, gracias a tí! You are my hero and my fairy godmother all rolled into one. Thanks for the opportunity of discussing this amazing human being, Pauli Murray, with you. I hope Rosita’s and my effort will make her a worthy example for young readers.
Purchase Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist today!
Terry Catasús Jennings is an award-winning author of children's fiction, non-fiction, and fact-based fiction. Her chapter book series Definitely Dominguita, described as “Judy Moody meets Netflix’s One Day at a Time,” features a young Cuban American girl who tries to find adventure based on classics she has read with her beloved abuela. In Book 1, Dominguita is on a quest to be a noble knight like Don Quixote. In their starred review, Kirkus called Definitely Dominguita Book 1 “A charming adventure that will encourage kids to become knights in their own communities.” Terry’s book was a School Library Journal Best Book of 2021!
NoNieqa Ramos is an educator, literary activist, and writer of “intense” literature. She wrote the THE DISTURBED GIRL’S DICTIONARY, a 2018 New York Public Library Best Book for Teens, a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection, and a 2019 In the Margins Award Top Ten pick. TDGD earned starred reviews from Booklist, Foreword, and Voya. Lilliam Rivera, author of Dealing in Dreams, called THE TRUTH IS “a gorgeous novel about privilege and prejudice, love and loss grief and gratitude.” Hip Latina named THE TRUTH IS in its “10 of the Best Latinx Young Adult Books of 2019.” Remezcla included TTI in the “15 Best Books by Latino and Latin American Authors of 2019.” Versify will publish her debut picture book BEAUTY WOKE January 2021 and YOUR MAMA April 6th, 2021!
Today on the blog, Musa Cynthia Harmony interviews NoNieqa Ramos about their newest picture book, Beauty Woke. But first, here's a little bit about the book:
Beauty Woke is a powerful story of pride and community, told with bold lyricism and the heart of a fairy tale. Readers looking for a next-generation Sleeping Beauty will fall in love with the vivid art and lyrical text. For fans of Woke Baby and Dreamers.
Beauty is a Puerto Rican girl loved and admired by her family and community. At first, she’s awake to their beauty, and her own—a proud girl of Taíno, and African descent. But as she grows older, and starts to lose sight of what makes her special because of phrases she overhears meant to make people who look like her feel smaller and scared, her community bands together to help remind her of her beautiful heritage.
“Ramos’ poetic ode to identity and validation winds itself through evocative imagery in both English and Spanish, connecting the strength of community with self-acceptance. From one-word stanzas echoing with a mother’s heartbeat to flowing anthems of pride, each page exudes energy and passion. Escobar’s powerful panorama of diversity is a blazing exclamation point to Beauty’s triumphant journey.
This bold manifesto of cultural awareness reaches out to awaken the sleepwalkers among us.” – Kirkus, starred reviews
Cynthia Harmony: As a big fan of all your books, I’m thrilled to get a chance to chat with you about your newest picture book BEAUTY WOKE hitting book shelves on February 15th, 2022!
Picture books are a long journey in the making, typically two years or more from acquisition to release, plus the time it takes to polish a first draft into a submission ready version. How was BEAUTY WOKE’s journey different from your two previous picture books?
NoNieqa Ramos: Mil gracias, Cynthia! My family and I are eagerly awaiting the release of your debut MI CIUDAD SINGS, releasing June 14, 2022.
Kwame Alexander’s imprint Versify sent out a Twitter invitation for writers to submit picture books, and I had my agent jump on the opportunity and send YOUR MAMA. It’s so important to find the right match with an editor and a publishing house. I’ll never forget receiving the call from Kwame with an offer for a two book deal during a staff team meeting at my middle school. I worked with Kwame and Erika Turner through the formative process of the YOUR MAMA before she left for other publishing prospects. Because of the fluidity–and volatility– of the publishing industry, I’ve learned it is typical to work with several editors!
After YOUR MAMA’s acceptance, I had to decide what to submit next. I had the fortunate (and nerve-wracking!) surprise invitation to visit Kwame Alexander in his studio and read my draft for BEAUTY WOKE aloud. He read me a selection from a favorite childhood book and made brilliant suggestions-of course. The book was accepted shortly thereafter. During the editorial process, I worked with Kwame, Weslie–and Boricua Las Musas writers Mia Garcia and Carmen Rodriguez– to ensure factual, respectful, and dynamic Puerto Rican representation.
Because BEAUTY WOKE deals with such sensitive topics as racism with a young audience, I labored feverishly to ensure I was treating my future readers with tender loving care. While YOUR MAMA was purely a work of joy and exultation, BEAUTY WOKE was a labor of pain and joy. Both are messages of unconditional love to children.
CH: What an amazing journey and thank you for sharing the similarities and differences between YOUR MAMA and BEAUTY WOKE. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this story and any unexpected challenges or fortunate surprises along the way?
NR: The inspiration for BEAUTY WOKE came from despair. In the original story of Sleeping Beauty, the parents love their daughter Aurora tremendously. But they don’t invite Maleficent to her christening, and she crashes the party to levy a curse. Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning needle and die on her sixteenth birthday. Her madrinas save her with a counter curse–that she will not die, but sleep, and that a prince can break the curse with a kiss.The King and Queen proceed to burn, destroy, and ban every spinning wheel in the land.
In BEAUTY WOKE, Beauty’s family loves her tremendously. Despite their nurturing and care, they can not burn all the spinning wheels. They cannot keep racism from entering their household. When Beauty listens to the news, she hears anti-immigrant rhetoric for the first time. She hears brown and Black people stereotyped and denigrated. But the story of BEAUTY WOKE does not end in despair. My mission in writing this book was to provide validation, healing, and hope to children.
CH: With that clear intention you created a powerful and empowering book. Has it also been an intentional decision to maintain a poetic structure through your picture books or does verse happen naturally as part of your voice? Part of this voice and one of the aspects I love about your books is your fresh and authentic use of Spanish words and playful cultural slang. Will there be a full Spanish edition for any of your books? Is this something you are interested in pursuing in the future?
NR: It has taken me many moons to develop the poetic structure. It is quite intentional. I occasionally write picture book drafts in prose or with traditional rhyme structures, but they don’t allow me the artistic freedom to flex my wings. Thank you so much for your kind words! My use of Spanish words and slang is intentional, cultural, political. Slang is the jazz of poetry. But according to my current experiences in publishing, what I do is apparently not easily translatable?
That said, with my debut picture book Your Mama, Gabriela Benzel, the Family Engagement Coordinator for Excellence in Children's Early Language and Literacy, translated my book when it was selected as a Virginia Great Read. I have the translation available for educators-but it is not a formal translation from the publisher. I’ll be providing this translation to educators who select me for workshops! Alas, BEAUTY WOKE will also have an informal translation as well. Having a book translated into Spanish is a dream on my bucket list!
CH: I love that educators can have access to a Spanish version if needed. Now focusing on the gorgeous art… you’ve been paired with talented illustrators with very unique styles. The cover of BEAUTY WOKE is one of my all time favorites, the vibrancy, colors, motion, and emotion conveyed is completely unforgettable. Can you tell us about your reaction when you first saw Paola Escobar’s art and any particular aspects you feel she skillfully captured from your words?
NR: Already a huge fan of Paola’s illustrations in Planting Stories: The Life Of Librarian And Storyteller by Anika Aldamuy Denise and Digging For Words by Angela Burke Kunkel, I was ecstatic to hear the news. I have blown up the cover to frame in my office!
One of the things I love is how Paola balances a modern day representation of Puerto Ricans and honors their ancestral roots. In addition to the ebullient color palette, the fluid motion, and emotion, I adore all the little details like the mundillo on Baby Beauty’s blanket. The representation of the variety of Puerto Rican flags is stunning!
Dear Readers, look closely at what’s in Abuelita’s kitchen! Play I Spy with the books Paola included in the illustrations. Take time to absorb all the elements of grief and resilience on the mural. I am in awe of Paola and loved working with her.
CH: You mentioned racism as a central topic for this book. Can we dig a bit deeper into the challenges of tackling and so gracefully showing the experience of racism in a book for younger readers and your decision for including the word Woke on your title? Do you feel the negative attributes to the word by certain groups can take away from its empowering connotation?
NR: Children start to learn about race and culture the minute they are born. And tragically, racism doesn’t “start” when you are an adult or when you are educated and prepared to deal with it. Racism blindsides you. Children witness racism against their parents and families. They see it on social media and hear about it in the car on the news on the way to school. My eight-year-old (AfroLatinx) and his seven-year-old cousin (Black), just experienced hearing the N word while playing video games with classmates.
The seven-year-old knew what to to and what to say. Because he had already heard it many times before, and his family had trained him. My child got his first lesson.
All marginalized children are going to be exposed to racism whether it’s through personal experiences or whether it is through learning about systemic and institutionalized racism-as they should. I wanted to create an opportunity– a safe space– for parents, caregivers, and educators to have the discussions that are so important to protecting a child’s self worth and self esteem.
Recently on a panel for educators and librarians, The Read Woke librarian Cicely Lewis and I joked about loving our titles. While I recognize the negative connotation certain groups may infuse the term “wokeness,” in this book, the meaning of wokeness is a child’s unshakeable, unbreakable understanding of their inherent goodness and beauty and the abounding love of their ancestors, their family, and their community. Retelling the story with a narrative arc of personal awakening came first.
I also want to share this blurb from The Washington Post: “The Florida state legislator kicked off Black History Month by advancing bills that would allow parents to sue a school if any instruction caused students ‘discomfort, guilt, or anguish.’ The bills have been endorsed by Governor Ron De Santis, who last year said he wanted to ban critical race theory and ‘wokeness’ from being taught in Florida schools.”
Florida is also responsible for “Don’t Say Gay” legislation “banning public schools from ‘encouraging’ classroom discussion of sexual orientation and identity.” All across America, book bans are occurring that largely come from BIPOC and LGBTQIA writers.
BEAUTY WOKE is 100 percent a protest against the attempt of a powerful and/or loud few to make sleepwalkers out of the masses– out of our children. Never, ever in all my years as an educator, author, and parent, have I once experienced, from ANY white child or any child from a dominant culture, feelings of personal degradation at learning about racism. The response from children is and always will be “What can I do-what can we do- to do better by each other.” Our children are our best selves.
CH: That’s one of the best answers ever, thank you so much for sharing!
Exploring more of your theme, let’s talk about how you created a twist on a classic princess tale to include a unique, powerful, and revolutionary diverse main character. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating BEAUTY and her story to claim the space she deserves in the world? How did you ground her experience with personal and nuanced cultural details and at the same time created a universal story that speaks to all readers?
NR: In crafting Beauty, I wanted to first establish that she had loving parents, a strong foundation with her family, and a special relationship with her abuelita. Historically, and in the present day, Latine families are presented as dysfunctional and responsible for the effects of systemic racism. As Beauty aged, it was important to me to showcase her expanding community and to center her cultural pride through her attendance of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. For Beauty to claim the space she deserves in the world, she needs to be “schooled.” Her Abuelita educates her on the power of her ancestral roots.
One important way Paola and I grounded the story was to make sure Beauty was a modern kid and wore play clothes on the cover--not a folkloric costume. The indigenous Taíno symbols are incorporated into the tiles of a typical apartment. Just like in my house growing up, I was passionate about having books scattered around the house in the illustrations. Again, historically, Latine people have not been represented as readers and writers in the media.
The lens of this story is Latine, Puerto Rican, but the scope of the story is universal. Every child is invited to explore and revel in their cultural roots. Every child can identify with hearing mean hurtful words directed at themselves or others. Every child is nurtured to learn empathy as Beauty struggles to cope with racist remarks. With their eyes wide open and their hearts beating fiercely, every child is called to think about how we can take care of each other as a community and as a human family.
CH: Lastly, which topics of BEAUTY WOKE do you consider would make a perfect fit for an elementary school classroom and a middle school classroom? Would you suggest the same topics with different depth or different discussions?
NR: In the safety and security of the classroom community and embraced by the unconditional love of a book, young readers can discuss their experiences with hurtful and/or racist comments or images about their cultural heritage or the cultural heritage of others. Books are medicine. With the support of their teachers, children can dismantle the comments. They can share what about their heritage brings them pride or what they’d like to learn and investigate about their culture. Students can continue the conversation with their families and research their family histories and cultures.
In BEAUTY WOKE, there are a variety of Puerto Rican flags represented by Paola Escobar’s beautiful artwork. Students can investigate the cultural and historical significance of these flags. They can research the Puerto Rican Parade and parades and events that celebrate a variety of cultures. The class can organize a parade for children to march and sing and celebrate diversity!
BEAUTY WOKE is a gateway to discuss Puerto Rican history, an integral part of American history. Middle school students can research the African, indigenous Taíno roots of the island and investigate the effects of Spanish and American colonization. The mural represents the pain and deaths experienced by the Latinx community in immigrant detention camps and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Students can discuss the artistic and cultural significance of the mural and investigate the current state of immigration reform and the plight of the Puerto Rican people to save the island from colonization today.
Thank you so much NoNieqa for your openness in sharing the heart of BEAUTY WOKE. It’s always a pleasure and a transformative learning experience to read your powerful candid words. We are thrilled to join you and your whole team in welcoming this beautiful, needed, and healing picture book into the world!
Cynthia Harmony is an author and educational psychologist, originally from Mexico City. As Education Curator, Cynthia creates new interactive exhibits for children museums and science centers. She has published for the educational market and was awarded the 2020 "We Need Diverse Books" Mentorship. Her picture books MI CIUDAD SINGS (2022) and FLICKER OF HOPE (2023) will be released simultaneously in English and Spanish by Penguin Young Readers.
Today, Musa Terry Catasus Jennings is interviewing Crystal Maldonado on her newest novel! Scroll on to read their conversation!
Terry Catasus Jennings: Hello, Crystal! I am so happy to be here with you to shout about your newest book, No Filters and Other Lies, a book that starts with a bang, when Kat Sanchez, the 16-year-old protagonist, tells us she’s a liar—right up front. Her life has some “suckiness,” well, maybe even some major suckiness and it unravels when, in a drunken moment, Kat makes up a new persona on social media. She makes up a persona who has everything Kat does not—beauty, popularity, a just about perfect life. And she is white. And she has followers! Kat has been struggling for her art, her photography, to be noticed on Instagram. But her following is meager. When she posts as her new white, thin, and glamorous alter ego, Kat’s art is finally noticed. And her alter ego’s reach may be able to help the dogs at the shelter to which Kat devotes gobs of time and love. So there is that. And then there is a family life which, through no fault of Kat's, is also full of lies. Kat has to navigate these lies to keep up appearances in her hometown. The minute you pick up the book, you know you are headed for an epic train wreck, and you have to keep on reading.
I loved what Publisher’s Weekly said: Maldonado’s writing has a warm and relatable feel, full of insight regarding societal expectations, accountability, and the need to belong within one’s own family and the wider world. That was a starred review. And it was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. I couldn’t agree more.
Tell us a little about your book and about what brought you to this story. What inspired you to write it?
Crystal Maldonado: I was inspired by a combination of my love of connection made on social media and a desire to celebrate nontraditional family structures were big inspirations for this book. Since I was in elementary school, I’ve been making friends online—first via America Online, then on Livejournal, Tumblr, and now on social media. I’ve always heard the friends that you make online aren’t “real” friends, but that’s never been true for me. Every online relationship I created was every bit as meaningful, supportive, and fun as the friendships I have in person, and I think society is finally beginning to understand that more with the pandemic changing how we meet and communicate. Plus, growing up with a nontraditional family structure myself really made me yearn for books that celebrated families that weren’t a mom, dad, 2.5 kids, and a dog. Hopefully others who grew up in similar situations can relate to Kat in that way.
TCJ: That is so true, in the beginning, I saw social media as artificial, but I have come to appreciate the connections that I made on line. Thank you for bringing that up. This is your second book, and it’s no secret that we all struggle with that second book. Charlie Vega had me from the very beginning, and I can’t lie, I wondered, as a reader, would you be able to do the same with Kat Sanchez, and YES, you did. From the very beginning you captured me. A person who admits she’s a liar right up front, there’s no way for her life to go anywhere but down, and I knew, right away, that it had nowhere to go but up for the reader. Tell us how you got to this beginning. Was it difficult? Was this always the beginning of the book, or was this an evolution of the story.
CM: It was a little difficult! You’re absolutely right that sophomore novels can be tough, and I felt so much pressure with this one for the best reason: everyone was so kind and supportive with Charlie’s story! With No Filter, I wanted to write about a complex character who was a little unlikeable; it took a while to strike exactly the right balance in making her both flawed but someone you could root for. The best way to achieve that, I thought, would be to have this person who can admit right away how they’re flawed.
TCJ: Kat Sanchez does get that out right out of the chute! She has a very complicated back story. Where did that come from? Is that something you’re willing to share?
CM: Yes! This was personal to me. My familial structure was similar to Kat’s, although not exactly a perfect replica. I was raised by my grandparents, though, and my own parents and brother lived nearby, so the basic structure is the same. Growing up, I was so worried to share this with my peers because I feared it was too unusual, too different. Little did I know families come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations, each beautiful in its own way.
TCJ: It’s not surprising for me to hear this. You handle this non-traditional family structure with both care and love. It is an affirmation, as you say, that tradition has nothing to do with it. Family structures can each be beautiful in their own ways, yes. Can you tell us more about the cringe factor. I cringed so many times while reading No Filters! I kept wanting to yell don’t do that! How could you? You know better than that! Yet, even though we’re reading about fake identities and really outrageous behavior we all know will get Kat in deep trouble, it never feels fake. She is so human. Her decisions are horrible, but they are grounded in Kat’s reality and they feel absolutely normal. Tell us about that. How did that come about? Was that difficult for you?
CM: The cringe factor is so real in this story! But I think that’s a good thing. None of us are perfect, ever, and especially when we’re teenagers trying to figure out the world and our place within it. I wanted to highlight how even people who mean well can still make mistakes.
I also think there is this expectation put on marginalized authors and their characters to create these perfect people within their stories, and I think our readers deserve to see messy characters. It shows us how we are all flawed and we mess up but we can learn from those mistakes and grow as a person.
TCJ: Yes. Here’s raising a … pencil to messy characters. One of the reasons Kat gives her best friend Hari for creating the fake persona on Instagram is “pretending to be a white girl.” And she is successful on Instagram as a white girl where she was not successful as herself. Tell us more about that. In this book, the “fat” vibe is more subdued than in Charlie Vega, and the “brown girl” vibe did not seem to me as prevalent either. Kat and her friends are all “others” but that is more the background, a very normal background. The book is about a girl who made bad choices. Tell us more about your goal in writing the book. Was making a point about color one of your main goals? What themes were important to you? Would you like to share why?
CM: With Charlie Vega, I very much wanted her fatness and her Latinidad to be at the forefront of her story. I had so much to say and so many things I wanted Charlie and her characters to experience on the page related to those intersecting identities. But I also think for every story that focuses on identity, there should be another story where those identities are simply part of the character. I remember coming across a reader who said something like, “I love stories that center fatness, but I also love stories that feature fat characters living their lives.” That stuck with me because I’ve felt that way, too. No Filter was my attempt at creating this world where Kat’s body size and brownness are certainly part of what fuels her decision, but they are not the only things that do.
Through Kat’s story, I wanted to explore nontraditional family dynamics and the way in which the families we’re born into are sometimes really complicated. How do we make peace with the version of our lives we always envisioned versus the lives we have? That can be difficult and sometimes even require a bit of mourning as we come to terms to what is. I also really wanted to highlight how much pressure young folks deal with on social media. I grew up in a time when you could actually turn the internet off and walk away, and now that’s not really the case. So, I feel for teens now, and I really wanted to make this story to hopefully let readers who have felt like Kat know they’re not alone. (And maybe feel a little superior to her in the sense that they’ve probably never catfished anyone!)
TCJ: Okay, you had me both in tears and laughing there. One of the themes that I liked was the beauty of the beach. It seemed to bring calm to Kat, it was one of the places where she was the happiest. Is the beach important to you? Why did you want that for Kat?
CM: I would live at the beach if I could, and hope someday I can! My husband and I got married on the beach, and we have celebrated our anniversary there every year since we started dating. It’s a place that’s very calm and centering for me, so I gave that same feeling to Kat.
TCJ: And it worked. I also have to say that I loved the sentence “’Why’” would be the iron to my wrinkly life.” And your descriptions of the setting, the descriptions of the photographs she takes, are breath-taking. Tell me about your process. Does all that brilliance come out up front, first draft? Or is this something you consciously enhance through revision?
CM: You are too kind, Terry! Seriously! I wish my first drafts had such detail, but for me the richness evolves throughout the revision process.
I also want to give a shout out to my amazing editor at Holiday House, Mora Couch, because she always knows exactly where a description is needed!
TCJ: And along the same note, are you a plotter or a pantser? There are many layers to No Filters and scenes and characters who bring the layers together into a cohesive story. How much did you know about the story when you began? Did you plot it all or did some, or a lot evolve as you wrote?
CM: I’ve always traditionally been a panster, starting stories more on feelings and emotions and vibes than real structure. With No Filter, though, I used an outline for the first time and it really helped, especially with the basic plot. But you’re absolutely right that a lot of it evolved as I wrote. I think this probably happens to a lot of writers! Sometimes you get in there and your characters have ideas of their own or you don’t discover a plot hole until you’re deep into the story. For me, I struggled with figuring out how Kat’s secret identity would be discovered. Through writing this book, I discovered I’m not quite a pantser or a plotter, but I fall somewhere right in between!
TCJ: I get that. I start as a very loose plotter, but go where the characters and the story take me. I bet more of us are in between writers than one or the other. Now let’s talk about Kat’s possible excuses. Kat actually had many excuses she could have used for her behavior, but she never resorts to blaming her mistakes on others, or her situation. She takes ownership of her mistakes and tries to work herself out of the consequences. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Was there ever a point in which you wanted to use the excuses she had?
CM: It was a conscious decision I made for Kat because I wanted it to be clear at all times that Kat had made a bad choice. Of course, the circumstances around her influenced her, but it was always her decision to lie and then continue to lie. She’s a smart girl who got swept up in something. I wanted her choices to be understandable, but not excusable.
TCJ: There are so many ways that this book could end. Most of them are pretty bleak. Without divulging any spoilers, can you tell us your goal for Kat?
CM: I really wanted Kat to come out on the other side of her journey feeling more secure in herself in nearly every way. I wanted her to embrace everything from her hair to her friends to her vulnerability to the very life she had been given. At the beginning of the story, I think Kat feels a little helpless, like the world around her is making decisions on her behalf; by the end, though, I think she realizes she is the one who gets to make decisions based on her situation. There is great power in that.
TCJ: And you accomplished what you set out to do! The apology, to me, is perfect. What was your goal there and did you struggle with getting it on the page? I can imagine it was difficult. Was there a lot of rewriting for that scene and that whole relationship?
CM: There was so much writing and rewriting in this scene! It was hard to strike a balance between desperately wanting these two characters to make up and remain friends and knowing that what Kat did was actually quite serious. What I knew going in was that the apology needed to be sincere, honest, and that Kat needed to hear some hard truths. You can’t steal a friend’s photos and come out on the other side completely unscathed. That was a really tough but important lesson for Kat to learn.
TCJ: Hear, hear. It was a really tough lesson, and the scene as it is in the book, is just perfect. Brava. Now, this is, of course, your second book. What can you tell us about what writing the dreaded “Book Two” was for you? Would you like to share how writing Kat’s story was the same as and different from writing Charlie’s story?
CM: Ha! I am so appreciative that you plainly put it out there that writing your second book can be challenging. It’s so true! For as much as I absolutely loved writing this second story, I experienced quite a bit of imposter syndrome and doubt with it. I worried my first book was a fluke and that I was doomed to fail, which I definitely didn’t worry about so much with Charlie’s story. I was more concerned then with just getting words on the page! I would also say I wanted to prove to myself with this book that I could write another first-person narrative that didn’t feel identical, that I could create another character who was flawed but redeemable. I hope I achieved that!
TCJ: I love you saying you suffered from imposter syndrome. It’s so true. I don’t know that we can ever get over that. Now I know that when we first began this conversation, you told us about how positive your experiences with social media are and have been. But No Filter is a commentary on the grip social media can have on a life and the fact, that whether we lie or not, social media, can be an artificial, fake realm which can lead us to believe that we are hated or loved without any link to reality. Why was it important to you to focus on social media and its benefits and pitfalls?
CM: I actually appreciate social media quite a bit for the way it brings people together, especially marginalized communities. Social media has brought such deep joy to me personally. I’ve met so many wonderful people through it, like you and everyone in Las Musas, fellow 2021 debut authors (shout out to the 21ders!), and incredible friends throughout the years. But I’m also a lot older than the characters I’m writing.
When you’re a teenager and you’re on social media, I think there are so many social media pitfalls. While it can definitely be used for good, it can also be painful to scroll through and see people living lives that seem better than yours or to see a friend post a photo at an event you weren’t invited to. So devastating! I really wanted to emphasize that social media is very much a mirage and we can’t take it at face value. Yet, there is something beautiful about the connections we can forge there, too. Finding a balance with it is key, so I hope that is something readers take away once they finish the book.
TCJ: YES!!! Would you like to tell us what your writing day is like and was this different for Kat than it was for Charlie?
CM: I’m a very sporadic writer in terms of actually getting words on the page. I work full-time, I’m a mom to a toddler, I have a delightful husband I love spending time with, a cute dog, I volunteer… so really, I have to actively fit in writing where I can. Sometimes that means I don’t write a word for months. But the process for me is a lot of daydreaming and listening to music, reading other books, watching movies, living life (as much as I can during a global pandemic) — all of those things together contribute to my writing. I like to get to the place where I’m longing to write and then it all seems to come out at once. That’s not to say it’s easy. Sometimes I swear getting each word down is like pulling teeth, but I get there, eventually.
I would say my process for writing Charlie’s story was much more romantic. It was kind of that dreamy way I’ve always envisioned writing, where I would come to it whenever I felt creative. I wrote in coffee shops and on my lunch breaks and at the park with my laptop, whereas parts of this second book were written with a pen in one hand and holding apple slices for my toddler in the other. Either way, I’ll take it!
TCJ: Well, with the wonderful books you write, we will all take whatever way you can do them. I am sure all our readers are dying to know, what’s next for you?
CM: I’m so excited to say that I have another book forthcoming from Holiday House in Fall 2023! I can’t quite talk about it yet… but it’s coming, and I promise lots of feelings, romance, and drama.
Thank you, Terry, for the most wonderful interview and all of these thoughtful questions. It has been so much fun getting to know you over the last year and I love that we get to root for each other as authors and friends! The Definitely Dominguita series is up next in the reading queue for my daughter, and we’re very excited about it. Thank you again!
TCJ: Loved doing this, Crystal!
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Crystal Maldonado is a young adult author with a lot of feelings. Her debut novel, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, is a 2021 New England Book Award winner, a Cosmopolitan Best New Book, and a POPSUGAR Best New YA Novel. Her next novel, No Filter and Other Lies, explores teenage life in the social media age—and the lies we tell to ourselves and others.
By day, Crystal works in higher ed marketing, and by night, and by night, a writer who loves Beyoncé, glitter, shopping, and spending too much time on her phone. Her work has been published in Latina, BuzzFeed, and the Hartford Courant.
She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and dog. Find her everywhere @crystalwrote or crystalwrote.com.
As a child, Terry dreamed of being an author, but she was dissuaded from a writing career and instead majored in math and physics at the University of Richmond, in Virginia. She worked in finance for many years. Once her children were born, she stayed home and became a very committed volunteer. Terry decided to give writing a chance once her kids reached high school. The first essay she ever submitted—about teaching her daughter to drive—was published by The Washington Post. Since then, she has published other newspaper and magazine articles and written a weekly humor column for The Reston Connection newspaper. She wrote educational content for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and internet sources. Then, she advanced to writing award-winning science and history-based nonfiction books for children. With Definitely Dominguita, she has fulfilled her dream of writing fiction for children.
What Terry loves about working on the Definitely Dominguita series is revisiting books she loved as a child and imagining a modern, but similar, adventure for Dominguita and her friends. Most fun was creating the mythical suburban town of Mundytown—a fun place full of caring characters—where Dom and her crew have freedom to roam.
Terry lives with her husband in Reston, Virginia and enjoys spending winters hiking and biking in Southern Utah. She enjoys visiting with her four grandchildren and often encourages them to bring their parents. She is the member of SCBWI and the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC.
Las Musas is celebrating the release of Racquel Marie’s debut young adult novel, OPHELIA AFTER ALL! Today, fellow Musa Francesca Flores interviews Racquel Marie about the themes and characters in this novel where a teen girl navigates friendship drama, the end of high school, and discovering her queerness.
OPHELIA AFTER ALL has been praised as “A feel-good and effortlessly inclusive coming-of-age story that deftly captures the aching tension of queer adolescence,” (Kirkus Reviews) and “A memorable, boundary-breaking story about identity, friendship, and the messy complications between the two,” (Mark Oshiro, author of ANGER IS A GIFT).
More on OPHELIA AFTER ALL:
Ophelia Rojas knows what she likes: her best friends, Cuban food, rose-gardening, and boys - way too many boys. Her friends and parents make fun of her endless stream of crushes, but Ophelia is a romantic at heart. She couldn't change, even if she wanted to.
So when she finds herself thinking more about cute, quiet Talia Sanchez than the loss of a perfect prom with her ex-boyfriend, seeds of doubt take root in Ophelia's firm image of herself. Add to that the impending end of high school and the fracturing of her once-solid friend group, and things are spiraling a little out of control. But the course of love--and sexuality--never did run smooth. As her secrets begin to unravel, Ophelia must make a choice between clinging to the fantasy version of herself she's always imagined or upending everyone's expectations to rediscover who she really is, after all.
Francesca Flores: Why was it important to you to write a character who loves having crushes and falling in love? Is there something about a romantic character’s personality that you enjoy writing?
Racquel Marie: Ophelia and I definitely share that character trait, especially when I was her age. I was really interested in diving into the ways a character could end up idealizing romance and placing all of their self-worth in it, while not demonizing or painting them as immature for loving love. So it was a fun challenge to play around with that balance. Ophelia goes through a big journey in learning to value platonic, familial, and self-love on the same level as romantic love, but she doesn’t lose being a romantic along the way, which felt important.
Francesca Flores: Senior year is such a huge time of redefining yourself, preparing for adulthood, and of course, goodbyes to your high school life. Why did you decide to set the story during this year?
Racquel Marie: Ophelia and her friends all deal with varying conflicts about their identities and futures, so setting the story at a time in their teenage lives when there’s so much pressure to have everything worked out felt appropriate. I wanted them to be teetering on that edge of adulthood, scared that any move would send them spiraling down, only to slowly realize throughout the book that we’re always on the precipice of some change and growth in life. It’s more than okay to fear that uncertainty, but there’s power in embracing it too.
Francesca Flores: As someone who is queer and had my first inklings of this realization in high school, it’s a very tender time in someone’s life and can be confusing or scary. I love that you show Ophelia from the first moment she realizes she likes a girl rather than her already knowing her sexuality at the start, because it still feels like there’s so few books out there for questioning characters. How did you tackle writing it in an authentic, sensitive way that you think could help teens reading it see themselves or learn from it?
Racquel Marie: Ophelia’s journey with her sexuality was heavily influenced by my own. I wanted readers to get to see the nuances and intricacies of what it’s like to suddenly recognize your queerness— seemingly out of the blue—especially since it’s often a bumpy ride in our cisheteronormative society. This meant showing the internalized homophobia, fear, confusion, and doubt alongside the emotional freedom, relief, celebration, and community that comes with being queer. Questioning teens shouldn’t feel isolated in any aspect of these experiences, so I hope seeing Ophelia navigate them too provides some comfort that they’re not alone.
Francesca Flores: In what ways did you strive to make Ophelia’s friends supportive? What aspects of her friend group were important for you to explore?
Racquel Marie: High school friendships can be complicated in that they may be heavily reliant on the familiarity of their origins. Ophelia recognizes that some of her friendships will change as they graduate and leave for college because they won’t all be in the same environment, doing the same daily things together anymore. Exploring this was key to the story because it adds to Ophelia’s fear of change, but it’s also something I don’t see discussed as often in YA.
I love messy, flawed characters, so Ophelia and her friends make a lot of mistakes and selfish choices. At their core though, they all love and care for each other. Their friendships bend, but never break, and they show up for one another when it really counts.
Francesca Flores: Are there any of your own interests that have worked their way into the book? Is gardening one of your interests, for example?
Racquel Marie: I wish I was as skilled a botanist as Ophelia, but I’ve barely managed to keep a pothos plant alive after years of constantly killing succulents. Ophelia and her mother’s love of literature and literary theory, however, definitely comes from me. All of the texts referenced in the book are actually ones I was studying in college at the time of writing Ophelia After All! If I came across something in a class I found interesting, into the book it went.
Francesca Flores: If you could take Ophelia out in your city one day, what would you do together?
Racquel Marie: It’s not very specific, but I’d love to take Ophelia to any one of the botanical gardens in Southern California. Every time I visited one over the years of writing Ophelia After All, I caught myself checking the breeds of roses and taking photos of flowers I thought she’d like, so it would be really cool to get to show her all of it for real, in person.
Francesca Flores: Without spoilers, what was one of your favorite scenes to write?
Racquel Marie: Argument scenes are my favorite to write on both a craft and catharsis level. Dialogue cadence is a blast for me to fine-tune and something about letting characters just verbally explode their feelings is deeply satisfying, so the two biggest argument scenes involving Ophelia and one or more of her friends were my favorite to work on. Even while I was crying lol. No spoilers beyond that!
Francesca Flores: Tell us something you love about Ophelia and hope readers can take away from the story.
Racquel Marie: I love that while this is a book that focuses on a hopeless romantic questioning aspects of her identity that relate to romantic attraction, this isn’t a romance book. (I adore romances and my 2023 book is a sapphic contemporary romance!) What I hope readers take away from this is that their queerness isn’t contingent on their present relationship status, and feel comforted by the message that love has value in all of its forms.
Purchase OPHELIA AFTER ALL today!
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