Today on the blog, we're thrilled to be sharing the gorgeous cover to Paula’s Patches by Gabriella Aldeman. First, here's a litte bit about the book:
Problem-solver Paula patches her pants—and encourages her class to mend and reuse.
My first reaction to the cover was: there’s a penguin! Paula was inspired by my daughter. She is obsessed with penguins, but the illustrator didn’t know that. So this little patch in the corner made the cover incredibly (and surprisingly) special.
Rocío Arreola’s illustrations brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. I also have to thank the designer, Courtenay Fletcher, and creative director Gino Perfetti, as well as my wonderful editor, Margie Lisovskis.
I think this cover is pure joy. I hope you all agree!
Written by Gabriella Aldeman, Illustrated by Rocío Arreola, and published by Free Spirit Publishing, Paula’s Patches will be out on June 27, 2023. Pre-order today!
Add Paula’s Patches to your Goodreads!
Gabriella Aldeman is a Panamanian American author who is constantly trying to mend her children’s torn pants, broken toys, and stained everythings—nothing some colorful patches (or super glue) can’t fix! She is a professional translator, and holds degrees from Georgetown University and the College of William and Mary. Gabriella lives in Fairfax, VA, with her partner and two children. Paula’s Patches is her debut picture book. Please visit her at www.writebetween.com or @write_between on Twitter or Instagram.
Today, we celebrate Mariana Ríos Ramírez’ debut picture book, SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS (Albert Whitman & Company), a story that celebrates our differences, while also connecting us through common interests. Scroll on for an interview between Mariana and Musa Judith Valdés B!
JUDITH VALDÉS B: Mariana, reading SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS moved me, especially given everything that Santiago had to go through on his first day of school. Can you share what or who was the inspiration behind your story?
MARIANA RÍOS RAMÍREZ: Thank you for your kind words, Judith. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the book. Actually, Santiago’s character and story are inspired by my son’s experience, which makes this book very special to me in a unique way. My son, Patrizio (Pato), was 5 years old when we moved to Anderson, SC from Mexico due to my husband’s job in an international company in summer 2016. Back then, he didn’t speak or understand English, so it was very challenging for him (and for the whole family) to face starting a new school year in a new school where he couldn’t communicate.
I remember well his first day of school, when we left him at the school’s door wondering what he was going to do. The first months were really hard for him. He missed his school and friends in Mexico, in addition to missing our extended family and our previous home. The process of moving to a new country with different culture and language and where there are no family or friends can be a great shock for adults and children alike, and it’s very complex in several areas of an individual’s life.
For Pato, the period of adjustment took him time and work. Fortunately, he had kind teachers and classmates, who were very welcoming and patient. He began by using signs with his hands and imitating what other children were doing, until he finally was able to start making connections. The valuable assistance of an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher at his elementary school was a blessing during several years. However, it was until after Christmas break that I began to see a notable change in him by starting to communicate in English. From then on, he became a successful bilingual student.
Our family’s experience made me realize that there are many children around the world who go through situations like ours, especially now that the global force relocates often implying big changes for families. That’s the reason why I thought Santiago’s story would matter; because children from several nationalities would be able to see themselves in the book, sharing Santiago’s struggles and fears.
JUDITH: One aspect of SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS that captivated me was how I experienced both the anxiety of Santiago and the caring response of his teachers and classmates. Did you always intend for your story to be one of encouragement that would serve as model for how we should treat one another?
MARIANA: Yes, from the very beginning I wanted this book to serve these two purposes and to speak to readers in different situations. I think many kids could see themselves as characters in this book. They could either be Santiago’s struggling with adapting to new environments, or they could be supportive, welcoming classmates. There’s a message in the book depending on each perspective; but I think that in the heart of this story there’s hope and kindness. If readers can identify that, it will be huge win for Santiago’s Dinosaurios.
JUDITH: When I read the opening page, my heart started beating fast along just like Santiago's. What was going on in Santiago’s mind as he loaded his dinosaurio backpack with his favorite dinosaurios?
MARIANA: I’m happy to hear you connected with Santiago’s emotions from the beginning. I wanted to start the story by showing Santiago getting ready to face this huge challenge ahead of him, which was his first day of 1st grade in a new school, in a new town, in a new country, and without speaking English. With the text and illustrations, you can tell Santiago is anxious and he’s packing his backpack with his favorite dino-things, so that they provide a source of comfort and support, as they join him in his journey to the unknown he’ll be facing at school. He’s already aware the language barrier is there and wonders how he’ll be able to communicate with others and make friends.
For me, it was crucial that Santiago began his day by thinking and speaking only in Spanish. I internalized his emotions because with the language barrier other children wouldn’t understand him, but I wanted readers to know what was going on in his mind and heart. I’m glad that my editors, Andrea Hall and Nivair Gabriel, agreed that Spanish was important to show Santiago’s anxiety and frustration. It definitely made the story more realistic. The translations on every page allow the readers to understand what Santiago is going through and to realize the extent of the challenge he’s facing. I think this is exactly what makes readers connect with Santiago's emotions as they experience his day along him.
JUDITH: How did you decide to have Santiago measure the size of his problem with something that he loves and plays with, like dinosaurios?
MARIANA: Actually, when I started querying this manuscript, the dinosaurs were not part of it. I thought about including them after getting several rejections to my first queries. It was then when I realized that the story of first day of school in another country was not fresh enough. So I had to come up with something unique to make it different and appealing to children. That’s when I thought about the dinosaurs, because my son was a huge fan growing up. In Pre-K and Kindergarten he knew the names and facts of many dinos, and he even said he’d be a paleontologist when he grew up; so I thought it would be fun to include them in Santiago’s story since I know many kids are dino-fans too.
With this idea, I rewrote my manuscript and turned out that dinosaurs were the missing ingredient the story needed. It worked! So, I changed the title to Santiago’s Dinosaur-sized Problem, and in the story Santiago went from definitely having a dinosaur-sized problem in the beginning, to no longer having a dinosaur-sized problem by the end as he started to connect with this classmates and making friends.
When the book was acquired by Albert Whitman & Company and I began working with my editor Andrea Hall, she suggested adding more dinosaurs in the story by replacing each dinosaur-sized problem with a specific dino species. I loved that idea! It made it easier for children to understand the magnitude of Santiago’s anxiety by connecting it with a dinosaur (representing the right size of problem) and seeing it get smaller as the story progresses. I’m very happy and satisfied with the way it turned out. I absolutely love the illustration with all the dinosaurs together in the end pages, I can’t wait for kids to see that.
JUDITH: I must say that I would have a hard time choosing my favorite moment in Santiago’s day. However, one of them was when Santiago and the other children found creative ways to communicate, like with a simple “thumbs up” or words like choo-choo, cat/gato, blue/azul, or even ROARRRRR! What did you hope that children would take away from this story?
MARIANA: I’m glad you liked those moments of interaction. I agree, there are many ways to communicate besides the speaking language. That’s something I wanted to show children with this story, that there are really no barriers to kindness, and that small gestures like a smile, a thumbs up or a simple interaction are universal and that they have a big impact on a child who is adjusting to a new environment. Also there are different ways to connect, and sharing the same interests (like the dinosaurs in this case) can open the door to friendship.
What I hope children will take away from this story if they are in a situation like Santiago is that they are going to be okay. I understand that in the beginning it can be scary, frustrating, and maybe it might seem hopeless; but with time, hard work and patience, they will eventually be able to communicate successfully. Also I want to show them, by seeing themselves in a book, that they are not the only ones going through challenges like this one. There are many kids around the world, in different places, with different cultures, and languages who are finding new homes far away from what they used to know as home.
For kids who have classmates or friends like Santiago, I hope they will realize that kindness makes a huge difference in children going through these difficult situations. I wish they will see that reaching out and embracing those who are different, not only transforms that person but also themselves.
Besides, we must keep in mind that in this evolving globalized world, nobody really knows where life will take us next, so everyone could be the new “kid” in a far away land one day.
JUDITH: I love your words: “There are really no barriers to kindness.” What a wonderful message for readers, both young and old. The illustrations are amazing, as they add so many layers to an already beautiful story. Can you tell us a little bit about your collaboration with the illustrator? How did that collaboration work? Did she use many illustration notes?
MARIANA: I agree, Udayana Lugo’s illustrations are beautiful, and they definitely contributed to make this story better and stronger. I love the layers of warmth and diversity that she added to the book. I feel very lucky and grateful that she was part of the amazing team bringing Santiago’s story to life. In the end, the final product is much more special than what I had imagined.
As for the collaboration, I have to say all the communication was done through my editor (Nivair Gabriel) and Udayana’s art director/team at Albert Whitman & Company. I’m happy that, from the beginning, they wanted to know my ideas for the cover, and whenever they had sketches, they would show them to me and ask for my opinion. I always felt considered and listened to, which I appreciated a lot through this process. Once the book’s final color version was ready, they asked for my feedback and considered what I said for final adjustments. I’m very happy with this experience, it was very interesting for me.
Regarding the illustration notes, I only wrote down two. One was regarding the boy that does the thumbs-up with Santiago, because I needed that boy to be Cam. The other one was about a boy feeling overwhelmed by Santiago’s Spanish, since I wanted to make sure the illustration showed that. Other than that, the rest was Udayana’s imagination.
JUDITH: Clearly, the story and the illustrations fit wonderfully together. I am so grateful that you took the time to share with us “the story behind the story” of SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS. Is there anything else you would like to add, something you would like the readers to know?
MARIANA: I hope readers will enjoy getting to know Santiago and his friends, that the ending makes them smile and that they’ll carry the book’s message along.
JUDITH: We wish you great success. I can’t wait to buy my copy of your book.
MARIANA: Thank you Judith, for your kind words, your time and thoughtful questions. I had fun sharing more about Santiago’s Dinosaurios and the story behind my journey to publication with my debut book.
Buy SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS today!
Mariana Ríos Ramírez is a Mexican picture book author living in South Carolina with her husband, two children and a rescue Chihuahua mix dog named Rogers. Mariana was a high school teacher and co-owned an online business before discovering her passion for writing. She´s a member of SCBWI, Las Musas, Storyteller Academy and Rate your Story. Santiago’s Dinosaurios is her debut picture book. Besides writing, Mariana enjoys photography, traveling, Chai Lattes and k-dramas.
Photograph: J. Pray Photography
Judith Valdés B. was born and raised in a Mexican town of vibrant colors and traditions. She is an American author and illustrator who celebrates multiculturalism through storytelling. Her debut picture book, AN OFRENDA FOR PERRO (Fall 2023), is a culturally grounded exploration of loss and understanding.
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).
Today, we are celebrating Angela Dominguez’ latest picture book, ME GUSTA (Henry Hold and Company), a story that celebrates multicultural and multiethnic communities. ME GUSTA is a book about affirmation and love. Scroll on to read her conversation with Musa Judith Valdés B!
JUDITH VALDÉS B: Angela, I had the privilege of reading your story, ME GUSTA, and was captivated by your voice. What inspired you to write this story?
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: I’ve had this idea floating in my head for a few years. I kept imagining a child listing things they liked and finding a common ground with a friend, but it wasn’t enough of a concept to create a whole book.
Then in 2020, one of my long-term editors, Kate, and I were brainstorming what my next book could be. We were discussing all the recent upsetting news and how it would be great to create a new book with an uplifting message. Suddenly it clicked, and I knew what the story for ME GUSTA would be. A story that celebrates the love of family, culture, and overcoming adversity. However instead of a child as the narrator, it would be a parental figure.
JUDITH: With ME GUSTA, you certainly created a book with an uplifting message in a simple, calm, yet powerful voice. Did you ever think that ME GUSTA would become an invitation for children of all backgrounds and ethnicities to speak up about the things they like and do not like?
ANGELA: What a wonderful question. I always hope that my books are universally appealing and that all children can relate to the themes and concepts. Nothing would make me happier than the thought that this book could encourage all children to speak with their own thoughts and feelings.
JUDITH: The images are beautiful. How did you decide on the style of illustration that you did?
ANGELA: When it came to the illustrations, I wanted to use bright colors and showcase a diverse range of Latino families. It’s impossible to encapsulate all Latinos into one book, but I tried to be as specific and as varied as possible.
JUDITH: The settings in the story include the countryside, a small city, a big city, and the desert. Did you get your inspiration for those settings from places where you have lived?
ANGELA: Definitely! I grew up in Texas and have lived in San Francisco, New York, and a few other places. They’ve inspired many of the settings. In addition, my mother lived in El Paso for a few years for work and I fell in love with the desert landscape.
JUDITH: ME GUSTA includes some words in Spanish spread perfectly throughout the story, not too many, nor too few. Did you always intend for ME GUSTA to be a bilingual book?
ANGELA: I’ve been working with Kate since she discovered my dummy for MARIA HAD A LITTLE LLAMA/MARIA TENÍA UNA LLAMITA in a slush pile. We’ve worked on a variety of books since then including I’M HUNGRY/TENGO HAMBRE and HOW ARE YOU? ¿CÓMO ESTÁS? The majority of my books with her have been bilingual and it’s been amazing to have her be supportive of that. They are the type of books that I would have loved to have seen as a kid. Books that feature Spanish but are also accessible, and not overwhelming if your reading comprehension isn’t the best in Spanish. At the same time, feature friendly familiar words for those who are learning English as well.
JUDITH: I find it wonderful that your books include not only words in Spanish but that they also draw on cultural aspects of different groups of Latinos. Could you tell us a bit about your bicultural upbringing?
ANGELA: I grew up understanding Spanish, but mostly responding back in English or with some Spanish sprinkled in. I’ve worked on my Spanish as an adult, but I have to admit I can be a little shy about it among people outside of my family. It’s a big reason I love encouraging kids to speak their native language. It’s way harder as an adult!
JUDITH: Something that I love about your book is how you draw the reader to the story by introducing the things you like (who doesn’t like ice cream/helado?), in a way underscoring for the reader, “See, I am just like you!” This also prepares the readers' hearts for what you don’t like. The things that “no te gustan” are powerful, representing the challenges we face as immigrants. What sentiment or conclusion do you hope the reader takes away from ME GUSTA?
ANGELA: Simply, I would hope children realize that we have a lot in common no matter what their cultural ethnicity. We all have people that care for us, and we all want to feel accepted. It’s been disheartening to see a rise in racism or xenophobia. It’s easy to feel hopeless. The more we can understand and accept each other the stronger our communities will become.
JUDITH: I agree. Children are the future, and planting seeds of understanding and acceptance is an important investment that we must make in them. Angela, Throughout the story, you represented the profound relationships that exist between children and their parents/families. You wrote about how home is wherever they were gathered and united. It would be hard to convey so clearly this emotion, this aspect of the story, without having experienced it yourself. Could you share with us what inspired you to include this?
ANGELA: For me, home is not a place. It’s a feeling that you experience when you are with people who love you. Being an immigrant as well, we didn’t have one singular childhood home. We have also moved around a few times since I finished high school. I feel that sense of belonging or sense of home whenever I hear my nickname “Teté” or receive a hug from a loved one.
JUDITH: Lastly, could you please tell us a little about you, about the things that te gustan? For example, which flavor of ice cream is tu favorito?
ANGELA: My absolute favorite is lime sherbet from Braum’s. I don’t have it too often, but it makes me so happy when I have it.
JUDITH: When was the last time you ran through the sprinklers?
ANGELA: I believe it was in college. We were loopy from working on projects all night. It was so much fun!
JUDITH: Do you have a pet dog?
ANGELA: I do! Her name is Petunia. She is a Boston Terrier/Chihuahua mix and simply adorable. We adore her.
JUDITH: Which filling/relleno in an empanada is tu favorito?
ANGELA: Definitely, picadillo.
JUDITH: Cuál is your favorite family tradition?
ANGELA: My favorite traditions are on New Year's Eve. There is always so much excitement for the new year and a fresh start. No matter where I am, I must have my uvas, maleta, and a broom to sweep the front door.
JUDITH: Angela, thank you much for your time. I enjoyed this conversation almost as much as I enjoyed ME GUSTA!
Buy ME GUSTA today!
Angela Dominguez was born in Mexico City and raised in 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 Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s newest picture book, Just Help! How to Build a Better World. 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.
Judith Valdés B. is an author and illustrator of children’s picture books. Growing up in Mexico, she loved listening to her father tell stories, which were wonderfully simple and short on words yet full of meaning. Often sketching as he spoke, Judith dreamed of retelling his tales one day.
Judith calls San Diego home, but she also lived in Annapolis, Hermosillo, London, Brussels, and Bangkok. She volunteers with charity organizations focused on meeting the needs of children. Of indigenous Mexican descent, Judith celebrates multiculturalism through her writings and illustrations. She is married and has three third culture kids, who inspire her. When she is not in her studio, Judith can be found cooking, stargazing, or looking for books at the library.
Today, we're celebrating Musa Andrea Beatriz Arango's debut middle grade novel, Iveliz Explains it All! Scroll on to read her conversation with Musa Karina Nicole González!
Karina Nicole González: Felicidades, Andrea, on the release of your debut MG novel, IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL! For aspiring authors who want the 411, how did you manifest the idea of IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL into a tangible book published by none other than Penguin Random House?
Andrea Beatriz Arango: You know what? If I’m being honest, the pandemic had a lot to do with it. When schools shut down unexpectedly in March of 2020, my district had no idea what to do. We didn’t even know how long-lasting everything would be. Rather than the organized (and live) virtual school we started implementing in Fall 2020, that first spring consisted mostly of asynchronous lessons we’d upload for our middle school students, and virtual office hours we’d hold once a week. It was a mess - but it did mean I was home A LOT and in front of my computer. IVELIZ was born during that time, developed over the summer, and pitched at the #DVpit twitter event that fall.
The rest of it I attribute to my agent, Rebecca Eskildsen - she took a chance on me and was instrumental in not just helping me polish up my manuscript, but in believing in my book in a way that I think was contagious to the editors we submitted to in 2021.
KNG: I love your path to publication story. Those early querying and submission moments can feel scary because we’re essentially sharing our creative work to strangers and hoping that they understand it and even like it! I’d like to pivot our convo to writing habits. You have another upcoming MG novel titled, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN YOU AND HOME, slated for release in 2023. I also saw that you’re doing research for a YA novel! How do you go about drafting a new manuscript? Do you have any techniques or strategies that you’ve found successful when writing and revising?
ABA: Don’t look back! Seriously. It can be so easy to fall into the endless cycle of writing something, then revising, then writing, then revising. For me, that makes it almost impossible to finish. So for my first draft, I make myself keep going until it’s finished. Even if it’s trash. Even if I want to go back and change things. Once it’s done, that’s when I let myself start tweaking. Otherwise the perfectionist in me won’t ever get anything done.
KNG: That’s such good advice, Andrea! You spent much of your adult years teaching children, and drafted your first novel, IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL while teaching. How did you balance a full-time job, one that is incredibly demanding, while writing a novel? What advice do you have for other aspiring writers who work full-time, and are trying to carve out time in their schedule to write?
ABA: It is very hard, not gonna lie. While I initially wrote IVELIZ during lockdown, I had to then do multiple revisions with my editor while being back to teaching in person during the absolutely *chaotic* academic year that was the 2021-2022 one. Not only that, but because my book deal was a two-book deal, I had to write the second one during that time as well. Because I was often exhausted at the end of the school day, I had to make myself write on weekends, as well as learn to take advantage of small moments of time (like my lunch breaks) where I could squeeze in some writing before my mind was done for the day. It wasn’t a great system, but it worked better for me than having to wake up at 4am to write before work, or writing at 5pm after I was home.
At the end of the day, my biggest piece of advice is to not compare your schedule to anyone else’s. I have never written every single day. And I don’t set word count goals for myself because they stress me out. You know what I do love, though? 15 minute timed sprints. Sometimes I do four in a row. Sometimes I do one. Sometimes I do zero. But because my routine works for me, I keep doing it.
KNG: I also work in a school, and I could never swing waking up early to write before work. And many days, I would feel too depleted to write after work. For some people, that schedule works for them. Yet, I think it’s helpful to tell other fellow writers who have separate full-time jobs that they don’t need to pressure themselves into an uncomfortable schedule, so thank you for sharing that! Now back to this incredible book – in IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL, Ive keeps a journal and in it she writes her thoughts and feelings in verse/poetry form. Do you also write poetry? Do you have any favorite poets/poems that have had an impact on you as a writer?
ABA: I do write poetry! When I was younger, I was always gifting my grandparents poems. They would often frame them, and that made me feel SO validated. Once I was older, I was forever writing romantic ones for the people I’d date - though those never got framed, haha. During my Tumblr years, I even had a blog where all I did was repost snippets of poets I liked! I think the kind of poetry that most impacted me as a writer, though, was discovering spoken word poetry in my 20s. Watching the amazing storytelling abilities of poets like Elizabeth Acevedo and Sarah Kay are what eventually led me down the path of novels-in-verse.
KNG: Tumblr! Oh my, I totally forgot about the Tumblr blogsphere – what a time! Lately, the tech and digital world feels like it’s changing so quickly, and I don’t think I’m the only one trying to keep up with everything. The publishing and bookselling industry is changing, too. We just heard the unsettling news that Barnes&Noble will drastically cut their middle grade hardcovers that they stock and sell in-store. You found out that this decision impacted you directly, and that B&N will not be carrying IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL. Tell us about the repercussions that this could potentially have on the broader writing community and publishing industry. How can readers support your work and ensure that IVELIZ can achieve the most visibility and accessibility to readers as possible?
ABA: It’s hard because although it’s true that you can still find my book online, you’d have to know about IVELIZ in order to search for it. For many families, especially those not involved in education, libraries, or book communities online, that discovery happens through browsing at a store. If a parent or child can’t come across my book displayed in a bookstore, they might not ever know it exists. And yes, there are many indies out there doing amazing work, indies that I know will be carrying my book. But not all towns have indie bookstores, and not all indie bookstores have the space to stock a wide variety of books. And so I think the B&N decision will have long-lasting impacts, not just for me, but for publishing as a whole.
For people wanting to support my debut, an easy and free way to do so is to request your indies and libraries purchase it! I mention libraries here, too, because I am basically a library worshiper - and asking libraries to stock it will ensure families without the money or desire to purchase books can still read IVELIZ for free. <3
KNG: Thank you for amplifying the importance of libraries. Dear reader, I hope you pick up a copy of IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL, and share it widely with family and friends. I know I will stock my classroom library with copies of this exceptional book! Éxito, Andrea!
Purchase IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL today!
Andrea Beatriz Arango was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She is the author of Iveliz Explains It All, and is a former public school teacher with almost a decade of teaching experience under her belt. Andrea now writes the types of children's books she wishes students had more access to. She balances her life in Virginia with trips home to see her family and eat lots of tostones de pana. When she’s not busy, you can always find her enjoying nature in the nearest forest or body of water.
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 this dream to write picture books of her own. The Coquíes Still Sing / Los Coquíes Aún Cantan is her debut picture book.
Today on the blog, we're here with an interview between Musa Rebecca Balcárcel and Musa Anika Fajardo, author of Meet Me Halfway.
About MEET ME HALFWAY:
When new classmates Mattie and Mercedes meet and realize they have the same Colombian dad, the two team up in a Parent Trap–inspired misadventure to meet him for the first time in this sharp and poignant middle grade novel about the bonds that make a family.
Rebecca Balcárcel: Hi, Anika! I’m thrilled to talk to you about your newest book, Meet Me Halfway! I fell in love with this book when I read an early copy, and I read this book in one day! Tell us what inspired this story.
Anika Fajardo: Thank you, Rebecca. Muchísimas gracias, too, for blurbing my book! It’s a thrill to have one of my favorite middle-grade authors say nice things about my book.
Rebecca Balcárcel: Aww, thanks! The admiration is mutual! So, the frenemy dynamic in your book is so vivid! Was that fun to write, or aggravating?
Anika Fajardo: So fun to write! Obviously, perhaps, the dynamic was inspired by the twins in The Parent Trap, which my mom introduced me to when I was a kid (the Haley Mills version). When I was young, I also loved the mean-girl dynamic of Nellie Oleson in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. So, in a way, I’ve been preparing for this storyline my whole life. What was most challenging about writing this, though, was making sure neither girl comes off more mean–or more likeable–than the other.
Rebecca Balcárcel: Yes, I see how that would be tricky. You did it well! (And I LOVE the Haley Mills' The Parent Trap!) You tackle the pain of lost family and the awkwardness of newly discovered family. Can you talk about how you entered the emotional lives of your characters to make that so real?
Anika Fajardo: Both of these–lost family and new family–directly reflect my personal experience. I grew up estranged from my Colombian father and, for a time, lived with a stepfamily. When I was twenty-five, I found out I had a half-brother around my same age. We happened to both live in the Bay Area at the time, so I spent a lot of time imagining what it would have been like to run into him unknowingly. I channeled my own experience in the writing.
Rebecca Balcárcel: I love how the girls run all over a college campus as they search for their father. What research did you do about the campus and other aspects of the book?
Anika Fajardo: I spent twelve years as an academic librarian at a small liberal arts college and so everything that happens on the college campus is inspired by real life! I really wanted kids to see college from the ground level, to help kids who might become first-generation college students imagine what the college experience is like. I think kids get a lot of information about how college is about studying and learning and getting ahead in life, but there’s a lot more to college life.
Rebecca Balcárcel: So true! No wonder the campus is so realistic! I was struck by your use of myth and folklore and how it added a deeper layer. Can you talk about that?
Anika Fajardo: My stepmother is an anthropologist in Colombia, and she helped me track down mythology of Colombia’s indigenous people. Kids tend to really love mythology, and I wanted to show a story that they might not be familiar with. The story of Tima and Yui comes from an indigenous group called the Arhuaco in the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia. I recently got to visit an Arhuaco village and meet with some of the people, and it made me extra glad that I used their story.
Rebecca Balcárcel: Wow, that must have been amazing! So cool. So let’s talk theme. Opening to love and being your honest self are a couple of themes in this book. What do you hope readers take away?
Anika Fajardo: First of all, I hope readers get a fun read! I was inspired by the adventure in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I wanted to write a book that made readers feel like they’re on their own adventure. I also want kids to see that families can be lots of different things and that we can’t always know what’s going to happen when we first meet people.
Order Meet Me Halfway today!
Happy Book Birthday to Cindy L Rodriguez’s Three Pockets Full: A story of love, family and tradition!
Terry: Cindy, I am so delighted to interview you about your latest book, Three Pockets Full. And please note that it is not three pocketfuls (which my spell check doesn’t love anyway) but Three Pockets Full. We’ll talk more about that. But I have to tell you that you have done so much for the Latinx kidlit community that I just wanted to do the interview to give just a little tiny bit back to you. I am grateful for all you have done and continue to do for all of us and I am so happy to be celebrating your debut picture book with you. Tell me, you are prolific and your writing spans from YA to now picture books. You have been a journalist. What brought you to this story?
Cindy: Hi Terry! Thanks so much for interviewing me! I have grown up around men in guayaberas, especially my dad, who is from Puerto Rico. When I was brainstorming ideas for Latinx-themed picture books, focusing on the guayabera was one idea that rose to the surface when I couldn’t find any other books specifically about this traditional garment. I tried different approaches. In one version Beto had an older sister who was getting married, for example. Ultimately, I decided to have Beto’s Mami get remarried, and the shirt came into play that way. Also, I taught in public schools for 21 years, and so many of my students have blended families, so I wanted to combine these things—the shirt plus a parent getting remarried, creating a blended family.
Terry: I totally get it. When I picture my papi, he is wearing a guayabera. And I am happy you landed on Mami and the blended family. You are right, that’s what so many children experience, you had to do it. Now let’s talk about your other work. Your YA book is a very serious book, dealing with mental health issues. Your Jake Maddox books are for middle graders and they’re all about sports. Then you just had a non-fiction picture book The Doomed Search for the Lost City of Z. What a range of interests! Can you chat with us about which of these genres you like best, what they bring to you?
Cindy: I think this is a left-over effect of being a journalist. When I covered towns in Connecticut, each day was something different, and I’d have to adjust. One day, I’d attend a planning and zoning commission meeting (fun!), and the next day, I’d write a profile of the town’s teacher of the year. I’m always open to different topics and formats. Also, after my YA released, I had issues with agents and did not have another contract. To keep writing and remain in the publishing world, I started doing work-for-hire projects. The Jake Maddox books and Lost City of Z are all work-for-for-hire projects published by Capstone. I learned something valuable with each project. With the Jake Maddox books, I learned about different sports, plus one is a mystery, which I had never done before. Lost City of Z is a non-fiction graphic novel, so that was a whole new process! Doing work-for-hire projects keeps me writing while I wait, wait, wait for something to happen with my personal projects in traditional publishing.
Terry: I feel the same way about work for hire, I just finished a project. It does keep you writing. And it’s a great opportunity to learn something new. You dedicate the book to your dad “who looks super cool in a guayabera.” In addition to Beto’s story, this book is a primer on the history of guayaberas. Tell us more about the evolution of the story, the melding of the two threads, Beto’s thread and the history of the Mexican Wedding shirt.
Cindy: I talked a bit about Beto’s story above, but more on my dad…He was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago with his family when he was young. Fast forward many years, he joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in Brazil, where he met and married my mom. Because of his time in Brazil and his relationship with my mom, my dad is fluent in Portuguese, as well as Spanish and English. And, honestly, since my mom had a bigger family and didn’t speak English when she first moved to the U.S., my siblings and I heard more Portuguese than Spanish while growing up. Because of this, I always make a conscious effort to research and dig into my Puerto Rican side, to honor and not forget my dad’s roots. While the guayabera is called the Mexican wedding shirt, it is popular throughout Latin America and Southeast Asian countries. The guayabera was often the go-to shirt for my dad when we were going out somewhere, so I wanted to learn more about its history and honor my dad.
Terry: This book is both hilarious and poignant. Three things I want to explore. One is whether this story has a basis in your life? The other question, or maybe comment that I want you to reflect on is that this is a very poignant story, but the humor in the beginning makes the revelation at the end that much more moving. The last thing is that you are the master of foreshadowing. This is a picture book, yet it unfolds as a mystery. You dribble out the clues slowly, as the story goes along, but it’s not until the very end that the reader understands Beto’s motivation. Can you tell us about your journey to that form?
Cindy: I did not grow up in a blended family, but my own is very much so. I adopted my daughter from Guatemala as a single parent almost 16 years ago, and I married my husband who is 100% white by way of rural Vermont, only four years ago. So, my daughter is a Guatemalan adopted into a Puerto Rican/Brazilian family and has a white step-dad, plus an older step-brother and step-sister. Whew! So, yeah, this, plus thinking about my students, I wanted to write something about blended families and some of the emotions that a young person might feel. At the same time, this is a picture book, so I wanted to inject some humor. As a former teacher and as a mom, I have seen the things children do when they want to avoid a tough situation. I drew from that for Beto’s antics. The back-and-froth between Beto and Mami also allowed me to get in some of the history of the guayabera. I also like stories when there’s an “Ah-ha” moment. So, in this case, readers will first think it’s about the shirt—a cultural thing that’s not cool, but he’s being forced to accept. This alone is a thing that happens in families—the older generation forcing something onto the younger generation to preserve traditions. Later, though, I wanted readers to then go, “Oh, it’s not really about the shirt. His feelings stem from something else, something deeper.”
Terry: Well, brava! You did it. It worked beautifully. I love, love, love, Beto. His voice is perfect, and he is absolutely imaginative. I loved when he dressed up the dog in the guayabera. Who was the model for Beto?
Cindy: Beto wasn’t modeled on a single child, but, as stated above, I pulled from my experiences as a mom and teacher. Children have big emotions, but they don’t always know how to express them, or they do so in ways that are anything but straightforward. I remembered my daughter used to cover her eyes, like if she couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see her! Or she’d shove everything under her bed or in the laundry basket to “clean” her room. I once found a computer keyboard in her laundry! Hysterical! Like, if I just shove things out of sight, the problem is solved. Beto seems to think by returning the shirt in creative ways, he will wear down Mami and get his way, but nope…not going to happen….which leads us to our next question :.)
Terry: Beto’s mantra to wearing the guayabera to the wedding is “NOPE, NUNCA, NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.” Sometimes there is a phrase that turns the story on in my mind. I love it so much, that I weave the story around it. Did that happen to you with that phrase? Which came first, the story or the phrase?
Cindy: I think the story came first, as I remember doing the research and drafting first. I had a friend who simply said, “No,” whenever she wanted to dismiss an idea or something that happened. Nowadays, we hear that more often, and there’s even the movie “Nope,” which I haven’t seen, but we often respond with these simple phrases: No. Nope. Not okay. I think it was this kind of thought process that created Beto’s refrain.
Terry: Another tool you use in the story is the use of notes. After the first verbal exchange, Beto tells his mother all the reasons he won’t wear the guayabera to the wedding via notes which he places in the pockets of the guayabera. His mother answers in a similar way. Even the history of the guayabera is told through the notes. How did you come up with that idea?
Cindy: I could have kept all of it in the back matter, but not everyone might read the information in the back of the book. I really wanted to weave the information into the story to give the reader more to think about. You could read it once, focusing on his feelings and the family aspect. You can read it again, with a focus on the guayabera itself, the history, etc. As a veteran teacher, I think I’m always thinking about including nonfiction that can be used in the classroom. Sometimes, it works, sometimes it doesn’t and it makes more sense to keep all of it in the back matter. With this story, since Beto and Mami are communicating through notes, it seemed to work.
Terry: Yes! It really worked. And it added humor as well. What can you tell me about the illustrations? I loved the cover. It is perfect because it features the guayabera and its pockets. And nothing else. Begoña Fernandez Corbalán did a fantastic job capturing not just Beto, and Lupe the dog, who are both adorable, but also the mother. And then again, there is David in the background. Always in the background. What can you tell us about how you feel about the illustrations?
Cindy: I was thrilled with the illustrations! Begoña did an amazing job capturing the characters. Lupe, the dog, is a total scene stealer. I am a huge dog lover, so I loved all of Lupe’s expressions and how much the dog added to the story. And David being present was not my idea, so kudos to Begoña and the publisher (if they discussed it first). When I saw him there, I thought it was brilliant. The reader probably thinks David is his dad and the wedding is someone else’s—a cousin, aunt, whoever, and Beto just hates this traditional shirt. And then, at the end, you realize David and Mami are getting married! And he’s been around the whole time, also witnessing Beto’s antics. Poor guy! :.) But that’s reality, right? He’s there, and he’s part of the story, but, really, Mami and Beto have to work through something important themselves.
Terry: Begoña really did hit it out of the park having David there. And absolutely, at first I thought it was this random unimportant wedding and the book was all about the guayabera. You both have given teachers and parents so much to work with. Kudos to you both. On your website, you say I teach. I write. I dwell in possibility. Can you share what that means to you?
Cindy: On August 29, I started a new job after 21 years in teaching. Who knows, I may still tutor or teach at the local community college, but for now, it’s the first time in two decades that I’m not teaching. Being an educator has taught me so much about myself, about children, about learning, and more. It’s been a crucial part of who I am and how I’ve grown over the years. This is also true about writing and the phrase I dwell in Possibility. As a lifelong learner and writer, I am always looking ahead and thinking about what’s possible. That keeps me interested in the world and makes me wonder how I can contribute positively in this lifetime. Plus, I’m a huge Emily Dickinson fan/nerd, and “I dwell in Possibility” is from one of her poems.
Terry: Well, of course. Love that idea. Cindy, tell us what else is on the horizon for you? What other projects can you tell us and not tell us about?
Cindy: In January 2023, another nonfiction graphic novel comes out with Capstone, called The Mount Everest Disaster of 1996. Right now, I have two picture books on submission with editors—one is about Three Kings Day and the other is a back-to-school story. I am also working on two middle grade projects—one that is a personal project and another that is work-for-hire, which has been acquired but has not been announced yet, so I can’t reveal any details. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share the good news soon!
Terry: I can’t wait to hear the good news. Cindy, it has been a pleasure chatting with you. I wish you every success and look forward to working with you more in Las Musas.
Be sure to put THREE POCKETS FULL on your to-read list!
Happy Book Birthday to The Coquíes Still Sing by Karina Nicole González!
Andrea: Karina, I just want to start off by saying how wonderful it was to read a picture book about Puerto Ricans that is set in Puerto Rico. With the majority of US published Latinx kidlit taking place in the continental United States, what made you want to write a book set outside of it?
Karina: That’s an interesting question. When I first drafted this story, I had intended to move Elena and her family out of Puerto Rico following Hurricane María, because we were hearing so much about young families leaving. But at the suggestion of my agent and her editorial assistant, they urged me to keep the story situated in Puerto Rico, and that made me rethink everything including what was guiding my decision to uproot their lives. Often, we hear about the experience of Boricuas, like ourselves, who either moved here or had parents who moved here, yet we rarely hear about the Boricuas who stay, and they stay for a multitude of reasons beyond the typical assumption that it’s because of poverty.
But when Hurricane María happened, my Abuela chose not to leave, not because things weren’t difficult -- her situation was absolutely cruel. She didn’t have electricity for 6 months! As a 79 year-old woman at the time, that was so tough. But she wanted to stay because she loves Puerto Rico, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else for an extended period of time. So it made sense to write a story in which a family remains and restores what is theirs. Elena and her family love their home, their community, their pueblo, like my Abuela – and I think that kind of depiction is not only honest but presents an underlying political message. The will of the people will not be extinguished by natural disasters or human-caused blackouts, or even the gross exploitation of colonialism. My maternal great-grandparents cultivated coffee, tobacco, and sugar cane on farms in the early 1900s – most of our families at some point dug their fingers into the soil and worked the land. And I don’t think that’s something we should forget or let go of.
Andrea: Absolutely. None of my family left, and it was hard, watching from the States as my mom and brother and extended family all navigated the aftermath. Because truly - the island was completely changed. María didn’t just destroy buildings and roads, it did some serious damage to the flora and fauna of Puerto Rico. I mean, I remember even the bees were gone! What made you want to focus on the coquí, specifically, for your story?
Karina: The coquí is endemic to Puerto Rico, and so I think that partly fuels our adoration for the species, but I think it goes even beyond that. Coquí symbols were carved into rocks by the indigenous people of Borinquen hundreds of years ago. That’s how ingrained they are in our culture! It’s a tiny amphibian with a powerful mating call that can be heard from many meters away. When the coquí sings ‘co-quí’ [ko-KEE], we interpret that sound as them saying “I’m here” – and that is kind of what they’re saying. Eminent researcher and professor, Dr. Rafael Joglar, explains that when the coquí sings ‘co,’ they’re asserting their territory to the other macho coquíes, and when the coquí sings ‘quí’ they’re letting the female coquíes know that they’re ready to mate. Coquí = I’m here
I titled the book, “The Coquíes Still Sing,” because after Hurricane María their mating call fell silent. We were all alarmed by that silence, and their absence was terrifying because their existence feels tied up with ours because they have been around for as long as us, and perhaps even longer. “The Coquíes Still Sing” is a literal title, yet also symbolic. With it, I’m also saying that the people still sing, too. It’s a mirroring of sorts.
The world fixes their gaze to a place and people in the wake of a disaster, yet turn away before they can tell their stories about how they overcame each hardship and found a way to smile again.
Andrea: You are so right. And that’s why I particularly loved how you used both your book and social media in the week leading up to your debut as a time to showcase the grassroots organizations based in PR that were (and still are) actively advocating for change. How were these organizations important in the wake of the hurricane and why is it important people continue to support them now?
Karina: When Hurricane María made landfall, I was living in Brooklyn and had just started a new job as a school-based speech-language pathologist. I had previously been involved in the activist community of Boricuas here in NYC because I was concerned with all of the austerity measures that were being thrusted upon the population without their consent. So when María happened, a group of us shifted our attention to organizing fundraisers for different grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico like Comedores Sociales, which had been providing meals to people who lived in mountainous regions. So many elderly people were unable to access food or transportation! When “The Coquíes Still Sing” was acquired, editors Luisa Beguiristaín and Connie Hsu were immediately supportive of my request to include as many of these orgs that I could fit on one page! I think that whenever any of us get a chance to create art, to write, or to speak at an event for the public’s consumption, I think it’s important to acknowledge people who are engaged in community work. Many of the people who are engaged in the community work I reference in my book, do so out of genuine interest and love. I know this because I have met some of them! They deserve all of the support and spotlight.
Andrea: The organizations aren’t the only information you provide in your book. You actually include a lot of back matter. It reminded me of Yuyi Morales’ Bright Star, which also offers a lot of context and history at the end. How can adults help kids access this information and why was it so important for you to include it?
Karina: Yes, this backmatter is definitely geared for adults who are engaging in guided reading or for an older child. I think it would be an injustice to not provide the reader with greater context about Puerto Rico, what happened during Hurricane María, and the relationship between PR and the US. There have been so many awful mischaracterizations and disparaging comments made about Puerto Ricans in the corporate media world and by bigots online, and I wanted to create a book that can be a point of historical reference and a source of hope and pride. For students and families outside of Puerto Rico, this story can be incorporated into a conversation with kids of any age or even a history/geographical lesson about the Caribbean or natural disasters, which are common across the globe.
Andrea: Yes, and those conversations are SO important! Does this have to do with why you chose a picture book as the medium for your story?
Karina: During my first year as a bilingual speech-language pathologist at an elementary school, I sought out contemporary picture books that not only reflected racial diversity, but also stories that centered families from a working class background. Mi Papi Tiene Una Moto/My Papi Has a Motorcycle, by Isabel Quintero, was a favorite amongst my students because many of them have fathers who work in construction or ride motorcycles and bikes. They immediately connected to the text. That was a major lightbulb moment. Early reading experiences are so important because educators and parents can cultivate a love for reading by simply presenting stories that resonate with children. Shared reading also promotes bonding, whether between parent-child or teacher-student. It also promotes visual and emotional literacy! Unfortunately, there’s this assumption that picture books are only designed for children, but I think sophisticated picture books are for all ages. The shorter text and illustrations can trigger an adult’s imagination or even memories in an emotional way that an article or a longer form text might not be able to do. I think this is what makes the picture book genre so special.
Andrea: You’re right. It is special. And I honestly feel so grateful to you for creating this wonderful story, and from a place of such thoughtful nuance and love. Thank you for sharing so much about The Coquíes Still Sing with us today and I look forward to seeing what other stories you have to tell.
Be sure to check out The Coquíes Still Sing by Karina Nicole González today!
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