We're wishing a huge happy book birthday to Camille Gomera-Tavarez and her debut collection of short stories, High Spirits.
Today, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo interviews Camille about her debut which Kirkus Reviews calls, “a labor of love with a dedication of family.”
A Publishers Weekly starred review says High Spirits is, “full of vivid and poetic imagery, settings worthy of drinking in, and thematic material ripe for contemplation about identity, intergenerational memory, and patriarchy and toxic masculinity . . . ”
High Spirits is a collection of eleven interconnected short stories from the Dominican diaspora. It is centered on one extended family – the Beléns – across multiple generations.
e.E. Charlton-Trujillo: Camille, I am so excited to be in conversation with you. You've written a collection of rich and vivid short stories that span from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic's fictional town of Hidalpa -- Santo Domingo, Paterson and San Juan. How are you feeling about High Spirits finally coming into the world?
Camille Gomera-Tavarez.: First, thank you so much for taking the time to read it, E.! I admire you so much, so thank you!
And, well, I am feeling very anxious about the book launching as it is pretty much the first thing I’ve ever published at all. When I was starting senior year of college and writing the first threads of High Spirits, I couldn’t have imagined I would ever call myself a published author. When I started, I was still working through mixed emotions about my grandmother passing, and by the time I got the book deal my grandfather had recently passed. So, I feel really lucky to have been given the chance to properly finish this project and give it the love it deserved, especially in their honor. I hope that the people that I want to read it – young Afro-Latinx people and Dominican-Americans – will find their way to my stories.
e.E.: Between what is real and what is magical, you explore the intersections of intergenerational loss, love, identity, class, masculinity, femininity, family and more. Can you talk about the choice to intertwine these topics and characters in the eleven short stories?
CGT: As I worked through the stories, my methodology was to take a memory from my own life or a story from my family’s life, write it out plainly, and find a central theme that I could then tie back to masculinity and identity in some way. And then I would just layer it beneath this established family and characters I’d created.
At first, I was just writing a couple stories in the same universe, and then after reading Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and seeing a family history told in short stories, I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do and exactly the kind of thing I wanted to read. And at the time I was taking a class on Latin American literature and learning the history of magical realism in the Americas, which also greatly influenced me as I was writing.
e.E.: Why was it important for you to move between what is real and what is magical in this collection?
CGT: I love books with just a touch of magic. I think the first book I read like that was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and I was just mind blown in high school. I feel like there’s this resurgence of similar touches of magic with TV shows like Atlanta, Rami, and Reservation Dogs. I love getting a little lost and not knowing exactly what is going on and having to figure it out.
I really found a piece of myself when I learned about Lo Real Maravilloso and its place in the canon of literature. It felt really powerful to free myself from the rules of western structures of storytelling. I really hate rules and grammar and stuff. And, if you want to get philosophical, what even is reality? Isn’t everything made up? So why can’t a boy be possessed by a demon that pulls him through time? Why can’t that exist alongside reality? If you visit the Caribbean and other places, stories like that are commonplace and taken as truth. Those family stories are what inspired me to write the book.
e.E.: Barbaro's barbershop culture (and political banter) set a perfect backdrop for ten-year-old Yoanson's first (and unwanted) haircut. Barber Tony and Yoanson's older brother Jose see haircuts and manhood differently. Why is this important for young readers to see?
CGT: I wrote that story after a talk with my brother. Initially, I wanted to write something about my experience at Dominican hair salons, where I went at least once a week to get my hair blown out and straightened. And it was often a demeaning experience. But then, we were talking about a time when my father had punished my brother by making him shave his head to the scalp. Then, I was looking through YouTube and I found a similar recent video of a Dominican father taking his 10-year-old son with big curly hair to get a haircut and the boy was not happy about it. So, I was like “Ok, this is a thing.” I wondered why men do this and why this is an issue, especially for young Black boys trying to find joy in the world. I feel like hair is such a personal thing.
There is this hardness, especially with Black and Immigrant parents, that I feel doesn’t have to be there when preparing your child for the world. And a lot of times people are forced to be accomplices in these aggressions that are going on around them because they don’t know how to speak up or stop it from happening. So, I wanted to present someone like Tony as an example of how someone might be able to use the privileges they do have to step in when they see something wrong.
e.E.: Skipping Stones’ unrequited, same sex love story was palpable. My heart was breaking for Ana while also understanding Zahaira's reluctance. Why was this story important to include in the collection?
CGT: I felt like I needed to write a love story or just something that wasn’t as heavy as the other stories. So, I figured it may as well be a queer love story (straight ones are so boring). I feel like I had a similar relationship with the first girl I met when I came to America who was also my neighbor and my best friend. I wanted to show a story where there is an absence of men, with these two girls, but the impact of toxic masculinity still manages to creep in, as it often does in queer relationships. So, this is how it turned out. I’m glad you liked it! I feel like it was one of the more fun stories to write, even though, yeah lol, Ana was going through a tough time.
e.E.: Life After The Storm transitions the reader from what is real to what is magical, and submerges the reader as Jorge embodies the lives of women from his family over time. Would you share the choice of water, birth, storms and having a man experience womanhood?
CGT: For most of the magic throughout the book, I am pulling from Afro-Caribbean traditions and spirituality which is greatly influenced by West African Yoruba culture. So, water and rebirth play a large role in Yoruba religions. I, myself, am a Pisces and a water baby. My mother went into labor with me while she was in a tub. It can be a life-giving and rejuvenating thing but also be scary and cause destruction. Especially with hurricane season every year.
I pulled from several dreams I had, as well – I like to write my dreams down. I had a really impactful dream once where I was just going through my past lives, and I was my grandmother and then my father and then my mother until I got to where I was at that exact moment in bed. I woke up crying from that dream because it shook me so much, but I was also just grateful to be the product of so many choices that came before me. It shifted my perspective.
Jorge is in this moment of trying to figure out his identity in a country that seems like it doesn’t want him there. I was thinking about how genealogy is often traced from the mother through matrilineal ancestry and how past trauma is passed through DNA. So, it seemed natural that he would become all the women who had made choices that led to his being in the United States. I also wanted to find a way to mess around with gendered pronouns a bit, especially going back to the theme of toxic masculinity and patriarchy and challenging notions of gender binaries.
e.E.: I want to thank you so much for sharing all of this. I cannot wait for this collection to reach young readers. In the meantime, are you working on something new?
CGT: I don’t know how much I can say, but yes I’m currently working on my next novel which will hopefully come out Fall 2023 and it’s definitely going to be much lighter and less serious. Whereas High Spirits takes on masculinity, I feel this next one is focused more on femininity and sisterhood. And of course, magic.
e.E.: I can’t wait for your new work! Can you share where people can find you online?
CGT: You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @cgomeratavarez and on my website at www.cgtdesign.net
Buy High Spirits today!
Hi readers! We’re so excited to celebrate the book birthday of Does My Body Offend You? written by Musa and Latinx KidLit Book Festival co-founder, Mayra Cuevas, and co-author Marie Marquardt. And it is a Target Book Club selection! But first, a little bit about Does My Body Offend You?
Malena Rosario is starting to believe that catastrophes come in threes. First, Hurricane María destroyed her home, taking her unbreakable spirit with it. Second, she and her mother are now stuck in Florida, which is nothing like her beloved Puerto Rico. And third, when she goes to school bra-less after a bad sunburn and is humiliated by the school administration into covering up, she feels like she has no choice but to comply.
Ruby McAllister has a reputation as her school's outspoken feminist rebel. But back in Seattle, she lived under her sister's shadow. Now her sister is teaching in underprivileged communities, and she's in a Florida high school, unsure of what to do with her future, or if she's even capable of making a difference in the world. So when Ruby notices the new girl is being forced to cover up her chest, she is not willing to keep quiet about it.
Neither Malena nor Ruby expected to be the leaders of the school's dress code rebellion. But the girls will have to face their own insecurities, biases, and privileges, and the ups and downs in their newfound friendship, if they want to stand up for their ideals and--ultimately--for themselves.
Does My Body Offend You? is the timely story of two teenagers who discover the power of friendship, feminism, and standing up for what you believe in, no matter where you come from. A collaboration between two gifted authors writing from alternating perspectives, this compelling novel shines with authenticity, courage, and humor.
Content warnings for DMBOY: Features an assault scene.
M. García Peña: Mayra! So excited to chat. I remember way back when we had the Musas retreat that you read us an excerpt from this book! Could you start us off with the spark for this book?
Mayra Cuevas: Marie and I have been friends and critique partners since 2012—we actually met at the Moonlight and Magnolias writers conference in Atlanta. You have to love that title!
In 2018 we decided to collaborate on a co-authored young adult novel that explored how school dress codes unfairly target girls, students of color and historically marginalized communities. By writing characters from two points of view—one from a traditional Puerto Rican family, and another from a liberal white upbringing—we hoped to open a dialogue on issues of feminism, intersectionality, white privilege and allyship.
MGP: I have to confess that I love the idea of co-writing books and have been working on a few myself. What's the secret to working with a co-author?
MC: Before we became co-authors, Marie and I had been critique partners for six years. We exchanged our writing every week and gave each other feedback and encouragement. Very early on we developed a relationship based on trust, kindness and mutual respect, which laid the foundation to collaborate on a book.
Creating art together requires a mindset of grace, openness and flexibility. We have established a process of listening to each other’s ideas without shutting anything down, while remaining open to possibilities and also knowing when to change course if that idea is not working.
When Marie and I are brainstorming/writing/editing in the same space, we feed off each other’s creative energy. This process requires a lot of trust and respect. We engage with an appreciation for our individual insights, experience, backgrounds and talent. We also know when to push and when to give each other space. The work is stronger because of what each of us brings to the table.
MGP: Do you work on each other’s chapters, particularly when your characters are involved?
MC: Okay so this takes us into the mechanics of collaborating, which many people are curious about. Here is a step by step:
MGP: There’s a lot of love for Puerto Rico in this book (we’re both Boricuas, so that’s not surprising), but was there anything that was difficult to write? This story takes place very soon after Hurricane Maria hit the island and I remember reading your mention of the Arecibo Observatory and getting this pang because of its current state.
Can you talk a bit about that pressure to write about something that’s still so very raw to many of us?
MC: Hurricane María was a turning point for the history of Puerto Rico, and it left a deep trauma for both the residents of the Island and the diaspora.
Like so many other Puerto Ricans living in the States, I spent the months after the hurricane agonizing about my inability to reach my family and figuring out how to get involved in aid efforts. It took over a month to get any news from home. Blessedly, everyone was alive and doing ok considering the circumstances.
I poured those emotions into the relationship between Malena and her dad, who is still on the Island, while Malena and her mom have relocated to Florida. Like Malena, I was struggling with how to go on with my life in Atlanta when so many of my compatriotas were suffering. I organized a supplies drive in my town of Norcross but I soon learned that the truckloads of materials would be probably stuck in a warehouse for weeks if not months. Getting aid to the Island was a slow and complicated process, which I also mention in the book.
I hope in some small way, the book brings attention to both the plight and enormous resilience of Puerto Ricans and the immense pride we all feel for our homeland.
MGP: I can tell there was a lot of care and research that went into the dress code plot line which of course feeds into the conversation of consent and bodily autonomy.
Can you talk a bit about that research and also how you approached Malena’s journey and relationship to her body through this?
MC: One of the best parts of writing this book is that I got exposed to books like Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, and the writings of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie including We Should All Be Feminists. I also read multiple academic books on the history of women in Puerto Rico, which helped enlighten the conversation of our bodies as a part of our ancestral history and heritage, as part of the land in which we are born into, which Malena later expresses in her poem towards the end of the book.
At the beginning of the novel, Malena struggles with a sense that her body has become public domain. Many young people can identify with this feeling, since on a daily basis they experience a barrage of body image messages from social media. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that 32% “of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Continued exposure to TikTok can result in the development of tics and neurological disorders, body harm and eating disorders.
It is clear that we have to fundamentally shift how we are relating to our bodies in ways that are affirming and empowering. We have to look closely at the stories that shape our reality—the stories we tell ourselves. Instead of looking outward, we need to look inside to find our own stories of strength, confidence and love.
MGP: Thank you so much, Mayra. Can you let us know where you’ll be virtually and in-person talking about Does My Body Offend You? If someone wants to get a signed copy, what indie should they check out?
MC: Mercifully, we are BACK with in-person events! And I am sooooo excited to connect with readers and educators everywhere.
Marie and I will have a super fun, picnic book release event on Saturday, April 9 at 5pm ET at Thrasher Park in Historic downtown Norcross.
Everyone can pre-order a signed copy of our book via Little Shop of Stories. I will also be attending the LA Festival of Books and YALLWest in April. And of course, the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival in October. For more details for to my website: MayraCuevas.com
Purchase Does My Body Offend You? today!
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Mayra Cuevas is the author of multiple children’s books including the young adult novels Does My Body Offend You? and Salty, Bitter, Sweet. Mayra is a producer for CNN and co-founder of the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival. She keeps her sanity by practicing Buddhist meditation. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, her two stepsons, their fluffy cat and a very loud Chihuahua. You can find Mayra on Twitter @MayraECuevas, on Instagram @Mayra.Cuevas and her website MayraCuevas.com.
M. García Peña / Mia García (she/her) was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She got her MFA at The New School and is the author of Even If the Sky Falls and The Resolutions from Katherine Tegen books (an imprint of HarperCollins) and a short story in the Latine YA Horror anthology, Our Shadows Have Claws. She is a founding member of the Latinx children’s book artist collective Las Musas and splits her time between Puerto Rico and New York. You can find her at mgarciabooks.com.
Even when she’s turning roja, Stella Díaz is so full of heart, a character you can’t help but cheer for as she finds her voice and realizes she is más valiente than she realized. Today, Las Musas Madrina Jennifer Torres is thrilled to interview author-illustrator and Las Musas Madrina Angela Dominguez about the latest book in the Stella Díaz series, Stella Díaz to the Rescue.
Here’s a description from publisher Roaring Brook Press:
In Stella Díaz to the Rescue, the latest in this beloved series from award-winning author Angela Dominguez, Stella learns that sometimes the best way to help others is just to be there for them when times get tough.
It’s a new calendar year, and Stella is determined to make it her best one yet. Not only are Stella and her family finally becoming U.S. citizens, but the Sea Musketeers are also presenting their plastics pledge to the school council. With her trusty schedule in hand, Stella is ready for anything! But after life takes unexpected turns, Stella will have to fight to keep her perfect year on track.
Not to worry, because Stella Díaz is to the rescue! Right?
Jennifer Torres: When this latest chapter in Stella’s journey opens, her mom is preparing to take the naturalization test, one of the last steps toward the family becoming United States citizens. And, at the heart of the story seems to be an exploration of what it means to be a good citizen. What do you hope readers take away as Stella grapples with this big question?
Angela Dominguez: That is such a great question. On one hand, I would hope it would encourage kids to think about their communities and how they can help. Whether it’s caring for the environment or simply sharing with others. It’s easy to get caught in our own problems and forget that there are other people in the world, especially in these past two years where we have spent more time alone.
At the same time, it’s also a conflict for Stella because she takes the idea of being a good citizen to the extreme. She tries to solve other people’s problems who really aren’t looking for help. I hope the book provides an opportunity for kids and adults to have conversations about ableism. Stella makes mistakes so hopefully we don’t make as many.
Jennifer: In all of the Stella Díaz books, and this one especially, I love that the illustrations give us an extra glimpse into Stella’s world and her perspective. How do you decide what to illustrate in each chapter?
Angela: I always like an excuse to draw sea creatures. Not only are they fun to look at, some of the ones I mention in the books are not as common so it’s helpful to have illustrations of them. The rest of the drawings are typically big moments where Stella meets someone new or has a strong emotion. Although it is exciting to draw historic figures and imaginary moments, too, like a zombie eating take-out or Stella running to the rescue.
Jennifer: Maybe because I was a shy kid, I’m drawn to stories about quiet courage and bravery that doesn’t look the way we typically expect it to. That’s a big part of why I love Stella so much! Can you share a bit about how you’ve approached showing Stella’s growing confidence and sense of her own voice from book to book?
Angela: I was very much a shy kid, and I’m still an introvert. I spent half of my childhood roja like Stella. In some ways, Stella’s growing confidence has mirrored my own as an author. Seeing readers respond and relate to Stella, encourages me to keep writing. However, Stella has become her own person too beyond my own experiences. I’ve been inspired by young, motivated women like Greta Thunberg and AOC who are determined to solve big problems. I believe Stella might grow up to be like them one day.
Jennifer: The relationship between Stella and Nick is one of my favorite parts of this series. In this book we see them grow together, but also in their own individual directions. Where do you draw inspiration for the sibling relationship and especially its changes over time?
Angela: Like Stella, my parents divorced when I was young, so I grew up mostly with my mom and brother. Mi hermano became a surrogate father to me in many ways and I still look to him for fatherly advice. That said, Nick is sort of an idealized version of him. Nick steps in like a dad would or my brother would. However, he’s still a teenager and forming his own identity. In the books, Nick offers advice, support, and the occasional eye roll. He just fights less with Stella than my own brother did. (Don’t tell him that.)
Jennifer: Stella and her and her art club classmates have a special new project: portraits of school staff and faculty members, inspired by pieces at The Art Institute. Do you create many portraits or self-portraits? Do you have any advice for young artists on how to begin a portrait?
Angela: I love portraits. I used to draw many of them growing up and even more at art school. In fact, when I was trying to improve my skills in college, I decided to complete a 100-portrait project in my sketchbook.
For aspiring artists who want to try their hands at portraits, I recommend the blind-contour exercise that Stella does in her art club. It is a great way to have fun and practice your observation skills. To start, you either use a mirror or have someone sit for you, while you draw. Next, draw slowly what you observe without looking at the paper. Take the time to notice all the details. It’s freeing and you’ll be surprised how great it can look. On top of that, try different art mediums. Sometimes it takes a while to find the one you love.
Jennifer: Stella’s shaky Spanish has her worried that she’s not Mexican “enough” (something I’ve definitely related to). This feeling seems to deepen when she thinks about what it will mean to become a U.S. citizen, all leading to one of my favorite moments in the book, when Stella says, “I love that I can be so many things at once.” To what extent are Stella’s thoughts about citizenship and identity inspired by your own immigration experience, which you share in an author’s note?
Angela: As you may have noticed, much of the book is inspired by my experiences, but this one really hits close to home. As a child, I felt caught between cultures and not feeling Mexican “enough.” I still struggle with this today to a degree. One offhanded remark about how I pronounce something in either English and Spanish today can trigger some painful feelings or insecurities. But what I have been amazed to realize as I have gotten older is that many people from all types of backgrounds feel this way too! What I perceived as a singular feeling is not that at all which is partially why I write about it today. I hope it will help kids feel less alone to know they have a character they can relate to. More importantly, I hope it might inspire kids to have pride in all parts of their identity as well.
Jennifer: Here’s a question from my daughter Soledad, who is a 9-year-old aspiring artist and major Stella Díaz fan (They were the first books she called her favorites!): Does Stella ever make decisions that are different from what you would have done?
Angela: Great question, Soledad! I think the biggest difference between Stella and myself is she thinks coffee is gross while I’ve been drinking it for quite some time. Truthfully, most of her decisions are similar to what I would have done in those situations. In fact, my boyfriend jokingly says WWSD (or What Would Stella Do) when I’m nervously trying something new.
I think Stella is perhaps braver than me. She’s been able to speak up to bullies, for example. She’s probably a little more superstitious than me, too.
Jennifer: Stella Díaz to the Rescue is just one of many beautiful books you have releasing this year. Can you tell us a little about what else has been in the works for 2022? Would you say there are any common threads that run through these projects?
Angela: I’m happy to have more Stella out in the world, including the paperback edition of STELLA DÍAZ DREAMS BIG (the third book in the series.) I also had the privilege of illustrating JUST HELP! by Sonia Sotomayor which came out in January. That shares some overlapping themes of civic duty and stepping in to help our communities.
I also have two additional picture books that I both wrote and illustrated. One is called I’M HUNGRY/¡TENGO HAMBRE! It’s about a dinosaur who is hungry, but he’s a picky eater. That is a very silly book that was such a complete joy to illustrate. It’s in the same vein as some of my other early bilingual picture books like HOW ARE YOU? or HOW DO YOU SAY?
Lastly, I have a picture book called ME GUSTA. With this book, I wanted to celebrate Latino families and the joys and issues that go through today.
With all my books, I hope to share a bit of myself and celebrate my heritage in different ways.
While I have to say while the pandemic has been stressful, it has allowed me more time to be at home and luckily, work on more books. I’m grateful and excited to be able to share them with readers this year.
Find Angela and her amazing books online!
Angela Dominguez was born in Mexico City and grew up in the great state of Texas. She now resides on the east coast with her boyfriend, Kyle, and their petite dog, Petunia.
She is also the author and illustrator of several books for children and a two-time Pura Belpré Illustration Honoree. Her debut middle grade novel, Stella Díaz Has Something To Say, was a New York Public Library and a Chicago Public Library pick for Best Books for Kids, Sid Fleischman Award winner, and an ALA Notable. She recently illustrated the New York Times Bestseller, Just Help! How to Build a Better World, written by Sonia Sotomayor. When Angela is not in her studio or visiting schools, she teaches at the Academy of Art University, which honored her with their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.
Angela is a proud member of SCBWI, PEN America, and represented by Wernick and Pratt Literary Agency. As a child, she loved reading books and making a mess creating pictures. She’s delighted to still be doing both.
Here’s a huge extended Happy Book Birthday to our Madrina Jennifer Torres on the release of her latest chapter book series—in hardcover and paperback!--Catalina Incognito!
Alexandra Alessandri interviews Jenifer Torres, but first, a little about the first book of the series, Catalina Incognito, which The Southern Bookseller Review says is “sure to be a charming new chapter book series”!
One Day at a Time meets Mindy Kim in this first book in a charming new chapter book series about Catalina Castaneda, a Mexican American girl with a magical sewing kit!
Catalina Castaneda is not persnickety, even though that’s what her parents and sister, Coco, like to think. Catalina just likes things the way she likes them—perfect.
That’s why it’s very hard to hide her disappointment when her glamorous Tía Abuela, a famous telenovela actress, gives her an old sewing kit for her eighth birthday. However, Catalina soon discovers the sewing kit isn’t as boring as she thinks—it’s magic, turning ordinary clothing into magical disguises.
When Tía Abuela’s most famous costume has rhinestones stolen from it where it’s being displayed at the local library, Catalina gets to work on creating the perfect disfraz (disguise) to track down the thief. But, as Tía Abuela warned her, the magic is only as strong as her stiches, and Catalina doesn’t always have the patience for practice...
Alexandra Alessandri: I’ve been a big fan of yours since I read Stef Soto, Taco Queen a few years ago, so I was incredibly excited to read Catalina Incognito! It’s such a charming, character-driven story that made me very much wish I could have a magic sewing kit! But I loved that it was also a story about not being afraid to fail and try again, a message I think is very important for young readers. (I was also tickled to see a main character with the name Catalina; it’s my cousin’s name and growing up, I didn’t know many Catalinas.)
Jennifer Torres: Oh, thank you so much for such kind words! And especially for reading Catalina. The series is so special to me, and I’m thrilled to finally be able to share it!
AA: I’m always so curious about a story’s origins. Did you start with the character first, a first line, an image? How did you decide to include a magical sewing kit?
JT: My grandmother taught me to sew when I was in elementary school. I can remember watching her work and thinking it was a little like magic the way she could take a piece of fabric, a needle, and thread and turn it into something completely new. The image and the thought stayed with me over the years until I wondered, “Wait, what if it really was magic?” And that was the first spark of the story. So, the magical sewing kit was there from the beginning! Just as importantly (to me), the intergenerational piece was there too.
I’m also interested in celebrating forms of creativity and self-expression that aren’t always—or at least haven’t always—been seen and respected as such. In The Fresh, New Face of Griselda, it was makeup. In the Catalina Incognito series, it’s home-sewing. I’m so lucky to have grown up with grandmothers who made things. I don’t think they would call themselves creative, but they absolutely are. That’s something they gifted me the way Tía Abuela gifts Catalina the sewing kit.
AA: I love this so much! So what was your creation process like for the first book and, by extension, for the rest of the series? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Did you go in knowing it would be a series and what would happen?
JT: Oh, I plot for sure! I really struggle writing anything until I think I understand how all the puzzle pieces are going fit together. That’s not to say it’s a rigid process. Stories evolve, especially in revision, but it helps me a lot to start with an outline. For Catalina Incognito, I had a feeling it would be a series because I knew, based on the premise and the voice I had in mind for the main character, that I wanted to write a chapter book. That said, I didn’t plot the whole series at once. I took it book-by-book (there are four), but I knew there were some common threads (sorry!) I wanted to pull through each one—the sibling story, for example, Cat’s Stitch and Share community, Pablo’s latest telenovela obsession. And, of course, I wanted every book to have an amazing magical disfraz!
AA: I can’t wait to see what other disfrazes are in the rest of the series! They say we put a little bit of ourselves in our stories and characters, and I love the whole cast of characters in Catalina Incognito—from persnickety Catalina to her siblings Coco and Baby Carlos to her parents and glamorous Tía Abuela. They were all so great. With that in mind, which character is most like you and why?
JT: I love them too and am so glad I had the chance to write this big, warm family! While I wish I was as fabulous as Tía Abuela, I can’t even pretend. I’m an older sister, so there’s definitely some of me in Coco (We also share a bit of a clutter problem). Even though Coco knows exactly how to get on Cat’s nerves, she’s also the family member who pushes Cat hardest and believes in her most. I hope I’m that kind of sister.
And, of course, Cat’s frustration at her own mistakes, her impatience to get through the clumsy beginnings of learning something new are very deeply familiar.
AA: Oof, yeah. I think Cat’s impatience and frustration are going to be really relatable for readers. I love the nod toward childhood nicknames, and how we tend to outgrow them as we age (usually lol). It made me think of my own nickname—la maquinita—given to me by my Tía Abuela Beatriz because I would get into all her drawers and closets. So of course, that made me curious: What was your childhood nickname? Or, if you didn’t have one, what would you have wanted it to be?
JT: I LOVE that nickname and the story behind it! I think I’ve been called every possible variation of Jennifer. And you can tell which period of my life someone met me in by the one they use. I don’t mind any, but it does throw me a little when someone from the Jenn days calls me Jenny for example.
AA: I loved the nuances we get into Catalina’s family right from the first chapter that reminded me of my own family and customs: the politeness Catalina exhibits, the nod to telenovelas, the family dynamics, the full name warning. How much of these nuances were based on your own family and your own experiences?
JT: I’m so glad those details resonated! They have made the books so special to write. My editor, Alyson Heller, was also committed to the family story, and I love that we were able to keep the Castañedas at the heart of the series.
They are very much based on my own family and experiences. Like Catalina, I’m Mexican-American, and grew up with two working parents, and with grandparents, tías and tíos, and cousins who have always been very present in my life. When we see Catalina with her family, there’s always a lot going in the background—someone cooking lunch, someone chasing after the baby, someone getting ready for their shift at work. That was rhythm of my childhood too, while the mix of English and Spanish Catalina hears around her was its sound.
AA: That’s beautiful! I recognized some of that rhythm, too, and it reminded me of my own family and childhood.
You’re the author of several other middle grade novels and chapter books, including Stef Soto, Taco Queen; Flor and Miranda Steal the Show; Twins Vs. Triplets; The Fresh New Face of Griselda; and the upcoming The Do-Over. How is the process different between writing standalone novels and those in a series?
JT: I love that middle grade books meet readers at a time when their worlds are getting bigger. And I love that chapter books meet readers when they are just beginning to explore their worlds on their own terms (reading independently, making their first best friends, exploring hobbies.) I feel so grateful that I’ve gotten to write both!
One important difference for me in writing a series like Catalina Incognito versus a standalone novel was in needing to think about how Catalina would grow and change within each story as well as across all four books. The way she responds to challenges is different (I hope!) in Book 4 than in Book 1, yet there has to be enough consistency that readers recognize her as the same character.
Another big difference was in working with an illustrator, the amazing Gladys Jose, who brought Catalina and her world to life with so much warmth and charm. Knowing the books would be illustrated made me think about them in more visual terms than I might have with an unillustrated middle grade novel.
AA: I loved Gladys Jose’s illustrations! Fun question: If you could have one magical object, what would it be?
JT: This is fun. Lately I’ve been wishing I had a time-travel device. Or even a time-freezing device! Just to linger a little while longer in cozy moments with my family. Though a magical sewing kit like Catalina’s would be pretty great too.
AA: A time-freezing or time-travel device would be SO useful! I would get so much more done. Lol What advice do you have for writers wishing to write and publish chapter books?
JT: Read lots of chapter books! There are so many excellent ones, and it’s really a joy. When I first shared a draft of what would become Catalina Incognito with my agent, she said there was a lot she loved about it, but that I had more work to do. The voice, the structure—all of it was reading a little too old. And she was right! I had just finished writing two middle grade novels, and I needed to recalibrate. She suggested I read and study more chapter books, and I did. It made a huge difference. I don’t think anything helped more than that.
I also think it can be valuable to get to know chapter book readers. Not necessarily personally, but to understand what they’re experiencing from a child development perspective. They’re often navigating new independence and the dynamics of new communities—teams, classrooms, friend groups. (That’s so exciting, but it can also feel sort of perilous at times!) They’re compassionate and curious. And also very funny.
AA: That’s such great advice! What do you hope readers will take away from the series?
JT: Tía Abuela shares a dicho—a saying, or bit of wisdom—with Catalina in each book. In the first book it’s this: “Coser y cantar, todo es empezar.” To me, it speaks to the importance of just starting when approaching something new. Coco puts it in her own words: “You won’t start to get better until you … start.”
That’s a lesson I have to learn every time I begin a new book, or really anything new. I hope it’s one that stays with readers and inspires them to push through those worries about messing up or just not being as good as you want to be. It’s all about starting.
I also hope readers take away they knowledge that creativity—to put something new in the world—is a very powerful kind of magic.
AA: I love that so much. Can you tell us what we can expect from you next?
JT: I get to share six new books this year! Three are part of the Catalina Incognito series. The others are The Do-Over, a middle grade novel about family and change set in the pandemic; the second book in the Twins vs. Triplets chapter book series about poor David Suárez and his prank-loving neighbors; and the picture book Lola Out Loud, inspired by civil rights activist Dolores Huerta and my own family’s history of farm and cannery work. I also have a couple of new projects that haven’t been announced. I can’t wait to say more soon!
Purchase Catalina Incognito today!
Jennifer Torres is the author of Stef Soto, Taco Queen, 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
Alexandra Alessandri is the award-winning author of FELIZ NEW YEAR, AVA GABRIELA! (Albert Whitman) and the forthcoming ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL (Sleeping Bear Press). The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is also an Associate Professor of English at Broward College and a poet, with some of her work appearing in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and Young Adult Review Network. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son.
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