Today, we're excited to host the cover reveal of Gato Guapo, an all-new picture book coming in 2023 from not one, but TWO Musas, Anika Aldamuy Denise and Zara González Hoang!
Here’s a blurb from HarperCollins about the book:
Find out what dapper feline Gato Guapo’s nine naughty gatitos are up to in this hilarious cumulative romp told in a lyrical blend of Spanish and English by Pura Belpré Honor-winning author Anika Aldamuy Denise and celebrated illustrator Zara Gonzalez Hoang!
Let’s countdown from nine (one for each gatito!) and reveal the cover:
Aw, what a handsome cat—and cover!
In Anika’s words. . .
“I could not have been more excited to pair up with Zara on this project! Her debut picture book, A New Kind of Wild, is one of my all-time favorites. When I saw the finished cover for Gato Guapo, I literally grabbed my laptop, jumped up from my chair, and ran to show my husband who is also an illustrator (and a big fan of Zara’s work!). Zara’s brought so much depth and humor to the spreads. It’s one of those books that invites multiple readings because every time you flip through, you discover something new and hilarious in the art. I also love that Zara illustrated Guapo as an orange tabby cat, because our family’s orange tabby, Charlie, was the inspiration for the book.
And yes, él es muuuy guapo.”
On-sale date: February 28, 2023
Preorder Gato Guapo
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Anika Aldamuy Denise is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction picture books. Her book Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré won a Pura Belpré Author Honor, an NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor, and the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award. Anika draws inspiration for her stories from her multicultural upbringing, family, and her cuddly orange tabby, Charlie—who will surely be impossible to live with once the book is released and he becomes a minor pet celebrity. You can follow Charlie on Instagram @TheGatoGuapo. And you can find Charlie’s human (Anika) online, too.
Zara González Hoang is an obsessive scribbler, daydreamer, and doodler. She grew up in a house full of stories, where imagination was encouraged and one could never be sure what was truth and what was fiction. In addition to illustrating Gato Guapo, she is the author and illustrator of A New Kind of Wild and the illustrator of Mi Casa is My Home. She lives outside of DC in a magical suburban forest with her Mad Man husband, human-shaped demons, curly coated corgi, and a jungle of plants.
IG & Twitter @zarprey
Today, we're celebrating Musa Terry Catasús Jenning's The Little House of Hope / La casita de esperanza. To turn a shabby little house into a welcoming home, all it takes is a big-hearted family eager to help others. . . and a little hope. La casita offers a home for those who don’t have anywhere to go. It’s a safe place in a new land, and Esperanza is always the first to welcome them. An inspiring, semi-autobiographical story of how immigrants can help each other find their footing in a new country, accompanied by the rich and vivid illustrations of award-winning artist Raúl Colón.
“It was a little house. Una casita . . .
This beautiful picture book is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and Kirkus Reviews describes it as reflecting “the stories of many a refugee family and humanizes a group of people often othered. In an age-appropriate way, it touches on the complicated reasons people leave their homes.”
Gloria Amescua: Terry, I’m so happy to be interviewing you about your latest book, which I know must be very close to your heart.
I’m always interested in author’s inspirations for their books. In your author’s note you mention that your family lived in a casita where three families lived together, twelve during the week and fourteen when your uncle’s sons came to stay with him. How much of the details or actions of your story about immigrant families living together came from your actual experience and what is additional?
Terry Jennings: Gloria, most of those details did come from my own experience, but you’re right, some things are changed to make a better story. When we came to the United States, we had nothing. My uncle’s family was already here, and they opened up their house to us. My aunt’s brother, his wife and baby lived in the garage, and, when we came, I bunked with my two cousins, Rita and Tilly and my parents and three-year old brother slept on the pullout couch. So, they were the ones that opened up their house to us, and we were all family who lived in that little house. To be honest, I don’t know where the furniture in their house came from, but when my family—Papi, Mami and my brother Tony rented our own home, we did have furniture from the church basement. Heck, we had pots and pans and dishes too. We couldn’t have made it without help. And absolutely, I decorated my room with collages. It’s something I continued to do, even in college.
G.A. We also had furniture, books, and more that our neighbors gave us. It’s wonderful when others see you have a need and give from their hearts. I also love collages and have made some as well, mainly to express what I care about and also for goal setting.
Did you originally have a Mexican immigrant family in the story or did you decide to widen the scope of where the immigrants came from?
T.J. The first few versions of the book had only family living in the house, but Neal Porter, my editor, and I felt that it was important that we show more than the Cuban immigrant experience, and I am so happy we did that. It allowed us to show, that regardless of where you come from, you are still human. You have the same hopes, dreams, and needs. And a little helping hand meeting those needs is what makes all the difference in the world.
G.A. I’m really happy you both made that decision. It enriches the experience of the story.
You also mention that part of the reason you wrote this story stems from anger, but also with pride. Will you explain how these feelings came about and why you decided this was one way to deal with it? Why was it important to you to write this book?
T.J. Wow. That was a hard day, but a positive day. A realtor friend told me he would never rent to “Mexicans.” They always lived four families to a house and trashed the property. I stewed and stewed over that comment. He knew I was Cuban. How could he say that? How blind was he to what those people were actually going through? At first, I was just thinking about “them” but at some point, the light bulb went off. Wait! My family was one of those families! We only lived three people to a house, but still. And we all eventually became citizens and we never trashed a house. It brought back so many memories. And I felt that I needed to write about it. You’re right, I had to deal with it. I had to get it off my chest. But, more importantly, I wanted to set the record straight. Most immigrants that come to the US do so because it’s a last resort. My father would have been killed if we had stayed in Cuba. That’s why his brother had come before him. Life had become impossible. And we would have lost all our freedoms, especially the one to think for ourselves, if we had continued to live under Castro. The more I think about it, in all my books, Esperanza, Dominguita, Pauli Murray, I strive to show that we are all human. I wish I could find a catchy phrase for that, but that’s what’s important to me. For persons to be seen for who they are, what contributions they have made, not where they came from or the color of their skin. I bet this resonates with you, I believe your Child of the Flower-Song People is very much in that vein. It is beautiful.
G.A. Thank you, Terry. The Little House of Hope really does resonate. I do think we’re both trying to show the humanity of all people, to have them be seen and respected.
Raúl Colon’s illustrations are so rich and textured. What do you think his illustrations add to the text? Is it as you imagined it? Did you get to work with any of your illustrators or separate from them?
T.J. Oh Gloria, when Neal Porter told me that Raúl was illustrating La Casita (we call it that whether it’s in Spanish or in English), I was overwhelmed. I already had one of his books--Good-bye, Havana, Hola, New York! I was actually using it as research for another book on Cuba. He had portrayed Cuba the way I remembered it, and it was good to have his book while I wrote my descriptions. I couldn’t have been happier. His illustrations are so true! I almost cried when I saw the picture of the father. He looked just like my papi. But I have to say, that Duncan Tonatiuh has a wonderful style himself. I loved what he did with Luz Jiménez.
G.A. I’m so glad Papi in the book resembles your father. I can’t imagine how wonderful that must be. I love Raúl’s work as well. I couldn’t be more thrilled that Duncan Tonatiuh illustrated our book because his unique style fit the text perfectly.
Now let’s talk about the equally lovely Spanish version of your book, La casita de esperanza, which is being published simultaneously. How did the decision to publish a Spanish version come about? I read that you translated the Spanish version. How did you feel about being able to do that?
T.J. Oh, gosh. I don’t know how the decision came about. One day, it seemed like I knew that it would be published in Spanish simultaneously. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare. But I was absolutely grateful when Neal proposed that I do the translation myself. You know, I’m not a very good Cuban, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, not in Miami. My Spanish is pretty atrocious. Still. I wanted to do that. Otherwise, it would be like giving away my baby to be raised by someone else. It was an amazing process. First, I did my translation and sent it to my cousin who grew up in Miami and is older, and her Spanish is impeccable. She said I was using many “Cubanisms,” like using guagua instead of autobus, and medias instead of calcetines. Neal agreed with me!!!! He provided me with a fairy god-translator, Eida del Risco, who made sure I didn’t make any mistakes. But then the best thing happened. Some of the Spanish phrases sounded better than the English text, so we changed the construction of the English text to match the Spanish. We changed some words, because the Spanish word lead me in a slightly different direction. You know what that means? To me, it means that both books are “practically perfect in every way.”
G.A. I totally agree with you. Both books are so beautiful! And it’s interesting to know that the translation process led you to changing some of the English.
Can you tell us how your processes for the Definitely Dominguita Series and Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights were different or similar to The Little House of Hope? Of course, since the Pauli Murray is a middle grade biography, it would be different, but did you find any similarities in the writing process itself among the series, the biography and the stand-alone picture book? What drew you to write these different types of books?
T.J. You’re right, it's pretty obvious to see what is different in all three, but let’s talk about what is similar, and that was in finding the heart of the story. Folks may think this is a stretch, but I believe that the heart of all the stories is hope. Esperanza (her name means hope) found hope in the United States. Dominguita, although it is cute fun book, it still is about hope. Dominguita finds hope in a new life with friends. And of course, Pauli Murray was responsible for giving hope to African Americans with her writings and with the laws she caused to be changed. She gave hope to women, who, because of her, got equal pay for equal work. So that’s what I think the similarity is. That we can have hope, but we can have hope because we all understand our common humanity and reach out in friendship to help others.
G.A. Hope is the essence of your books. Kids need to feel that hope. We all do. You had two books come out this year. Does your agent send out several books at once or one at a time? What is the average time for your books to be published? How do you handle having more than one book come out so close together?
T.J. This was a banner year, wasn’t it? One answer is yes, Natalie does send out whatever I have whenever it’s ready. You don’t know when they will be bought, so I bet she’s thinking might as well send them out. I have two out on submission right now. But the more complicated answer is that La Casita was bought before the other two. It took a year for Raul to be able to illustrate La Casita, so that made it come out later. Dominguita was bought three months after La Casita and that took about a year and a half to publish, I think. But then Pauli Murray was sold the following year and it wasn’t supposed to be released until the end of this year, late November. The editors at little bee books (lower case on purpose) decided to bring Pauli Murray up eleven months. So that’s why everything seems to have come at the same time. And the answer to how I handle having one book coming out so close together is that I slept very little and neglected my husband. Thank God for my wonderful husband who does everything that has to be done so I can write. I was writing the Pauli Murray book, (it was sold on proposal) while writing the last of the Dominguita books. It’s still daunting, now, having two books that are coming out so close to each other. I feel like I’m imposing on friends to do things like this blog (thank you). For ALA and NCTE, I’ll be representing two books, I’m still not sure how I feel about that. The thing is you have no control, so you might as well do the best you can. But take good notes on book one, so that you can carry it through.
G.A. I’m so impressed by how you’re handling everything. And thank you for the insight into the submission and publishing processes for your books. I really enjoyed this and your other books, Terry. Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
T.J. Lots in the mill. There are two picture books out on submission right now, and I am working on a novel in verse about the Cuban revolution (which I started in 2008) so I hope that will be ready soon along with another about Gabby Haley who is half Cuban, half American and her Abuela joins her family when they move to this quaint little northern town. Now Gabby finds herself being a lot more Cuban than she ever was and she’s not sure what to do with that. I hope those two go out on submission this summer. We’re close, thanks for asking.
G.A. What do you hope readers will take away after reading Little House of Hope?
T.J. I hope readers come to understand what a difficult decision it is to leave your country and become an immigrant in a new land. I hope they understand that no matter where we’re from, we are all the same. (Sorry to keep repeating that). Hope young readers understand that families not only leave their country but a way of life, and often family—I never saw my grandmother again. I hope they’ll offer a hand of friendship whenever they have the opportunity.
G.A. Thank you, Terry, for writing this book about the care and support immigrants show each other when they are new. Your book shows the helping hand and hope that sustains them as they become contributors to our country. You are so inspiring!
Order The Little House of Hope and La casita de esperanza today!
On September 11, 1961, Terry Catasús Jennings landed in the United States with her family after a short flight from Cuba. Their only possessions were $50 and one suitcase each. Her family, including her father, who had been jailed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, was now in a free country. On September 12, Terry found herself enrolled in seventh grade, drowning in a sea of English she didn’t understand. With time and help, the family thrived. Terry was a late bloomer in her writing career. The Definitely Dominguita series was named SLJ, Kirkus, and Parents Latina Best Books of 2021. Her biography in verse, Pauli Murray, The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist released in February. In The Little House of Hope, illustrated by Pura Belpré medalist Raúl Colón, Jennings portrays her immigrant experience, showing how a helping hand in a new land can make a life-saving difference for a family. She encourages us all to embrace our common humanity. She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband, and enjoys visiting with her five grandchildren, often encouraging them to bring their parents along. She is a member of SCBWI, Las Musas Latinx Collaborative and the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC.
Gloria Amescua (Ah MES qua) has been a writer since she was a child, writing poems and stories throughout her life. She loves books that reach a young person’s heart, head or funny bone and strives to do just that in her writing. Gloria’s debut picture book biography, CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books, 2021) was awarded a Pura Belpré Author Honor. It was listed as a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection, ALA Notable Books, SLJ’s Best Books 2021 and various other Best of Nonfiction/Informative lists for 2021/2022. Her book was also a 2022 SCBWI Golden Kite finalist for nonfiction text for Young Readers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published one of Gloria’s poems for their national 8th grade textbook literature series. Gloria is an educator, poet and children’s book writer. She believes in children, pets, and possibilities.
All of us at Las Musas want to wish a musical Happy Book Birthday to Cynthia Harmony on the release of her debut picture books Mi Ciudad Sings and Mi ciudad canta, which is a JLG gold standard selection!
Available as a hardcover, eBook, and audiobook, in both English and Spanish, Mi Ciudad Sings is a beautiful, lyrical story with gorgeous illustrations that is so lovely and vivid, it sings! Booklist writes: “Harmony’s sweet story line about human resilience is brought to vivid life by Martínez’s illustrations, which clearly mirror the movement of a tumultuous natural disaster, as well as the joy in recuperating after such an event.” And we agree!
Alexandra Alessandri interviews Cynthia Harmony on the release of her debut, but first, here’s a snapshot of the book:
After experiencing a devastating earthquake, the spirit of a charming and vibrant Mexican neighborhood might be shaken, but it cannot be broken.
Alexandra Alessandri: I love learning about story inspirations and how books got their origins. What was your inspiration for Mi Ciudad Sings and how did it blossom from that initial idea to the final version?
Cynthia Harmony: Thanks Alexandra, I’m so happy to have this opportunity to talk to you about Mi Ciudad Sings. This book is based on the real events of the aftermath of the earthquake that took place in 2017 in Mexico City. It was an inspirational moment of resilience and community coming together that I wanted to honor and celebrate. And it was also a chance to portray a minority group in a positive light, as an example of bravery, empathy, and kindness.
I’m so grateful for this book’s journey to all the people that contributed their talents. My critique partners, my first agent Natascha Morris that sold this book, my editor and her team, Teresa Martinez for her beautiful art, and my wonderful agent James McGowan who sold the Spanish version of this book.
AA: I love that; it truly takes a village to create a book! I also vividly remember both the 2017 and 1985 earthquakes, and I love how you took something tragic and wove in hope.
Can you take us a little bit into your process for writing this story? Do you have any fun or meaningful rituals? Where do you write?
CH: Four years ago around the time I wrote the first draft of this story, my kids were 6 and almost 4 years old. I just jumped on my computer when I made time, with no special writing rituals. We do have a daily reading routine though, which is a perfect opportunity to select mentor texts. The fun part about writing with small kids is that I get to read them my work. It’s especially helpful to see their reactions when something is not clear or confusing, which happens a lot in my early drafts! They also have great ideas for naming characters and being connected to their world is always helpful and fun.
AA: I felt the same way when my son was younger! In addition to writing picture books, you also write for the educational market. How does your process differ between the two? How are they similar? Do you plan or let the idea lead you by the seat of your pants?
CH: I’m a total panster, the only moments I outline are the work-for-hire educational early readers and chapter books which you need to turn in beforehand. It is helpful to have a guide for chapter beats when the format is longer. But for picture books, I approach the first draft like writing poetry. I let the idea sit for a while until I find the right tone and structure. Then I write freely and even if the middle is incomplete, I like figuring out the ending. That way I feel like the story has feet and I can plan, find the right mentor texts, and revise.
AA: It’s funny you mention poetry—there are so many similarities between writing poetry and picture books. In your text, there’s so much beautiful lyricism— from the musical onomatopoeia and alliteration—that the story truly sings! It will make a wonderful read aloud in homes, classrooms, and libraries. And the scenes from around the city are just so charming! How did you decide which places and sounds to include?
CH: Ah thank you, this was completely my goal since the title is Mi Ciudad Sings, I wanted readers to have that feeling and experience. All the unique sounds and places are still fresh in my mind from my memories living in the city and living through a big earthquake as a kid. After moving away, I used to go back to visit about once a year before the pandemic began. So this story comes directly from my personal experience, what I know and what I love. It’s really a love letter to my city and my community that I continue to cherish.
AA: I absolutely felt the love in Mi Ciudad Sings. Here’s a fun question: If you could be in Mexico City right now, where would you go? What would you eat? Who would you see?
CH: First stop is always my mom’s house, then drive a few blocks to eat tacos at La Condesa neighborhood. Food is OUTSTANDING, it’s my favorite in the entire world! Then catch up with friends and probably check out the new foodie places at La Roma neighborhood. Even my kids have their favorite restaurants and dishes that they’ve been missing this past couple of years. Then I would visit a few of the 150 museums, another of my favorite parts about the city since I worked in museums for many years. It’s been two and half years since I last visited, so I can think of so many things I want to do. Thinking about this made me so happy, thanks for asking!
AA: Oh, I love this! I’m ready to pack my bags and visit.! love that Mi Ciudad Sings will be published in both English and Spanish (as Mi ciudad canta)! As someone who’s bilingual but who hadn’t practiced writing in Spanish for a while, I know I struggled a bit with translating my own picture book (though I loved the challenge and experience, and I’m proud of how it came out!) What was the process of the translation like for you and how did it compare with writing the text in English? Did you originally write both texts and sell it that way?
CH: For picture books that go out on submission, I normally write the Spanish version simultaneously. And many times I go back to the English version to adjust a few things and make it tighter. I think this is the advantage in translating your own work. Since my writing is lyrical, it’s important to find the right words and sounds in each language. It’s not a separate process, but it complements each other.
This story however was originally bought in English only. Then James became my agent and I shared how important Spanish editions are for me. So he inquired (he’s pretty awesome) and eventually my editor shared the fantastic news of Mi Ciudad Canta also coming into the world, on the same date.
AA: I’m so happy it worked out! I’ve been noticing a hunger for bilingual stories like this, so I’m thrilled readers will get both editions. What are you most looking forward to with both books out in the world on June 14? And, what do you hope readers will take with them after reading Mi Ciudad Sings?
CH: I’ve worked for and with kids the majority of my career, so I’m excited to read these books with them and listen to their insights, questions, and comments in storytimes and school visits. Maybe because I’m a psychologist I’ve always felt like I’m the one learning when I’m around with kids, not the other way around. I can talk to them for hours and be marveled by their authenticity and wisdom in the way they experience the world. I can’t wait to hear their take and I hope this story brings them light and hope. An empowerment and certainty that we can move past challenges together by taking action.
AA: That is absolutely beautiful. I know kids are going to love Mi Ciudad Sings! Finally, can you tell us what we can expect from you next?
CH: My next picture book A FLICKER OF HOPE, published by Viking, comes out in 2023 in English and Spanish. It’s the parallel story of a girl waiting for her papá to come back home and the migration of monarch butterflies in the Mexican Reserve. I’m so proud of this story that sums up my view on our relationships with each other, as families, as countries, and with nature. It’s illustrated by the talented Devon Holzwarth, so I can already picture the beauty she’s creating as we speak!
AA: Congratulations—that sounds so beautiful! Thank you, Cynthia, for chatting with me about Mi Ciudad Sings. I’m looking forward to seeing it out in the world!
Preorder Mi Ciudad Sings and Mi ciudad canta!
Today, we're thrilled to share the cover of the adorable picture book, Plátanos Are Love, written by Musa Alyssa Reynoso-Morris and illustrated by Mariyah Rahman!
But first, let's learn a little bit more about the book:
A delicious picture book about the ways plantains shape Latinx culture, community, and family, told through a young girl’s experiences in the kitchen with her abuela.
Alyssa says, "I am so grateful to my editor Alex for her expertise and time in making this book the best it can be. I look forward to making our ancestors proud with it and I could not have done it without Alex.
I also want to thank Mariyah Rahman for bringing me to happy tears with her stunning illustrations. Upon learning that the Abuela on the page was depicted in the image of both Mariyah's and my grandmother, I knew this collaboration would be special. I feel so lucky for the privilege of working with Alex and Mariyah. I hope you all enjoy the book when it comes out."
Today, Musa Alexandra Alessandri is thrilled to share the cover reveal for her Middle Grade debut, The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía! Scroll on to learn more about the book in Alessandra's own words!
It's here!! Dana SanMar--the illustrator of Karla Valenti's Loteria, Elaine Dimopoulos' Turn the Tide, and Megan Shull's upcoming Billion Dollar Girl--has created the most perfect cover for The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía, my debut MG which releases from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster on February 21, 2023!
I'm thrilled to be able to share the cover with you! But first, here's a little about the book straight from Simon & Schuster:
Encanto meets The Chronicles of Narnia in this middle grade fantasy adventure. To save their father’s life, a brother and sister must journey across a land full of mythical creatures and find the most powerful and dangerous of them all: the madremonte.
I'm so excited about this story, which is equal parts a love letter to Colombia and an ode to the magic and the stories I grew up with. It's a sibling story but also a cautionary tale about the dangers we're doing to our earth through deforestation, hunting, and pollution. The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía pays homage to Colombia’s incredible biodiversity, and while it’s a fantasy adventure, both the real and imaginary worlds include many of Colombia’s fauna and flora, some which are vulnerable and endangered. You'll find capybaras (or chugüiros) giant armadillos, sloths, Noble Leafwing Butterflies, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, pink river dolphins, labios de mujer (Psychotria Elata), wax palms, hanging lobster claws, ceibas, and so many more.
You'll also find places that were directly inspired by many of Colombia's gorgeous and varied landscapes, like los llanos orientales, the Andes, the salt mines of Zipaquirá, Caño Cristales, the Amazon River, and so many others.
And of course, you'll be introduced to many of the legends that are whispered about through Colombia, including the madremonte.
Without further ado, here’s the cover!
Isn't it gorgeous?! Thank you, Dana, for creating this enchanting cover and to Debra Sfetsios-Conover for the beautiful jacket design!
Pre-order The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía today!
Add The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía to your Goodreads.
Alexandra Alessandri is the award-winning author of The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía, Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, and Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!. The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is also a former associate professor of English, a writer for Curriculum Associates, and a poet. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son.
Today, we're thrilled to reveal the cover to Musa Laekan Zea Kemp's debut picture book, A Crown for Corina! Scroll on to learn more about this gorgeous new picture book and find out how you can pre-order it!
From two Pura Belpré award-winning creators comes the charming story of a girl who learns about a beloved family tradition and the symbolism behind the Mexican flower crown.
Today is Corina’s birthday, and she’s excited to wear the biggest crown with the most beautiful flowers picked from her abuela’s garden.
Each flower tells a special story about all the ways Corina is rooted in the family she loves.
With elegant and eye-catching illustrations from award-winning artist Elisa Chavarri, this charming story shares a beloved family tradition through one girl’s journey of self-discovery as she learns about the symbolism behind the Mexican flower crown.
Pre-order A Crown for Corina today!
Add A Crown for Corina to your Goodreads!
Laekan Zea Kemp is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She’s also the creator and host of the Author Pep Talks podcast, as well as a contributor to the Las Musas podcast. She has three objectives when it comes to storytelling: to make people laugh, cry, and crave Mexican food. Her work celebrates Chicane grit, resilience, creativity, and joy while exploring themes of identity and mental health.
A big Las Musas book birthday shout-out to Newbery Honor and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle, on the release of her latest middle-grade verse novel, Singing with Elephants!
Musa S.A. Rodriguez interviews Margarita Engle, but first, here are some highlights of this magical book, which Kirkus Reviews called, “Brilliant, joyful, and deeply moving,” in a starred review.
A powerful novel in verse about the friendship between a young girl and the poet Gabriela Mistral that leads to healing and hope for both of them.
S.A. Rodriguez: Congratulations on the release of your latest novel! You have accumulated many prestigious awards throughout your career, including the Newbery Honor for your book, The Surrender Tree. I’m sure Singing with Elephants will be received with equal acclaim. It’s simply beautiful! Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this story?
Margarita Engle: Thank you! When I learned that Gabriela Mistral lived in Santa Barbara after World War II, I was fascinated. It was close to the time when my teenage mother arrived in California from Cuba in 1948. I began to imagine how a child might be influenced by Mistral’s devotion to poetry, education, peacemaking, and nature. Mistral was the first Latin American recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature, and to this day she is still the only Latin American woman recipient. She was also a diplomat, and one of the founders of the United Nations and UNICEF. She was a peacemaker. She wrote poems and songs for children, and her children’s story The Elephant and His Secret is about peacemaking. I hope to help make young readers aware of her importance. She is an amazing role model for young poets.
S.A. Rodriguez: An amazing role model indeed! In the novel, Gabriela Mistral serves as a source of inspiration and a teacher to Oriol. Did she serve as a muse to you when you were a young girl, or is there another poet (or poets) who inspired you?
Margarita Engle: I wrote poetry when I was little, inspired by José Martí verses that my mother recited, but I didn’t have a mentor until graduate school, when Tomás Rivera taught me to write from the heart, without worrying about getting published or being popular. It’s a lesson that helps me feel free of self-criticism, the worst enemy of any poet. Like Mistral, Rivera was an amazing role model. His childhood was spent as a migrant farmworker, but he worked his way up to become the first Latinx Chancellor of a University of California campus. He told me that no matter how many academic honors he received, he still felt like a poet at heart.
S.A Rodriguez: “Write from the heart,” is great advice! There’s certainly a lot of heart in your story. I also noticed love and humane treatment of animals is an important thread throughout this novel. I found it interesting that in the Author’s Note, you mention your experience visiting a wildlife ranch near Santa Barbara, and even befriending an elephant. Can you tell us about this experience and how it helped shape the story?
Margarita Engle: When I was little, we visited a ranch where animals were trained for movies, but I didn’t become friends with an elephant until I was a young mother working for an irrigation water conservation project near San Diego. Carol painted pictures with her trunk, played soccer with human friends, and made me feel welcome in her enclosure. However, at that time, in the 1990s, mahouts still used metal hooks to discipline and even punish elephants. Today, zoos have abandoned that practice. People and elephants are separated by fences that allow them to interact without any need for cruelty.
S.A Rodriguez: Getting to know Carol sounds like an amazing experience. As a reader and an animal lover myself, I enjoyed learning such detailed information about the behavior of elephants. It seems they can mirror human emotions in their deep-rooted love for family. How did you go about learning so much about elephants?
Margarita Engle: I did a lot of research about elephants. Their loyalty and love for each other is a reminder that we are not the only intelligent and emotional creatures on Earth. We need to make room for other species in our ideas about heroes.
S.A Rodriguez: Yes, I agree. Animals can be heroes, too. Switching gears, I love how you integrate your Cuban roots and the lyrical dance on your pages between English and Spanish words. You write, “Let us mix our languages together like emotions that swirl and blend in a pot of paint...” I think this serves as an inspiration for all of us Latinx artists to proudly display our culture and language and put it front and center in our works. How have you seen Latinx representation evolving in the publishing industry throughout your career?
Margarita Engle: ¡Gracias! The transformation of Latinx representation in children’s literature has been astounding. Grassroots organizations like We Need Diverse Books, Las Musas, and #DiverseVerse are really making a difference. I’m profoundly grateful for the increased availability of Spanish and bilingual editions of books, as well as the wider variety of styles---including verse novels. However, if people don’t buy the Spanish editions, that aspect of publishing might be regarded as a failure. We need to encourage teachers, parents, and librarians to support this positive trend.
S.A Rodriguez: ¡Así es! Libros en español and bilingual editions are very important. Digging a little deeper, another thing I admired about your novel is how you portray the immigrant experience. I could relate to the sense of loss you describe when we must leave the place we consider “home” and how “echoes of the place where we used to live,” as you so eloquently put it, continue to shape our identity. Did you pull from a personal well to convey the raw and powerful emotions that jump off your pages?
Margarita Engle: My mother was extremely homesick when I was little. Even now, at the age of 91, she speaks of Cuba with longing, but she has not returned since 1960. Sometimes she says that’s because she doesn’t want to see it changed, and sometimes she admits that she stays away because she knows she can never take big enough gifts to help relatives as much as they need. I developed my own personal love of Cuba during childhood visits, but as soon as it became possible to visit again after travel restrictions loosened a bit, I started going back. I can’t take big enough gifts either, but I think it means a lot to relatives just knowing they haven’t been forgotten.
S.A Rodriguez: So many Latinos and immigrants go through this emotional turmoil when we migrate to America. No es fácil. What’s next for you? Are there any projects in the works that you can share with us?
Margarita Engle: My next two young adult verse novels are love stories with environmental themes, similar to Your Heart, My Sky, but in a more contemporary setting. The glorious Gabi D’Alessandro cover of Wings in the Wild will be revealed on June 10 by Simon and Schuster.
My next few picture books include a nonfiction book about a rescued sloth in Costa Rica (National Geographic Books), a story about the joy of water delivery day in a Cuban neighborhood without a regular supply (Atheneum), and a collection of poems about Cuban women artists (Reycraft Books).
S.A. Rodriguez: You’re quite busy! These sound like wonderful projects. Environmental themes are so important. Wrapping up, you’ve had such a successful career as a Latina creator—a pioneer as a children’s verse novelist—and have helped forge a path for all of us. Are there any lessons learned you can share with us?
Margarita Engle: Thank you. I think young authors are often impatient, but rejections and delays are just part of the process. We can all benefit from perseverance. If you don’t get that first story published, think of it as practice, not a failure. No dancer, musician, or actor would perform on stage without rehearsing. It’s the same for writers. Unpublished work is valuable in its own way. We learn from the experience. We need to follow Tomás Rivera’s advice and write from the heart, without worrying about getting published or being popular. We write because we have something to say. We write no matter how long it takes to find the right agent, editor, and readers. One of those readers might turn out to be the next Musa.
S.A. Rodriguez: This is wonderful advice, and I agree that it takes a lot of perseverance to succeed. It’s been a pleasure learning more about Singing with Elephants and gaining valuable insights into your creative process. Thank you for sharing with us!
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