We are less than three weeks from Election Day in the United States (November 8th). Even though many picture book readers are too young to vote, they are not too young to learn about the political process. Books highlighting political figures, voting, and democracy can be springboards for educators and caregivers to a discussion about elections, candidates, canvassing, and more.
Today, we are celebrating Pura Belpré Honor-winning Anika Aldamuy Denise’s and Loris Lora’s latest picture book, Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (HarperCollins Publishers), an inspiring biography of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The book follows America’s youngest congresswoman, known to many as AOC, from her early days in the Bronx all the way to the Capitol steps—with a glossary for change-makers included. Keep reading for a conversation between Anika Aldamuy Denise and Musa Alyssa Reynoso-Morris!
Alyssa Reynoso-Morris: First, thank you so much for writing this super important text, Anika. As a fellow AOC fan, I enjoyed this read and learned a lot about AOC. Tell me, what inspired you to write this book?
Anika Aldamuy Denise: Thank you, Alyssa! I remember we discussed our mutual love and respect for AOC back when we did the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival panel together in 2021, so it’s very meaningful to me to know you enjoyed the book. My inspiration came from the Congresswoman, herself. In 2018, a friend of mine sent me her campaign video, The Courage To Change. I remember watching it and getting that feeling—the same feeling I had when Barack Obama delivered his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. That I was witnessing a moment, the moment, he entered the collective consciousness of a nation. Except this time, I saw myself. A woman who looked like me, sounded like me, and had a family like mine. It was powerful. How could I not write that story?
Alyssa: I love that. I empathize. Hearing AOC speak and advocate for her community is inspiring. A follow-up question, how do you decide who to write about, or better yet where do you get inspiration from?
Anika: I love centering powerful Puerto Rican women in stories that show the world how formidable we are. With Pura Belpré, I saw my elders—the women in my own family who were the storytellers and memory keepers. Rita Moreno, for me, is this amazing combination of strength, vulnerability, honesty, and joy. Like Pura’s, her story felt familiar to me, but in an entirely different way. Even though I’ve never danced on Broadway or starred in a film, as a Latina who has worked in several White-male dominated spaces, I’ve had to prove my worth and talents. With AOC, she’s a glimpse at our future. She’s who we can be if we’re brave and unapologetic.
Alyssa: I love that you center power Puertorriquenas in your work! I too write for “the memory keepers” in my life so that comment about Pura Belpré and your family, resonated. Thank you for sharing that.
I consider you the Queen of picture books (PB). You’ve written Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré, A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer! and now Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Can you share some tips when it comes to writing PB biographies?
Anika: Aw, thank you! Does having three books make me a Queen? I think maybe Monica Brown might be wearing that crown. Or Margarita Engle! I’m more like a member of the Queen’s court who paid close attention to the Royals who came before. What I learned from them, and what I’d pass on to other writers, is to keep your kid readers top of mind when writing picture book biographies. What are they going to connect to most in a person’s story? Where are the moments of drama and tension? How will thematic metaphor, symbolism, structure, etc. deepen their understanding and set your story apart? I also think the tone and voice of the story should fit the subject and person you’re writing about.
Alyssa: Those are great questions to keep in mind and I have a feeling I will be using them myself. Thank you for that. How do you decide what to include and omit given that picture books are shorter texts?
Anika: That’s always a challenge. I employ the kitchen-sink approach when I’m researching. Then I lay it all out, step back, and look for the themes and connections I mentioned before. For AOC, the themes that emerged were roots, community, family, hard work, and service. They helped me point my lens at the most emotionally resonant moments of her life. When deciding what to include, I focus on constructing a tight story arc. Any details that fall outside it, but still need to be told, get woven into backmatter.
I also have the benefit of collaborating with amazing illustrators whose art helps tell the story. Loris Lora did an incredible job crafting a vibrant visual narrative that elevates the text. And she nailed AOC! The expressions, body language, posture--everything is spot-on perfection.
Alyssa: Loris Lora did nail AOC. And yes, backmatter is a great tool. I consider this book beautifully balanced. It teaches your reader about AOC while simultaneously being written poetically. How do you balance facts and poetic language? Does this come out throughout the editing process?
Anika: - I have a strong preference for spare, lyrical picture book biographies. Keeping my word count down is an exercise in restraint (and sometimes frustration!). I usually clock in at around 1,000 words on a first draft (which is too long), then I trim it down below 800 if I can. I’d love to one day pull off writing something even shorter – in the 300-400 word range – like The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlen. That book is pure genius to me.
Alyssa: Ambitious! WOW! Not only are you an award-winning author, but you’re also a wife and mom. How do you make time to write?
Anika: I write in the margins: mornings, weekends, in the pickup line at school. I work as an editor for an educational publisher as well, so I have to carve out moments outside of the traditional workday. I often take writing holidays or even just “writing afternoons” when my family knows I am non-negotiably unavailable. It can be challenging. But soon enough life will change, kids will be grown, and there will be more time for writing. I don’t want to rush it. But it is nice to know that my second act will allow me to fully focus on projects that are awaiting my undivided attention.
Alyssa: Cheers to writing in the margins and in our second acts. Without giving too much away, you include 5 lessons on how to be a phenomenal changemaker like AOC. How did you come up with that idea? And how did you distill it to just 5 lessons?
Anika: - For this book I really didn’t want to do traditional backmatter. I thought it was important to take a fresh approach; to make it playful and irreverent. Part of AOC’s brilliance is in her ability to connect with her fans and constituents in authentic, unexpected ways. The lessons in the book were written in that spirit. Credit for the brevity goes to my brilliant editor, Luana Horry. I could have gone on and on but she encouraged me to distill them down to the most relevant, inspirational takeaways. She was also the one to suggest we not call the glossary a “glossary.” We titled it “Language of the Possible,” which I love.
Alyssa: Brilliant! Yes, I love editors that focus us and challenge us all at once. Can you share how you, like AOC, are using your changemaker skills to give back to “the boogie down Bronx…” and as you refer to it “New York City’s northern crown?”
Anika: This book in many ways is a love letter to my childhood neighborhoods and communities. My great-grandparents lived in The Bronx. I am a product of both private and public schools in Queens. My father, like AOC’s, worked “in and for his community” at the Urban League. My mom was a journalist. I knew that I wanted this book to be in service to AOC’s district somehow. So I connected with the always-amazing Saraciea Fennell of The Bronx is Reading to help fundraise to bring a bricks-and-mortar independent children’s bookstore to The Bronx. You can order a copy of Phenomenal AOC from their online bookshop to help support their campaign. And we’re planning more events (hopefully one with AOC in attendance!) to raise additional funds and promote TBIR’s literary programs and events. So stay tuned!
Alyssa: AYE! BE STILL MY HEART! YES, sending all the good vibes. It would be so dope to have AOC herself there. AYE!!! Ok, last but not least, what do you hope readers take away from Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Anika: I hope they are inspired to use their voices, to speak the “language of the possible” even when confronting complex challenges or difficult truths. Like AOC said, “Justice is about making sure that being polite is not the same thing as being quiet. In fact, sometimes the most righteous thing you can do is shake the table.”
Purchase Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today!
Today, we're celebrating the release of Undercover Latina, the debut middle grade novel from Musa Aya De León! Scroll on for a fascinating interview between Aya and Musa Terry Catasús Jennings — but first, here's a little bit more about Undercover Latina:
Latina teen spy goes undercover as a white girl to stop a white supremacist terrorist plot in a fast-paced middle-grade debut from a seasoned author of contemporary crime fiction.
In her debut for younger readers, Aya de León pits a teen spy against the ominous workings of a white nationalist. Fourteen-year-old Andréa Hernández-Baldoquín hails from a family of spies working for the Factory, an international organization dedicated to protecting people of color. For her first solo mission, Andréa straightens her hair and goes undercover as Andrea Burke, a white girl, to befriend the estranged son of a dangerous white supremacist. In addition to her Factory training, the assignment calls for a deep dive into the son's interests--comic books and gaming--all while taking care not to speak Spanish and blow her family's cover. But it's hard to hide who you really are, especially when you develop a crush on your target's Latino best friend. Can Andréa keep her head, her geek cred, and her code-switching on track to trap a terrorist?
Smart, entertaining, and politically astute, this is fast-paced upper-middle-grade fare from an established author of heist and espionage novels for adults.
TERRY CATASÚS JENNINGS: Aya, I am so happy to be here today to talk with you about your middle grade debut, Undercover Latina, a fun and insightful middle-grade story about spies and our unfortunate ability, as humans, to always be able to find someone to put down.
AYA DE LEON: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me! Yes, I did want to create a book that was fun, but also took on the issue of racism. I think actually the fun and the racism go together. Not that racism is fun, but that we can still have joy in a world where racism exists, even as we can decide to work to end racism.
TERRY: Yes, I love the idea that there can still be joy in the midst of racism. How else could we live, right? There were many surprises when I began working on this blog post. The book opens with Andréa stealing a briefcase, which gives the reader pause—theft by the protagonist of a middle grade novel—until we remember the name of the book. Undercover Latina—a fourteen-year-old who works for the International Alternative Intelligence Consortium, aka the Factory, an “association of several intelligence organizations of people of color.” They work with the FBI and CIA, but very quickly readers get the idea that those government agencies are pretty useless to their cause.
So the first surprise was the theft and realizing a young kid is part of a spy organization, and the other was that this is a debut novel, Aya, so I was blown away when I checked out your website. This is your debut MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL, but you are a multiply published adult writer of mysteries rooted in feminist activism. BRAVA!!! Why don’t we start out with you telling us about your journey to publication? I’d love to hear about your career, not only about your debut middle grade, but about your other work? How did we get here?
AYA: (laughs) It’s been a long journey. I began writing novels in the 90s, a couple of mysteries that will never see the light of day and a 900-page novel about a young woman in college. I was basically processing my trauma from college. I also started a spy thriller that would actually see the light of day. I worked on various books for decades, but I also got involved in spoken word and slam poetry. I developed a body of work in those forms and expanded to hip hop theater. I traveled around and made my living doing that for about a decade. Then I had a baby and returned to fiction. When I came back to the novels, it was 2009, and larger economic problems had impacted the publishing industry. It was really hard to sell a book. I had made an attempt to get an agent for my spy thriller, but had also begun a feminist heist story that I thought would be more commercial. I struggled for several years to get an agent. I queried over 100 agents! Then we struggled to sell the book. Finally, I got picked up by Kensington’s Dafina imprint. They wanted a book a year from me. So from 2016-2022, I’ve written seven books for them. My first two books came out ten months apart! So I learned to write fast. And in between deadlines for the books, I began to work on other things, as well. That included this “Factory” series of middle grade novels.
TERRY: Oh, you know? I think I know all about writing fast from doing a lot of non-fiction work-for-hire, but I think you’ve got me beat. A book a year, WOW! Really, my hat’s off to you. And to bring it back to Undercover Latina, did you write it fast? And how did you get the idea for your middle grade debut?
AYA: I did write it fast. But it had many revisions. And as for the idea, my mother is Puerto Rican, but light skinned and is often mistaken for white. She has always said that one of the difficult things about that is hearing what white people sometimes say about people of color when they think we’re not in the room—especially in her generation. So I grew up sort of thinking of my mom as a racial spy. And then as I was developing two of the books for this series, I thought of developing that concept in an actual spy organization.
TERRY: I love the idea of the organization! And Andréa is a young operative there. Actually, their whole family is devoted to the organization—people with families arouse less suspicion. But because Andréa and her mother are very light in skin color, they are chosen to impersonate a “white” mother and daughter pair and try to get information to stop a white supremacist with intentions of mass destruction. Andréa is supposed to find the father through the son. In this capacity, just like your mom, they have to put up with hearing “whites being white”—saying things like “The downside of having Mexican food is that you need real Mexicans to make it.” Or “Shouldn’t you be [working] at the taco truck?” “Freakin’ secret Mexicans!”
It is a very effective way to show non-Latines the hostility and hurtfulness that words like those can cause. I’m sure that was intentional and applaud you for it. Would you like to talk more about it?
AYA: In this historical era where families seeking asylum are having their children torn from them at the border and locked up, I really wanted to show the deep and abiding racism against our community.
TERRY: There are so many ways that you tackle race so well. There is an interesting situation in which Andréa is trying to figure out whether the son of the possible white supremacist is racist/supremacist himself. Are his actions racist or are they the actions of “an ordinary oblivious teenage guy? Then there is the idea that Andréa proposes “You don’t have to be a person of color to find racism offensive.” All of that was very effective. Can you expand on it?
AYA: One of the hardest things about racist microaggressions—I think—is that they are more subtle than really overt racism. So on the one hand, you can’t be 100% certain it’s racism operating. But on the other hand, you know intuitively that it is. So you’re left with this emotional certainty, but an inability to put your finger on the exact word or reason, because so much of the communication is non-verbal. It’s in the tone, or the tilt of the head, the facial expression, the way the person moved their eyes. Because sometimes even the person being racist is unaware of their bias, but it’s coming through loud and clear in these subtle and non-verbal ways. And that experience that a person of color has—that anxious moment of trying to parse the experience—is part of the stress of being targeted by racism. It’s a lot of emotional and intellectual energy.
TERRY: You said it! It is so disconcerting. And there was another form of racism you depicted in the book, how the light skinned Andréa is seen as a “pretty girl,” and pulled into a clique. I loved the idea of the First Class Girls. This is a snobby, skinny group of girls who are obsessed with their weight and would have never become Andréa’s friends if they knew she was Latina. They are the quintessential high school clique. And cruel. At first, Andréa hangs out with them, since she doesn’t have anyone else. But as she gets to know them, and their racist ways, I loved how she used some feminist vibe to put them in their place. “If First Class is so great, why do you need to recruit? You all seem bored. Bored and hungry. Maybe if you read a comic book, you could imagine women aspiring to something more than being a size zero, getting a boyfriend, and being homecoming queen. No offense.” All your adult work is about strong, issue driven women. Is Andréa following in their footsteps?
AYA: (laughs) Yes, definitely! The First Class Girls are such a high school trope, I couldn’t resist them. While she was trying to get in with the nerdy white boy, she would be swooped up by this group of girls who wanted to add her “pretty new girl” currency to their power clique.
TERRY: I loved the pretty new girl currency. The leader of the clique tries so hard to get her to join, but ANNdrea (that’s how she pronounces her name as a “white” girl), is her own person. And one of the things the First Class girls can’t stand is that the new girl is interested in superhero comics. The way that ANNdrea finally becomes friends with the son of the white supremacist so that she can get to his information and analyze it is through a fantasy tabletop superhero game called Triángulo. The game is described in detail, and you take the reader through several games in very vivid fashion. And then, of course, this game takes you to the climax of the story. One thing that I liked about it is that this game started outside of the United States and then came to the United States with and now it is becoming mainstream. It shows us that the United States doesn’t have a lock on innovation and creativity. Can you tell us how you came up with that wonderful game?
AYA: My husband is a Black Caribbean sci-fi/fantasy type, and he used to play Magic The Gathering. So I had a sense of that game. When I was writing the book, I was going with him and my kid to AfroComicCon in Oakland every year, so I was in this world of cosplay and comic books. When I thought about how she would befriend this reclusive boy, I realized that making him a tabletop gamer/comic book guy would really give her an entry point. And then the idea of this whole comic book universe just unfolded. Around the time I was writing, there had been a big shakeup in the sci-fi/fantasy world, because people of color, women and LGBTQ+ folks had really been gaining power and momentum in those communities, and there was a lot of backlash from people who wanted the community to go back to being dominated by straight, cis, white men. I loved the idea of creating a game that was a sort of Latinx invasion of the US gaming world. I was totally surprised when a recent review thought it was a real thing and was determined to go out and buy a deck of the cards!
TERRY: True confessions. I thought it was a real game too. I spent a good amount of time on the internet looking for it. You hit it out of the park with that one. And I love that it was a woman creator of the game. Now also, the spy craft is very believable. It’s absolutely something a teenage girl could comprehend and handle. Where did you get all your knowledge about spy craft?
AYA: I read a lot of spy books, watched a lot of spy movies, and frankly, all my work in heist really transfers. It’s the same skills: sneaking, breaking and entering, impersonating, fighting if you have to. It’s just that my heist squad is stealing money and my spies are stealing information or evidence.
TERRY: Yeah! Andréa has to fight her Latina mother’s protectiveness to be able to stand on her own and get the job done. Throughout, the mother is saying this is dangerous and you shouldn’t have to be doing this, but we could prevent hundreds of thousands of people from getting killed. Aya, you had to have the mother be protective and always explain her reasons, because, really, who would let a fourteen-year-old become a spy? But it all works out so well. Tell us about that.
AYA: First of all, I really need to acknowledge Robin Benway’s work. Her AKA series really had an effect on me. It was about a family of white spies. This particular family is culturally middle class and very settled in that. I really liked the idea of this spy family as actually being upwardly mobile in terms of class. So the mom grew up in NYC in the barrio, and came to spying as part of a certain reckless early life that came from her experiences of trauma and loss. But then she becomes more mature, had kids, and her attempts to keep her daughter out of the spy business fail—because the daughter is a natural and finds them out. So she is forced to bring the daughter in. And when she sees the daughter starting to take real risks, the mom is forced to confront her own past—the fact that she created this risky path in their family. There’s a way that she and her husband never quite thought it through. They imagined that they would be the ones taking the risks and that the kids would stay in the background. Or she thought she could control the amount of risk. I feel that way as a mom, myself. I teach my kid to stand up against injustice, but then I worry about the risks of doing just that. So I liked the idea that the daughter’s first solo mission would become more dangerous than expected and the mom had something to confront in herself.
TERRY: I really liked that part of the story. Now let’s talk about colorism. It is the theme of this book. That’s what you’re explaining and fighting against. That is very prevalent in the Latine community, but it is also a problem in the black community. Unfortunately, it just seems that everyone needs to have “somebody to look down on.” Talk to us about shades of racism.
AYA: I am an AfroBoricua who grew up in California, surrounded by what was a heavily Chicanx dominated community as a kid. The way the racism showed up was that people just couldn’t imagine that I was Latine. And I didn’t grow up with other AfroLatinx folks. But I have enough connection as an adult with Black/Latine folks to know that anti-Blackness is really strong in our communities, particularly in the Caribbean. So I wanted to show the mom as having grown up with that anti-Blackness in her own family—that it was something that she’d had to unlearn. That it had harmed her, but she had also participated in it, and the racial dynamics of this mission meant that she had to talk about it to her daughter for the first time.
TERRY: And she did a beautiful job explaining that to Andréa. I love at the “ComixCon” when the creator of Triangulo is speaking and she says, speaking of the Latine population. “We’re the majority in the world, and by far the majority in this hemisphere. We’re taking our rightful place. In comics. In games. In movies.” Those are very powerful words.
AYA: I see us working to do that in real life, and I wanted to reflect that in the book.
TERRY: Your author note was very pointed. Thank you very much for that. I’d like for us to share it here.
“But whatever your journey has been up till now, healing can be found. It’s worth it to struggle to find your place in the community. In the movement.
Within your lineage. Within yourself. It’s not always easy. But the battle to end racism needs all of us. Your community needs you to stand firm against rising white national- ism in all its disguises. Let this book be an invitation for all of us to come home to the fight for justice—together.”
Now, before we close, Aya, let us know what’s in the horizon for you.
AYA: I just turned in the prequel to UNDERCOVER LATINA, about her teen spy girl colleague called GOING DARK. After that, I have another adult thriller called THAT DANGEROUS ENERGY—about a young artist in a love triangle with a fossil fuel mogul and a climate activist who ends up spying for the movement. I have a work-for-hire for a major entertainment franchise that I’m working on. That’ll be announced next summer. But my biggest new project is that I’m launching a new publishing venture--Fighting Chance Books: Pulp Fiction to Save our Planet—an imprint of She Writes Press—which will publish contemporary realistic climate fiction for adults by writers of all genders. We want to provide an alternative to dystopian visions. Our goal is to put out books in these next critical years of the climate crisis that tell stories about how it’s actually not too late to save our species from climate disaster if we act now!
TERRY: Aya, I am so humbled by all your efforts. I wish you every success with that venture. It was a pleasure reading Undercover Latina and talking with you. I wish you the best in your career and I can’t wait till we can meet in person.
AYA: Same here! Thank you so much, Terry, and thank you, Las Musas!
Buy Undercover Latina today!
Aya de Leon is an acclaimed writer of prose and poetry. Kensington Books publishes her Justice Hustlers series: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018) and SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), the first novel published about Hurricane Maria. Books in the series have won first place in both the Independent Publisher awards and the International Latino Book Awards. In 2020, Kensington will publish Aya’s first African American spy novel. n 2020 Kensington will publish Aya’s first spy novel, about FBI infiltration of an African American political organization. Aya is currently at work on a picture book to help talk to children about racism, as well as a black/Latina spy girl series for teens called GOING DARK. Aya is the Director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, teaching poetry and spoken word at UC Berkeley. Her work has received acclaim in the Village Voice, Washington Post, American Theatre Magazine, Jacobin and The Establishment, and has been featured on Def Poetry, in Essence Magazine, and various anthologies and journals. She was named best discovery in theater for 2004 by the SF Chronicle for “Thieves in the Temple : The Reclaiming of Hip Hop,” a solo show about fighting sexism and commercialism in hip hop. Also in 2004, she received a Goldie award from the SF Bay Guardian in spoken word for “Thieves…” and her subsequent show “Aya de Leon is Running for President.” In 2005 she was voted “Slamminest Poet” in the East Bay Express, and she also co-hosted the kickoff party for Current TV with Mos Def. Aya has been an artist in residence at Stanford University, a Cave Canem poetry fellow, and a slam poetry champion. She publicly married herself in the 90s and for over a decade she hosted an annual Valentine’s Day show that focused on self-love. She has released three spoken word CDs, several chapbooks, and a video of “Thieves…” After becoming a mom in 2009, she transitioned from being a touring performer into being a novelist. Aya began blogging in 2011, and since 2013 has been consistently blogging on race, gender and culture. Her recent freelance work has been featured in Guernica, xojane, Huffington Post, The Toast, The Root, Ebony, Womans Day, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Ploughshares and Quartz, and she’s an advice columnist for Mutha Magazine. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA. You can also find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Terry Catasús Jennings is a Cuban-American writer who immigrated to the United States after her father was jailed in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s government. She was twelve at the time and knew no English. The Little House of Hope/La casita de esperanza is a semi-autobiographical story in which immigrants give each other a helping hand in a new country. Her goal in life is to lead us to embrace our common humanity, as well as sing the praises of Cuban food. Terry is represented by Natalie Lakosil of Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
Today, we're celebrating Monica Mancilla's debut picture book, Mariana and Her Familia! Scroll on to read her interview with Musa Karina Nicole González!
Karina Nicole González: Felicidades, Mónica, on the release of your gorgeous debut picture book, MARIANA AND HER FAMILIA! I’d love to learn about your journey as a children’s book writer. Have you always wanted to write literature for children? What inspired you to write?
Mónica Mancillas: Thank you, Karina! I have always loved words and dreamed of being a writer. I wrote my first novella at ten years old and was published for the first time in the Los Angeles Times at age 15. But my interest in writing took a backseat to my musical aspirations for many years as I pursued a career as a singer-songwriter while only occasionally dabbling with short-story and novel writing. It wasn’t until my daughter was born that my interest in children’s literature was ignited. The hours spent reading to her every day and checking books out from our local library sparked new inspiration and I found myself bubbling over with ideas for my own books. I quickly became driven by a desire to write stories in which children from previously underrepresented backgrounds could see themselves accurately reflected.
KNG: MARIANA AND HER FAMILIA is about a young girl who travels to México with her mother to visit extended family. Tell us about what compelled you to write this story? Was it inspired at all by your own personal experiences?
MM: This book was very much inspired by my own experiences. I was born in Ensenada but moved to the States with my parents when I was two years old. While we lived close enough that I was able to travel back to see my extended family with some frequency, the more time I spent living in the US, the more estranged I felt from my cultural heritage. I felt embarrassed by my inability to speak Spanish with the fluency I now had in English and struggled with a feeling of not quite belonging, which I desperately wanted to do. It wasn’t until adulthood that I came to realize that my family – my abuelita in particular – didn’t see me the same way I saw myself. I was the same little girl who was born in their home, and who said her first words to them in Spanish. And even if I made mistakes from time to time, they loved and embraced me without condition.
KNG: Between Erika Meza’s joyful watercolor illustrations and your lyrical bilingual text, the love for familia and cultura is communicated so clearly. As a bilingual speech-language pathologist, I’m always searching for contemporary bilingual or Spanish picture books for my students. Can you elaborate on the importance of bilingual narratives, and why you chose to weave Spanish into your story?
MM: Language carries a strong connection to culture and a sense of heritage. For me, it has always felt like a defining part of my identity. As a child, every time I struggled to remember a word in Spanish, it felt like I was taking one more step away from that identity. So, it felt particularly important in this story to incorporate words in Spanish. Words – like the smells, sights, and sounds Mariana encounters on her journey – hold significance in defining her experience, particularly words like “frontera”, “familia” and, of course, “abuelita”. Additionally, I think it’s important for bilingual children to see themselves represented not just through pictures and storytelling, but through language, which is such a big part of their experience.
KNG: Picture books are excellent tools for targeting visual and emotional literacy. Perhaps the aspect I loved the most about the story, was the depiction of Mariana’s emotional journey. It speaks to the experiences of many children throughout the world. What do you hope that readers will learn from the story? How do you envision this story being used in the classroom setting?
MM: My biggest hope is that this story will help to normalize the experience of so many children who are being raised somewhere in between one or more cultures and who, like Mariana, may sometimes struggle to find a sense of place in either. Seeing our own experiences in a story helps us to not only feel understood but can be very empowering. I would love to see educators use this book to connect with bicultural students, inspire a sense of empathy in the classroom, and perhaps start a dialogue about cultural heritage and identity.
KNG: Not only do you write picture books, but you also have a nonfiction, middle grade book out in 2024 that chronicles visionary figures with ties to Latinoamérica. Have you discovered any techniques or strategies that you’ve found beneficial during your brainstorming and writing process? What has been your experience of writing across children’s literature genres?
MM: The process of preparing to write fiction and non-fiction is very different for me, and also varies across categories. I don’t typically do any kind of outlining for a picture book. Most of the brainstorming that goes on with picture books is internal (going for a walk and thinking about the book, for example). When I’m writing a novel, I like to write a mildly detailed outline, leaving plenty of room for the story to develop organically as I’m writing. And when I was working on VIVA (the non-fiction title), I spent several months researching each person before crafting their story in order to make sure I did justice to who they are/were at their core. But ultimately, the process of writing is the same. I am always looking for the heart of story – the message I want to bring forth to readers, the way in which I hope the story will inspire change in some way, and the way in which I can most beautifully shape the story so that readers will feel touched somehow by reading it.
KNG: Well, it was a pleasure chatting with you, Mónica, and learning more about your debut picture book, MARIANA AND HER FAMILIA. Where can readers find you?
MM: Readers can find me online at www.monicamancillas.com, where they can learn about upcoming releases, events, and subscribe to my newsletter. They can also connect with me on Twitter (@MonicaMancillas) and Instagram (@monicamancillas77).
Buy MARIANA AND HER FAMILIA today!
Mónica Mancillas's upcoming works include MARIANA AND HER FAMILIA (Balzer + Bray, October 4, 2022), THE WORRY BALLOON (Roaring Brook Press, 2023), HOW TO SPEAK IN SPANGLISH (Penguin Workshop, 2023), and VIVA! (Chronicle, 2024). Her books center on themes of identity, culture, and mental health, while challenging those outdated tropes that have historically left Latine voices in the margins.
Born in the small coastal town of Ensenada in Baja California, México, Mónica moved with her parents to the United States when she was two years old. As a child, she loved nothing more than to study and explore self-expression through writing and music. After graduating Valedictorian from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, she earned a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, after which she moved to Los Angeles where she worked for ten years in the recording industry. Today, Mónica runs her own business teaching children how to play the piano. She spends her days writing, reading, and tending to her much-adored daughter, husband, and dog, Annie.
Karina Nicole González is a bilingual speech-language pathologist (MS, CCC-SLP, BE) and children’s book author. Currently, she works with school-age children at a school in Brooklyn, NY. While targeting students’ storytelling skills through therapy, their boundless imaginations inspired a dream to write picture books of her own. She is the author of the newly released, THE COQUÍES STILL SING / LOS COQUÍES AÚN CANTAN (Roaring Brook Press), and the forthcoming picture book, THE CHURRO STAND / EL CARRITO DE CHURROS (Cameron Kids, 2024).
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